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‘Ulysses’ on the isle of Manhattan — then and now

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Rosalie O’Brien

A newly discovered manuscript of a section of James Joyce’s "Ulysses" is expected to sell at auction for as much as $1 million at Christie’s in New York next week.

The auction is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 14.

The manuscript consists of 27 large sheets written in Joyce’s small scrawl. It is the "Circe" episode, the longest and arguably the most important of the 18 episodes of "Ulysses."

Important as it is, I doubt Joyce would have envisioned earning more than $37,000 per page. Especially in New York, where his work was literally burned and banned when it appeared in 1921.

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. Post Office burning "Ulysses." But that’s exactly what it did when episodes from the novel first appeared in a Greenwich Village journal called The Little Review. After all, the material was obscene and why make work by delivering mail if you can get away with burning it?

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Then the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice hauled the editors of The Little Review into court over the "Nausicaa" episode. The court found the publication guilty of publishing obscenity and "Ulysses" was banned until 1933.

The scandal of "Ulysses" is a thing of the past and the book rests comfortably on syllabi around the world. In the manner of its namesake, "Ulysses" has come a long way: from a seedy courthouse to a swank auction house, from a judge’s gavel that deemed it filthy to an auctioneer’s gavel that will deem it worth a million dollars.

Recently, Ireland lifted its 33-year ban on Joseph Strick’s film version of "Ulysses." Despite the fact that the screenplay earned Joseph Strick and Fred Haines an Oscar nomination, the film itself has never been shown to the Irish public. That will change in the New Year when "Ulysses" opens at cinemas.

Not that this belated appreciation does Joyce much good now. Joyce, plagued by financial problems, was never in the money, much less on the money. He needed what most artists need — support during the lean years.

Wealthy patron

Sure, there is something romantic about the struggling writer. History tells us that genius is often reviled in its own time. This is a comfort to writers and other self-suspecting geniuses, but fantasies of posthumous fame do not pay the bills. That’s where patrons like John Quinn come in.

Quinn has been in the news lately because he originally owned the million-dollar "Circe" episode. He is usually described as a "patron of the arts" or as "an American lawyer and collector." But he was more than that. He was a one-man arts council.

Quinn bought manuscripts to invest in writers and enable them to keep writing. As Joyce finished episodes of "Ulysses," he sent them to Quinn. In turn, Quinn sent Joyce money so that he could keep working. When Quinn received the entire manuscript, he sold it for a profit of less than $500 — half of which he intended to give to Joyce.

Quinn spent not only his money, but also his time and talents on artists he believed in. To the Yeats family, Quinn was a life-long friend.

In fact, he became the surrogate son of J.B. Yeats when the aging artist came to New York City for a "visit" that lasted until his death, more than 14 years later. At times, W.B. Yeats sent Quinn his manuscripts to reimburse his friend for paying his father’s rent and other expenses.

When the cast members of the "Playboy of the Western World" were thrown in jail in Philadelphia in 1911, Quinn defended them — an act that incurred the wrath of his friends from Tammany Hall and the Clan na Gael.

And it was Quinn who appeared in the Greenwich Village courtroom to argue that "Ulysses" was not obscene. Not an easy task in the best of times, much less in 1921, when sobriety and purity were the order of the day. Not surprisingly, the censorship of "Ulysses" and the prohibition against alcohol went hand in hand as America zealously closed its borders, brothels and saloons.

From Dublin to London to New York, Quinn’s name will continue to haunt the headlines as manuscripts that once belonged to him make news from under the gavel. But in his own day, Quinn would not have been among the high-rolling denizens of auction houses, vying to possess great works of the past. He would have been elsewhere, in a courtroom perhaps, supporting artists of the present and defending great works of the future.

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