The Writing of Ulysses: Letters of James Joyce

An Irish novelist born in 1882, JAMES JOYCE had a greater influence upon twentieth-century literature than any wher novelist of our time. He spent his boyhood in Dublin, was educated in Jesuit schools and colleges, and at the age of twenty broke away from family and church to live and write as a free lance on the Continent. The heartbreaking difficulties which he encountered in writing his magnum opus are revealed in what follows. This is the second of two installments which the Atlantic is privileged to draw from Letters of James Joyce, edited by Stuart Gilbert, to Be published by the Viking Press.


BY 1917, after incredible frustrations, James Joyce had published his first to books: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was now at work on Ulysses, but trouble with his eyes, which had necessitated several operations, had seriously depressed him. In October he went, to Locarno to convalesce in the milder climate.

Throughout the period covered by these letters, Mrs. Harold McCormick, daughter of John D, Rockefeller, gave Joyce a thousand Swiss francs monthly, and this, together with the money sent anonymously by Harriet Weaver, provided a comfortable income for Joyce and his family.

In March 191S, the Little Review in New York began to publish Ulysses in serial form.

18 May 1918 Zurich
Dear Miss Weaver: Many thanks for your letter. As regards the scheme of printing my novel Ulysses at a private press and inserting it as a supplement I shall be glad if it is carried out. I had a card from Mr. Courtney saying that if a copy of my novel be sent to him c/o Daily Telegraph he will get it noticed but, he adds, the literary page of that paper is much reduced. I am sorry you do not find it possible to accept Messrs. Crès’ offer and have your paper printed in Paris. I fear you have lost a great deal of money on my wretched book and so I propose to cede to you, in reversion from Mr. Richards, the book rights and to consider the sums already advanced by you for serial rights as an advance of royalties to be written off, if you agree, in two or three deductions from sums eventually due to me by half yearly accounts of sales. There is little likelihood that Mr. Richards will publish the book. I thank you for having transmitted to me the kind proposal of my New York publisher. Will you please write to him and say that I could not, for many reasons, undertake to deliver the entire typescript of Ulysses during the coming autumn. If the Little Review continues to publish it regularly he may publish as a cheap paperbound book the Telemachia, lhat is, the three first episodes — under the title, Ulysses I. I suggest this in case his idea be to keep the few persons who read what 1 write from forgetting that I still exist. The second part, the Odyssey, contains eleven episodes. The third part, Noslos, contains three episodes. In all seventeen episodes of which, including that which is now being typed and will be sent in a day or two, Hades, I have delivered six. It is impossible to say how much of the book is really written. Several other episodes have been drafted for the second time but that means nothing because although the third episode of the Telemachia has been a long time in the second draft I spent about 200 hours over it before I wrote it out finally. I fear I have little imagination. This subject I am sure must be rather tiresome to you. However, if all goes well Ihe book should be finished by the summer of 1919. If it be set up before it could then be published at once. It is not quite clear to me from Mr. Pound’s last letter whether he is transmitting my typescript to New York or not. However I am sending the next episode also through him. . . .
I think I ought to say in conclusion that if you wish to print any other book as a serial story in the place of Ulysses I beg you not to consider any imaginary claims of mine. I made the proposal in this letter partly to allow you to proceed as you may think fit. . . .

29 July 1918 Zurich
Dear Miss Weaver: After nine weeks’ illness I am at last able to read and write again. I am sorry that the other episodes of Ulysses have been delayed. A few days [ago] I sent the sixth episode ‘Hades’ to Mr. Pound with a copy for you and very soon I shall send the seventh “Eolus.’ I received also The Voyage Out by Mrs. Woolf and shall now begin to read it. I beg you to convey my thanks to her for the interest, she has taken in the printing of my book. If you are in correspondence with my American publisher I shall feel obliged if you will please tell him that I agree to his publishing Chamber Music, in spite of the Boston edition, with a note to say that I authorise the edition. . . . I wish him to know that the fourth episode of Ulysses as published in the June issue of the Little Review is not ray full text and that the excised paragraphs must be reinstated and the altered words restored in any proof he may set up. . . .

