Happy Birthday, Mr. Joyce: The First Copies of Ulysses - James Joyce Quarterly
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Happy Birthday, Mr. Joyce: The First Copies of Ulysses


Gare-de-Lyon Train Station—7:00 a.m

By Richard J. Gerber


It was more than an hour before sunrise, still dark and cold. A nervous thirty-four-year-old Sylvia Beach—the American proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop—pulled her wool coat close and tugged at her cloche hat as she looked down the track. The early morning express from Dijon was coming in, just a few minutes late. She thought of its precious cargo, the first copies of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, riding on a seat beside the conductor, bumping along for more than two hours on the train as it sped through the French countryside. A telegram she had received the day before from Maurice Darantiere, her printer, alerted her to the delivery and she had promised Mr. Joyce that she would meet the train and bring the books to his apartment straightaway. As the train slowed to a stop, her heart was going like the locomotive.

She watched as the conductor slowly descended from the rear of the engine and looked around. He held a package in his hands and, as he started walking towards her, she raised her hand in signal to him. He transferred the string-tied parcel to her, and she felt its weight. She thanked him for safely transporting it.

Passing through the station, Beach emerged outside and engaged a waiting taxicab for the journey across the Seine to the Left Bank. The brown-paper-wrapped package sat on her lap throughout the ten-minute ride as she resisted an urge to have a look in-side. In an earlier letter, Darantiere had promised to put three copies of the novel in the mail on February 1st, addressed to Shakespeare and Company, before Joyce insisted on the over-night train to assure that the books would arrive in Paris by February 2nd. In his telegram, Danrantiere agreed to send the books via the train, but only two copies. Beach was grateful since two was about the most she could manage to carry.

As the taxi pulled up in front of number 9 Rue de l’Université, the sky was beginning to brighten, but the sun had still not risen. Exiting the cab, package in hand, Beach looked up and thought she saw Joyce peeking from behind a curtain at his upper apartment window. This might have reminded her of the boy in Joyce’s short story “Araby,” anxiously watching from beneath the blind in his front parlor for Mangan’s sister to emerge from her house. Beach paid the driver and turned to the building.

Joyce, who had been up for hours anticipating her arrival, described himself at this time as “in a state of energetic prostration” (JJII 524). He might have heard the cab pull up and, looking out the window, saw his publisher arriving at his house. He was not in the habit of rising early, but this day, his fortieth birthday, the day his novel was published, was different.

Greeting her at the door, Joyce said “Good morning, Miss Beach” with an uncharacteristic tone of excitement in his voice. She responded, “Good morning, Mr. Joyce,” accepting his formally offered but limp handshake. He ushered her into the entry hall. Taking the package from her, he laid it on a counter and helped her with her hat and coat, hanging them on a rack. With Joyce following behind her, they proceeded into the dining room where he gently placed the package on the table, pulling out a seat for his guest. Before sitting down himself, Joyce straightened his morning jacket; Beach settled her hair.

Wasting no time, he removed the string from the parcel and un-ceremoniously dispensed with its paper wrap. He then carefully arranged the two copies of his novel side by side on the table and sat down beside Beach. They were silent for a few seconds, just staring at the two books, admiring the paper covers of blue with white lettering, matching the colors of the Greek flag, just as he had wanted them. Joyce was the first to move, gently opening one of the books to peer at its title page. Turning the page over, he would have discovered the limitation notice on the next page: Copy number 901 of 1,000 published in the first Shakespeare edition; the second copy was numbered 902. Beach noted the little slip inserted in the book, expressing the publisher’s apologies for any errors.

Lifting the second copy from the table, Joyce presented it to Beach. She told him that she would display it in the window at the front of her shop to let people know it was finally published, and as a means to promote sales. Joyce put the book in a sack for her, so it would be easier to carry.

Before Beach left his apartment, Joyce may have allowed himself a brief moment of celebration. After a quick two-step spider dance, he might have let out a short whoop and a laugh. He asked Beach if she had noticed that it was Thursday, the same day of the week as in Ulysses and the day he was born. She admitted that, no, she had not, but then added warmly, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Joyce.” He told her that she had brought him the best birthday present he had ever received.

Gathering her hat and coat and carrying the sack, Beach exited Joyce’s apartment. Nora and the children were still asleep when she left. The sun was just rising, but the streets were still quiet as she walked the half mile east and south toward her shop at 12 Rue de lOdéon. She had time before opening the shop, so she might have stopped halfway at Les Deux Magots for a quick café américain before most of the breakfast crowd arrived. She would have kept her sack close by as she drained her demitasse.

Arriving at Shakespeare and Company before nine o’clock, Beach opened the shop’s door and entered, placing the sack on a table before hanging her hat and coat in a little closet. Extracting Joyce’s novel from its sack, she propped it prominently in the center of the window. The sun was finally up in full. Ulysses was published.

(Beach later revealed that putting Ulysses in Shakespeare’s window that morning had been “a mistake.” Customers lined up in the hope of purchasing copies that she did not yet have, so she had to remove it to a safer place until receiving the bulk of her shipment. After the books arrived, Joyce came into the shop to assist with posting copies of his novel to subscribers, apparently getting as much glue on the floor and in his hair as he did on the mailing labels. On February 13th, he inscribed the first three of the one hundred copies issued on handmade Dutch paper for Harriet Weaver, Beach, and Margaret Anderson respectively, in recognition and appreciation of their formidable efforts in getting his work published, and for providing other support. Signed copies of one of the 750 volumes printed on vergé a barbe eventually went to Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, as well as other notables).


* This portrait is an elaboration based on the brief autobiographical account found in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, New York, Harcourt: 1959, pp. 84-86.