By Edward T. O’Donnell
Seventy-nine years ago this week, on Feb. 2, 1922, James Joyce heard a knock upon the door of his Paris flat. It was 7 o’clock and the morning of his 40th birthday. Opening the door he found his friend, Miss Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co., an avante garde bookshop. In her outstretched hands was the first copy of his masterwork, the novel "Ulysses." It was a moment he’d longed for and feared might never come.
James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the son of John Stanislaus Joyce, a tax official, and Mary Murray Joyce. Though family finances were strained, he received an excellent education. As a student Joyce devoured literature and languages and showed immense talent as a writer.
Upon graduating from University College in 1902, he set about pursuing a career as a writer. Significantly, for a writer so intensely identified with his native country (especially Dublin), Joyce spent nearly all of his adult life living elsewhere. He wrote his first two works, "Dubliners" (1914) and "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1916) mostly while living in Trieste and Zurich.
The success of these works encouraged him to begin what would become his most acclaimed work, "Ulysses." Nearly always broke and dependant on wealthy patrons for support, Joyce soon encountered a new challenge. In 1917 his eyesight began to fail. Despite more than 20 operations, it was a trial he endured for the rest of his life.
Joyce patterned "Ulysses" on the Greek epic of the same name. Set in a single day — June 16, 1904 — it chronicles the misadventures of Leopold Bloom, a Jewish Dubliner. Ulysses would cause a stir not simply because it was sexually explicit (" . . . and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me."), irreverent ("Messrs Pick and Pocket have power of attorney"), anti-clerical ("It was a nun they say invented barbed wire"), and dismissive of romantic nationalism ("Ireland expects that every man this day will do his duty"), but also for its radical form. Joyce employed a stream-of-consciousness style throughout the book, giving it both a lyrical and dreamlike quality. Other writers before him had used the technique, but none so extensively.
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So daring a work, Joyce knew, would be difficult to publish (22 publishers had rejected "Dubliners"). Fortunately, he found a willing outlet in The Little Review, a radical literary journal published in the United States by Margaret Anderson. "We’ll print it," she assured him, "if it’s the last effort of our lives."
As Anderson’s words hinted, "Ulysses" incurred the wrath of censors in Britain, Ireland and the U.S. When The Little Review published the first episode of "Ulysses" in March 1918, it was seized by the U.S. Post Office, as were subsequent issues. In 1921, Anderson was tried, convicted, and fined for publishing "obscene" material.
Now living in Paris, a dejected Joyce told Sylvia Beach, "My book will never come out now." Seizing the moment, she asked if he would let her bookshop publish it. Joyce agreed and soon handed her the finished manuscript.
Predictably, "Ulysses" was banned in the U.S. and Britain (though not in Ireland). Still, copies were smuggled into the U.S. or reprinted in bootleg editions. By the end of the 1920s Joyce was an internationally recognized writer, although critics were sharply divided as to the merits of his work. Edmund Wilson ranked Joyce among the most important writers of all time, while Max Eastman placed him at the top of his list of "Unintelligibles," a group that included Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot.
"Ulysses" eventually prompted a landmark case regarding U.S. censorship laws. In December 1933 Judge John M. Woolsey — after taking several months to read the 900-page tome — ruled that while " ‘Ulysses’ is not an easy book to read or understand, it is not pornographic." Now Americans could walk into any bookstore and buy a copy of "Ulysses."
Whether they could make sense of it was another matter altogether.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Feb. 1, 1796: Theobald Wolfe Tone arrives in France to gain French assistance for United Irishmen.
Feb. 2, 1880: Charles Stuart Parnell, on a fund-raising tour of the U.S. for the Land League, addresses the U.S. Congress.
Feb. 2, 1972: In response to the Bloody Sunday massacre three days earlier, an enraged mob burns the British Embassy in Dublin.
Feb. 3, 1919: Eamon DeValera is sprung from jail by Michael Collins and Harry Boland.
Feb. 5, 1917: Convicted for operating the nation’s first birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, Margaret Sanger is sent to jail for 30 days.
Jan. 31, 1947: Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan born in Refugio, Texas.
Feb. 1, 1859: Cellist and conductor Victor Herbert born in Dublin.
Feb. 2, 1882: Author James Joyce born in Dublin.
Feb. 4, 1775: Patriot Robert Emmet born in Dublin.
Feb. 6, 1911: the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, born in Tampico, Ill.
Readers can reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.