On This Day: February 2

Two things happened on today in history:

February 2, 1882: James Joyce was born in Rathgar.

February 2, 1922: Joyce’s Ulysses was published by Shakespeare & Co.

James Joyce had already written a collection of short stories (Dubliners – excerpt here) and a novel (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – excerpt here) – as well as many poems and a play (Exiles). Joyce said at one point that he had realized that he “could not write without offending people”. Dubliners was controversial in its time, with its honest portrayal of the wandering aimlessness of Dublin men and the domination of the Catholic Church in his country. Portrait of the Artist was also controversial. It covers such benign topics as religion, politics, the Irish question, nationalism, masturbation, homoerotic priests, and Parnell. It was the launching-off point for Ulysses.

It took James Joyce seven years to write Ulysses. Later, he would joke, when faced with criticism that the book was just too damn big – “I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it.”

His next book was Finnegans Wake (excerpt here) and that took him seventeen years to write.

Boy marched to the beat of his own drummer.

The history of the publication of Ulysses is a book in and of itself.

James Joyce had fled Ireland, leaving a wake of debt and scandal behind him, back in 1904. Joyce got a job teaching English at a Berlitz school in first Zurich (that didn’t work out), and then Trieste. He convinced his new-found love, Nora Barnacle, a wild girl from Galway, to run away with him. He had known her for only a couple of months. They had met on June 16, 1904 – the day that he would choose to set the entirety of Ulysses on, the ultimate tribute to what she gave him. James and Nora lived in Trieste for 10 years, having children (two of them), not getting married just to spite tradition – although they referred to one another as “husband” and “wife” (the two would eventually marry in the 1930s) … and living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, Joyce was working on Dubliners, which was quite a struggle. He could not find anyone willing to publish it. Dubliners was eventually published in 1914. He had already been working on it for years. Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man was published (in serial form) in 1914 and finally brought out as a book in 1916. It had been serialized in the highly influential The Egoist. Around this time, James Joyce was taken under the wing of Ezra Pound (what a shock. Pound was everywhere).

James Joyce had been interested in the plight of the Jews for a long time. Especially as a man living in perpetual exile, country-less, yet always looking “homeward”. He felt that there was an affinity between the Jews and the Irish, and he thought it was something to explore. He had considered writing a story along these lines for Dubliners but it didn’t end up happening. However, the idea percolated. It ended up being one of the main ideas in the book Ulysses, based, of course, on Homer’s epic, but Joyce, with his obsessive tendencies, was the kind of man who saw connections everywhere. Exile, journey, what does “home” mean, where is it? These were questions of great relevance to the Jews, but also to himself, who felt he could never live in Ireland again (and he never did). Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew, living in Ireland. Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s alter ego, the “star” of Portrait of the Artist as well) is one of the aimless men Ireland is so fond of creating, a man looking for a father figure, a guide. Through their mutual wanderings through the city of Dublin, on June 16, 1904, they eventually cross paths. It is not that a kindred spirit is revealed, not really. They do not connect, or heal, or grow, or become empowered. None of those pat concepts are at work in Ulysses. It is more that it is a meeting of the minds. A realization of the connection between them, but also that such connection is transitory. At the end of the book they go their separate ways.

My posts on the episodes in Ulysses:
Episode 1: The Telemachus Episode
Episode 2: The Nestor Episode
Episode 3: The Proteus episode

Episode 4: The Calypso Episode
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters Episode
Episode 6: The Hades Episode
Episode 7: The Aeolus Episode
Episode 8: The Lestrygonians Episode
Episode 9: The Scylla and Charybdis Episode
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks Episode
Episode 11: The Sirens Episode
Episode 12: The Cyclops Episode
Episode 13: The Nausicaa Episode
Episode 14: The Oxen of the Sun Episode
Episode 15: The Circe Episode

Episode 16: The Eumaeus Episode
Episode 17: The Ithaca Episode
Episode 18: The Penelope Episode

Joyce wrote:

Ulysses is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book– blast it!