20 July 1919 Zurich
Dear Miss Weaver: . . . You write that the last episode sent [the Sirens] seems to you to show a weakening or diffusion of some sort. Since the receipt of your letter I have read this chapter again several times. It took me five months to write it and always when I have finished an episode my mind lapses into a stale of blank apathy out of which it seems that neither I nor the wretched book will ever more emerge. Mr. Pound wrote to me rather hastily in disapproval but I think that his disapproval is based on grounds which are not legitimate and is due chiefly to the varied interests of his admirable and energetic artistic life. Mr. Brock also wrote to me begging me to explain to him the method (or methods) of the madness but these methods are so manifold, varying as they do from one hour of the day to another; from one organ of the body to another, from episode to episode, that, much as I appreciate his critical patience I could not attempt to reply. ... If the Sirens have been found so unsatisfactory I have little hope that the Cyclops or later the Circe episode will be approved of: and, moreover, it is impossible for me to write these episodes quickly. The elements needed will only fuse after a prolonged existence together. I confess that it is an extremely tiresome book but it is the only book which I am able to write at present. . . .

An interesting feature of Ulysses is the way in which, episode by episode, the style changes in harmony with the theme; one might almost say that the eighteen episodes give the impression of having been written by eighteen different people. Though the handling of verbal rhythms and patterns is fundamentally Joycean throughout and in any case the recurrence of certain leitmotifs gives the text a certain, perhaps slightly artificial, unity, there is no question that as a stylist Joyce was capable of chameleonlike changes and one would be hard put to it to decide which style was “naturally" Joyces. We find much the same thing in his letters; the writer’s skill in adjusting their tone, not merely their content, to the personality of his correspondents is quite remarkable. Of course we all of us vary the style of our letters according to the person to whom we are writing. But many of Joyce’s letters are master pieces of epistolary psychology; he was never at a loss for “the right thing to say" and the just nuance to impart to it. The cheerful, colloquial letters to his friend Frank Budgen and the informative, whimsical, slightly deferent letters to Miss Weaver make an entertaining contrast.


3 January 1920 Trieste
Dear Budgen: I hope you are alive, well and sold something in Basel. Your pictures came all right and are up. Machine arrived broken, books safe, total cost about 600 francs. The situation here highly unpleasant. No flat or sign of one. I have refused lessons up to the present but have been appointed to the school again — it is now a commercial university — one hour a day. For six weeks after my arrival I neither read nor wrote nor spoke, but as it cannot go on so I started Nausikaa and I have written less than half. Perhaps I can finish it for Feb. 2nd. . . . We now cook for ourselves in this household. Till yesterday I was paying 35 lire a day to my brother-in-law. Now I pay him half rent gas coal and we pig for ourselves. Golly! Apart from this is the damnable boredom. Not a soul to talk to about Bloom. Lent two chapters to one or two people but they know as much about it as the parliamentary side of my arse. My brother [knows] something but he thinks it a joke, besides he was four years in internment, has a devil of a lot to do and likes a gay elegant life in his own set. . . . Perhaps next month? Nausikaa will be finished, I hope. To abandon the book now would be madness. . . . Nausikaa is written in a nambypamby jammy marmalade drawersy (alto la!) style with effects of incense, mariolatry, masturbation, stewed cockles, painter’s palette, chit chat, circumlocution, etc., etc. Not so long as the others.

6 January 1920 Trieste
Dear Miss Weaver: ... I have not yet found a flat and have not as much quiet and freedom as I should like. I am working at the Nausikaa episode. It is very consoling to me that you consider me a writer because every time I sit down with a pen in my hand I have to persuade myself (and others) of the fact. However, I hope to finish this episode during January. . . .
I renew my good wishes to you for 1920 and hope to complete my book during the year.

Carlo Linati teas the translator of the Italian version of Joyce’s play, Exiles.

To CARLO LINATI 6 September 1920
[In Italian] Paris Dear Mr. Linati: ... I am working like a galleyslave, an ass, a brute. I cannot even sleep. The episode of Circe has changed me too into an animal. Luckily the hero had not more than twelve adventures. . . .

21 September 1920
[In Italian] Paris
Dear Mr. Linati: Concerning Mr. Dessy’s suggestion I think that in view of the enormous bulk and the more than enormous complexity of my three times blasted novel it would be better to send you a sort of summary — key — skeleton — scheme (for your personal use only). Perhaps my idea will appear clearer to you when you have the text. Otherwise, write to Rodker and ask him to let you have the other copies. I have given only catchwords in my scheme but I think you will understand it all the same. It is an epic of two races (Israelite — Irish) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me —even when a boy. Imagine, fifteen years ago I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners! For seven years I have been working at this book — blast it! It is also a sort of encyclopaedia. My intention is to transpose the myth sub specie temporis nostri. Each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the structural scheme of the whole) should not only condition but even create its own technique. Each adventure is so to say one person although it is composed of persons — as Aquinas relates of the angelic hosts. No English printer wanted to print a word of it. In America the review was suppressed four times. Now, as I hear, a great movement is being prepared against the publication, initiated by Puritans, English Imperialists, Irish Republicans, Catholics — what an alliance! Gosh, I ought to be given the Nobel prize for peace! . . .

