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Scandalous Reputations: Serializing Ulysses in Two Worlds Monthly

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by Amanda Sigler

On Bloomsday—June 16th—scholars from around the world gather together to celebrate the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. Boasting a scandalous history, Joyce’s novel is famous for the controversy it caused when it was serialized in the Little Review, a New York magazine that dared to publish just over thirteen chapters of Ulysses before the courts ruled it to be obscene in 1921. The heroic efforts of the Little Review’s editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, have given them an esteemed place in literary history. By contrast, the editor Samuel Roth—who serialized Ulysses in his own New York magazine, Two Worlds Monthly—has been alternately sidelined or disparaged. Accused of piracy and pornography, Roth was quickly labeled as a villain and a thief in the early twentieth century. Today, Roth largely remains a pariah figure with few admirers, but over the years Ulysses has vaulted from banned novel to celebrated modern classic. Why have the paths of the scandalous novel and the scandalous editor diverged so sharply?

In my work, presented at the 2011 North American James Joyce Conference in California, I argue that Roth’s reputation in the field of Modernism needs to be re-evaluated. In spite of his dark past, he, too, may give us a reason to celebrate. 

It is well known that the Little Review was confiscated by the Post Office and legally prosecuted when it serialized James Joyce’s Ulysses. The court decision, which forbade Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap from publishing any further installments in their magazine, carried serious consequences for the future of Joyce’s novel. As obscene matter, Ulysses could not be mailed in the States. In 1922, the situation did not look much better in England. To avoid similar trouble with the censors there, Joyce’s benefactor Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in Paris, resulting in its first full-length printing and its first book edition. But Ulysses still remained unavailable in America. In 1926, the New York editor Samuel Roth decided to correct this, and he began serializing Ulysses in Two Worlds Monthly. This may have been a heroic and ambitious move, except that he was proceeding without Joyce’s explicit permission.

When Ulysses began appearing in Two Worlds Monthly, Beach—whose book edition of Ulysses was being used by Roth as copy text—quickly gathered together a protest signed by over 160 persons, including such noted Modernists as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and W.B. Yeats. In April 1927, transition magazine issued the so-called International Protest under the heading “Stop, Thief”:

It is a matter of common knowledge that the Ulysses of Mr. James Joyce is being republished in the United States, in a magazine edited by Samuel Roth, and that this republication is being made without authorization by Mr. Joyce; without payment to Mr. Joyce and with alterations which seriously corrupt the text. This appropriation and mutilation of Mr. Joyce’s property is made under colour of legal protection in that the Ulysses which is published in France and which has been excluded from the mails in the United States is not protected by copyright in the United States.


Samuel Roth in his poetry bookshop in Greenwich Village

But was Roth really a “thief”? Was he swindling Joyce? Did the alterations made by Roth “seriously corrupt the text,” any more than the alterations made by Little Review editors? Was Roth doing a disservice to Ulysses by daring to publish it in the US, and making it available to the American public? 

These issues need to be scrutinized more closely. In his letters, Joyce clearly denounces Roth for “pirating” Ulysses. However, Roth’s daughter Adelaide Kugel points out that Roth may have had permission—through Ezra Pound—to publish Ulysses. Her fascinating if speculative argument has been justifiably questioned, but even if we reject her evidence we still have to admit this: Technically, it was incorrect to term Roth a “pirate” of a work that could not be copyrighted in the States. And, while Roth failed to pay contributors like Joyce, Paul K. Saint-Amour reminds us that this policy was common practice among literary magazines. In recent years, Jay Gertzman has provided additional reasons for re-evaluating Roth’s contribution to American literature, and for reconsidering his magazine’s position vis-à-vis the Little Review. Building on these arguments, I suggest that the Little Review and Two Worlds Monthly aimed at remarkably similar goals, and intersected at points we may not expect.

Though frequently remembered as a pornographer, Roth importantly shaped the Modernist movement by compelling many of its key players to think more seriously about issues of censorship, artistic freedom, and literature’s relationship to the law. Roth dedicated the first issue of Two Worlds Monthly to Joyce, “who will probably plead the cause of our time at the bar of posterity.” And indeed, Ulysses has become a testimony to the great experimental achievements of Modernism. In publishing Two Worlds Monthly, Roth hoped to carve out a sphere in which these daring Modernist authors could exercise creative freedom, particularly in scandalous yet realistic portrayals of human sexuality. In this regard he mirrored the Little Review, which carried the motto “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste”—a statement, in other words, that it would publish freely, without regard to constricting morality. Both Roth and the editors of the Little Review launched their journals on platforms of artistic integrity. Both magazines claimed to be pioneers in the fight against government censorship, and in the fight against commercial magazines whose content was based on advertisers’ wishes.

