On this day…9 August

On 9 August 1929 Tales Told of Shem and Shaun was published by Black Sun Press.

The Black Sun Press had been established in Paris by Caresse and Harry Crosby to produce limited editions of literary works. On 9 August 1929 it published extracts from Joyce’s Work in Progress as Tales Told of Shem and Shaun.

Tales Told of Shem and Shaun – Three Fragments from Work in Progress included ‘The Mookse and the Gripes’ (now part of book I, chapter 6 of Finnegans Wake), ‘The Muddest Thick That Was Ever Heard Dump’ (now part of book II, chapter 2), and ‘The Ondt and the Gracehoper’ (now part of book III, chapter 1). Versions of these pieces had been published previously in transition, but Joyce revised them again for the Black Sun Press publication.

Joyce frustrated the Crosbys’ careful publication work by constantly making additions to the proofs of the book, which would then have to be reset by the printer. When Joyce was finally finished making additions, the printer pointed out to Caresse Crosby that the final page would have only two lines of text on it, which would not look well, and he asked her if she could get more material from Joyce. She dismissed the idea, but a few days later the extra lines of text had been found. When she asked the printer where they came from, he told her that he had gone directly to Joyce who had wanted to add some extra text but was too frightened of Caresse Crosby to ask if it was possible!

In association with the printer Roger Lescaret, the Crosbys’ Black Sun Press produced carefully printed works in limited editions, with a lot of attention paid to typeface, layout, design, and the quality of materials used. Only 650 copies of Tales Told of Shem and Shaun were produced. Fifty copies were hors commerce, and another 100, printed on Japanese vellum, were signed by Joyce.

The book included a preface written by CK Ogden, who later recorded Joyce reading from the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of the book. The frontispiece was by Constantin Brancusi, who was asked only after Picasso had declined. Apparently, it was the only graphic for a book that Brancusi made, and it’s now also the frontispiece to Ellmann’s biography of Joyce.

Because of their beauty and rarity, Black Sun Press books are now highly sought-after by collectors. Black Sun also published works by TS Eliot, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, and Ezra Pound.


Sources & Further Reading:

Crosby, Caresse: The Passionate Years, New York: Dial Press, 1953.

Hamalian, Linda: The Cramoisy Queen – A Life of Caresse Crosby, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Slocum, John J, & Herbert Cahoon: A Bibliography of James Joyce 1882-1941, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953

Wolff, Geoffrey: Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, New York Review of Books Classics, New York: NYRB Books, 2003.