10 December 1920 Paris
Dear Budgen: An eye attack was hanging on and off for a fortnight owing to cold and damp of the hotel so we took 1 his Hat for six months. It has about 100 electric lamps and gas stoves but how I am going to pay for it damn me if I know. I am looking for lessons. Anyhow we are in it and if any wad of money turns up for me perhaps you would like to take a trip across here for a few days. Of course if it would be unpleasant for you say so out. I could fix you at this end and we could have a few days ‘rest’ from our labours. Do you find these latitudes (London must be worse) dreadful to live in? But for creature comforts it would be hell. Thanks for the papers. Now I want you to do another favour for me and in a great hurry. The whirligig movement in Circe is on the refrain ‘My Girl’s a Yorkshire etc.,’but to unify the action the preceding pas seal of S.D. which I intend to balance on the gramophone of the opposite kips should be on the air of that same ditty played on Mrs. Cohen’s pianola with lights, I enclose 10 frs. Will you be so kind as to apply to any vendor (a try out) of music hall airs. It was popular between 1904 and 1908. I want words and music. I have a piano here and telephone. I hope to finish Circe before Christmas. By the way, is it not extraordinary the way 1 enter a city barefoot and end up in a luxurious flat ? Still I am tired of it. G. is employed on trial —no salary yet but it is experience and he could make a career if we stay on. My mood grows bitterer on account of Trieste and other things. At first I had not thought of the slaughter of the suitors as in Ulysses’ character. Now I see it can be there too. I am going to leave the last word with Molly Bloom, the final episode being written through her thoughts and tired Poldy being then asleep. Eumeus you know so there remains only to think out Ithaca in the way I suggest. . . .
What about yourself? What are you doing? I hope you have done more than I have who have been botching and patching that bloody old Circe since last June. The Nausikaa case comes on next Alonday. Are you still in Sargent’s flat? Now that I have one of my own I don’t spend much in buses. In fact I rarely leave the house. A point about Ulysses (Bloom). He romances about Ithaca (Oi want teh gow beck teh the Mawl Enn Rowd, s’elp me!) and when he gets back it gives him the pip. I mention this because you in your absence from England seemed to have forgotten the human atmosphere and I the atmospheric conditions of these zones.
Can you tell a poor hardworking man where is the ideal climate inhabited by the ideal humans? . . .


To HARRIET SHAW WEAVEU 24 June 1921 Paris
Dear Miss Weaver: ... A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work for one or both combatants. Triestines, seeing me emerge from my relative’s house occupied by my furniture for about twenty minutes every day and walk to the same point, the G.P.O., and back (I was writing Nous than and The Oxen of the Sun in a dreadful atmosphere) circulated the rumour, now (irmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim. The general rumour in Dublin was (till the prospectus of Ulysses stopped it) that I could write no more, had broken down and was dying in New York. A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theatres all over Switzerland. In America there appear to be or have been two versions: one that I was an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama anti sir Rabindranath Tagore. Mr. Pound described me as a dour Aberdeen minister. Mr. Lewis [Percy Wyndham Lewis] told me he was told that I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbour what o’clock it was. Mr. Yeats seemed to have described me to Mr. Pound as a kind of Dick Swiveller. What the numerous (and useless) people to whom I have been introduced here think J don’t know. My habit of addressing people I have just met for the first time as ‘Monsieur’ earned for me the reputation of a tout petit bourgeois w hile others consider what I intend for politeness as most offensive. . . . One woman here originated the rumour that I am extremely lazy and will never do or finish anything. (I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.) A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavoured to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Tweedledee, Dr. Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets.
I mention all these views not to speak about myself but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace person undeserving of so much imaginative painting. There is a further opinion that I am a crafty simulating and dissimulating Ulysses-like type, a ‘jejune jesuit,’ selfish and cynical. There is some truth in this, I suppose: but it is by no means all of me (nor was it of Uysses) and it has been my habit to apply this alleged quality to safeguard my poor creations. . . .
This letter begins to remind me of a preface by Mr. George Bernard Shaw. It does not seem to be a reply to your letter after all. . . . You have already one proof of my intense stupidity. Here now is an example of my emptiness. I have not read a work of literature for several years. My head is full of pebbles and rubbish and broken matches and lots of glass picked up ‘most everywhere.’ The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view ami in ns many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance. I want to finish the book and try to settle my entangled material affairs definitely one way or the other (somebody here said of me: ‘They call him a poet. He appears to be interested chiefly in mattresses’). And, in fact, I was. After that I want a good long rest in which to forget Ulysses completely. . . .

