Sylvia Beach & James Joyce

If Sylvia Beach, the American entrepreneur who founded the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris in 1919 hadn't risked her reputation and fortune, James Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses would not have been widely published.

After striking up a friendship, Sylvia Beach became Joyce’s patron and published the first of 11 editions of Ulysses  in February 1922 through her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company.   Following the legal scandal over the serialised publication of Ulysses in The Little Review, Beach’s support and involvement were vital to the novel’s eventual success.

James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, remains one of the most challenging and rewarding works of English literature. Not only does it narrow its temporal focus to a single day, it also widens its scope to follow three major characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom—and even the city of Dublin itself.  

It took James Joyce over 10 years to write ULYSSES.   Joyce frames the novel around Homer’s Odyssey in 18 episodes.   Stylistically, Ulysses is unique not only because it changes style with every episode, but because the narrative refuses to remain obedient to the story; it increasingly peels away from the plot and indulges in independent raillery of the reader over the heads of the characters. The narrative “wanders” in a way that celebrates the craft, humor, and meaning of exploration, thereby resembling other famous wanderers: Odysseus, Bloom, the Jews, and Bloom’s simultaneously adulterous and faithful wife, Molly.   Critics cite Leopold Bloom as perhaps the greatest creation in modern literature.

James Joyce is to literature what Einstein is to science.   Reading Joyce can be very much like reading an encyclopedia. This is not an accident; he sought to make Ulysses a sort of encyclopedia with its tons and tons of references and allusions.  Much of Ulysses is an attempt to reconstruct, from memory, the sight and sound and feel of his beloved Dublin.  Largely because of the Catholic church, Joyce himself was forced to live in exile from Ireland most of his life, and Joyce pined for the banks and bridges of the River Liffey as Odysseus had for Ithaca.

Since its initial publication of 1,000 numbered editions in 1922,  almost every copy subscribed, readers have been daunted, dazzled and puzzled by Ulysses, a novel committed to modernist experimentation and to the portrayal of everyday life. No novel prior to Ulysses had so radically challenged the conventions in both form and subject matter.  But, the greatest novel of the 20th century was banned, burned, and lambasted when it first came out in 1922 and was considered illegal in the United States and Britain for 11 years after it was first published.   

The censorship of Joyce's epic whetted public interest in the work, and, at one time, one never traveled to Paris and returned home without attempting to smuggle in a copy of Ulysses. Until the famed Judge Woolsey decision of 1933, Ulysses could not be legally admitted into the United States.

Originally published in 1922, Ulysses.  was not legally available in the United States until eleven years later, when United States Judge John Monro Woolsey handed down his famous decision to the effect that the book was not obscene. Hitherto the book had been smuggled in and sold at high prices by "bookleggers" and a violent critical battle had raged around it.

Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier were bright lights of the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris.  Both were writers, publishers, and translators, but their greatest influences on literature were the result of their tireless economic and social support of the writers and artists of the era.  Bookselling at the time was a male-dominated world, and the type of books being sold were leather-bound, hardback, and really too expensive. Most women wouldn’t have had the spending money for them. So, in many ways, Adrienne Monnier, at her French bookshop La Maison des Amis des Livres , and Sylvia, at Shakespeare and Company, were directing their shops to a female readership.

While today the name “Shakespeare and Co.” is more famous than “La Maison des Amies des Livres”, both stores left an incredible mark on the literary landscape of post-war Europe and America, and Shakespeare and Co. would not have existed without Adrienne’s support.

Sylvia Beach  at her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.

About ULYSSES by James Joyce

Ulysses & literary modernism