The Difficult Odyssey of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

James Joyce’s masterpiece is turning 100 years old. It might never have been published if a succession of women hadn’t helped the novelist along the way.


The wily hero of The Odyssey is repeatedly aided by women: Athena, goddess of wisdom; the Phaecian princess Nausicaa; and numerous other female characters play important roles in helping Odysseus return home to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope. Three-ish millennia after Homer composed his epic poem, Irish writer James Joyce decided he would pattern his new novel after The Odyssey. In a twist of cosmic coincidence, Joyce (1882–1941) himself, even more than his Ulysses protagonist Leopold Bloom, was aided by women in his journey. Joyce’s epic task of bringing his novel home was made possible by the likes of Shakespeare and Company proprietor Sylvia Beach, publisher/activist Harriet Shaw Weaver, and writer/editor Margaret Anderson. Ulysses arrived at Beach’s Paris bookshop 100 years ago, February 2, 1922, thanks to women who “facilitated Ulysses through acts of unstinting loyalty, practical support, and tireless emotional resilience,” as Clare Hutton writes in Ransom Center Magazine, previewing the exhibit Women and the Making of Joyce’s Ulysses, which she is curating for the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas. That several of Joyce’s female abettors were gay adds poignancy to the efforts they made on behalf of what must have seemed a transformative work.

Also essential to the novel’s publication was New York City—from Ulysses’s serialization in Anderson’s literary magazine, The Little Review, to the subsequent pirated editions, to the 1933 obscenity case in the U.S. Southern District Court. Whereas other cities will be celebrated in this year’s centenary—such as those in Joyce’s postscript to Ulysses, “Trieste-Zurich-Paris,” and, of course, Dublin, Joyce’s hometown and the setting of his works—NYC shaped the novel’s composition and circulation. Joyce never set foot in the U.S., never seemed particularly interested, but he took an active interest in the fortunes of his books there, and the ensuing benefits. As Robert Spoo explains in “Ulysses as Deodand,” from the essay collection Joyce and the Law (full disclosure, I was the editor), “The more Ulysses seemed the object of piratical desire or legal condemnation, the more justified seemed its claim to literary greatness.”

Anderson (1886–1973) launched The Little Review in Chicago, in 1914, and quickly established herself as a preeminent figure in avant-garde culture, printing works by the likes of imagist poet Amy Lowell and influential fiction writer Sherwood Anderson, and committing herself to radical politics, publishing anarchist Emma Goldman and feminist activist Louise Bryant. In 1916, Anderson met the artist Jane Heap (1883–1964), and the two became life partners and co-editors. Under Anderson and Heap’s collaborative control, The Little Review would publish an astonishing list of luminaries, including avant-garde icon Gertrude Stein and revered Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Its subscriber list vacillated between 2,000 and 3,000, making it a success as a “little magazine”—the term for the literary journals that were cropping up in the first part of the 20th century.

In early 1917, to further solidify its internationalist credentials, Anderson and Heap moved their journal to New York City. Renting space at 31 West 14th Street, and later at 24 West 16th Street, they were perfectly perched to survey the bohemian energy of Greenwich Village. By the time they arrived, The Little Review had achieved such stature that poet/critic Ezra Pound reached out to Anderson from Paris. Pound (1885–1972) fancied himself the main tastemaker of the burgeoning modernist movement and acted as many writers’ de facto agent, editor, and handler. He identified The Little Review as a potential U.S. equivalent to Weaver’s The Egoist, which was then introducing new artists, many in Pound’s coterie, to British readers. Starting with the May 1917 issue, he took on the role of Little Review “Foreign Editor” in order to facilitate the publication of his friends and comrades, among them up-and-coming poets such as T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, who were in the early stages of changing the course of 20th-century verse.

Pound took a particular interest in Joyce, whose A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had made him a cause célèbre in modernist circles. Pound wanted Joyce to contribute to The Little Review, at first suggesting some occasional pieces; when Joyce rejected that idea, Pound proposed that the journal publish installments of his in-progress novel. The serial publication would serve to establish a United States copyright, always among Pound’s concerns, and help pave the way for publication as one volume when the novel was finished. The Little Review was an apt forum: Anderson and Heap had shown themselves unshy of controversy, champions of artistic freedom. And they were already Joyce enthusiasts; indeed, as Catherine Hollis points out in her essay “Emma Goldman among the Avant-Garde,” from the collection Women Making Modernism, Anderson had sent a copy of Portrait of the Artist to Goldman to read in New York City’s infamous jail “the Tombs,” where she was being held for publishing anti-conscription screeds in her journal Mother Earth. When Pound, in May 1917, sent The Little Review parts of Joyce’s Ulysses, Anderson—as she recalls in My Thirty Years’ War—said of Chapter 3, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have to publish. Let us print it if it’s the last effort of our lives!” The Little Review was all in.