Given this mission, it may seem surprising that the editors of both magazines did expurgate Ulysses, censoring it before it even hit the press. As Paul Vanderham notes, Pound censored the “Calypso” chapter before passing it on to the Little Review, effectively erasing Leopold Bloom’s now-famous trip to the outhouse and enraging Joyce. Margaret Anderson made a number of other excisions to later episodes, in an attempt to avoid suppression. She would delete passages and note that they had been donated to the censor, or she would insert asterisks and a footnote claiming that she had been forced to ruin Joyce’s prose. Similarly, as scholars such as Gertzman and Robert Spoo have documented, Roth expurgated passages of Ulysses in order to avoid conflicts with the censors, prompting Joyce to complain about the bowdlerized version of his text. In comparison to Beach’s 1922 Paris edition, the text certainly was corrupt. But Gertzman also points out that, in spite of all the protests, Roth actually expurgated less than the Little Review. And America, with the ever-vigilant New York Society for the Suppression of Vice hovering in printers’ backyards, presented a far more restrictive publishing environment than Beach’s Paris. Extending Gertzman’s argument, I want to say that on these grounds, Roth’s publication of Ulysses in Two Worlds Monthly represents a step forward in the battle against censorship, not a step backward.

In reality, Roth did a great deal to promote Ulysses. Like the Little Review, Two Worlds Monthly devoted a generous amount of advertising space to Joyce. Just as Anderson and Heap calculatedly published advertisements around the time of Ulysses’ debut in order to stir up reader interest, Roth flooded his subscribers with laudatory statements promising that Ulysses was a novel of “undisputed supremacy,” the “masterpiece of our time,” alone “worth the price of the year’s subscription.” In spite of this praise, Roth’s advertisements irritated Joyce, who felt the editor was unfairly appropriating his name for financial gain. But, considering the actual state of Roth’s financial affairs (he was actually losing money, not making it), the ads probably did more to help Joyce commercially than to help Roth.

The advertisements Roth published also give an idea of the company Joyce kept. In looking at these ads, I was struck by how Roth breaks away from the more avant-garde tendencies of the Little Review, which published Modernist works that were daring in their experiments with narrative form, and instead chooses to emphasize a particular strand of Modernism that employed traditional plot structure but was nonetheless daring through the frankness of its content. Roth presents Modernism as a series of love poems and sex scandals: forbidden liaisons, extramarital affairs, girls forced onto the streets. You might say that it’s a more popular version of Joyce’s “Nausicaa” or “Penelope.”

Indeed, Roth advertised Ulysses not only as a literary masterpiece, but also as a fascinating story. Its content was just as important as its style. One ad asks, “Do you know how to obtain the most fascinating stories in the English language?” The answer, of course, is to read Roth’s magazines. And he specifically singles out Ulysses, which he pairs with a simultaneously-running serial called “A Chambermaid’s Diary.” Though written as a kind of entertaining and voyeuristic peephole into private life, “A Chambermaid’s Diary” actually foregrounds and fights for the same literary freedoms as Ulysses. In her first entry, the diarist articulates a philosophy of frankness and artistic realism that could be said to characterize Joyce’s daring descriptions as well. Roth introduces Ulysses in the same way that the narrator of “A Chambermaid’s Diary” introduces her writing—that is to say, as a very frank, unreserved book that describes life in all of its details. He boldly prefaces the first installment of Ulysses by Arthur Symons’ essay, which quotes an attack on Ulysses. The attack describes Joyce’s novel as littered with “unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words.” Though Roth may not have been a convicted pornographer yet, he had already cultivated an appreciation for the allure of suggestive material.

Curiously, however, it seems that Ulysses in Two Worlds Monthly failed to capture the magazine audience as Roth had hoped. Gertzman suggests that Roth stopped publishing installments of Ulysses because sales were poor, not because of the International Protest or the suit Joyce brought against him. In one of those strange strokes of coincidence, Two Worlds Monthly prematurely ended its serialization of Ulysses with the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the same episode being serialized when the Little Review was forced to hit the brakes.

What we see in both of these magazines is that Ulysses, in its various projects and battles, did not stand alone. These magazines subvert the notion of the autonomous work of art and show that Modernism’s great iconic novel came to the public eye as an interdependent artifact, one shaped not only by authorial intention but also quite strongly by surrounding material and by editorial decisions. Where the Little Review presented Modernism at its most daring experimental endeavors, Two Worlds Monthly presented Modernism at its most intimate and sensational moments. Roth may have well been a pornographer who published authors’ works without permission in some cases and with dubious permission in others, but he did make suppressed works available to an American public that otherwise may not have had access to them. At least in his rhetoric, he claimed to promote artistic freedom and shun commercialism as much as the Little Review did, and he lost money while promoting Ulysses. For all his shady dealings, Samuel Roth deserves a place beside Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. Only if we read both magazines can we can fully understand how Ulysses shaped Modernism, and how Modernist editors shaped Ulysses.


About the Author:

Amanda Sigler is is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where she is completing a dissertation on international modernism and periodicals directed by Michael Levenson. She has made multiple research trips to the Zürich James Joyce Foundation, and she has lectured internationally at the Dublin James Joyce Summer School and other venues. Her work has appeared in the James Joyce Quarterly, the Joyce Studies Annual, Papers on Joyce, and the Henry James Review.