On this day…11 June

On 11 June 1921 George Bernard Shaw refused to subscribe to the publication of Ulysses.

To help cover the costs of publication, Sylvia Beach sent out prospectuses inviting various influential people, collectors and the general public to subscribe in advance to the publication of Ulysses. Having received a prospectus, Shaw wrote to Beach on 11 June refusing to subscribe.

The planned publication of the first edition of Ulysses was typical of French literary publication at the time. The first edition would be limited, printed on high quality paper, and offered at a high price. On one hand, subscribers were effectively giving a subvention to the author and publisher rather than simply buying a book. On the other hand, they book they got tended to be rare and well worth acquiring in the first place.

Though Joyce had hidden much of his indebtedness to Shaw in his writings, he might have hoped that, as a fellow-Irishman and as an iconoclast, Shaw would be willing to support the publication of Ulysses. He was wrong. In his letter to Sylvia Beach on 11 June 1921, Shaw states that he has already read several parts of Ulysses as published in the Egoist or the Little Review, and though he sees Joyce’s depiction of Dublin as being a truthful one, he seems to question what use it might have.

Shaw claimed that in his early years in Dublin he had walked the same streets and taken part in the same conversations that Joyce describes in his book. Now, forty years later, reading Ulysses, he realised that Dublin is still what it was in his youth. The difference, he thinks, is that someone (Joyce) has now faced the horror of recording it all, and has used his literary abilities to make readers face the horror of it all. Shaw illustrated this by saying that in Ireland people house-train a cat by rubbing its nose in its own dirt. He claimed that Joyce seemed to be trying the same therapy on humans, and he wished him luck with it.

To end, Shaw addressed the propectus’ invitation to subscribe. He told Beach that he was an old Irishman, and that she knew little of Irishmen if she thought they would be willing to fork out 150 francs for a book!


Sources & Further Reading:

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