James Joyce’s massive and complex masterpiece Ulysses was first published in Paris by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company on February 2, 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday.
Sections of the book had already been serialized in a small magazine in the United States, The Little Review. In 1921 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice prosecuted the magazine for publishing obscene material (mostly for scenes of masturbation) and the book was banned in the US and subsequently in Britain.
Joyce was then living in Paris, mostly in poverty. Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a central meeting place for American and British writers living in Paris and one of Joyce’s haunts.
“All hope of publication (of Ulysses) in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone,” Beach later wrote. “And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.”
So, Beach decided to move from bookseller to book publisher. She contracted with a printer in Dijon for a run of 1000 copies. 100 copies would be on handmade paper and were signed by the author, 150 were in a special edition also on handmade paper and 750 were the commercial run. All were numbered sequentially.
The preparation of the manuscript for publication turned into a nightmare, delaying publication for nearly a year. Joyce, whose eyesight was failing, wrote in tiny handwriting, with constant emendations and insertions. This proved to be an enormous problem for the women Beach hired as typists.
Some typists also objected to the “obscene” material and quit. One woman’s husband read what his wife was typing and threw the manuscript pages and typescript into the fire.
There was also the language problem. Not only was Joyce writing in idiosyncratic English hard even for native speakers to follow, many of the typesetters were not fluent in English.
Beach’s 730 page first edition was riddled with errors. One scholar estimated that there are over 2,000 in the 1922 edition.
Still, copies of the book sold well. The first run sold out within a month and Beach ordered more printings. Since it was still banned in America and Britain, it became de rigueur for literate visitors to Paris to buy a copy and try to smuggle it home.
Ulysses was not banned here in Canada, though, and Ernest Hemingway, a great friend of Sylvia Beach, arranged a scheme with a friend of his in Toronto, where Hemingway had worked as a reporter on the Toronto Star. He sent copies to his friend who then took the ferry to Buffalo daily with a copy of the hefty tome tucked into his pants.
“If Joyce had foreseen all these difficulties,” Beach wrote in her memoirs, “maybe he would have written a smaller book.”