When Joyce’s novel languished in publishing limbo

James Joyce’s Ulysses was notorious long before it was published on February 2, 1922. Its early serialization had already sent shockwaves and led to a high-profile court case in New York – the first of three it would be involved in in the United States. . This first case resulted in February 1921 in the conviction for publication of obscene remarks and the fine of the editors of the small magazine La Petite Revue (two women, by the way).

The Little Review had been serializing the book for a few months, but it was the appearance of the 13th episode, Nausicaa, that sparked action by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The case also resulted in the confiscation of the offending issue of the magazine.

The editors of the Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were extremely independent-minded and liked to display their desire to shock the bourgeoisie. The magazine, typical of the avant-garde of the first years of the last century, proudly displayed at the top of the mast: “Do not compromise with the taste of the public”.

They would have liked to go to prison for having published Ulysses. This martyrdom was denied to them by the most pragmatic judges and by the much less romantic defense led by New York lawyer and patron of the arts John Quinn. (He argued that the writing was incomprehensible, partly due to Joyce’s poor eyesight, and therefore could not corrupt anyone.)

The most important outcome of the case was that it made publication of Ulysses in the United States impossible for the foreseeable future. In Britain, the authorities did not bother to have a court case; they simply deleted the book on the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Five hundred copies were burned at Folkestone Harbor in January 1923. And the British literary review The Egoist had been unable to print more than a few short extracts before its printers refused to undertake more work.

condemned in advance

Given its effective exclusion from the major English-speaking markets, Ulysses seemed condemned in advance never to appear. It was then that a brave young American, Sylvia Beach, who had just opened an English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, set out to publish Ulysses – she had never published anything before – in France, using French printers who are less upset by incendiary content in English. With great difficulty, Beach managed to accomplish this task, and the book was published just in time for Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2, 1922.

I am an old Irish gentleman and. . . if you imagine that any Irishman, let alone an old man, would pay 150 francs for a book, you don’t know my compatriots

Some of the consequences were very influential and are with us to this day. The very limited circulation Ulysses could expect, knowing that it was banned in much of the English-speaking world, meant that only a very small print run – just 1,000 copies – made economic sense. Other editions soon followed, but this could not be the case for the mass market. Thus, a very high price (three guineas or 150 francs) had to be charged, most often increased by advance subscription. George Bernard Shaw captured the situation very well when he wrote to Beach, in response to an invitation to subscribe:

“I am an old Irish gentleman and. . . if you imagine that any Irishman, let alone an old man, would pay 150 francs for a book, you know my compatriots badly.

Likewise, some letters arrived in Beach from people who had read and liked Joyce’s earlier books, lamenting that they couldn’t afford this one.

Ulysses, in its first incarnation, was therefore necessarily a luxury item, high-end, reserved for an elite. (That, of course, is why first-edition copies are so outrageously expensive today.) The vast majority of readers had no way of knowing whether the rantings about him in the newspapers—his immorality, his obscenity, its general filth – were true or not. He became a cause celebre, with most readers having no way of knowing if he deserved that status.

precious object

Ulysses, Shakespeare and Company’s true first physical edition (even more of course the very first copy, now residing in the Museum of Literature Ireland) has thus become a treasured object, with its content almost secondary. To use that much-lamented word, it is iconic, as much an artifact of Irish history as, say, the Ardagh Chalice.

The circumstances of the production of the book have a lot to do with the circumstances of its perception, of its reception. It’s not just foreign material: the book has been read, perceived in a certain way because of the conditions under which it was published. This topic has received considerable attention in recent years, and it deserves it.

This meant, first, that it was read by only two categories of people: those who opposed it passionately, and those who had also nailed their colors to the mast of modernism, equally committed to its cause. Such a polarity could not be good for seeing Joyce’s work and for seeing it as a whole. Passionate partisanship one way or the other can only have a distorting influence, and indeed it has. This polarization has in fact become a defining characteristic of modernism: this piece of (say) music is incomprehensible, unlistenable nonsense; no, don’t you see that it is a work of genius, worthy of the greatest respect, etc., etc.?

Meanwhile, however, in the Paris of 1922, it was all in the future. The situation remained that Ulysses was notorious but unavailable, much more spoken than read. There is a story that on the day of its publication, as Beach and Joyce were leaving his apartment to celebrate, Joyce pointed to the son of the janitor, who was sitting on the steps, and remarked, “One day this young man will be a reader of Ulysses. But for this young man to become one, a host of obstacles had to be overcome.

parallel universes

This strange condition – of two parallel universes, in one of which Odysseus was celebrated as a work of genius, while in the other, much larger one, he was completely unattainable and, so far as he was known at all, a scandal – lasted a considerable time.

A consequence of this condition was the risk of hacking the text while it was in this state of limbo, and it did indeed happen. Samuel Roth published redacted portions of it in his journal, Two Worlds Monthly. Joyce organized an “international protest” signed by, among others, Albert Einstein, and eventually, through legal action, forced Roth to abstain. But the piracy had an effect on U.S. copyright for Ulysses, an effect that continued to resonate many years later. Likewise, a pirated translated edition appeared in Japan.

While in many places Ulysses’ effect on the reader is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac.

It is difficult to account for the gradual change in attitude towards Odysseus that took place in the 1930s (outside Ireland). It must finally be attributed, I think, to a simple shift in the air of time. As the United States had led the way in banning Ulysses, it was instrumental in breaking the deadlock. The key moment was, of course, the decision of Judge John Woolsey of the New York District Court on December 6, 1933, authorizing the sale of Ulysses in the United States. This decision did not come out of nowhere: Joyce’s American publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, had deliberately caused a copy to be seized by US Customs, allowing him to appeal the seizure to the courts.

Woolsey’s decision has now been much studied. It’s clear that he was a pretty savvy judge and probably knew that this decision was his best shot at achieving something like immortality. While his famous conclusion might not quite present the case in the kind of language Joyce’s fiercest supporters would want, it was more than enough, both in style and content, to overcome the odds. legal reading the book:

“. . . while in many places Ulysses’ effect on the reader is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac.


That, one would have thought, was that, and many people probably believe that it was. Incredibly, however, authorities decided to appeal the decision to the Second Circuit Court in New York. As noted in Joseph Hassett’s The Trials of Ulysses, one of the three appeals court judges, an Irish-American, was likely in the past to object to publication and in fact did so. The other two judges, however, were the Hand cousins, the very famous Learned Hand and Augustus Hand. They both supported Woolsey’s decision in deliberately less ornate prose than Woolsey’s – the decision was delivered by Augustus, the less eloquent of the two – and with that the saga of Ulysses’ legal works in the United States was over. .

As Joyce predicted, once the United States led the way, Britain soon followed. Again, everything happened in a much more punctual way. After favorable polls and despite the refusal of some publishers, Joyce’s assistant, Paul Léon, quite simply convinced the publisher, John Lane, to do it. After an internal debate, the authorities decided not to prosecute. Everywhere, however, the book remained an expensive item; it was not until 1968 that a paperback edition, priced, if I remember correctly, at seven shillings and sixpence, arrived.

This is not quite the end of Ulysses’ publication story. It is always the subject of renewed polemics, of renewed “scandals”. These, in the present day, have shifted from sexual to textual matters. Prior to copyright expiration, the control of the Joyce Estate over the reproduction of the text was a major problem, and this situation is not fully resolved.

The book’s ability to stir up controversy is intact. The whole story of its publication and reception is almost a study in its own right, giving it a strange double life. It is still a topical issue.

An updated edition of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Terence Killeen has just been published by Penguin

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