One factor remained unaccounted for: money. That same month, Anderson and Heap visited the penthouse of John Quinn on Central Park West, which Anderson would later remember as “covered with modern painting and sculpture,” including Brancusi’s sculpture “Child in the World.” Quinn was a Tammany-ed-up lawyer, a savvy collector and patron of boundary-pushing works, and, as history would reveal, an unrepentant misogynist, homophobe, class snob, and racist/anti-semite. The 1913 Armory Show, which introduced such European avant-garde artists as Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse to the U.S., happened on his dime. Quinn was Pound’s choice to support the serialization of Joyce’s novel, and he arranged for the lawyer and editors to meet. Quinn never could hide his distaste for all three, Anderson, Heap, and Joyce—Anderson and Heap reciprocated the feeling—but he nonetheless recognized them as players in modern literary culture and was eager to enhance his brand, plus he had the hots for Anderson, whom he did not seem to realize was gay. He agreed to use his connections to corral advertisers for The Little Review and his riches to pay Joyce for installments of Ulysses.

The first publication of Ulysses anywhere was in the March 1918 Little Review, containing Chapter 1, which Joyce readers have come to know as “Telemachus,” after the first episode of The Odyssey. For the next two and a half years, serializing the novel would contribute to Anderson and Heap’s legal, financial, and relationship crises, piled on top of health issues—both were felled by, but survived, the 1918 influenza pandemic. They put out 23 issues of their not-quite-monthly journal that contained Ulysses chapters or parts of chapters—shorter versions of what would appear in the completed book—and wrote impassioned defenses of the novel in the face of censorship and reader complaints. Meanwhile, Quinn insulted them, Pound condescended to them, and Joyce brushed them aside when Heap wrote to him about the problems caused by his occasional stalled chapters.

The pace of serial publication nudged Joyce along in his work, which was spinning out into a more complicated and massive book than he had planned. He was also leaning on various other forms of female support, starting with that of Nora Barnacle, his partner since 1904 and the model for many of his female characters, none more than Ulysses’s Molly Bloom. Another woman who figured strongly into both Joyce’s personal and professional life was his aunt Josephine Murray. From Paris, Joyce would ask her to verify physical details of Dublin, such as in this November 1921 letter: “Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt. I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.” Murray would unfailingly comply with her nephew’s queries. Joyce also received financial subsidy for a spell from Rockefeller heiress Edith Rockefeller McCormick, spurred by Pound, who arranged patronage from other New Yorkers as well.

Weaver, in London, was Joyce’s constant supporter from 1914 onward. While British printers and publishers shied away from Joyce’s works because of censorship fears, Weaver took over The Egoist primarily to serialize Portrait, and convinced New York City publisher B. W. Huebsch to put out U.S. editions of Portrait and Dubliners (a collection of  Joyce’s short stories) by guaranteeing that she would purchase set numbers of copies. When Ulysses was underway, she began anonymously sending Joyce a stipend, allowing him to quit teaching English in order to focus on writing. After her patronage was revealed, she would become a regular correspondent and confidant for Joyce. Weaver took it upon herself to get Ulysses into print in England. The difficulty was in finding not just a publisher but a printer willing to set the text, as both would face legal problems if the book were flagged by censors because of one or more instances of its eroticism, scatology, blasphemy, and potentially libelous depictions of living people. In 1919, having been turned down by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Weaver published parts of four chapters of Ulysses in The Egoist, making bits of the novel available in the Eastern Hemisphere for the first time.

This is when The Little Review’s legal troubles began. From the start, Pound and Little Review editors had, to Joyce’s irritation, engaged in light censorship. In an attempt to avoid the authorities’ eyes, they neutered or excised some of his more lurid passages: Joyce describes the Dead Sea as the “grey sunken cunt of the world,” but in the journal the body part becomes the “belly.” It wasn’t enough. The January and May 1919 issues, and that of January 1920, were confiscated by the U.S. Post Office. The situation worsened that summer when The Little Review drew the attention of John S. Sumner, of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, as violating the U.S. Comstock Act, which forbade “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” publication. The July-August issue contained part of Chapter 13, known as the “Nausicaa” episode, depicting a young woman named Gerty MacDowell exposing her underclothes while Bloom masturbates. In September, Sumner set up a sting operation at the Washington Square Bookshop, which was known to sell The Little Review. It netted him Josephine Bell, who ran the store with her future husband, Egmont Arens. Bell was no stranger to arrest, having been jailed in 1918 for defending Goldman in the socialist journal The Masses. In this case, she was busted for selling The Little Review (to an undercover agent from the Society for the Suppression of Vice), but it was really the journal editors that Sumner wanted.

Anderson and Heap were summoned to court and charged with obscenity for printing, as the New York Tribune described it, “an article called Ulysses.” Their preliminary hearing was held at Special Sessions Court within the Jefferson Market Courthouse, on 10th Street and Sixth Avenue. An irritated Quinn served as attorney, having agreed to do so only if the women kept silent. Fourteen pages of “Nausicaa” were entered as evidence, and the editors were made to pay $25 bail each, while Bell was released. As the session ended, Anderson and Heap approached Sumner, who, to their surprise, was quite willing to hear their justifications for publishing Ulysses. They walked and talked down Sixth Avenue, under the shadow of the elevated trains, to West 8th Street, and even continued their conversation inside Bell’s bookshop until Sumner left, unconvinced and still determined to prosecute. Now in desperate financial straits, Anderson and Heap called on their network for support. Friends at the Province-town Playhouse tried to help: The box office of a December 9 performance of Eugene O’Neill’s new play, The Emperor Jones, starring Charles Gilpin, was given over to The Little Review.

