Deadline “Ulysses”

How James Joyce completed his great novel by his 40th birthday.

Deadline “Ulysses”

IN THE FIRST EDITION of Ulysses, 732 pages stretch from Buck Mulligan’s “Stately, plump” appearance atop the Sandycove Martello Tower to Molly Bloom’s final “Yes” as she lies in bed head to foot with Leopold Bloom at 7 Eccles Street. These 700-plus pages cost James Joyce over seven years of labor through thousands of pages of notesheets, notebook drafts, fair-copy manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs, leading up to the morning of his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. That morning, the 7:00 a.m. Dijon–Paris express train arrived at the Gare de Lyon and the conductor handed Sylvia Beach, the expatriate American owner of Shakespeare and Company and first-time publisher, the first two printed copies of Ulysses. Beach took a cab to deliver one copy to Joyce at his flat, and then proudly displayed the other Greek-blue tome in her bookshop. For the coterie of expatriates, writers, and intellectuals in Beach’s and Joyce’s orbits, this was an epoch-making day. For us, 100 years later, February 2, 1922, seems no less extraordinary as we mark the day Joyce’s second novel appeared as a bound edition.

Ulysses’s myth precedes it. Hailed as one of the most important books of the 20th century for its thematic and technical innovations, bemoaned as a stylistic leg-pull and a substanceless Easter-egg hunt for stuffy professors, there are as many opinions about Ulysses as there are potential readers. The novel’s mythic status as a dangerous book was cemented by its two obscenity trials: the 1921 trial of The Little Review spurred by the serialization of the 13th episode, “Nausicaa,” and the 1933 trial after the first authorized American publisher of the novel, Random House, had an imported copy seized by the US Customs Service. In addition to the succès de scandale, Joyce himself was happy enough to bolster the novel’s mythos before he’d finished the text itself by distributing explanatory schemata to a few proselytizers and helping the novelist and critic Valery Larbaud prepare a lecture and reading held on December 7, 1921, in Adrienne Monnier’s Parisian bookshop La maison des amis des livres. When Joyce sent the earliest schema to his friend Carlo Linati in September 1920, he included a description of the symbolic registers of the novel he was working on:

It is an epic of two races (Israelite — Irish) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). […] It is also a kind of encyclopaedia. My intention is not only to render the myth sub specie temporis nostri but also to allow each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the somatic scheme of the whole) to condition and even to create its own technique. [1]

This letter is often cited to point to Joyce’s intentions with Ulysses, and the novel is generally presented to new readers along with the schemata’s details of the novel’s symbolic structure. This is not to say that such correspondences aren’t present in the text or that they don’t matter, but instead that a narrow focus on seeking them out diminishes possible reading experiences, flattening them into a kind of textual Where’s Waldo? These Homeric parallels colored Joyce scholarship for decades largely thanks to Stuart Gilbert’s reliance on the second and more fully fleshed-out schema — prepared for Larbaud’s lecture — in his 1930 book James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. It aimed to give as complete a sense of Ulysses as possible to interested readers who couldn’t get their hands on a copy of the scarce and pricey novel. Thus, Gilbert reproduces extensive quotes from the text and heads each chapter with the corresponding Homeric title — which appeared nowhere in the published edition — along with other schema details for an episode’s scene, hour, art, symbol, and technic (a term Joyce used as a rough synonym for “style”).

So, we’ve inherited interpretive commonplaces of Ulysses as a scandalous book, Stephen Dedalus as an analogue of Telemachus, Leopold Bloom as Odysseus, Molly Bloom as Penelope, the four bodies of water Paddy Dignam’s funeral cortège crosses — two rivers, the Dodder and the Liffey, and the Grand and Royal canals — as four of the rivers (Phlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron, and Styx) that separate the world of the living from that of the shades in Hades. If, as we approach the centenary of Ulysses’s publication, we topple this myth of a necessary armature that gives a coherent structure to the seeming linguistic chaos on the page, then we’re forced to consider other common assumptions about Joyce’s mastery of his materials. This route of inquiry leads to bigger quandaries, such as: What is the nature of a finished work of art? And when does a writer knows that a book is complete? The story of how Joyce finished Ulysses so he could have a printed copy in hand on his 40th birthday provides some possible answers.

