Miss Weaver knew she was courting danger by publishing James Joyce’s work. After all, the entire first printing of his debut book of fiction had been destroyed. In November 1905, when Joyce was twenty-three, he sent the manuscript of Dubliners to a London publisher named Grant Richards. Richards responded nearly three months later to say that Dubliners had many problems. It was about Ireland, and no one wanted to buy a book about Ireland. It was a collection of short stories, and no one wanted to buy a collection of short stories. But he admired it so much that he was willing to publish it under modest terms. Joyce would get no advance and no royalties from the first five hundred copies sold. He would receive 10 percent from the sales on the first one thousand copies after that, though he would omit every thirteenth copy from the total. Several weeks later, however, Richards returned his manuscript and demanded changes.

The printer cut several passages and refused to print the story “Two Gallants” altogether. Richards himself objected to the word bloody in one of the stories (“she did not wish to seem bloody-minded”), and the offensive word appeared several more times in Dubliners: “if any fellow tried that sort of game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would.” Joyce did his publisher the favor of listing every objectionable instance and, for good measure, pointing out the implicit danger of his story “An Encounter.” The man by the docks with the gaps between his yellow teeth and the “bottle-green eyes” is entertaining immoral impulses as he talks to one of the two truants about whipping boys who misbehave. It was, a lawyer friend later told Joyce, “beyond anything in its outspokenness” he had ever read.

Joyce wrote to Richards that if they eliminated every offensive detail they’d be left with nothing but the title. He was writing hard truths about moral decay for the advancement of Irish civilization only to have his work weakened by a semiliterate London machinist armed with a blue pencil. “I cannot write without offending people,” he concluded, and if he were forced to write his stories another way, he would not have written them at all.

Richards insisted that no legitimate publisher would touch Joyce’s book without changes, and an illegitimate publisher would “do no good to your pocket.” Joyce, impoverished as he was, fired back, “The appeal to my pocket has not much weight with me.” He would be happy to make money from Dubliners, he wrote, but “I have very little intention of prostituting whatever talent I may have to the public.” Richards presented himself as an editor challenging Joyce’s versatility rather than an exploiter pimping his talent. “Remember,” he wrote to Joyce, “it is only words and sentences that have to be altered; and it seems to me that the man who cannot convey his meaning by more than one set of words and sentences has not yet realized the possibilities of the English language.” Joyce was unimpressed.

In September 1906, Richards informed Mr. Joyce that after “the very careful re-reading” of his manuscript, they could not publish Dubliners. The stories would not only damage the publisher’s reputation, Richards wrote, they would impede Joyce’s success for the rest of his career. Joyce, undeterred, sent Dubliners to several other publishers—John Long, Elkin Mathews, Alston Rivers, Edward Arnold, William Heinemann and Hutchinson & Company. They all rejected it.

Dubliners didn’t find another publisher until 1909. George Roberts was a stocky Protestant from Belfast who set up a publishing house in Dublin called Maunsel & Company. Roberts favored younger Irish writers, so Joyce’s story collection was a natural fit, but the same objections about Dubliners soon resurfaced. In “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” an Irish nationalist mentions Prince Edward’s late ascension to the throne after the death of his long-lived mother, Queen Victoria: “Here’s this fellow come to the throne after his bloody owl’ mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey.” After Richards had withdrawn his offer, Joyce embellished the Queen Victoria reference from “bloody owl’ mother” to (and why not?) “bloody old bitch of a mother.”

When Roberts demanded changes, Joyce became defiant. He sent a public letter to Irish newspapers airing his grievances. He threatened to sue Maunsel & Company for breach of contract. He wrote to King George V asking for His Majesty’s official permission to print the stories (the king’s secretary declined to comment). He returned to Ireland from Trieste (a five-day journey) to settle the dispute in person. When Roberts worried about libel suits from people and establishments mentioned in Dubliners by their real names, Joyce offered to secure written authorization from every individual, publican and restaurateur himself. Dublin booksellers, unfortunately, hesitated when Joyce asked if they would sell his book. One manager said that a couple of young men had recently told him to remove a risqué French novel from his window display and that if he didn’t, he’d find his windows smashed.

In August 1912, after three years of haggling, Roberts wrote the most forceful rejection letter of his career: “the publication of the book by Maunsel & Co. is out of the question . . . even if the objectionable parts were struck out, there would still remain the risk of some of them having been overlooked.” And even if they were to consider publishing his stories, which they would not, Joyce would have to deposit one thousand pounds (an exorbitant amount) as insurance against lawsuits. But that wasn’t all. Roberts claimed Joyce had breached their contract by submitting a “clearly libelous” manuscript and threatened to sue him for the printing costs of a book he refused to publish. So Joyce, hoping to have the pages bound and published in London, went to the printer’s shop on O’Connell Street, where an elderly, ruddy-faced man named Falconer gave Joyce a sample copy of his book but refused to hand over the printed sheets for any price. After Joyce left, Falconer and his Scottish foreman destroyed every page of Dubliners they had printed. They weren’t burned. They were “guillotined.”

Joyce’s nine-year struggle to publish Dubliners was his first lesson in the way governments controlled words. Sometimes it was about policemen barging through doors and burning books, but more often it was about coercion and intimidation. The mere threat of lawsuits and criminal charges against publishers, printers or booksellers—they were all liable—was enough to halt the sale of a book. Even if there were no criminal charges, small publishers like Richards and Roberts had to worry that critics, reporters and clergymen scouring their books for obscenity would sound a moral alarm and provoke protests and boycotts that would bankrupt them.


This extract was originally published on pages 60-62 in The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham, available now in paperback and ebook