The editors’ criminal trial, the first trial of Ulysses, began the following February 14, again in the Jefferson Market Courthouse, in front of an audience of Greenwich Villagers, supporters of Anderson, Heap, and artistic license. The offending text was read out as evidence, despite one judge’s concern about having it read in front of the women present. But Quinn’s attempts at a defense on the grounds that Gerty MacDowell was more distasteful than provocative failed to persuade the judges. Anderson and Heap were convicted, fined $50 each—“Greenwich Village’s Editoresses Fined,” announced the New York Herald—and threatened with imprisonment if they continued to publish Ulysses, which they never did again.

As a result of the ban, Joyce, no longer facing deadlines, concentrated on enriching and expanding the novel rather than churning out chapters. With the book deemed obscene, he felt free to let his freak flag fly with increasingly verboten language. He paid sly tribute to The Little Review case, composing a trial scene that includes Anderson’s statement from Sumner’s deposition: “I’m a Bloomite and I glory in it.” The suppression of Ulysses, however, also dashed any hopes of a U.S. edition of the completed novel. There had been a very real possibility that it would be in New York City where Ulysses would first appear in one volume, published by one of the new breed of NYC publishers, Huebsch or Boni & Liveright, which Quinn had been courting. Now, Quinn angrily forsook those efforts.

These circumstances led to Beach publishing Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach (1887–1962) was a New Jersey expat in Paris, who one day discovered the bookshop La Maison des Amis des Livres, met its owner, Adrienne Monnier, and soon fell in love with both. Monnier became Beach’s life partner, the bookstore her inspiration for starting Shakespeare and Company, in 1919. The store became a mecca for Paris intellectuals. When Joyce arrived in the city, in 1920, Beach met him at a party, as one did back then. He appeared in the shop the next day, borrowed a copy of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea, and began visiting regularly. The proprietor and writer soon commenced a momentous friendship. When Beach learned that Joyce had no publisher for Ulysses, she made him an offer. In her memoir, she recalls asking, “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?” The plan was hatched for a series of extremely limited printings, something like an early version of today’s NFTs. Subscribers, ordering in advance, would be paying to be part of an elite group of Ulysses readers as much as anything else, setting the tone for much of Joyce’s audience since.

Thus Beach remade her life, shouldering the burden and cost of printing, producing, publicizing, selling, and shipping Ulysses. (Weaver, for her part, continued to provide Joyce’s income.) Beach’s next two years, and Monnier’s, were an epic misadventure of manuscript problems—including one chapter being burned by an offended typist’s husband, requiring Quinn to send the only other complete draft from New York. Beach dealt with, and sometimes had to pay dearly for, Joyce’s frantic edits, corrections, additions, and demands, right up to the end. She absorbed it all and fulfilled the author’s eccentric desire to have the novel appear on his 40th birthday. Taking advantage of the fact that the book had been typeset, Weaver used the same plates to print another limited edition under the Egoist Press imprint that summer. Copies of Ulysses began sailing across the Channel and the Atlantic, often to be stopped at the port and burned: 500 of them all at once by His Majesty’s Customs and Excise, at Folkestone. And Beach’s troubles did not end there; for years she and Joyce would haggle over edits, editions, and royalties. “Ultimately, in a dispute over publishing rights,” writes Kerri Walsh, in The Letters of Sylvia Beach, “their relationship soured.”

Ulysses’s legal and publication problems continued beyond those first editions in 1922, and it was in New York that the book’s ongoing saga was most visible. Another consequence of the Sumner case was that, with no U.S. edition, Ulysses was out of copyright, so the “booklegger” Samuel Roth seized the opportunity to serialize Ulysses in his magazine, Two Worlds Monthly, eventually pirating the whole book and selling it out of his Poetry Book Shop, on 8th Street. Then, finally, in 1933, Manhattan hosted the federal trial “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses,” which cleared the novel of obscenity in the U.S., paving the way for it to become publishable in the English-speaking world.

Over those years, New York City emerged as a second center of Joyce scholarship and appreciation, after Paris, mostly because of Frances Steloff (1887–1989), whose Gotham Book Mart is often considered the U.S. equivalent of Shakespeare and Company. Steloff founded the James Joyce Society, in 1947, the first organization centered on Joyce studies, hosting the group at the Gotham and serving as its first treasurer. She was continuing the pattern of women who fought to make Joyce’s work available. Their efforts and sacrifices to support, publish, and promulgate Joyce’s work, and the disrespect and other shite they put up with, were essential to the journey of Ulysses from Joyce’s hands into ours. ❖

Jonathan Goldman is a professor in the Department of Humanities, New York Institute of Technology; author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity; director of the website New York 1920s: 100 Years Ago Today, When We Became Modern; and president of the James Joyce Society.

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