It’s reasonable to assume that Joyce knew what he was doing early in his writing process; we might look to the schemata as a kind of paint-by-numbers plan that Joyce had to hand as he wrote the book to match, scattering in relevant Homeric allusions here and there as he drafted. Yet Joyce’s working materials show us a much more recursive and systematic, if haphazard, process. Daniel Ferrer has dubbed Joyce’s linking of the novel to the Odyssey a “retrospective Homerization” created as much by Joyce and his early explicators, such as Larbaud and Gilbert, as by the work itself. In 1917, as Joyce was drafting the first three episodes of the novel in Zurich, the Homeric parallels were only sketchily construed: in Joyce’s “Subject Notebook” — so-called because of each page’s subject heading (e.g., “Stephen,” “Theosophy”) — there is a single entry on the page headed “Homer”: “Calypso = Penelope.” This note hints at the eventual circularity of the novel — Molly Bloom is analogous to both Calypso and Penelope — but Joyce didn’t know what book he was writing until much later in Ulysses’s composition process than we might suppose, indicating that his development of the novel was primarily one of discovery rather than a preplanned undertaking.

In the early stages, Joyce’s conception of Ulysses was fungible, and it changed throughout the novel’s composition, frequently in response to extratextual influences, like the discontinued serialization in The Little Review. The earliest letters in which Joyce mentions Ulysses as a new artistic project, in June and July 1915, speak of the novel in terms of an unbroken continuity with his fiction to date, “a continuation” of the bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and the stories in Dubliners (1914). Announcing happily to his brother Stanislaus on the auspicious date of June 16, 1915, that “[t]he first episode of my new novel Ulysses is written,” he claimed that the book would have 22 episodes: “The first part, the Telemachiad, consists of four episodes: the second of fifteen, that is, Ulysses’ wanderings: and the third, Ulysses’ return home, of three more episodes.” At the end of the notebook that includes the earliest existing drafts of “Proteus” and “Sirens,” there are notes under the heading “Lacedemon,” suggesting a partially conceptualized fourth episode of the Telemachia.

Three years later, however, after Ulysses’s serialization in The Little Review had begun, the novel’s developing form and final shape seemed to remain unclear in Joyce’s mind. In May 1918, after delivering six episodes to The Little Review, Joyce reduced the planned number of episodes to 17. Evidently, Ezra Pound, acting as Joyce’s agent and editor during this period, was still in the dark as late as November 22, 1918, when he asked Joyce, “Has ‘Ulysses’ 24 Odyssean books?” It is only through the process of composing and extensively revising — for instance, Joyce claimed to have worked 1,000 hours on “Oxen of the Sun” — that the 18 episodes of the finished novel became the mythic Ulysses.

For Joyce, the completion of Ulysses was an ever-moving target. On March 15, 1917, he wrote to a close friend in Dublin that he would finish the book in 1918. Needless to say, this was wishful thinking. After Beach agreed to publish the novel in a private edition for subscribers, the first two versions of the prospectus promised a 600-page volume to be released in autumn 1921; a third and final version of the prospectus incudes the final page count of 732 but indicates no publication date. In the autumn of 1921, Joyce was still at work completing the manuscript. On October 29, 1921, he wrote to Robert McAlmon “that I have just finished the Ithaca episode so that at last the writing of Ulysses is finished. I have still a lot of proofreading and revising to do but the composition is at an end.” As late as November 1, 1921, Joyce still wasn’t certain when the book would be published, though he claimed to have completed what was to be the penultimate episode, “Ithaca,” the last episode of the novel to be finished (he had completed “Penelope” on October 6): “What remains to be done is the revision of proofs of the last four episodes.” He mused in the same letter that the book should be “out in a few weeks.” But “finished” and revised are two different things, as Eric Bulson pointed out recently in Ulysses by Numbers (2020). Bulson reminds us that Ulysses is “a gradually discovered fiction,” and Joyce discovered it through iteration: adding to successive versions of the episodes. In all, Joyce worked on “Ithaca” through eight iterations.

Studying the writing process of authors like Joyce requires a recalibration of how we think about the polyvocality and totalizing aims of encyclopedic novels such as Ulysses. In Joyce’s case, an additive compulsion is clearest in the “Ithaca” drafts and proofs. One reason the episode is so instructive is because it serves as a kind of recapitulation of much of the information we learn about Stephen, Bloom, and Molly in the preceding 16 episodes. For instance, the budget Bloom composes in “Ithaca” recounts in cold financial terms the adventures of his day through their associated commerce: the threepence pork kidney reminds us of his breakfast in “Calypso,” while the seven pence spent on “1 Lunch” recalls the gorgonzola cheese sandwich he ate in the “moral pub” Davy Byrne’s in “Lestrygonians.”

