This month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of author James Joyce’s Dubliners. His collection of short stories depicting the everyday trials and tribulations of the residents of his hometown was released with minimal fanfare in June 1914, but—given the immense literary importance of his subsequent works like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the groundbreaking 1922 Modernist masterpiece Ulysses—has since risen in significance.
But Dubliners didn’t just appear out of nowhere. In fact, its author—and its would-be publishers—endured a painful nine-year-long struggle before the book made it to print. The story of how Dubliners finally came to be printed is a fascinating tale of artistic frustration and persistence despite years of dismissal.
A PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR AS A TEACHER
In late 1904, Joyce was living abroad in self-imposed exile—partially for political reasons, and partially because he eloped with his wife, Nora—when he published three short stories (“The Sisters,” “Eveline,” and “After the Race”) in a weekly publication called The Irish Homestead. The author thought that he might publish a collection of stories in a book the following year, and wrote nine more stories for it; while he was trying to make a living teaching English at a Berlitz Language School in Trieste (now a part of Italy) in 1905, Joyce sent the collection to noted London publisher Grant Richards for consideration.
Richards eventually accepted the book in early 1906, and in February, Joyce sent along a new story called "Two Gallants" for the book. The publisher quickly drew up a contract for the eager—and financially strapped—writer-in-exile to sign in March of that year. And that’s when the trouble began.
A BIG “BLOODY” PROBLEM
Richards didn’t bother to read “Two Gallants” before he sent it and the other proofs of the collection off to the printer. At the time, English law stated that a printer was just as guilty of any charges of obscenity as the writer of the book, and not long after Richards sent in the proofs, the printer informed the publisher that there was “obscenity” in the stories. The objections were about risqué sections in the story “Counterparts,” which described male and female anatomy and, in the story "Grace," there was specific disapproval of the word “bloody” in lines like “Then he has a bloody big bowl of cabbage before him on the table and a bloody big spoon like a shovel."
Richards, who had just rebuilt his publishing company after rebounding from bankruptcy, wanted to make sure there was no trouble with the law. The publisher told Joyce that changes needed to be made. But upon hearing which passages were troublesome, the author pointed out that the word “bloody” appeared numerous times elsewhere in the collection—and in worse contexts, like “Here’s this fellow come to the throne after his bloody owl’ mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey” in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “If any fellow tried that sort of game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat” in “The Boarding-House.”
“I have written my book with considerable care," Joyce said in a letter to Richards, "in spite of a hundred difficulties and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art." Still, with much chagrin, he submitted an entirely altered manuscript in July 1906. It included a new story called “A Little Cloud,” and the allegedly questionable uses of “bloody,” as well as the offensive the portions of “Counterparts,” had been removed. There was also a note from the author to the publisher: “I think I have injured these stories by these deletions but I sincerely trust you will recognize that I have tried to meet your wishes and scruples fairly.”
The writer, thousands of miles away from the publisher, eagerly awaited a response from London about his now-bastardized stories. In September, he finally got one: Richards rejected the altered collection outright, but cheekily implied interest in Joyce’s new autobiographical novel (eventually published as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) with the potential to revisit the short stories later.
Tired of being strung along, Joyce promptly got a lawyer with the intention of suing Richards for breach of contract, but was soon talked down. Instead, Joyce focused on his first book of poems, Chamber Music, which was published in early 1907.
Any influence Joyce thought that little milestone might have had on helping get Dubliners published didn’t; between November 1907 and February 1908, the collection was swiftly rejected by at least four different publishers, and while it drew initial interest from Dublin-based Maunsel & Co., Joyce was so distraught over his failed efforts that it took him a year to work up the courage to send the manuscript to them—which he finally did in April 1909. A positive response from that publishing house prompted an emotionally renewed Joyce to travel to Dublin to meet with Maunsel & Co. co-founder George Roberts, which led to a new contract the writer gladly signed on August 19. But more troubles were ahead.
A ROYAL SETBACK
After the contract was signed, Joyce returned to his teaching job in Trieste. In October 1909, he came back to Dublin to oversee the opening of the city’s first movie theater, the Volta Cinematograph—which he had helped coordinate and gather investors for—and to review the galley proofs of Dubliners before they were sent off to be published. The proofs, however, were delayed until the following year because of a very familiar grievance: Roberts was afraid of potential trouble from what he thought were “obscene” passages, particularly a part from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” that allegedly slandered the recently deceased King Edward VII.
Despite Joyce’s further capitulation to making more changes, Roberts’ overwhelming objections forced the publisher to announce that publication would be postponed indefinitely. Joyce was understandably dejected by the decision. “[I] shall hope that what they may publish may resemble that to the writing of which I gave thought and time,” he wrote to Roberts. But at least he was busy with the Volta ... until July 1910, when financial difficulties and management squabbles caused him to cease his involvement in the cinema altogether.