What was such a big deal about Ulysses? A book where nothing, let’s be honest, really happens? A cuckolded man goes to a funeral, has some lunch, masturbates on the beach, and finally goes home to his wife. It’s the story of a long day in Dublin. But what was the big deal?

Much of the brou-haha (at least in the literary set) was about the writing itself, a deepening and broadening of the landscape he had explored in Portrait: what is existence really like? What is it like to live, moment to moment?

James Joyce wrote once:

“Why all this fuss and bother about the mystery of the unconscious? What about the mystery of the conscious? What do they know about that?”

Joyce did not delve into the psychologies of his characters so much, although we get to know Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus better than we even know our best friends through reading Ulysses. Joyce goes behind closed doors. He goes inside the body. Circulation, digestion, sex drive, the splitting of cells … all of that is going on in his writing, because the book – as well as being an homage to Homer’s Odyssey – as well as being set up in a complicated structure, mirroring Homer’s work – as well as having colors associated with each episode, and a different writing style for each episode … it is also, chapter by chapter, a dissection of the human body. One chapter (the Cyclops chapter, naturally) is the “eye” chapter. One chapter is the stomach chapter. One chapter is the sex organs chapter. And etc. None of this is explicit. There is no guide. You have to know what you’re looking for. You have to get into HIS mode when reading the book, and let your OWN mode go. This is why many people were (and are) annoyed by Joyce. But geniuses have always annoyed people. As William Blake famously wrote:

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

Crows don’t like that when you point it out. But eagles, in general, shouldn’t worry about the response of crows to their superiority. They need to just keep being eagles.

James Joyce wouldn’t have thought of it like that. His defenders (like myself) say stuff like that all the time, but Joyce (perhaps disingenuously) really didn’t see what the big deal was. He wrote what he wrote because it amused and fascinated him. He wrote only what he could write. He wasn’t going for an effect, he wasn’t trying to be clever. He loved puns and language and hidden connections. He wrote from that stance. He realized that he was ahead of his time, he really did, but he wasn’t precocious, he wasn’t self-conscious about it. (Actually, he was – but I’ll touch on that in a bit.) The thing to get about Joyce (and this is where he is truly an eagle) is that he wrote Ulysses not to make a big splash, not to stick it to the censors, not to show lesser writers how it’s REALLY done (although all of these things were results) … he wrote it because he liked it. He found it funny. Engaging.

He said (and this may be perhaps my favorite Joyce quote, and it is something to keep in mind should you pick up Ulysses for the first time – it’s a clue in HOW to read it):

The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.

I believe him. Certainly there were serious ideas in the book, it’s a revolution, really … but looked at in another light, in Joyce’s light, there is “not one single serious word in it”. It’s a joke, a maze, a puzzle, an examination of ridiculous coincidences and connections. What does it “mean”? That’s the stupidest question of all to concern yourself with. It means nothing.

Samuel Beckett’s wonderful quote in regards to Finnegans Wake is also applicable to Ulysses:

You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.

And THAT is why Joyce is such a big deal. THAT is why the book went off like a bomb throughout the literary world. THAT is why people like T.S. freakin’ Eliot, no slouch himself, said, “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” James Joyce lived in a world of giants. Hemingway, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Pound, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot … the modernists. He was part of his time, but he went so much further than any of his contemporaries that many of them never quite recovered from the Ulysses juggernaut. The comments of other writers about Ulysses are absolutely marvelous, because they all recognized what has come. They all realized what had happened. The 20th century had arrived. They had all been working towards it, trying to wrestle the 19th century out of existence, bringing new forms to light. And it’s not that any of these people failed. But Ulysses was the “star”. Ulysses was the real death-knell.

T.S. Eliot said that Ulysses “killed the 19th century”.

James Joyce hadn’t set out to “kill the 19th century”, but his sensibility – contrarian, sensitive, angry, loving – led him to a form that couldn’t help but do so.

Now let me talk about the actual publication of the book.