Joyce was adding to the proofs of earlier episodes concurrent with drafting “Ithaca.” As he embellished earlier parts of the novel, he had to fill in gaps to make the parts fit together coherently. Moreover, Joyce’s pace of addition betrays an underlying anxiety about producing an exhaustive record to account for an Edwardian Dublin that had been swept away by the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence (or Anglo-Irish War, depending on one’s political affiliations). In his study of encyclopedic modernist novels, Tense Future (2015), Paul K. Saint-Amour observed that the form “provision[s] against catastrophe,” a trait exemplified by the many recognizable Dublin landmarks, businesses, and citizens that litter the pages of Ulysses. Frank Budgen recalls Joyce telling him, as they walked along the Universitätstrasse in Zürich, that in Ulysses he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Timing suggests that Joyce likely told Budgen something like this after the April 1916 Easter Rising, a conflict during which much of the central part of the city around the General Post Office was reduced to rubble by British bombardment.

Joyce’s process was accretive, and he radically transformed Ulysses in 1921, while the manuscript was in proofs. During this late stage of production, he added one-third of the novel’s text in the margins of the typeset pages. But Joyce wasn’t adding text for the sake of length or difficulty, though these undeniably are effects of the additions; rather, fundamental characteristics of the novel’s episodes were bolstered at this stage. Joyce was no longer subject to deadlines and restrictions associated with serial publication. (This serialization abruptly ended following the first installment of “Oxen of the Sun” in the September–December 1920 issue of The Little Review, as the magazine suspended publication in preparation for the 1921 obscenity trial in the Southern District of New York.) With the author given time now to shape episodes in an open-ended fashion, the later sections of the book became much more complex and stylistically stranger.

Much of the book’s characteristic humor and allusiveness enters the novel in Joyce’s marginal scrawlings on the proof sheets. For instance, Bloom’s satirical commentary on the Latin Mass in “Lotus Eaters” is written at this stage. And take, for example, the way the “Hades” episode was altered from the version that appeared in the September 1918 issue of The Little Review to the 1922 book publication. As Paddy Dignam’s funeral cortège nears the Grand Canal, the serial Little Review version records Bloom’s reflections on his father’s last wishes as:

Gasworks. Whooping cough they say it cures. Good job Milly never got it. Poor children. Doubles them up black and blue. Shame really. Dogs’ home over there. Poor old Àthos! Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish. He took it to heart, pined away. Quiet brute. Old men’s dogs usually are.

The gasworks and dog’s home illustrate how Bloom’s train of thought is environmentally inflected while also introducing a little local color. But Joyce’s additions to this passage more fully flesh out Bloom’s reflections on his daughter Milly, on childhood disease, and on his father’s last wish, in order to heighten the pathos of these reminiscences and draw out Bloom’s gallows humor. The published edition of the passage reads:

Gasworks. Whooping cough they say it cures. Good job Milly never got it. Poor children! Doubles them up black and blue in convulsions. Shame really. Got off lightly with illness compared. Only measles. Flaxseed tea. Scarlatina, influenza epidemics. Canvassing for death. Don’t miss this chance. Dogs’ home over there. Poor old Athos! Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish. Thy will be done. We obey them in the grave. A dying scrawl. He took it to heart, pined away. Quiet brute. Old men’s dogs usually are.

The insertions heighten the emotional weight of Bloom’s memories. They give us more detail about how relatively lucky Milly was only to get measles, a counterpoint to Bloom’s reflections elsewhere in the episode on the “dwarf’s face mauve and wrinkled” of his son, Rudy, who died at 10 days old. The children doubled up with whooping cough become dynamic (“in convulsions”), and Bloom’s sympathy reads as stronger with the exclamation point after “poor children.” We also have our first hint of Bloom’s father’s suicide note, the “dying scrawl.” Moreover, much of the new text highlights Bloom’s linguistic playfulness. He quotes the Lord’s Prayer in response to his father’s final wish, substituting his earthly father’s will for that of a heavenly father’s. Finally, in the mention of “influenza epidemics,” which must have been spurred by the pandemic of Spanish flu that began in 1918, Joyce gives us a glimpse into Bloom’s ad-canvasing lens on the world with the salesman’s pitch, “Don’t miss this chance.” By expanding the passage and mixing registers in this way, Joyce gives a fuller sense of the cast of Bloom’s mind, and we see the mature Ulyssean style emerge, against which The Little Review version seems somewhat stiff.

