If you’re not familiar with the web site Today in Literature, you should be.
I’m a subscriber; occasionally, I use a summary of Steve King’s offering of the day to introduce my emails, with a link back to the full story. I couldn’t do so with this week’s best—and maybe this month’s, if not ever–installment, because there was no direct link in Steve’s message.
If you’re a faithful reader, you know that I’m second generation Irish on both sides. This anecdote is so emblematic of my people—despite our native intelligence and wit, we are our own worst enemies—I had to share it with you. (As Steve put it: “It’s a great anecdote, about two of last century’s wittiest egomaniacs.” Another character flaw: overinflated sense of self-importance.)
With Steve’s permission, then:
“On this day (June 11) in 1921, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Sylvia Beach to decline her invitation to pre-order a copy of James Joyce’s forthcoming Ulysses. As Beach tells the amusing story in her memoir Shakespeare and Company, her pre-publication subscription drive went well, with orders coming in from not just readers but those who wanted to donate to the cause. Robert McAlmon combed the bars, bringing in many ‘slightly zigzag’ signatures from people who were later surprised to get their book and bill; Ezra Pound hustled his connections, ‘and made a sensation when he deposited on my table one day a subscription blank with the signature of W. B. Yeats.’
“Thinking that Shaw might also sign up—being a fellow Irishman, a kind heart, and one to whom ‘the revolutionary aspect of Ulysses should appeal’—Beach decided to send him a prospectus. When she told Joyce that she was sure Shaw would sign, he bet a box of cigars against a silk handkerchief that he wouldn’t. Joyce got his cigars, and literary history got this prized piece of Shaviana:
I have read fragments of Ulysses in its serial form. It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization, but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity. To you possibly it may appeal as art; you are probably (you see I don’t know you) a young barbarian beglamoured by the excitements and enthusiasms that art stirs up in passionate material; but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat clean by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject. I hope it may prove successful.
I am aware that there are other qualities and other passages in Ulysses; but they do not call for any special comment from me.
I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for such a book, you little know my countrymen.
G. Bernard Shaw
“Joyce was amused, and then amused again when Pound thought he’d pursue the matter with Shaw. Beach says that their correspondence went on for some time, and that ‘judging by a post card Joyce showed me, Shaw had the last word’:
“It was a card with a reproduction from a painting of Christ’s entombment, with the four Marys in tears around Him. Underneath this picture, Shaw had written: ‘J.J. being put into his tomb by his editresses after the refusal of G.B.S. to subscribe to Ulysses.’ Then the question: ‘Do I have to like everything you like, Ezra? As for me, I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves.'”
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