Ulysses at 100: When Joyce’s novel languished in publishing limbo

By the time it was finally published on February 2nd, 1922, it was already notorious

James Joyce’s Ulysses was notorious well before its publication on February 2nd, 1922. Its advance serialisation had already caused shockwaves and led to a much-covered New York court case – the first of three in which it would be involved in the US. That first case resulted in February 1921 in the conviction for publishing obscene matter and the fining of the editors of the small magazine the Little Review (two women, by the way).

The Little Review had been serialising the book for some months but it was the appearance of the 13th episode, Nausicaa, that triggered 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 flaunt their willingness to shock the bourgeoisie. The magazine, typical of the avant garde of the early years of the last century, proudly displayed on its masthead: “Making no compromise with the public taste.”

They would have very much liked to go to jail for publishing Ulysses. That martyrdom was denied to them by the more pragmatic judges and by the far less romantic defence conducted by the 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 rendered publication of Ulysses in the United States impossible for the foreseeable future. In Britain the authorities did not go to the trouble of having a court case; they simply suppressed the book on the ruling of the director of public prosecutions. Five hundred copies were burnt at the port of Folkestone in January 1923. And the British literary magazine The Egoist had found it impossible to print any more than a few short extracts before its printers refused to undertake any more of the work.

Doomed in advance

Given its effective exclusion from the major English-language markets, Ulysses seemed doomed in advance never to appear. At this point a courageous young American woman, Sylvia Beach, who had recently opened an English-language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, undertook to publish Ulysses – she had never published anything before – in France, using French printers who presumably would be less upset by the inflammatory English-language content. With great difficulty, Beach managed to accomplish this task and the book was published just in time for Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd, 1922.

I am an elderly Irish gentleman and . . . if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my fellow countrymen

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

“I am an elderly Irish gentleman and . . . if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my fellow countrymen.”

Similarly, some letters came to Beach from people who had read and liked Joyce’s previous books lamenting that they could not possibly afford this one.

Ulysses, in its first incarnation, was thus perforce a luxury, upmarket item, available only to an elite. (This is of course why copies of the first edition are so inordinately expensive today.) The vast majority of readers had no way of knowing if the fulminations about it in the newspapers – its immorality, its obscenity, its general filth – were true or not. It became a cause celebre, with most readers having no means of ascertaining whether it merited that status.

Precious object

Ulysses, the actual physical Shakespeare and Company first edition (still more of course the very first copy, now residing in the Museum of Literature Ireland) thus became a precious object, with its contents almost a secondary matter. To use that much-deplored word, it is iconic, as much an artefact of Ireland’s history as, say, the Ardagh Chalice.

The circumstances of the book’s production had a great deal to do with the circumstances of its perception, its reception. This is not just extraneous material: the book was read, was perceived in a certain way because of the conditions in which it was published. This topic has received considerable attention in recent years, and it merits it.

It meant, firstly, that it was read by only two categories of people: those who were passionately opposed, and those who had equally nailed their colours 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 whole. Passionate partisanship in either direction is bound to have a distorting influence, and that is indeed what happened. This polarisation has in fact become a defining feature of modernism: this piece of (say) music is incomprehensible rubbish, unlistenable; no, can you not see that this is a work of genius, deserving of the highest respect, etc, etc?

Meanwhile, though, back in the Paris of 1922, this was all in the future. The situation remained that Ulysses was notorious but unavailable, much more talked about than read. There is a story that on the day of its publication, as Beach and Joyce left his apartment to celebrate, Joyce pointed to the son of the concierge, who was sitting on the steps, and remarked, “One day that young man will be a reader of Ulysses.” But for that young man to become so, a host of obstacles would have to be overcome.

Parallel universes

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

One consequence of this condition was the risk of piracy of the text while it was in this limbo state, and that in fact occurred. Samuel Roth published expurgated parts of it in his review, Two Worlds Monthly. Joyce organised an “international protest” signed by, among others, Albert Einstein, and eventually through legal action forced Roth to desist. But the piracy had an effect on the US copyright for Ulysses, an effect that continued to resonate many years later. Similarly a pirated translated edition appeared in Japan.

Whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac

It is difficult to account for the gradual change in attitudes to Ulysses that occurred in the 1930s (outside Ireland). It must finally be put down, I think, to a simple shift in the zeitgeist. As the US had led the way in the banning of Ulysses, so it was instrumental in unblocking the logjam. The key moment was, of course, Judge John Woolsey’s decision in the District Court of New York on December 6th, 1933, permitting the sale of Ulysses in the United States. This decision did not come out of the blue: Joyce’s US publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, had deliberately arranged for a copy to be seized by US customs, permitting him to appeal the seizure to the courts.

Woolsey’s ruling has been now much studied. It is clear that he was quite a clued-in judge and probably knew that this ruling was his best shot at something like immortality. While his famous conclusion might not quite put the case in the kind of language that Joyce’s fiercest partisans would wish, it was more than sufficient, both in style and content, to overcome legal obstacles to the reading of the book:

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


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

As Joyce had predicted, once the US cleared the way, Britain soon followed. Again, it all happened in a far more ad-hoc fashion. After favourable soundings and despite rejections from some publishers, Joyce’s assistant, Paul Léon, simply persuaded the publisher, John Lane, to take it on. Following some internal debate, the authorities decided not to prosecute. Everywhere, though, the book remained an expensive item; it wasn’t until 1968 that a paperback edition, priced, if memory serves, at seven shillings and sixpence, arrived.

This is not quite the end of the story of the publication of Ulysses. It is still subject to renewed controversy, to renewed “scandals”. These, in present times, have moved from sexual to textual issues. Before the expiry of copyright, the Joyce estate’s stranglehold on the reproduction of the text was a major issue, and that situation is not totally resolved.

The book’s ability to stir controversy is undiminished. The whole history of its publication and reception is almost a separate study of its own, giving it a strange double life. It is still a live 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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