So Joyce refocused on his old projects, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The writer and Roberts made headway through the end of 1910, with Joyce making reluctant but amicable changes to take out the alleged obscenities in the stories, and the book finally had a proposed release date of January 20, 1911. But after Joyce protested Roberts’ demand to take out all references to the King in “Ivy Day,” the publisher postponed Dubliners yet again.
Knowing how desperate Joyce was, Roberts fell completely out of contact with the writer—who was still in Trieste—in order to get him to accede to every single one of his demands. But Joyce would not back down, and even attempted to match Roberts’ outrageous behavior: He wrote a letter to King George V himself along with the marked passages from “Ivy Day,” graciously asking His Majesty if they were offensive to his dead father. Joyce requested that the King “inform me whether in his view the passage (certain allusions made by a person of the story in the idiom of his social class) should be withheld from publication as offensive.”
Surprisingly, Joyce received a response—but not from the King himself. Instead, the reply came from the King’s secretary, who said that “It is inconsistent with rule for His Majesty to express his opinion in such cases.”
THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
Left to hang out to dry by his publisher—not to mention the King of England—Joyce decided to take out his frustration by writing an account of Dubliners’ troubled publication history to send to the Irish press. He called it “A Curious History,” and it included the allegedly scandalous passage from “Ivy Day” that Roberts objected to. If the broadsheets printed it, Joyce thought, then why couldn’t Roberts?
It was a good idea, but it didn’t have the effect that Joyce had hoped for. A few Irish papers printed the account, but no real change came from it, forcing the perpetually downtrodden writer to go to Dublin and confront his publisher face to face.
Upon seeing Joyce at the Maunsel & Co. offices, Roberts compared him to massive stone cliffs in Northern Ireland, saying, “The Giant’s Causeway is soft putty compared with you,” and the publisher was forced to address the elephant in the room. Roberts explained that he had slowly understood the book to be “anti-Irish,” and publishing such a book would guarantee that the company would lose money. Further meetings bore even more stringent demands from Roberts: He wanted Joyce to substitute fictitious names for the real places included in “Counterparts,” and excise whole stories completely, which Joyce—no doubt exhausted—agreed to. Roberts also demanded a letter, drafted by a lawyer, that stated that the language within “Ivy Day” wasn’t libelous.
Joyce’s lawyer complied, but in a move unlucky for the beleaguered writer, the letter claimed that while the language in “Ivy Day” was harmless, another story in the collection, “An Encounter,” could potentially be libelous. It was later discovered—unbeknownst to Joyce and denied by Roberts—that one of Maunsel & Co.’s biggest clients was Lady Aberdeen. As the wife of the head of the Irish Vigilance Committee, which could prosecute based on libel suits, it was likely that she had put pressure on Roberts to suppress Joyce’s book.
Eventually, following more demands that diluted Joyce’s original vision, the altered proofs of Dubliners made it all the way to the printer. But before the book could be printed, the proofs were surreptitiously destroyed—though not before Joyce managed to get a complete set himself. The details of just how Joyce came by the proofs is still a mystery; all he would say is that he obtained the copy "by ruse."
After this blow, Joyce decided to go back to Trieste—but not before composing an autobiographical poem called “Gas from a Burner,” slamming Roberts as a publisher and for all he had put him through. Joyce never went back to Dublin again.
The next few years were dark times for Joyce, who struggled to support his family financially and himself mentally while completing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and beginning the initial parts of Ulysses. Then, in December 1913, a letter arrived from Grant Richards—the original publisher who had ultimately rejected Dubliners—inquiring about the collection. In the years in between, Joyce had caught the eye of London literary magazine The Egoist—which was overseen by Ezra Pound and eventually edited by Hilda Doolittle and T.S. Eliot—and Richards, inspired by such literary clout, decided he wanted to publish Dubliners after all.
Eight years after signing his first contract with Richards, Joyce signed his second, which stipulated Joyce wouldn’t receive royalties on the first 500 copies of the book and that he had to personally buy 120 copies himself. He later approved proofs (which were ultimately not to his liking because of small inconsistencies, including using quotation marks instead of dashes) at the end of April.
Finally, after nine long years, Dubliners was published on June 15, 1914, in a run of 1250 copies. Though it debuted to generally positive reviews, in its first year, the book sold only 499 copies—one short of Joyce being able to contractually profit from it. Richards eventually passed on publishing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—he found it “quite hopeless”—but he would publish Joyce’s play, Exiles, in 1918. Looking back on those frustrating times, Joyce told author and poet William Butler Yeats, “I hope that now at last matters may begin to go a little more smoothly for me for, to tell the truth, it is very tiresome to wait and hope for so many years.”
And indeed, things would go a little more smoothly from there on out. Dubliners found an American publisher in 1916, heightening Joyce's literary profile and pushing his notoriety worldwide. But it was his monumental masterpiece Ulysses, published in 1922, that made him one of the most renowned writers in history.