Into our story now steps Sylvia Beach. (All posts about her here.) Born in Maryland, as an adult she became a major force in the literary ex-pat community in Paris. She served in World War I with the Red Cross in Serbia, and after the war settled in Paris, where she opened up a bookshop – the enormously influential Shakespeare & Co.. Shakespeare & Co. became the hub-bub, the vortex of them all. Oh, for a time machine, to go hang out at that place in the 1920s, where Hemingway would stop by, Fitzgerald would browse, Joyce would sneak in and out, Gertrude Stein would bitch and moan (haha) … and Pound would negotiate with all of them, trying to help them all out and promote his favorites … they ALL were there.

I love this – here is a cartoon of Joyce sitting at a table with all of his friends (try to find Joyce – isn’t that hysterical?? He doesn’t even have a body! That was how he was seen – just a big floating brain with enormous glasses!).

Who was the cartoonist?

F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In this vibrant world of literary rivals and giants struggling for the stage, Sylvia Beach played an important role. She had good taste, first of all, she liked the “good” ones, and didn’t waste her time with the crows. She also had courage (as we shall see).

When Beach met James Joyce, he had already written Ulysses, and it was a finished manuscript by that point (or as finished as any Joycean manuscript ever would be) – but essentially unpublishable, due to its being deemed “obscene”. You have to get into the mindset of the censors, as unpleasant an experience as that is. What on earth is “obscene” about Ulysses? Ultimately, the book expresses love. You cannot deny it, you cannot escape from it. It is love. Leopold Bloom, throughout his long long day, is only thinking about his wife Molly, and how much he loves her, and how afraid he is that she is being unfaithful. There is only one woman for him. In the same way that there was only one woman for Joyce. Love, it is love that drags us home after our long journey. Only love. But Joyce did not shy away from the more unsavory aspects of life (and let’s remember his comment about the “mystery of the conscious” – that’s so so important: he did not, as Proust did, or Woolf did, or some of the other modern writers – delve into psychology and the workings of the subconscious. He did not look at motivations and childhood repression. Let’s not forget the huge influence of Freud at this time. A revolution in the understanding of the workings of humanity. Whether or not you agree with Freud, and whether or not you think Freud is over-rated is irrelevant. I am talking about the time and place from which Joyce wrote. Freud – and Jung – were hugely influential to writers like Joyce and Proust.) But Joyce, unlike Proust, did not explore how memory works, and how the senses trigger thoughts and feelings and entire narratives from our lives … He was much more prosaic. Blunt. He presented man in the most honest manner possible. Leopold Bloom takes a dump, for example. He sits on the toilet after breakfast, and thinks about things, worrying about things, as he goes to the bathroom. Now, this is one of the most human of experiences. Anyone who says they haven’t sat on the toilet, pondering their day, and what they are worried about, is lying. But to put that in a book?? What are you, cracked?

There are those who feel that while such things may be ‘real’, they have no place in literature. Now we’re getting into the realm of the censors, who wanted to control what could be shown. It’s the same as people nowadays who seem to feel that saying “TMI” is the be-all and end-all of human interaction. You complain that you stubbed your toe that morning, and certain people will say, “TMI!” “TMI” is nothing new. There have always been those who really DON’T want to know you, who really DON’T want the truth when they ask “How are you?” Sure, there’s such a thing as “over-sharing”, but I’m not really talking about that. I am talking about something far more insidious. Something that is not in any way, shape or form new – it’s been going on forever, as long as human beings have been in contact with one another. There is a shying away from real experience of one another. Of course. Because if you allow yourself to experience what it is like for another person, then that might mean you might have compassion for them, or empathy, or you might have a sense of recognition, an awareness of the universal: “Yes, I do that, too!” Many people do not want to be shaken out of their selves like that. I include myself, by the way, although you will never ever catch me saying “TMI”! I am all ABOUT “TMI”! But the first response for many, to some demand for connection, or understanding, is to batton down the hatches, draw the line in the sand, and say, “Nope. Nope. That’s YOU, that’s not ME.”

