James Joyce and the Nutty Professor

Big academic troublemaker John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar, has been making noises for over 10 years that he was the man who would finally put out the definitive edition of Ulysses . He has an advance of $100,000 from W.W. Norton & Company and grant money galore that is supposed to help him do just that. Now it may be time for him to back up all his talk. Mr. Kidd, backed by several experts in copyright law, argues that the novel’s 75-year copyright will lapse on the last day of 1997. Starting Jan. 1, 1998, in other words, anyone in the United States with a photocopy machine, printing press or Web site is free to publish an edition of the 1922 modern masterpiece, which was first published in Paris by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare & Company. After decades of making money for its U.S. publisher Random House and the Joyce Estate, Ulysses , Mr. Kidd argues, has slipped into the public domain.

“It means I’m liberated,” said Mr. Kidd. The scholar, who is head of the James Joyce Research Center at Boston University, said his edition will come closer to the Ulysses James Joyce intended than any previous edition. His version, he said, corrects roughly 2,500 textual errors that have crept their way into the novel.

But Random House is not about to give up the right to serve as exclusive U.S. publisher of this literary jewel without a good fight. The publishing house and the Joyce Estate are fierce in their belief that the U.S. copyright of Ulysses does not expire until 2008, 75 years since its domestic publication date in 1934.

In recent months, the Joyce Estate has retained the services of slash-and-burn literary agent Andrew Wylie to put a scare into any other publisher who might consider trying to take a piece of the U.S. market away from Random House, which continues to sell about 100,000 copies of Ulysses a year domestically at $19 a pop. Mr. Wylie has sent strongly worded letters to publishers like Penguin Putnam Inc. and Oxford University Press, discouraging them from going ahead with their own planned 1998 editions of Ulysses .

Reached at his home in the French countryside for a rare interview, Stephen James Joyce, the cantankerous sexagenarian grandson of James Joyce and overseer of the Joyce Estate, had this to say about those who would dare publish another version of Ulysses : “A plague on all their houses!” It does not take a scholar skilled in the intricacies of the master’s work to know that Mr. Joyce-a graduate of Andover and Harvard College who is given to boasting, “I am a Joyce, not a Joycean”-is not exactly eager to see the U.S. market saturated with pulpy new editions.

And so the academic scrum known as the Joyce Wars rages on.

Johnny the Kid

For Mr. Kidd, 44, the copyright issue is about more than profit; his reputation is on the line.

Mr. Kidd made a name for himself by discrediting the work of other scholars, most notably the 1984 Critical and Synoptic Edition of Ulysses edited by Hans Walter Gabler. Mr. Gabler’s version got around copyright restrictions because it had the blessing of the Joyce Estate; Vintage Books, a division of Random House, was the publisher. Mr. Kidd’s trashing of Mr. Gabler’s Ulysses was so convincing that even Joyce scholars (such as biographer Richard Ellmann) who had praised the edition recanted. More recently, Mr. Kidd added his own weight to the pile of Joyce scholars who jumped all over Danis Rose’s 1997 Ulysses: The Readers Edition , which was published by Picador in Britain, where the book had fallen into the public domain.

By going after other scholars, Mr. Kidd may have set himself up for a fall. “Kidd has made a great many enemies,” said Charles Rossman, an ally of Mr. Kidd’s who is a professor at the University of Texas. Mr. Kidd’s much-anticipated, much-delayed edition of the book must be just about perfect, or his rivals will stomp all over him with a malicious glee. They’re already rumbling.

“It sounds to me like he’s running on empty,” said Michael Groden, a Joycean at the University of Western Ontario.

Robert Spoo, the editor of the James Joyce Quarterly , has also grown tired of waiting. “It’s been an awful long time that we’ve been waiting for Kidd and Norton to get off the dime,” said Mr. Spoo, a professor at the University of Tulsa. “The Joyce world is increasingly impatient with the Kidd edition, especially after he made so much noise about the inadequacy of other editions.”

Mr. Kidd-who is 6 feet 2 inches tall, thin, with strawberry-blond hair-wears Italian suits, a fedora and large cashmere overcoats, a look he calls “very Miller’s Crossing .” The get-up is fitting, because the professor has more in common with a grandiose Hollywood director who has run over budget and out of time than the usual gray figures of academe.

