On this day…9 December

On 9 December 1930 Joyce and Sylvia Beach signed a contract for Ulysses.

Though she had been publishing and selling Ulysses since 1922, Sylvia Beach had no contract with Joyce for Ulysses until December 1930. The contract, which gave Beach exclusive world rights, was relinquished in February 1932.

When Sylvia Beach took on the publication of Ulysses in 1921, she made no contract with Joyce about it. She later claimed that she had suggested a contract, but Joyce wouldn’t hear of it and, since she didn’t care about contracts herself, she never brought up the matter again.

In 1927, when she published Pomes Penyeach, Joyce insisted on having a contract drawn up for that, and in 1930 he wanted one for Ulysses as well. Beach later thought that the reason for this had to do with Joyce’s struggles over Ulysses in America, and she saw a letter in which Joyce had claimed that Ulysses was not his property but the property of Sylvia Beach.

The contract, dated 9 December 1930, was made on officially-stamped stationery to give it the look of legality but, though it was signed by Beach and Joyce, it was not witnessed. The wording, according to Beach, was Joyce’s, and stated that he, the author of Ulysses, assigned to Sylvia Beach, the publisher, ‘the exclusive right of printing and selling throughout the world, the work entitled Ulysses.’

For her part, Beach, as publisher, agreed to print and publish the work at her own expense and risk, and to pay Joyce a royalty of 25% of the published price of all copies sold. She also agreed to abandon her right to Ulysses by mutual agreement with Joyce, in which case she would be paid a price which she herself would set by the publishers that acquired her rights in Ulysses.

When Curtis Brown made an offer for Ulysses in 1931, Sylvia Beach wrote to Lawrence Pollinger exercising her right to name her price under the contract, and said she wanted $25,000 for the America rights to Ulysses. This led Curtis Brown to withdraw the offer.

Beach didn’t see much of Joyce in 1931 as he was in England from April until the end of September. However, she was visited regularly by a friend of Joyce’s who repeatedly asked her to relinquish her contractual claims and eventually, in February 1932, the friend told her that she was ‘standing in the way of Joyce’s interests.’ Incensed by this, Beach phoned Joyce and told him he was free to dispose of Ulysses in any way that suited him. The contract for Ulysses, only fourteen months old, came to an end.

In her memoir, Shakespeare and Company, Beach said ‘I understood from the first that, working with or for James Joyce, the pleasure was all mine – an infinite pleasure; the profits were for him.’ She claimed that neither of the contracts they made was of the slightest use to her. ‘However, in the case of Ulysses,’ she said, ‘I gave Joyce leave to do whatever he wished. And, after all, the books were Joyce’s. A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn’t it?’


Sources & Further Reading:

Beach, Sylvia: Shakespeare and Company, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1908.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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