James Joyce moves into the public domain, mostly

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When the first day of 2012 dawned, the works of James Joyce moved into the public domain -- for the most part. Joyce’s grandson Stephen, his only living relative, has long been thought to have been more of a hindrance than a help in terms of managing Joyce’s estate. Stephen charged high fees, refused scholars the right to quote from Joyce’s work and shut down the Irish government’s planned public readings of the centenary of ‘Ulysses’ when he threatened litigation.

With works now in the public domain, Stephen can no longer make those calls, Mark O’Connell explains at the New Yorker’s Book Bench. (Strong language criticizing Stephen is quoted in the New Yorker’s Book Bench post). O’Connell writes:


In Dublin, where I live, there is already a palpable sense of transition into a post-Stephen era. Last Friday I went along to Sweny’s, the pharmacy on Lincoln Place made famous by the scene in “Ulysses” where Bloom purchases a bar of soap with a “sweet lemony wax” in advance of a trip to the public baths. Sweny’s ceased trading as a pharmacy in 2009, and is now a museum and bookshop preserved in its turn-of-the-twentieth-century form. A public reading from “The Dead” was due to take place in the tiny shop, but an unexpectedly large crowd and the presence of a film crew forced the event around the corner to the bar of the Montclare Hotel (itself a watering hole much frequented by Joyce in his youth). There, copies of “Dubliners” were handed out to everyone who showed up. The gathering was composed mainly of actual Dubliners, and it was lovely to hear the story being read aloud in the voices of the city it celebrates, on the date on which it is set — January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany. The reading was a reminder of what “public domain” actually means: Joyce’s work now belongs to the people.

Rules about the public domain are different in different nations, and some of Joyce’s work has already moved out of copyright in the U.S. What may be most significant here is that Joyce’s unpublished work, particularly his letters, will be available to scholars.

‘These are letters that Stephen had adamantly refused to publish, so their publication is going to be really important for Joyce scholarship,’ Sean Latham, a professor of English at the University of Tulsa who edits the journal James Joyce Quarterly, tells O’Connell. ‘We’ll have all kinds of stories that we can finally tell about Joyce and his life that we couldn’t tell before.’

But the letters connected to Joyce haven’t all been stashed away in a safe deposit box, awaiting their day of release. In 1988, Stephen told a room full of Joyce scholars that he had destroyed the letters his Aunt Lucia (Joyce’s daughter) had written to him and his wife, and destroyed correspondence sent to her by Samuel Beckett; that’s from a 2006 article in the New Yorker by DT Max that focused on Stephen’s management of the Joyce estate. Some scholars, O’Connell writes, may continue to tread carefully around Stephen, who retains some control over parts of Joyce’s literary legacy.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg