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Photo portrait of James Joyce as a young man, with straw hat, glasses and moustache, wearing a suit and bow tie
James Joyce in 1915. Photo: Alex Ehrenzweig. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Bloomsday! The Library’s One-of-a-Kind Copy of “Ulysses”

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It’s Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s landmark modernist masterpiece, “Ulysses.” Published 101 years ago, Joyce’s book famously examines one day — June 16, 1904 — in the life of Leopold Bloom of Dublin, Ireland. The book’s stream-of-consciousness style and dense symbolism have made it a cult favorite to fans around the world, who celebrate today with readings, festivals, dressing in period costumes and, if possible, wandering around Dublin themselves. Pubs do bang-up business.

Across the Atlantic, the Library has some of the most extraordinary copies of the book ever printed. But first, a quick recap:

Paris, 1922: Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookshop, decides to publish “Ulysses.” This is risky because pre-publication excerpts had been declared obscene by U.S. courts.

Beach limited her first edition to 1,000 copies. All were numbered, and 100 were signed by Joyce. It was a brilliant decision. The novel went on to be regarded as one of the premier literary works of the 20th century and Joyce one of the era’s great authors. Copies of that first print run became some of the most sought-after books of the age. (A first edition famously sold at auction in London in 2009 for the equivalent today of of $636,000; signed and personal copies have sold for much more.)

The bespoke calfskin cover of the LIbrary’s edition of “Ulysses.” Photo: Shawn Miller.

And yet all of that scarcely begins to describe the first edition of “Ulysses” acquired in 2021 by the Library. It’s a marvel to behold: Copy #361 is bound in bespoke calfskin, front and back covers initialed by the author, the title page inscribed by Joyce to a friend, with inserts that include Joyce’s guide to deciphering the book.

Two other “Ulysses” first editions were included in the acquisition of the Aramont Library (the property of a private owner), including the signed #1 copy — the first copy of the first edition, an almost unbelievable find of such an important book.

“All of these copies are exceptional, but there is one that is truly unique,” said Stephanie Stillo of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, indicating the custom-made copy.

Joyce, a native of Ireland, spent years laboring over the complicated novel while living in Europe. It’s modeled on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” told in 18 chapters in almost bewildering fashion. One sentence runs 4,391 words. As the British Library sums it up “… each episode is represented by a different organ of the body, colour, symbol, technique, art, place and particular time of day.”

Beach, a friend of many modernist artists, published the first copies on Feb. 2, 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday.

While finishing the book, Joyce befriended a young French admirer, Jacques Benoist-Méchin. Just 20 years old, Benoist-Méchin was a promising intellectual who helped Joyce finalize the book’s famous last sentences, a soliloquy by the fictional Molly Bloom.

They apparently worked together to make #361 an unforgettable copy. Joyce inscribed the copy to him. A sketch map of Dublin adorned the front, as it was the book’s setting. The back cover was a map of Gibraltar. This was a nod to Benoist-Méchin’s help in interpreting Molly’s famous closing scene; in the book, she is born in Gibraltar.

A typewritten row of columns, on folded out sheet of papers, listing the way the book coordinates its themes. Shown here are subject headings of art, "colour" and symbols.
Detail of Joyce’s explanation of the book’s themes and symbols. Photo: Shawn Miller.

But the real gems were at the back.

A four-page scheme, or outline, explains the book’s convoluted plot and its symbolism, including Joyce’s notation that the book was based on “The Odyssey,” without which the world might never have noticed the connection. (Only seven of these outlines are known to exist.) Then, another stunner — a full-color foldout anatomical chart of a human body, likely taken from a medical textbook, annotated in red ink, noting how each body part relates to the plot.

A full-color, foldout anatomical drawing of a human body, including bones and all interior organs.
Tucked inside the back cover is this drawing of a human body, with notes showing how various body parts correspond to different chapters. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Finally, tucked inside this copy are portraits of Joyce (likely taken by famed photographer Man Ray) and Beach. There’s also a letter from Joyce to Benoist-Méchin.

The final twist: Benoist-Méchin grew into a prominence of his own as a historian and journalist who enthusiastically collaborated with Nazi Germany’s takeover of France in World War II. He was condemned to death as a traitor after the war and eventually had his sentence commuted after seven years in prison.

All of that 20th-century history, bound in one completely original book. It’s something to behold.

A colorful, handtooled map of Gibraltar adorns the rear cover. Photo: Shawn Miller.
The rear cover of the book features this map of Gibraltar. Photo: Shawn Miller.

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  1. “including Joyce’s notation that the book was based on “The Odyssey,” without which the world might never have noticed the connection.”

    It’s literally in the title, though. “Ulysses”. Someone was bound to notice it at some point.

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