When Mr. Kidd and his staff are not tinkering with a comma for his planned Norton edition of Ulysses , they’re devoting their energies to an ambitious CD-ROM version of the book-”the world’s single most comprehensive digital document ever made,” Mr. Kidd said. The CD-ROM has so far cost $500,000, most of it provided by Boston University, and Mr. Kidd said he has another quarter-million dollars in the bank. The cost overruns have put him at odds with the school’s financial officers, whom Mr. Kidd has blasted in the press. He said the CD-ROM will include 2,000 photographs and 15,000 annotations. It will star Mr. Kidd himself as an on-screen commentator, in “Russell Baker mode,” he said. To realize his grand projects, the professor said, he sets aside half his annual salary to buy archival Joyce material.

The son of a Navy hurricane hunter and a 1950 Miss Eglin Field, Mr. Kidd grew up a military brat in England and Guam, “catching minnows and tadpoles,” he said. At Boston University, he is viewed as an amiable but driven eccentric. He is known for coming to the aid of injured mice, pigeons and even worms on campus. On one occasion, Mr. Kidd showed up at his office with a sick duck. He’s also known for berating graduate students, many of whom are “Joyce nuts,” Mr. Kidd said, the kind who “make Christmas cards with a picture of James Joyce with a Santa’s hat on.”

Mr. Kidd is obsessive not just about matters of textual accuracy in Ulysses ; he wants his book to look the way Joyce had imagined it, down to the pagination and lineation. “Ours is going to be so much of a more beautiful book,” he said. “You know, with the big bold headlines that Joyce instructed in Chapter 7 in the newspaper episode.”

Mr. Kidd is an accidental Joycean. He had planned to specialize in Jungian psychology, but a trip to Zurich, where Joyce is buried, changed his focus. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he studied Joyce on his own, without the customary academic mentor. “I never studied Joyce with anyone, and I’ve never taught him,” Mr. Kidd said. “Isn’t that frightening?”

After Santa Cruz, Mr. Kidd was accepted as an Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Studies, where he studied scholarly editing, particularly the problems with the 1984 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses .

‘A Complete Bum’?

There is no “definitive” version. The novel about a day in the life of Dublin resident Leopold Bloom was published under harried circumstances in 1922. The type was set in Dijon by French typesetters who spoke little English. Complicating their task was Joyce’s innovative syntax and diction, his use of foreign languages, literary allusions and unorthodox typographical instructions. Joyce himself was perhaps the only person qualified to proofread the manuscripts, but he seemed more eager to add text to his proofs, even in the late stages of editing. The resulting first edition was plagued with errors: misspellings, misplaced commas and, in a few instances, missing passages.

Subsequent editions of the book corrected some errors, and added others. “It’s almost impossible to be certain you’ve got Joyce’s own words,” said Mr. Rossman of the University of Texas. “A whole bunch of people have wanted to establish a correct edition of Ulysses .”

In the late 1970′s, the Munich scholar Hans Walter Gabler received a six-figure grant from the German Government to undertake just such a project. The Joyce Estate encouraged Mr. Gabler to include “a significant amount of fresh material” in his edition. That “fresh material,” they apparently hoped, might have established a new 75-year copyright term that would have started on the book’s publication date, leaving the Joyce Estate and Random House rolling in Ulysses money well into the next century. Working with a team of scholars and using computers to collate the many manuscripts, proofs and editions that together made up the 1922 edition, Mr. Gabler labored for seven years at the task.

It was published in three volumes in 1984 and came out in paperback in 1986 as the “Corrected Text” by Vintage books, a division of Random House. The company shelved the 1961 edition it had been selling, and Mr. Gabler’s edition was met with almost unanimous praise. In the forward of the Vintage edition, the esteemed Joycean Richard Ellmann called it the “ideal text.”

But Mr. Kidd was burning. As a graduate student, he had visited Mr. Gabler’s Munich offices and was distressed by his elder’s methods-which he described as “superficial, based on the crudest facsimiles with the minimum attention to originals.” When Mr. Gabler’s edition came out, Mr. Kidd, still a postdoctoral candidate, undertook an intense scrutiny of Mr. Gabler’s changes and research methods, inspired, he said, out of sympathy for Joyce’s novel.

