June 26, 2014
Little magazines, editors fried in oil, and a million final revisions: the incredible true story of the publication of “Ulysses”
by Sal Robinson
No book’s path to publication is painless, but some are more painful than others. One of the most torturous in modern literary history was that of Ulysses, whose story is told in a new book, Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.
It’s a story that involved many champions, given the book’s challenging style and content —- the book faced bans both pre- and post-publication, and for many years was only available in France or in black market editions elsewhere.
One of the revelations of Birmingham’s book is that so many of the early champions of Ulysses were women: editors and booksellers who committed themselves to it, consequences be damned. There was Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company, of course, but also, editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of the Chicago magazine the Little Review, which ran excerpts from Ulysses. They knew it would be controversial, but, according to Dwight Garner’s recent New York Times review:
Upon reading Joyce’s prose, Anderson said to Heap: “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” Both women would end up in court.
Some of those champions could offer more help than others. For instance, Ezra Pound was key to the book’s eventual publication, but he “once explained that he couldn’t help Joyce get his poems published in England because he’d burned all his bridges: ‘There is no editor who I wouldn’t cheerfully fry in oil, and none who wouldn’t as cheerfully do the same by me.’”
And yet, both Joyce and his supporters persisted, and the book made its way into the world, though, to further complicate matters, there was some editorial grief along the way: Birmingham tells us that Beach, who published the first edition of the book in 1922, allowed Joyce to make numerous changes even after the book had been typeset. This is the kind of thing that usually causes editors to want to fry authors in oil, as per Pound, and cannot be recommended (indeed, it’s usually accounted for in contracts: if authors make a certain percentage of changes at a certain stage of the game, they’re charged for it).
Ulysses would eventually find a big-house champion in Bennett Cerf at Random House, who forced a federal lawsuit over whether or not it was obscene. From an article by John Lingan at Slate,
Having developed the Modern Library publishing house and then broadened it into the Random House empire, he knew that Ulysses stood to sell well if it were actually allowed to. So in the early ’30s he asked his lawyer, Morris Ernst, to essentially goad the federal government into suing him over it. They imported copies and alerted Customs that it was about to land on American shores, and, in one case, after agents missed a copy on its way off a ship, Cerf took the package to the Customs office himself and demanded that they open it and seize the contents.
It was a gamble that paid off: the judge presiding over the case, John Woolsey, conceded that the book was of literary merit, and allowed it to be published and sold in the States, which it then of course proceeded to do in epic numbers. Though even Joyce was skeptical about its chances to begin with; in Cerf’s memoir, At Random, he tells the story of meeting Joyce in Paris and proposing a deal:
I said, “I don’t know whether we can win this case or not, but I do think the climate is changing in America, and I’m willing to gamble on it. I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars, with the understanding that if we legalize the book, this is an advance against regular royalties of fifteen percent. If we lose our case, you keep the fifteen hundred.”
He was delighted with that; it was a lot more money then that it would be today. He said, “I don’t think you’ll manage it. And you’re not going to get the fifteen hundred back.”
Famous last words!
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.