Sylvia Beach and the World’s First International Writers’ Protest
When 167 literary titans banded together in solidarity with “that security of works of the intellect and the imagination without which art cannot live.”
By Maria Popova
“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist,” Carl Jung wrote in his blistering review of James Joyce’s Ulysses a decade after the publication of the trailblazing novel that had unbalanced literature and pioneered a new literary aesthetic of stream-of-consciousness narrative. Initially rejected in English-speaking countries, Ulysses had ignited the global literary imagination thanks to the visionary publisher Sylvia Beach (March 14, 1887–October 5, 1962), founder of Paris’s iconic bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Beach had taken a chance on the controversial and creatively daring novel when she published it in France on James Joyce’s fortieth birthday in 1922, but she didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the furor with which the book would be met. In his influential review, T.S. Eliot lauded it as “the most important expression which the present age has found… a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”
In the wake of the book’s success, one enterprising and unscrupulous American publisher, Samuel Roth, decided to forgo any indebtedness to Joyce — creative or commercial. In 1926, Roth began printing a pirated edition of Ulysses for sale in America. Beach and Joyce were outraged. But they were defenseless in the hands of a justice system that was still working out the intricacies of international copyright — what was a clear crime in any moral system was murkiness in the eyes of the law.
Unable to stop Roth’s unauthorized edition legally, Beach took matters into her own hand and turned to the international literary community for help. She composed a petition of protest with the help of a lawyer friend and began soliciting signatures from prominent figures, hoping it would sway the courts to stand up for artistic integrity. She invited some of the era’s most influential writers, critics, and translators to come to Shakespeare and Company to sign the letter and circulated it across borders throughout Europe. By January of 1927, the campaign had secured the support of the world’s reigning intellect. “I feel greatly honoured by Einstein’s signature, given so quickly and simply,” Joyce wrote to a friend. In its final form, the protest letter bore the signatures of 167 literary titans, including T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, W. Somerset Maugham, E.M. Forster, H.D., André Gide, and Ernest Hemingway. It was published in Paris on February 2 — Joyce’s forty-fifth birthday, exactly five years after Beach published Ulysses — and was reprinted in The New York Times on February 27.
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 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. The question of justification of that exclusion is not now in issue; similar decisions have been made by government officials with reference to works of art before this. The question in issue is whether the public (including the editors and publishers to whom his advertisements are offered) will encourage Mr. Samuel Roth to take advantage of the resultant legal difficulty of the author to deprive him of his property and to mutilate the creation of his art. The undersigned protest against Mr. Roth’s conduct in republishing ULYSSES and appeal to the American public in the name of that security of works of the intellect and the imagination without which art cannot live, to oppose to Mr. Roth’s enterprise the full power of honorable and fair opinion.
Roth went on to print his pirated edition with impunity for months. But although the letter had no immediate effect on securing copyright for Joyce — the legal case took nearly two years to be won — it became the first-ever international writers’ protest, modeling the power of solidarity in the pursuit of justice. Four decades later, amid the tumultuous plight for civil rights, some the world’s most prominent poets would take that example in a remarkable protest letter in defense of Amiri Baraka.
Published February 27, 2018