Joyce so assiduously added to his novel at each stage of the production process that we can say accretion and expansion are the primary modes of his creation; and corresponding to the growth of text, the novel became increasingly playful and self-reflexive. The late Professor Michael Groden first showed — in his landmark study of Ulysses’s manuscripts, Ulysses in Progress (1977) — that Joyce’s aesthetic aims shifted over the course of the novel’s composition, from a primary interest in “novelistic” features such as story and character to a later focus on the styles that would “translate” the story. The newspaper headlines added to the “Aeolus” proofs in August 1921 are one such example of form and content coalescing to greater effect. As with the interpolations in “Cyclops,” the hallucinatory passages of “Circe,” and the narrators’ flights of fancy in “Ithaca,” expansive riffing — much of it added in 1921 — becomes the dominant feature of these later episodes.

The textual expansion in the existing “Ithaca” drafts and proofs shows Joyce’s process. On February 4, 1921, with “Eumaeus” and “Circe” behind him, Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, the patron who essentially financed the writing of Ulysses, that he only had “two final and shorter episodes” left to finish. That June, as he struggled with the penultimate episode, he wrote that “Ithaca is giving me fearful trouble”; evidently, this second-longest episode of the book was not to be as short as he had foreseen. It’s around this time that Joyce landed on the 40th birthday publication deadline (though he continued to express hope in letters that it would be published earlier), and it was a race to get the book into print. Miraculously, Ulysses was published on Joyce’s self-imposed deadline, largely thanks to Beach’s unyielding coordination and the patient, heroic work of the Francophone printer Maurice Darantiere and his typesetters.

In early August, Joyce had written to Weaver, “I have the greater part of Ithaca but it has to be completed, revised and rearranged above all on account of its scheme.” After completing “Penelope” and sending it to the printers on October 6, 1921, he could turn his attention fully to “Ithaca,” which he described to Budgen as “the ugly duckling of the book.” On October 29, Joyce announced to McAlmon that “the writing of Ulysses is finished.” The scale of revision Joyce still had in store was astounding.


The earliest existing draft of “Ithaca” is, like most of Joyce’s drafts and notes, in an inexpensive notebook. Joyce initially follows his standard drafting practice of writing on the right-hand pages of the notebook while leaving the left-hand pages empty for further insertions and elaborations. This practice lasts a single page before he begins to fill the left-hand pages with blocks of text and further insertions.

In this first draft, Joyce knows that he will use a style he calls “mathematical catechism,” but the questions are not fully developed. He hasn’t yet found the right language so that, as he wrote to Budgen about the episode’s style, “the reader will know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way.” The draft is also rather disordered, as are many of the early Ulysses drafts held by the National Library of Ireland, so it seems that Joyce first wrote the main features of the episode before settling on a sequence. After Bloom and Stephen make it into 7 Eccles Street, the next page’s first question reads, “What was his ultimate ambition?” followed by the description of Bloom’s ideal semi-detached villa, Flowerville. While Joyce envisions these set pieces early on, the structuring and scope of “Ithaca” are unlike what we know from the published text, where Flowerville doesn’t appear until about two-thirds of the way through the episode.

At a glance, it is clear how much Joyce expands the text of “Ithaca” in this early composition process. Overall, this initial draft of text is 5,392 words, and there were 2,325 words inserted in marginal and interlinear additions, for a final count of 7,717 words. This is a 43 percent increase, an expansion consistent with Richard Madtes’s accounting of the Rosenbach manuscript and published text. In his 1964 essay “Joyce and the Building of Ithaca,” Madtes found that Joyce added 42 percent (9,380 words) of the episode’s final word count (22,421 words) to the fair-copy Rosenbach manuscript. Considering the number of words Joyce changed (348) and the number of words he deleted (79) from the Rosenbach manuscript, his almost inexhaustibly accretive writing process for this episode is clear. This massive addition suggests that the episode could have been indefinitely expansive had he not chosen the birthday deadline for the book’s publication.


Tracking the development of a single passage can show more clearly how Joyce’s process manifested in the latest stages of completing the novel. To this end, I’ll use the “water hymn,” that famous 459-word rhapsodic passage in “Ithaca” on the qualities of water Bloom admired. The first draft of the hymn is spurred by the unenticing question “He admired water?” There’s none of the mythico-pseudoscientific language the published question carries: “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?” The drafted response is a short 58 words, with marginal inclusions of 36 words (indicated here between carets):

Yes, its universality ^and equality, ever seeking its own level, constant to its nature,^ its vastness in oceans ^on Mercalli’s projector^, its secrecy in springs ^such as the Hole in the Wall well by the Ashtown gate^, its healing virtues, its properties for washing, ^nourishing flowers & plants^ quenching thirst, and fire, it strength in hard hydrants, its docility in working millwheels, canals, electric power stations, ^its utility in bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills,^ the fauna and flora it gave life to, its evil in marches, faded flowers, pestilent fens, stagnant pools when the moon waned.

