Though previously serialized, James Joyce’s masterpiece of modernist fiction, ‘Ulysses,’ was first published as a single volume on February 2, 1922, the author’s fortieth birthday.
Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of this event, the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, “Women and the Making of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’,” foregrounds the novel’s history as a material artifact, a product not just of the author’s mind but of the very real and tangible actions taken by the people surrounding and supporting Joyce. The exhibition’s special focus is the four women who published Joyc e’s work in various forms: Sylvia Beach, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Heap.
“I suppose the exhibition aims to show that literary genius is not a solo thing,” says Clare Hutton the exhibition’s curator and a reader in English and digital humanities at Loughborough University in England.
“It only happens when there are collaborators behind the scenes making things possible. Joyce cultivated a view of himself as a troubled artist being thwarted by hapless publishers and difficult material circumstances. The truth is far more complicated. The women behind the scenes really made the achievement of ‘Ulysses’ possible.”
Letters, photographs, ledgers, menus and other ephemera, and of course, magazines and books tell this story in the Ransom Center’s spacious, dim gallery, its sunken space calling to mind an underground bunker for the storage of precious objects like those on display here.
An original copy of ‘Ulysses’ — from the limited edition of 1,000 that Sylvia Beach published by subscription in 1922 — has pride of place in a vitrine near the beginning of the exhibition. In an Aegean blue cover with white text, colors selected by Joyce in homage to his novel’s connection to the Odyssey, it almost glows. The huge book, an art object in itself, has an aura completely absent from the contemporary mass-published copies that visitors see mounded in a careless pile close by.
This singular book is an exception in the way it illustrates an outcome: most other pieces speak more to the practical processes underlying the work. Joyce’s wife Nora wrote polite correspondence to Joyce’s benefactors in a neat, practiced hand that suggests her frequent role in helping to manage those relationships.
Among posed photographs from the 1920s of the nattily dressed publishers in their bookstores or dressed for a party, others show them in humbler circumstances: Take the images of an older Sylvia Beach with her sometimes partner, Adrienne Monnier, who published the first French translation of ‘Ulysses,’ cooking in their kitchen years after the Lost Generation era.
These artifacts come not only from the HRC, but from many different institutions. And it’s staggering to think about the labor of the curatorial process itself. Although she didn’t have this particular exhibition in mind at that point, Hutton began visiting the University of Texas library and archive years ago.
“There are about 200 things in the exhibition, and it felt like making a huge textual jigsaw,” she remarked. “At times I thought I would never piece the bits together.
The Ransom Center’s Head of Exhibitions, Cathy Henderson, collaborated closely with Hutton, often over Zoom during the pandemic as Hutton stayed put in England. Hutton also noted that her own mother and 14-year-old daughter helped her on occasion.
There’s a beautiful congruence in how — behind the scenes once again — a group of women collaborated to bring women’s often hidden work to light in this new context.
‘Women and the Making of Joyce’s Ulysses’ continues through July at the Ransom Center, University of Texas. Admission to the Ransom Center is free. hrc.utexas.edu/visit/