To HARRIET SHAW WEAVER 7 August 1921 Paris
Dear Miss Weaver: I have had five weeks of delightful vacation with my eyes — the strangest but not at all the worst attack because instead of coming to a head in three weeks it did so in three hours. The people who persisted in regarding me as a footin-the-grave young man would have [been] edified to see me rolling over the carpet. The good point was that the attack was shorter in the recovery stage. I am now advised to go to Aix-les-Bains but am in Ithaca instead. I write and revise and correct with one or two eyes about twelve hours a day I should say, stopping for intervals of five minutes or so when I can’t see any more. My brain reels after it but that is nothing compared with the reeling of my readers’ brains. I have not yet quite recovered and I am doing the worst thing possible but can’t help it. It is folly also because the book will probably not repay a tithe of such labour. . . .
I was going to take a forty-eight hour holiday somew here but decided not to do so. If I lay down in some remote part of the country I am so tired that I should never have the energy to get up.
I have the greater part of Ithaca but it has to be completed, revised and rearranged above all on account of its scheme. I have also written the first sentence of Penelope but as this contains about 2500 words the deed is more than it seems to be. The episode consists of eight or nine sentences equally sesquipedalian and ends with a monosyllable. Bloom and all the Blooms will soon be dead, thank God. Everyone says he ought to have died long ago. . . .

To HARRIET SHAW WEAVER 6 November 1921 Paris
Dear Miss Weaver: Since the completion of Ulysses I feel more and more tired bul I have to hold on till all the proofs are revised. I am extremely irritated by all those printer’s errors. Working as I do amid piles of notes at a table in a hotel I cannot possibly do this mechanical part with my wretched eye and a half. Are these to be perpet uated in future editions? I hope not. I am glad the first proofs 1 sent didn’t go astray. ... I sent you a new batch yesterday. Will you please read them as quickly as you can and send them back as I sometimes need them to refer to. I think it would spoil the effect of (he book for you to read Ithaca (in typescript) or Penelope (in advance proof) now until you have gone through the rest of the ordeal. . . . An article in the New Republic by Mr. Clive Bell has been shown to me. The writer, whom I met once or twice here, in an article on modernity in art excuses himself for not discussing at length the work of Mr. Joyce on the ground that his (Mr. J.’s) talents are unfortunately too mediocre to justify detailed criticism. I hear also that there is a good deal of latent hostility towards the book among men of letters in England and Ireland (Mr. George Russell is reported to have said that it did not contain a single sentence worth reading) but, judging by the type of their mind so far as I know it, their opinion will change several limes before definitely settling down. I wish the ponderous volume were launched to see how it and the other craft behave. In any case I shall not be on board.
I am very grateful for your unremitting loyalty to my troublesome self and interminable composition which is at last to be offered to a mystified world.


8 February 1922 Paris
Dear Miss Weaver: Many thanks for your kind telegram. Two copies of Ulysses (nos. 901 and 902) reached Paris on 2 February and two further copies (nos. 251 and 252) on 5 February. One copy is on show, the other three were taken by subscribers who were leaving for different parts of the world. Since the announcement that the book was out the shop has been in a state of siege— buyers driving up two or three times a day and no copies to give them. After a great deal of telegraphing and telephoning it seems that 7 copies will come today and 30 tomorrow. A more nerveracking conclusion to the history of the book could scarcely have been imagined! . . .