Joyce cuts right to the core of that very human experience. He will not let the reader off the hook. If you insist on insisting, “That’s YOU, not ME”, then Ulysses will be a terribly confronting book. Joyce, above all else, was a humanist, although his cynicism and rage were titanic. That’s what The Dead, with its final revelation of connection to all in the last four paragraphs, is all about. Gabriel realizes, as he watches his wife sleep, that he loves her, and yet that he has never really known her. And in that realization, his consciousness rises up and up, until he is looking down on the snowy landscape, on all of Ireland … and he, for the first time, feels connected to life, because of his experience of heartbreak. He feels connected not just to all mankind, but also to all of the “shades”, all of those people who have gone before.

To walk around saying “TMI, TMI” whenever anyone reveals anything about themselves is to exclude yourself from the human family.

The irony of all of this is that Joyce was one of the most isolated of beings, although not melancholy or a downer or any of that. It’s just that he was rather old-fashioned, believe it or not, a family man, who had dinner every night with Nora and his kids and that was that. There is no scandal about Joyce. He didn’t sleep with every woman in Paris. He didn’t experiment with free love. Yes, he lived in sin for 30 years before tying the knot, but he was faithful to Nora. He wasn’t a big socializer. He was a big drinker, but everyone was then. He wasn’t dancing in fountains like F. Scott Fitzgerald was, and cheering as his wife did a jig on the table. He was rather conventional, rather bourgeois.

Additionally, there is a tremendous self-consciousness in his books (which I mentioned earlier). He can ONLY write from his own life. He was not an “inventor”. He did not make up characters, and devise complicated plots. He did not write one standard novel. It was all self self self self self. I truly believe that you MUST be a genius in order to only focus on self. The memoir-trend in publishing today proves that, in my mind. There are very few good ones out there, very few stories worth telling … the thing that elevates one memoir over another is, of course, the writing style … If you’re not a good writer then nobody cares that your mama locked you in a closet and your papa couldn’t put down the whiskey. Angela’s Ashes was such a phenomenal success because of McCourt’s writing. You write that same story without McCourt’s voice and you’d want to vomit. I know that there are folks in Limerick, especially, who already want to vomit when reading McCourt’s book – but that just goes to show you that you can never please everybody.

Ulysses picked up where Portrait left off. As Portrait comes to a close, the traditional narrative voice breaks down, leaving us only with Stephen Dedalus’ journal entries. There is no more voice outside the “I”. Joyce has abandoned the traditional narrator. Dedalus will now take over. We are inside experience, as opposed to looking on. In the third episode in Ulysses Stephen Dedalus takes a walk on the beach. We learned at the end of Portrait that he had broken his glasses. He can’t see. This fact is not mentioned in Ulysses, not at the start, but we are meant to remember it. (Joyce demands that you pay attention). In the third chapter, during his walk on the beach, sans glasses … the experiences come at him through a vague impression of colors and sounds. The writing reflects the actual experience of being blind. If you somehow missed that he has no glasses from the book before, and if you don’t get that this episode is told from the perspective of someone who can’t see, then you might not know what the hell is going on. At one point:

The dog’s bark ran towards him, stopped, ran back again.

As someone who needs her glasses, I can say that that is just just right. When I have been stranded without glasses, it is as though sounds “run towards” me … It is not the DOG running at Dedalus, it is its BARK.

Perhaps now it seems obvious, or perhaps now it seems like everyone tries to write in this subjective manner. But that’s only because Joyce did it first.

All of this made Ulysses a tough sell to publishers, not even counting the bowel movements, and penises, and the evening in “Nighttown” (Dublin’s red-light district) and Molly Bloom’s long 40 page run-on sentence that closes the book, full of farts and menstruation and masturbation. But also, please, let us not forget, that it is some of the most beautiful writing in the English language … and her image of embracing her husband as they lie among the rhododendrons is some of the most romantic language of all time:

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Brings me to tears every time.

The book was a bomb waiting to go off. No one would touch it. Pound had arranged for some excerpts to be published and that was the start of it. Writers, in general, were itching to get their paws on the book … what the hell is that crazy Joyce working on now?? … people felt competitive, nervous … he helped them up their own game … but in terms of the business side of things, the controversy had started before the book had even been published.

