On this day…7 February

On 7 February 1932 Paul Léon informed Harriet Weaver that Sylvia Beach had relinquished her world rights in Ulysses.

When Sylvia Beach took on the task of publishing Ulysses in 1921, she had no contract with Joyce. However, at the end of the 1920s, as the possibility of Ulysses getting published in the US and in England increased, Beach’s situation became more difficult.

As publisher of Ulysses, Beach would be entitled to compensation from anyone else who wanted to publish the book. As she put it in her memoirs, “It didn’t occur to me that I might receive something…until I realized it hadn’t occurred to anyone else.” On 9 December 1930, therefore, Joyce made an agreement with her that she held world rights in Ulysses, but soon that agreement became a problem for him.

With the piracy of Ulysses in the US, Joyce saw no point in further litigation there. He felt that the only way forward was a legitimate publication of Ulysses, and his agent solicited offers from publishers for the American rights. In the summer of 1931, when publishers Curtis Brown were considering an American edition of Ulysses, Beach demanded a payment of $25,000 for her rights in Ulysses. This led Curtis Brown to withdraw their offer a month later.

In October 1931, Joyce told Harriet Weaver that Beach had made it clear to him that an American edition of Ulysses would result in her “shutting her shop and rearing chickens.” Mary Colum told him at the time that an American Ulysses would ensure the Nobel Prize for him and guarantee publication in England, and she felt angered that Beach was preventing this.

For her part, Beach revealed to Harriet Weaver that there was another reason for her demand: resistance to male-dominated American publishers. “These men are very primitive, but they must be resisted,” she said. (Writing to her sister, Beach claimed “it must be because of my sex that they think I wouldn’t charge them anything.”) Replying to Beach, Weaver said she understood her position and supported her, but hoped that an arrangement could be come to soon.

Eventually, at the beginning of February 1932, Padraic Colum approached Beach, telling her that she was holding back Joyce’s career. As soon as Colum left the bookshop, Beach phoned Joyce to say she would make no further claim on Ulysses. On his birthday, Joyce sent her ten white lilac branches, marking the tenth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses but perhaps also as a peace offering. But relations between Beach and Joyce were never good after that.

Not only did Beach relinquish her rights in Ulysses, she also lost her position as Joyce’s trusted business manager and factotum. “Taxifuls” of Joyce’s business papers were moved from her bookshop to the apartment of Paul Léon who was to act from now on as Joyce’s secretary. Thus it was Léon who wrote to Harriet Weaver on 7 February 1932 to tell her that Beach had given up her rights.

Writing about it many years later, Beach was quite resigned: “…after all, the books were Joyce’s. A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn’t it?”


Sources & Further Reading:

Beja, Morris: James Joyce – A Literary Life, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1992.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fahy, Catherine: James Joyce – Paul Léon Papers – A Catalogue, Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1992.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vols. II & III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Lidderdale, Jane, and Mary Nicholson: Dear Miss Weaver – Harriet Shaw Weaver 1876-1961, London: Faber & Faber, 1970.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.