“It was like my thing with the animals,” he said. “You see this animal that’s hurt-what are going to do, just walk by?”

Then, in 1985, in one of the great modern academic shootouts, Mr. Kidd presented his findings at a New York City conference of the Society for Textual Scholarship in a paper called “Errors of Execution in the 1984 Ulysses .” Mr. Gabler had obtained an advanced copy of Mr. Kidd’s paper, and he showed up at the meeting, a 10-page rebuttal in hand.

After the presentation by this young academic nobody, Mr. Gabler rose and said, “I wish I had the privilege of answering a worthier challenge.” He went on to call Mr. Kidd’s criticisms “unfounded and misconceived.”

But in a lengthy 1988 New York Review of Books article called “The Scandal of Ulysses,” Mr. Kidd explained his reasoning. In the bellicose language that has come to characterize the debate, he judged the Gabler edition “shoddy scholarship … puffed out with grandiose claims.”

The “Gablerites,” as Mr. Kidd calls them, took their swipes at him as well; one German ally of Mr. Gabler circulated an article in which he described Mr. Kidd as “drooling away in bewildering gibberish.”

In the end, though, scholars backed Mr. Kidd. A committee of scholars assembled by Random House’s then editor in chief, Jason Epstein, recommended that the company reissue its 1961 edition-an acknowledgment that the Gabler was not much of an improvement after all. The 1961 edition now slightly outsells Mr. Gabler’s “Corrected Text.”

Mr. Kidd knows that by taking on Mr. Gabler, he has invited harsh scrutiny of his own work. “If I passed away without my edition coming out, I’d feel sorry for anybody else who sort of picked up the flag,” he said. “Imagine the attention you could get by being the one journalist who decided to expose Kidd as a complete bum.”

For his role in attacking the Gabler edition, Mr. Kidd was rewarded with the position at Boston University, where he is the darling of the school’s voluble chancellor, John Silber. Mr. Silber gave Mr. Kidd the financial backing and a staff. Norton coughed up the $100,000 advance in 1991, with an eye toward publishing it in 1992, when Ulysses entered public domain in Europe.

But ever since, the edition has languished, as if suffering under Stephen Joyce’s call for a “plague” upon Joyce scholars. Mr. Kidd said he was ready to go with an edition in mid-1992. But then his first editor at Norton, Barry Wade, died. Then, his second editor left the company. Norton lost a set of proofs-and along with it, hundreds of hours worth of typographic labor-according to Mr. Kidd.

It would take a roomful of copyright lawyers to decide the issue, but Mr. Kidd’s theory is that he could have published legally his Ulysses back in 1992. It seems the copyright circumstances surrounding the book have always been murky. In a 1934 letter to legendary Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, James Joyce alluded to this himself: “I was unable to acquire the copyright in the United States since I could not comply with the requirements of the American copyright law which demands the republication in the United States of any English book published elsewhere within a period of six months after the date of such publication …”

Because the first edition of Ulysses came out in 1922, and the U.S. edition was put out 12 years later, it seems likely that Joyce was right-his masterpiece was not really protected under the terms of the protectionist Copyright Act of 1909. Mr. Kidd was banking on his literary hero’s opinion in this matter, and in 1994, he was ready to go once again. But then Norton and Mr. Kidd ran into a more formidable obstacle in the realm of copyright. What was it? In a word, GATT-the Global Agreement on Trades and Tariffs.

When Mr. Kidd reviewed the GATT treaty, he said, “I realized, ‘Oh, my God. We can’t publish till the last day of ’97.”

An intellectual property provision in the agreement retroactively restored 75 years of copyright protection to foreign works that, like Ulysses , had been deprived of copyright protection because of the 1909 legislation. So unless he could secure permission from the ornery Joyce Estate, Mr. Kidd would have to wait until that 75-year period expired.

But when, exactly, did that 75-year clock begin ticking? Nobody really knows for sure. It’s likely an issue that must be tested in court. Mr. Kidd argues the term began in 1922 with the book’s publication in France. Random House and the Joyce Estate say the clock didn’t start running until 1934, when, after overcoming an obscenity ban, Ulysses was published on U.S. soil.

Right now, the book is not on any list of planned Norton publications, and Mr. Kidd is complaining that all the legal snags have caused his intellectual efforts to be treated no differently than “cars and mangos.”