But Sylvia Beach – who had never published a book before – took a risk and said that Shakespeare & Co. would put out the book. She would publish it herself. She knew what she was doing, and she knew what the repercussions could be. It was an act of courage. Perhaps she went into it recklessly, thinking that giving a space for genius would be its own reward – perhaps she went into it knowing the eventual fallout that would crash down upon her head – But whatever her interior process, she published it. On February 2, 1922.

I was on the platform, my heart going like the locomotive, as the train from Dijon came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone — me. In a few minutes, I was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing them Copy No. 1 of Ulysses. It was February 2, 1922.
Sylvia Beach

And the shit hit the fan.

Nora Tully describes it thus:

The response to Ulysses was immediate and extreme. Writer and literary critic Malcolm Cowley described it using the metaphor of a stone dropped into water: there was a moment of silence, the stone was dropped, “then all the frogs who inhabited the pool began to talk at once”.

Once it was published, the obscenity controversies heated up, the book was banned everywhere – Ireland, America – everybody was talking about it, but who had actually read it? The first edition was only 1000 copies! You couldn’t get the book anywhere. Additionally, you could be arrested for trying to smuggle it into certain countries – so there were a couple of years where the only place on the planet that you could get a copy of Ulysses was at Beach’s bookshop in Paris. And so the orders flew in from folks around the world. People who were book readers, other writers, people who were collectors, people who sensed the historic moment and just wanted a copy.

Here is a copy of Peggy Guggenheim’s urgent order-form, sent to Sylvia Beach:


Imagine you are dying to read the book. Imagine you can’t get it anywhere. Imagine that it is illegal to smuggle it back into the United States. Imagine the frenzy. You can see it in Guggeinheim’s writing, can’t you?

Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had supported Joyce financially for years (at Pound’s insistence) also arranged for another edition to be published by The Egoist press. She also arranged for them to be shipped to the United States, but they were seized by the customs officials. In 1923, John Rodker, through The Egoist again, arranged for a small printing of the book, but these were burned by English customs officials. In 1924, Shakespeare & Co., a small outfit really, and not set up to handle the demand, brought out another small printing.



Eventually, as the controversy died down, Joyce ended up going with another publisher, which really left Beach bereft financially. She already had suffered as a consequence of taking the risk to publish Ulysses. She was hounded by the police, by the censors … so although Joyce really did need to move on, to a publisher who could handle his stardom, Beach was the first. Beach was the pioneer. Amazing woman.

Meanwhile, the comments from people who had actually read it were pouring in. This went on for years. You could read it in Europe, but America had declared it obscene, and would not allow it to arrive on its shores.

Finally, on August 7, 1934, over 10 years after its first publication by little Sylvia Beach and her little Shakespeare & Co. – a far-seeing and open-minded US Court of appeals judge, Judge Woolsey, declared that Ulysses was NOT obscene and could be admitted into the United States. It was a ground-breaking moment, a true historical watershed – and his decision reads almost like an insightful and intuitive literary review. Not to be missed. Go, Judge Woolsey!

The comments of other great writers on this book are of great interest to me. I can’t get enough. I have compiled them all in a notebook. I love to read through them. The responses run the gamut from disgust, elation, despair, awe, humility … He made other writers feel like putting down their pens. He enraged those who felt that THEY deserved HIS accolades (phone call for Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, phone call) … but whatever the response, the only emotion you will NOT find is indifference.

Joyce had made his mark.

Yeats (an early champion of Joyce) had this as his first response on reading Ulysses: “A mad book!”

Then later, as he let the book percolate, Yeats corrected himself: “I have made a terrible mistake. It is a work perhaps of genius. I now perceive its coherence … It is an entirely new thing — neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

Hart Crane said: “I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”

George Bernard Shaw was disturbed by Ulysses, he took it personally, he did not like what it revealed – about man, about Irish men, about the life of Ireland, but he grappled with the implications in an honest way: “If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”

T.S. Eliot was especially devastated by the book, and his comments on it are numerous. Examples: “How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?”

