100 Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses

The 2 February 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the twentieth century’s greatest modernist novel: James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a fitting occasion also for UCD library to celebrate our holdings of the Curran/Laird Collection which has many intimate and intricate connections with Joyce and his most famous novel.

Constantine Curran (1883–1972) was a lawyer and historian of eighteenth-century Dublin architecture, sculpture, and plasterwork. He attended UCD where he graduated with a BA (1902) and an MA (1906). It was at UCD that Curran first met James Joyce (1882–1941) with whom he would maintain an important lifelong friendship. In 1913, Curran married the actress, costumier, teacher, and suffragist, Helen Laird (1874–1957), who was involved in the Irish National Theatre Society (later the Abbey Company) from its inception, as a costume and set designer as well as a player. Curran’s reminiscences of Joyce, James Joyce Remembered (OUP, 1968), will be republished with much additional commentary material later this year by UCD Press. Furthermore, later this year we will see the publication online (via the UCD Digital Library) the correspondence by and about James Joyce and his family from the Curran/Laird correspondence.

Joyce’s novel arrived into the post-war world in 1922, a year described as a golden one for publishing by London rare bookseller, Peter Harrinton and a pivotal year for modernists with the publication of The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and of course, Ulysses.

The Little Review, March 1918, UCD Library Special Collections, 1.T.17/1.

Ulysses was by means unknown prior to publication. The Little Review had been serialising the book since 1918 and it achieved quite a succès de scandale when the ‘Nausicaa’ episode resulted in the magazine’s editors being found guilty of obscenity in 1921. Advance publicity for the book, in the form of a prospectus from Shakespeare and Co., makes the most of this ‘success’, by claiming that the forthcoming novel has been ‘suppressed four times during serialisation’. It also gives the publication date as ‘Autumn 1921’ . However, these legal problems, though good for publicity, increased the difficulty in finding a publisher for the completed novel.

Legal problems would seriously obstruct publication and circulation of Ulysses for the next decade or more. It is not until December 1933, that Joyce could report to Curran that ‘after a 13-year struggle, I have won’ [the legal battle to overturn the U.S. ban on the book]. He further hopes that ‘…one half of the English-speaking world surrenders [and] the other half will follow …’.[1]

Letter from Joyce to Constantine Curran, ‘Thus one half of the English speaking world surrenders …’. UCD Library Special Collections, CUR L 184.

The landmark case in America (‘United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce’) resulted in Judge John M. Woolsey declaring that the novel was not obscene. It was not published in the United Kingdom until 1936 and challenges continued up to the 1950s, albeit with diminishing success. In a case brought by the Public Morality Council in 1950, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, declared emphatically:

I cannot believe that anybody, who has the patience and the literacy to read and understand this book, would be likely as a result to be corrupted or depraved, though he might well be depressed.

Joyce had first started work on Ulysses in 1914 and it seems he had no real sense of how long the process would take. In a letter to Curran (acquired by UCD Library in 2021) dated March 1917, he says “I am writing Ulysses which I began six or seven years ago in Rome and hope I shall be able to finish it in 1918.”[2] In fact, he continued with writing and revision right up to publication day.

When he despaired of finding a publisher to accept the novel, Sylvia Beach (1887–1962) a friend and the proprietor of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris, asked Joyce if he would allow her ‘the honour of bringing out your Ulysses‘, and Joyce agreed. The book was scheduled for publication on the 2 February 1922: Joyce’s birthday. Joyce had a superstitious nature and placed great significance in dates, setting the whole of Ulysses on one day (16 June 1904), the day when he first ‘walked out’ with Nora Barnacle. It is no surprise then that he chose his birthday as an auspicious day for publication.

Sylvia Beach contracted with a printer in Dijon, Maurice Darantiere, to print 1000 numbered copies of Ulysses with a copy breakdown as follows:

  • The first hundred to be signed by Joyce and on Dutch handmade paper
  • Numbers 101–250 to be printed on the larger vergé d’Arches paper
  • Numbers 251–1000 to be printed on vergé à barbes paper

The first hundred were signed by Joyce at the time of publication but of course he also signed and dedicated many further copies, including one to Constantine Curran now in UCD Library.

