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Ulysses in the Marketplace: 1932

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2012
pp. 29-65

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Setting the Stage for the New Ulysses

Eighty years ago, on February 2, 1932, Joyce marked his fiftieth birthday and the tenth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Ulysses. This turned out to be a decisive year in Joyce’s life and in the history of his most famous and bestselling work. In August, Sylvia Beach sold the last copy of her Shakespeare and Company edition, thereby marking another decisive juncture in the trajectory of Joyce’s work and in the history of her publishing house and shop. Then the Odyssey Press, an ad hoc imprint of the Albatross Press, issued a new, much lower-priced, continental edition of Ulysses at the start of 1933 that sold more than twice as many copies in its first year as Shakespeare and Company had ever sold in any two-year period. Notable as they are, these figures elide the complex and dynamic forces that shaped the material production and consumption of one of modernism’s most emblematic works of art. By scrutinizing the relatively complete archival record of these various negotiations that survive, this article analyzes previously little-known aspects of the often conflicting strategies that motivated the author, his agents, as well as the various international publishers who vied to add this iconic and lucrative title to their lists in 1932. Although focused on just one critical year, this article clarifies the legal and financial decisions that determined the long-term commercial success of Ulysses. It thereby dispels some persistent misconceptions and myths and should encourage further inquiry and debate about these crucial aspects of modernist studies.

In the midst of Joyce’s continuing concerns about his own ill health, he was still grieving his father’s death at the start of 1932 when his first (and as it turned out only) grandchild was born. Through it all, he was still preparing for whatever future contingencies might arise in his personal and business relationship with Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company, the first and, at the time, only publisher of Ulysses. For the past several years, Joyce had been actively trying to secure a British as well as an American publisher for Ulysses with little success. Although he eventually signed a contract in April 1932, it would take until January 1934 (and a lengthy and complex court action) for the first authorized U.S. edition to be published. The first U.K. edition only appeared in October 1936 after at least six firms had declined the challenge of publishing Ulysses in Britain. The (often-improvised) decisions that were made in 1932 determined the ways in which all future readers would encounter Ulysses.

As soon as the birthday celebrations had ended, Paul Léon, Joyce’s most trusted advisor, set about addressing his friend’s most pressing business concern: the continuing publication of Ulysses. In what became a dominant pattern in the last decade of Joyce’s life, Léon—presumably following precise instructions—wrote to Sylvia Beach:

I am acting at present as lawyer for Mr Joyce. […] The present contract with you for the publication of Ulysses being unworkable, ambiguous and not in conformity with french law should in his opinion be immediately revised. […] This matter should be attended to without delay as Mr Joyce intends to submit to you his proposals with regard to the book in the course of a few weeks.

Although articulated by Léon, this is a clear statement of Joyce’s understanding of the current contractual situation with Beach. Not only was negotiating with Beach for the continuing publication of Ulysses a practical necessity, Joyce also clearly believed that he had a legal obligation to do so. Beach’s reply to Léon the following day indicates that she thought the matter had already been resolved:

I made a present to Mr Joyce last December [1931] of my rights to ulysses, as far as an edition published in America was concerned. Some time later, on the 25th of January, Mr Colum told me that Mr Joyce was not satisfied with the contract between us for...



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