T.S. Eliot again: “I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

Edmund Wilson wrote of it:

The more we read Ulysses, the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional and their emotional lives. To have traced all these interdependences, to have given each of these elements its value, yet never to have lost sight of the moral through preoccuptation with the physical, nor to have forgotten the general in the particular; to have exhibited ordinary humanity without either satirizing it or sentimentalizing it – this would already have been sufficiently remarkable; but to have subdued all this material to the uses of a supremely finished and disciplined work of art is a feat which has hardly been equalled in the literature of our time.

Wilson also wrote:

Yet for all its appalling longeurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge — unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction — or in inventing new literary forms — Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old — as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. Ulysses has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy.”

Carl Jung read the book and wrote Joyce a letter:

Dear Sir,
Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem, that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

Joyce was very proud of this letter and would read it out loud to guests in his house. Nora would snort at the end, “Jimmy knows nothin’ about women!”

Katherine Mansfield wrote in a letter:

“Joyce was rather … difficile. I had no idea until then of his view of Ulysses — no idea how closely it was modelled on the Greek story, how absolutely necessary it was to know the one through and through to be able to discuss the other. I’ve read the Odyssey and am more or less familiar with it but Murry [Mansfield’s husband] and Joyce simply sailed out of my depth. I felt almost stupefied. It’s absolutely impossible that other people should understand Ulysses as Joyce understands it. It’s almost revolting to hear him discuss its difficulties. It contains code words that must be picked up in each paragraph and so on. The Question and Answer part can be read astronomically or from the geologic standpoint or — oh, I don’t know!”

The most humorous part of this is that Joyce said, after meeting Katherine and her husband:

“Mrs. Murry understood the book better than her husband.”


George Moore, another Irish writer, wrote:

“Ulysses is hopeless; it is absurd to imagine that any good end can be served by trying to record every single thought and sensation of any human being. That’s not art, it’s like trying to copy the London Directory.”

Hemingway wrote in a letter to Sherwood Anderson:

“Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other…”

Gertrude Stein wrote:

“Joyce is good. He is a good writer. People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him. But who came first, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce? Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908. That was long before Ulysses. But Joyce has done something. His influence, however, is local. Like Synge, another Irish writer, he has had his day.”

Joyce heard what Stein wrote, thought about it, and said, “I hate intellectual women.”

George Bernard Shaw again:

“I have read several fragments of Ulysses … It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed foul minded derision and obscenity…It is, however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat cleanly by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject.”

Ezra Pound said:

“Joyce — pleasing; after the first shell of cantankerous Irishman, I got the impression that the real man is the author of Chamber Music, the sensitive. The rest is the genius; the registration of realities on the temperament, the delicate temperament of the early poems. A concentration and absorption passing Yeats’ — Yeats has never taken on anything requiring the condensation of Ulysses.”

Yeats wrote:

“It is an entirely new thing — neither what they eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

William Carlos Williams wrote (echoing what many of Joyce’s contemporaries felt):

“Joyce is too near for me to want to do less than he did in Ulysses, in looseness of spirit, and honesty of heart — at least.”

E.M. Forster wrote:

“Perhaps the most interesting literary experiment of our day.”

Dr. Joseph Collins reviewed “Ulysses” in The New York Times and wrote:

Ulysses will immortalize its author with the same certainty that Gargantua and Pantagruel immortalized Rabelais and The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky … It comes nearer to being the perfect revelation of a personality than any book in existence.

Hart Crane, who had totally lost his head about the book, wrote:

“The sharp beauty and sensitivity of the thing! The matchless details! His book is steeped in the Elizabethans, his early love, and Latin Church, and some Greek … It is my opinion that some fanatic will kill Joyce sometime soon for the wonderful things said in Ulysses.”

Ford Madox Ford wrote:

“For myself then, the pleasure — the very great pleasure — that I get from going through the sentences of Mr. Joyce is that given me simply by the cadence of his prose, and I fancy that the greatest and highest enjoyment that can be got from any writing is simply that given by the cadence of the prose.”

William Faulkner wrote:

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote:

Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn’t even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.