Joyce transferred these 94 words directly to the Rosenbach manuscript — his mostly legible manuscript draft, from which typescripts were produced — adding another 76 words in the margins and drafting a 117-word block on the facing page. To these now 283 words, Joyce added another 176 in the margins of the proofs, so that 38 percent of the water hymn’s total length was produced in the waning months of 1921.

It is at the proof stage that the passage gains some of its more memorable features. Joyce adds technical language like “hydrostatic,” “hydrokinetic,” “(anacoustic, photophobe),” and “latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments”; reflections of other parts of the novel (“gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses” recalls Stephen’s quip in “Telemachus” that “All Ireland is washed by the Gulfstream”); poetic-sounding phrases like “the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed” and “saturation of air, distillation of dew”; and, finally, the exhaustive list of water’s states, “its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail.”

“Ithaca” ends with a large period — “la réponse à la dernière demande est un point” (“the response to the last question is a point”) Joyce writes at the end of the Rosenbach version of the episode — which we might read as the full stop that ends the novel’s production. The penultimate alteration for which we have evidence was sent by Joyce to Darantiere on January 30 (Darantiere received final revisions to “Penelope” on page proofs the next day). This final revision to “Ithaca” involves a passage near the end of the episode in which Bloom, finally at home and in his marital bed, “silently recapitulate[s]” his day’s trajectory by listing the earlier episodes in religious terms. This retrospective list includes such humorous comparisons as one between Bloom’s outhouse and the most sacred space in a temple, “intestinal congestion and premeditative defecation (holy of holies),” and the citizen’s violence Bloom faced partly for his Jewishness, “the altercation with a truculent troglodyte in Bernard Kiernan’s premises (holocaust).”

That list sums up the 16th episode, “Eumaeus,” this way: the “nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman’s shelter, Butt Bridge (atonement).” “Atonement” was substituted in for “peace offering” a few days before Joyce had the printed edition in hand; in the margin of the proof, Darantiere has drawn a box and written inside, “lettre de M. Joyce reçue le 30.1.22.” Joyce was deeply attuned to etymologies, so we should hesitate to assume that he means the primary sense we have of atonement: the expiation of sin. An archaic first definition listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “The condition of being at one with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement” — which adds a layer of irony to the scene where Bloom and Stephen share coffee and buns under Butt Bridge. For the two protagonists of Ulysses, this moment of communion isn’t exactly harmonious, but perhaps that makes it all the more realistic: they talk at cross-purposes and misunderstand each other, at the very moment when these two black-clad outsiders might hope to find a close human connection.

In a way, then, Joyce’s final pre-publication revision to “Ithaca” is telling: it seeks to bring into coherent alignment the “Ithacan” closure of the Stephen- and Bloom-centric narrative before transitioning to Molly’s final eight sentences. Unfortunately, like the underwhelming meeting of the sonless father and fatherless son, this sense of completion is all too short-lived. In fact, it was precluded by a note on the first edition’s colophon, written by Joyce but initialed by Beach, which reads, “The publisher asks the reader’s indulgence for typographical errors unavoidable in the exceptional circumstances.” In the wake of such “exceptional circumstances,” Joyce soon began compiling lists of errata to correct the corruptions that the hastened, unconventional, multilingual publication process had unsurprisingly created.

Ulysses’s travails didn’t end on Joyce’s 40th birthday. It wasn’t until mid-March that the full first edition was published, and along with errata, Joyce would have to contend with Samuel Roth’s piracy of the novel in Two Worlds Monthly (from July 1926 to October 1927) and, later, the Random House obscenity trial. But on that winter morning in Paris, the novel had come into the world, and for a brief moment 100 years ago, Joyce could stop working on Ulysses.


Images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.


Philip Keel Geheber studied James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscripts while completing his PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. He teaches in the Princeton University Writing Program.


[1] The original letter is in Italian. This is Stuart Gilbert’s translation from the first volume of Joyce’s letters.

LARB Contributor

Philip Keel Geheber studied James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscripts while completing his PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. He teaches in the Princeton University Writing Program.


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