Stephen Joyce Snipes

Stephen Joyce has been reluctant to grant rights to his grandfather’s oeuvre . The Joyce Estate is “very hostile to Joyce scholarship on the whole,” said Mr. Spoo, the Joyce Quarterly editor. Mr. Spoo himself has gotten so absorbed with the intellectual property issues surrounding the book that he has gone to law school to figure them out.

Mr. Joyce said he is simply responding to an unseemly interest by academics in his grandfather’s personal life. “I’m the last direct descendent of James Joyce,” he said. “I feel certain duties and obligations. Where does the right to know stop or begin.… Is it a right at all?” Scholarship has its limits, he argued. “To love and to admire a writer does not mean that you own him,” he said.

Mr. Kidd has also become an amateur legal scholar because of the copyright confusion, and he has been the driving force behind the push to publish a new American Ulysses in 1998.

He said he introduced Norton’s attorneys to the idea of publishing in 1998, and they came on board. In the fall, the Dec. 31, 1997, copyright expiration date showed up in Internet discussions among scholars and in the press as an established fact. Rival publishers like Penguin Putnam began to prepare their own 1998 editions, and Oxford University Press had begun selling British editions of Ulysses in U.S. bookstores.

So Stephen Joyce went on the offensive: He hired the Manhattan literary agent Andrew Wylie, a man dubbed “the Jackal” by the London tabloid press.

According to Tom Staley, a Joycean at the University of Texas, the idea of the Jackal joining up with the Joyce Estate “put the fear of God in all these scholars because [Mr. Wylie] is always talking about big bucks … Most Joyce scholars are mousy as hell.”

Random House, which would not cooperate with this article, also made its stance known. Its attorney Lesley Oelsner gave a terse statement to Lingua Franca magazine in October: “U.S. copyright does not lapse on Dec. 31, 1997.”

That little comment enraged Mr. Kidd. “I’ve been to the Library of Congress,” he said. “I’ve been to the Bennett Cerf archives at Columbia. I’ve studied all the international law books. Everybody else is just bluffing. They don’t cite any law. They’re just making a bald assertion.”

But the publishing houses have been cowed. Oxford has pulled its edition. “We’re holding off now and consulting,” said Ellen Chodosh, Oxford’s vice president and publisher of trade paperbacks. Penguin Putnam is also asking its counsel to advise.

So what do lawyers say about the merits of Mr. Kidd’s case? Several attorneys contacted by The Observer said the issues are indeed complex, but that Mr. Kidd’s legal theory is hardly off the wall.

“It’s certainly a very plausible legal argument,” said Howard Rogatnick, a Manhattan intellectual property attorney.

What about Random House’s contention that the copyright clock started ticking in 1934?

“It seems a little far-fetched,” he said.

Diane Zimmerman, an intellectual property expert at New York University School of Law, said of Random House’s 1934 claim: “Logically speaking, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Norton has chosen a more diplomatic route. “We’ve chosen to try to arrange things with the Joyce Estate,” said Victor Schmalzer, an executive vice president at Norton. “It’s an ongoing discussion.”

Mr. Kidd hopes that the disastrous Rose edition-which took liberties like punctuating Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness soliloquy in the novel’s final episode-might have left the Joyce Estate willing to bless a version of the book edited by a scholar who really knows what he’s doing.

So when will we see his Ulysses ? “I wish I could say I’m liberated and my book could appear immediately,” Mr. Kidd said.

He’s hoping for 1998. His best chance might depend on Norton’s convincing Stephen Joyce that Mr. Kidd is his man. When asked about the Kidd edition, Stephen Joyce had this cryptic utterance: “We shall see what we shall see!”

But the more time passes without a Kidd text, the more he may become the object of derision among Joyceans.

“John Kidd is seen by some as the great textual authority,” said Thomas Staley, the founding editor of The James Joyce Quarterly . “Have you ever known anyone who’s become a great textual authority without producing a text himself?”

When confronted with that, Mr. Kidd said, “If I had just written some mediocre hash about Derrida! If I had just kept my nose clean! But instead, by being a freelance Joycean, I’ve got to suffer. Here’s some advice: Don’t discover anything that’s too big. Do not do anything too important, or you will pay the price.”