That’s a drawing by Guy Davenport, entitled “Joyce Writing a Sentence”.

In 2008, at around this time my father gave me his rare copy of Ulysses – part of the 1924 printing of Shakespeare & Co. The book is falling apart. The pages are thin and rustly, and little bits of them drop off if you pick it up. It is enclosed in a box, to protect it – which has on the spine: ULYSSES – PARIS, 1924.

Every page has something of interest on it. There is a sticker on the first page – stamped with the personal imprint of the couple who had bought the book (my father, naturally, knew everything about them). The copyright page is amazing. First of all, it lists all of the controversial editions that had gone before … 500 copies burned, etc. And to see the legendary “Shakespeare & Co.”, in print, signing its name, so to speak, to the book, bravely putting it out again, knowing what will happen to their small operation … It’s just something that makes me feel humble, awed, and proud that I am aware that such people existed.

My copy of the book is not one that I will take out and read. It is too fragile.

But it is now my most prized possession.

The last photo has a framed picture of my dad in the background, standing by Yeats’ grave, from when we were there as a family, back when I was a kid.

I did not consciously place the framed photo in the frame. It’s just that everywhere in my apartment that you look you will see evidence of my heritage, my family, my inheritance. My father taught us well. As Siobhan’s song “The Books” describes so beautifully.

Happy birthday to Jimmy Joyce and to his masterpiece.












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12 Responses to On This Day: February 2

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Yay to Jim and his book. May I add that frankdelaney.com is an absolute treasure for us Joyce freakazoids with his re/joyce project.

  2. Jim Cappio says:

    Sheila, this is a truly awesome post. I’ll raise a Jameson’s to you and the great man tonight. (Or a white wine–you remember what he said about it.)

  3. sheila says:

    Jim – ha! Yes, white wine! I’ll go with the Jameson’s, though.

    Thanks, Jim!! I love celebrating good old Jimmy.

  4. Jane says:

    What a lovely memento of your father that book is! My eye was caught by the bookplate from the original owners of the book. (I collect bookplates and I enjoy those that depict the reader in his/her favorite reading spot as that one does. They speak to me as kindred spirits, reading is about the comfort of place for me as well as what is being read.) A book that has such meaning for you is enhanced by considering the other hands is has passed through in the last 88 years.

  5. sheila says:

    Jane – I know, isn’t the bookplate wonderful??? Of course my dad knew all about who those people were, etc.

    I would love to hear more about your bookplate collection. Do you have a Tumblr set up for it, or anything online where I could see them? I am very intrigued.

  6. Jane says:

    I don’t have anything set up for it yet, but I’ve been toying with resurrecting an old blog to talk about them and just enjoy. If I do, I’ll let you know. I do enjoy a blog by longtime collector Lew Jaffe that you might want to visit: bookplatejunkie.blogspot.com

    I have one book in particular that yours made me think of. It is called “Child of Nature” by Hamilton Wright Mabie. He was quite a popular writer in the early 20th century. I bought it for the bookplate which is a lovely depiction of a cabin in the woods in winter with a pair of snowshoes in the snow of the foreground. When I got it, I discovered that the owner had cut out a circular portrait of his sister from a photo and glued it to the endpaper. He wrote a sweet statement under it about her gifting the book to him and mentioned meeting the author who told him more about the subject of the book. And he had also attached a bookplate from Mr. Mabie. I’m extremely fond of him just from this small glimpse into his life and the things he cared about.

    Sorry, I’m rambling. It’s a passion of mine.

    • sheila says:

      No, I love the rambling – that’s why I asked!! I LOVE these things! Ghosts from the past – when I was a child, I was given little book plates to put in my books – I still have my childhood copy of Peter Rabbit with my book plate in which I carefully wrote my name, the “S” being backwards.

      I wrote a whole post about bookplates – and included an image of that first book plate of mine.

  7. Éanna Brophy says:

    Some intriguing Joycean links for you …

    by Éanna Brophy

    I’ve never been a Joycean. I’ve hardly ever got beyond a few pages of Ulysses before giving up, whinging that surely it’s the writer, not the reader who’s supposed to do the work – and adding peevishly that when I want puzzles I do crosswords.