Cover of the first edition of Ulysses showing the difficult to reproduce colours of the Greek flag.  UCD Library Special Collections, 39.M.4.

The now famous blue and white wrappers of the Ulysses first edition caused great difficulty for the printer. The colours were chosen in tribute to the Greek flag for its Homeric associations, but the exact colour was elusive. Darantiere manged to find the right shade in Germany, but it was the on the wrong type of paper. A friend of Joyce, the artist Myron Nutting, mixed the exact shade of blue required and the printer had it lithographed onto one side of the cardboard sheets which would form the covers. The single-side lithography explains the bare white of each inner cover.

As things turned out, it was necessary to stretch the meaning of the word ‘publication’ to fulfil his wish for launching his book on the 2 February. Only two copies were actually printed and distributed on this date. These were brought to Paris by the conductor of the early Dijon–Paris train and collected by Beach from the Gare de Lyon at 7.00 am. She immediately delivered one copy to Joyce and kept the other for display in the window of Shakespeare and Company. Some minor problem with the cover slowed production of further copies and a week passed with only fifty copies received. Numbers 101–250 on the larger paper called for a resetting of the type which gave the opportunity for some corrections but also slowed printing. The problem of printer’s errors would plague successive editions of Ulysses. The first edition has an insert: ‘The publisher asks the reader’s indulgence for typographical errors unavoidable in the exceptional circumstance’. Many mistakes could be blamed on Joyce’s often illegible handwriting, his poor eyesight, the fact that he continued to add additional material to the proofs right up to publication and that the French typesetters, except for the foreman, did not read English.

UCD Library is in the fortunate position of having two copies of the first edition. The first is a copy (numbered 309) that Joyce sent to Curran on the 11 February 1922 with the simple dedication: ‘To Constantine Curran, James Joyce, Paris, 11 February 1922’. We know that this is not the only copy he signed that day. The previous copy in the series, no. 308, he sent to his brother Stanislaus, with the inscription, ‘To Stannie Jim Paris 11 February 1922’.

Dedication by James Joyce to Constantine Curran, UCD Library Special Collections, 39.M.4.

Our second copy (no. 759) is unsigned by the author but has the signature of a former owner, Lennox Robinson. Esmé Stuart Lennox Robinson (1886–1958) , was a dramatist, poet and theatre producer and director of the Abbey Theatre from 1907 to 1958. However, the book came to UCD Library as part of the John L. (Jack) Sweeney Collection. John Lincoln ‘Jack’ Sweeney was a scholar, critic, art collector, and poet. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he lectured at Harvard in English Literature and was the curator of Harvard Library’s ‘Poetry Room’. He was a great collector of Anglo-Irish literature of the twentieth century.

The publication of Ulysses was scarcely noticed in Ireland. Understandably the country had many other distractions, with the ending of the War of Independence and the first stirrings of the Civil War. However, even in the absence of this civil strife, it is unlikely that the nationalist and insular Free State would have had much interest in,  or understanding of, a modernist European work like Ulysses. Its reputation for obscenity would certainly not have added to its attractions in 1920s Ireland. It was to take some time for possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century to be appreciated in the country of its author’s birth and in the city that forms the very heart of the book. Here’s looking forward to 2122!

This post was researched and written by Eugene Roche, Assistant Librarian, UCD Special Collections.

Further Reading

Beach, S. (c 1960). Shakespeare and Company. London: Faber and Faber

Bradshaw, D (2016). Ulysses and obscenity. Retrieved 21/2/2022 from https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/ulysses-and-obscenity

Curran, C. P. (1968). James Joyce Remembered. London: Oxford University Press

Ellmann, R. (1957). James Joyce. London: Oxford University Press

Gilbert, S. (ed.) (1957). Letters of James Joyce. London: Faber and Faber

[1] UCD Library Curran/Laird Collection, SC CUR L 184.

[2] UCD Library Curran/Laird Collection, SC CUR L 411.

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