Saving an Endangered Treasure
Proofs for Joyce's Ulysses get a reprieve from the ravages of time
By Marvin Hightower
James Joyce's Ulysses is a formidable text, a literary landmark that has engaged the interpretive energies of whole armies of scholars since the novel first appeared in 1922.
Since last June, a unique artifact of Ulysses history has engaged a smaller but no less highly skilled band of experts at the Houghton Library and the University Library's Special Collections Conservation Laboratory. Through their patient efforts, hundreds of fragile, first-edition proof sheets for the epic novel will become safely available for full scholarly inspection this spring.
A glance at any of the 208 placards (printed on one side, mostly eight pages per sheet) reveals why serious Ulysses scholars want to see them: the printed text swims in a veritable sea of revisions from Joyce's own hand.
"Joyce scholars are attentive to Ulysses to a level that is not often equaled in English literature, and the more attention it gets, the more people have to go back to the original artifact to extract something that no one else has seen before," says Leslie Morris, curator of manuscripts in the Houghton Library, where the placards have been housed since 1950.
(Initially on deposit, the proofs formally joined the College Library collections through purchase and partial gift in 1969. Although Harvard's proofs do not contain the entire first-edition text, they do include both the opening pages and Molly Bloom's celebrated closing soliloquy.)
The author's redactional methods proved no less idiosyncratic than the novel itself. "It seems that Joyce didn't go back and check against the previous proof or against the manuscript," Morris explains. "He simply took what came to him and, depending on what inspired him, changed whatever was in front of him."
As if that were not confusing enough, Joyce altered certain passages several times, using graphite and varicolored inks that offer tantalizing clues of chronology and textual layering to Joyce's most sophisticated sleuths. (Naturally, all this dithering drove his patroness [American expatriate publisher Sylvia Beach] and printer [Maurice Darantière, of Dijon] to distraction.)
But if future Joyceans are to derive new insights from this protean text, the proofs themselves must survive. And thereby hangs a troublesome tale. Neither author nor printer expected these humble worksheets to turn into the stuff of scholarship. So Darantière pulled his proofs on pulp, the low-grade, highly acidic paper that time turns brown and brittle, as every collector of news clips all too sadly knows.
In recent years, the placards had become so fragile that only the most exceptional researchers could expect to have these documents presented for personal inspection in the Houghton Reading Room, where Morris might spend an entire day lifting and shifting page after page in agonizing slow motion. But since even the most careful handling ran the risk of further damaging the paper, such presentations inevitably turned into a tense tango, with access and preservation vying to take the lead.
Paper composition, size, and age thus conspired to turn these proofs into a uniquely endangered literary species. Morris and College Library Assistant Conservator Elizabeth Morse will never forget the first steps of the attempted rescue.
Initially, Morris and Morse hoped that acid residues might be removed from the paper to prevent further deterioration. In March 1995, they arranged for an experienced preservation subcontractor to examine the placards and develop appropriate treatments.
Preliminary analysis suggested that Joyce's multicolored inks were waterproof and thus capable of surviving the water-soaking that would gently leach out the offending acids. But after treating the first two placards, the subcontractor called with alarming news: the inks had feathered slightly, and colors had shifted after drying.
"At that point, I grabbed Leslie, hopped in the car, and went to visit them," Morse recalls. "We had our hearts in our throats, beating away, at the thought that one of the world's most important manuscripts had been damaged in treatment -- treatment we had paid for."
Following standard procedures, the subcontractor had photographed the two placards in color before treatment, so some semblance of their original condition survives. But here, as in the fine arts, not even the best reproduction can answer a scholar's subtlest questions.
(As if to prove the inadequacy of reproduction in general, there exists an unauthorized black-and-white facsimile of the Harvard proofs and complementary proofs held elsewhere [based on microfilms of subarchival quality] that not only strips out the color- and texture-sensitive details of the original but also introduces extraneous markings that compromise interpretation of the text. No less compromising is the presentation itself, in which the text appears in book-size pages rather than in the original sets of eight per proof, a rearrangement that divorces Joyce's arrows for text relocation from their intended destinations on adjacent pages.)
Morris had previously stipulated that any perceptible changes in the notations would be reason enough to halt the immersions, so she and Morse chose a more modest approach that would protect the placards until some future process could preserve the character of Joyce's revisions. Morse decided to develop a set of minimal treatments to be carried out in the Conservation Lab by virtuoso paper technicians Karen Walter and Debbie Linn.
Before proceeding, the trio joined forces with Morris and Curatorial Assistant Vicki Denby (Houghton Manuscript Department) to conduct a thorough condition survey in April 1995, which revealed that 17 percent of the sheets could not safely be opened, while 39 percent were only somewhat less fragile. The 34 percent in fair condition would require relatively few paper mends, while only 9.6 percent were sufficiently sturdy to require no mending at all. With 56 percent of the collection in serious trouble, something clearly had to be done.
Additional insights came when Morse visited the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which had considerable experience in preserving galleys for this same edition of Ulysses. HRC conservators had encountered the same problem with Joyce's inks and faced paper conditions even more daunting than those in the Harvard proofs.
By conferring with these colleagues, Morse knew what to avoid in devising her own treatment plan. She also learned of a well-tested acid-free enclosure that allows the placards to be examined without being touched or physically strained. "My visit was the most important thing we could have done at that moment," she recalls.
Treatment began at the Conservation Lab last June 19. The work proceeds with merciless deliberation, not least because transporting even one proof across the few blocks between Houghton and the Lab demands the most rigorous recordkeeping. "This is absolutely critical when you're dealing with a manuscript of this value," Morse explains. "We cannot lose sight of a single placard."
Even though Walter and Linn may apply the same basic procedures (like flattening or paper mending) from proof to proof, each placard is a fiercely individual continent, with its own metaphorical peaks and valleys, quicksands and tectonic faults.
Anything from high tech to old hat may find a place in their work, which requires utmost delicacy, patience, and ingenuity. GORE-TEX®, for example, turns out to be good for more than rugged outdoor clothing: its unidirectional capillary action can humidify and relax the fibers of a crease without wetting the paper.
The relaxed section then gets flattened under a specially wrapped brick-size elevator weight whose dimensions belie its density. To repair damaged paper, Walter and Linn use precisely mixed wheat-starch pastes and various special papers, some as strong and seemingly insubstantial as spiderwebs on a summer breeze.
Any procedure can take several hours, and in the absence of climate control, humidity-sensitive paper work becomes all the more difficult to manage. Add the fact that the Conservation Lab is operating in temporary quarters that do not begin to meet the technical specifications of a custom-designed space, and the results seem all but miraculous.
"We are now averaging 1.5 placards per day of repair work," Morse says. "Sometimes we turn around 8 in a week. I'm very proud of that, and I wouldn't want to go faster if it meant that we would be jeopardizing the quality of this work, because it is certainly consistent." In line with modern practice, the repairs are entirely reversible, so that future conservators can safely choose to replace them with newer and better materials.
With repairs and enclosures now more than half done, Morse and Morris expect to see the project completed by May. In this age of digital imaging, some may wonder whether the proofs have an even more accessible future on line. Don't count on it, says Morris.
"Houghton is often approached to participate in digital projects," she explains. "But for our 20th-century collections, frankly, the copyright issues are so complicated that it's hardly worth trying to sort them out."
Nevertheless, the completed project will stand as a milestone in facilitating safer access to a document of enormous intrinsic significance.
"This is an unusually rich manuscript that is central to anyone's interpretation of the text," Morris says. "I can't imagine any serious scholar wanting to reedit any portion of Ulysses without looking at these originals. There's no substitute for the real thing."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College