    But this year on Bloomsday I picked the book up again, and just one random passage – and the ramifications thereof – brought it home to me in a flash … (though maybe that should be rephrased) … why so many people – not all of them academics – love Joyce enough to spend their lives delving ever deeper into his masterpiece.

    Now, the Joyceans amongst you will know all about this stuff already, but indulge me while I bring the other 99 per cent of the population the fruits of my amateur investigations. We start on Sandymount Strand, where Leopold Bloom meets a brazen strap who shows him her knickers. But enough of that sort of thing; during his more salacious mental meanderings on this occasion, Bloom briefly remembers a “poor Mr O’Connor” whose wife and four daughters died after eating polluted shellfish from that very strand.

    So who was this unfortunate gent? Was he real, or just a literary invention? I put Ulysses down and picked up my trusty laptop.
    And within minutes what had started as a brief aside soon brought onto the stage Michael Collins, Peter Pan and Micheal Ó Suilleabháin, author of the Blasket Islands classic “Fiche Bliain ag Fás”. And there are also cameo roles for W.B. Yeats and even Michael Jackson amongst many others.
    It turns out that Joyce’s “poor Mr O’Connor” was James O’Connor, an old Fenian, who was a journalist with the United Irishman when terrible tragedy befell his family. His wife and four of his daughters died, despite the efforts of two doctors – in their home at Seapoint Avenue after eating shellfish they had collected from the seashore at Blackrock. Sewage pollution was blamed. This happened in June 1890.

    But one daughter, Moya, survived, and at the age of 18, when her father remarried, she went to London and joined the civil service. While there, she met and married Crompton Llewellyn Davies, a successful barrister.
    Moya Llewellyn Davies had grown up an ardent republican, and her husband too supported Sinn Fein. They came to know Michael Collins in London, and when the War of Independence began, they were both well placed to give him useful intelligence from within the establishment.

    They came to live in Ireland and bought Furry Park House in Killester (it’s now an apartment complex) – which became a safe house for the IRA. Collins himself stayed there – and it is rumoured by some that he and Moya had a bit of a fling. Other historians say that Moya was a bit of a fantasist in that regard, and a nuisance, too, in the eyes of some of Collins’s colleagues.
    But she did smuggle guns for them in her car, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. She is mainly remembered today for translating, along with George Thompson, Fiche Bliain ag Fás into English.

    But what of Yeats, I hear you cry? We go back to James O’Connor to bring him in: he was one of the pall-bearers who carried the coffin of the great Fenian John O’Leary in 1907. And what kind of Ireland, according to the poet, was buried in that same funeral? That’s right: romantic Ireland. It’s still dead and gone.

    Crompton Llewellyn Davies, meanwhile, was rumbled as a spy and lost his job. Crompton, by the way, had several nephews, and it was these Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan. He used to stay with that branch of the family and took a keen interest in the boys we’re told. Which brings us all the way to Michael Jackson – who called his house Neverland.

    To uncover all these connections took mere minutes of browsing the internet. One wonders what Joyce would have done with such a tool at his disposal. Maybe he’d never have written a line.

    But I must go back to Ulysses now and read a few more lines. God knows what else I might find.

    Or should that be “Google knows”?


    Éanna Brophy, Dublin

  8. sheila says:

    Éanna – your comment has made me cry. I cannot thank you enough. It reminds me so much of my father, who was my coach when I first read Ulysses. He had all of this in his head. Thank you thank you.

  9. Courtney says:

    Okay, that’s it. I’ve read all your James Joyce posts over the years, but this is the final straw – I’m going to read the darned thing. I’m going to the darling little bookstore beside the theatre where I work, and I’m buy a copy tomorrow morning. I’m going to take as long as it takes, and I’m going to scribble all over it. Wish me luck.

  10. sheila says:

    Courtney – !!!! Good luck! Have fun with it. Relax! Don’t take it too seriously – it really is a lark. Keep me posted – I’m so excited for you!

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