28 October 1922 Nice
Dear Aunt Josephine: A few days before I left Paris I got a letter from you which seemed very wrathful. The facts are these. Ulysses was published on 2 February. When the edition was sold out Nora said she wanted to go to Ireland to see her mother. I did all I could to dissuade her but her friends here and in Ireland told her it was as simple as anything. Finally as my father also wished to see the children I let them go but made them promise to stay a week or so in London and watch. I managed to hold them up in London for ten days by means of express letters and telegrams. Then they suddenly left for Ireland. They stopped a night, in Dublin and Lucia kindly suggested that they should visit my father whose address she remembered. This they did and went on to Galway. In Galway my son was dogged about the streets and as he told me since he could not sleep at night with the thought that the Zulus, as he calls them, would take him out of bed and shoot him. A drunken officer swaggered up to him blocking the path and asked him ‘How does it feel to be a gintleman’s son?’ Meanwhile in Paris utterly exhausted as I was after eight years ceaseless labour I was on the verge of lunacy. Needless to say what I had foreseen took place and the next thing was that I got a telegram from London to say they wanted to come back to Paris. The warehouse opposite their lodgings in Galway was seized by rebels, free state troops invaded their bedrooms and planted machine guns in the windows. They ran through the town to the station and escaped in a train lying flat on their bellies (the two females that is) amid a fusillade which continued for an hour from right and left between troops on the train and ambushes along the line. They fled through Dublin in the dark and so came back to Paris. I then sent Lucia to a summer camp on the coast of Normandy for four months and Giorgio to the Austrian Tyrol. After which I collapsed with a furious eye attack lasting until a few weeks ago — but apparently that does not interest. . . .
The second cause of your wrath seems to be my book. I am as innocent in t his case as in the former. I presented it to you seven months ago but I never heard anything more about it beyond a few words acknowledging receipt and an allusion in your last letter. The market price of the book now in London is £40 and copies signed are worth more. I mention this because Alice [daughter of Mrs. Murray] told me you had lent it (or given ?) and people in Dublin have a way of not returning books. In a few years copies of the first edition will probably be worth £100 each, so book experts say, and hence my remark. This of course has nothing to do with the contents of the book which it seems you have not read. I sent it however as I sent all my other books and at your request in a letter of a year or so ago. There is a difference between a present of a pound of chops and a present, of a book like Ulysses. You can acknowledge receipt of the present of a pound of chops by simply nodding gratefully, supposing, that is, that you have your mouth full of as much of the chops as it will conveniently hold, but you cannot do so with a large book on account of the difficulty of fitting it into the mouth. . . .
A second edition of Ulysses was published on the 12 October. The entire edition of 2000 copies at £2.2.0 a copy was sold out in four days.


2 December 1928 Paris
Dear Miss Weaver: I have not been able to write to you for a long time for several reasons which you will easily understand. My wife is getting on very well but we return to the clinic tomorrow as there have to be four or five additional days of treatment lo complete the cure after which it is believed that she will be thoroughly well. As regards myself I cannot yet read or write anything except books for infants but I am, with some difficulties, trying to follow a pilocarpin cure which is supposed to restore some kind of vision at some period in the future. Nevertheless I had them retype in legal size, twice or three times this, with triple spacing, section three of Shaun, and this, when it has been read to me by three or four people, I shall try to memorise as to pages, etc. (there are nearly a hundred) and so hope to be able to find the places where I can insert from the twenty notebooks which I have filled up since I wrote this section. The notebooks, written when I was suffering from my eyes or lately, are quite legible to me as they were scribbled with thick black pencil, but the other ones, about thirteen, I am relying on my improved sight to help me over.
I lunched with H. G. Wells the morning we went, into the hospital but my mind was too confused to be able to do him or myself justice. He was very friendly and at his request (he had asked if he could become my literary agent or take that side of my present affairs in charge) I had Miss Beach send him the instalments so far in Transition. I enclose a letter of his to me which seems to me — I don’t know what it seems to me. It would not surprise me if he greatly modified his opinions as a result of future possible conversations. He told me that he had expected to meet a tall fierce aggressive man in a frieze overcoat carrying a heavy stick and I think that he probably has a similar phantom hovering between his eyes and my pages. For the moment I will content myself by saying in reply to his letter, which is quite friendly and honest, that I doubt whether his attitude towards words and language is as scientific as he himself ought to wish it to be and also whether the extra expressionism of which he complains, whether liberative or simply terminological exactitude, is at all as common in my country as in his, though perhaps I ought lo add, considerably to our loss. To the rest of his remarks, however, I could wholeheartedly subscribe and the more I hear of the political, philosophical, ethical zeal and labours of the brilliant members of Pound’s big brass band the more I wonder why I was ever let into it ‘with my magic flute.’ . . .

From H. G. WELLS 28 November 1928 Saint Matkieu, Grasse
My dear Joyce: I’ve been studying you and thinking over you a lot. The outcome is that I don’t think I can do anything for the propaganda of your work. I’ve an enormous respect for your genius dating from your earliest books and I feel now a

great personal liking for you but you and I are set upon absolutely different courses. Your training has been Catholic, Irish, revolutionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a mould wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want language (and statement) as simple and clear as possible. You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality. Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. You really believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking out into cries of . . . and hell. As I don’t believe in these things except as quite provisional values my mind has never been shocked to outcries by the existence of water closets and menstrual bandages — and undeserved misfortunes. And while you were brought up under the delusion of political suppression I was brought up under t he delusion of political responsibility. It seems a fine thing to you to defy and break up. To me not in the least.
Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and y ou have in your composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical male. Do I get much pleasure from the work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read —’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So 1 ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?
All this from my point of view. Perhaps you arc right and I all wrong. Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I will go out of my way to save it from destruction or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.
My warmest wishes to you Joyce. I can’t follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong. Yours, H. G. Wells.1

  1. Included by permission of the Executors of the late II. G. Wells.