James Joyce's Cat Story Stirs Up a Tempest

James Joyce wrote children's stories? What? If, like me, you were an English major in college and you had the thrill of muddling through Finnegans...

 |  Feb 16th 2012  |   2 Contributions


This recently released James Joyce story is causing quite a stir in the publishing world.

James Joyce wrote children's stories?

What?

If, like me, you were an English major in college and you had the thrill of muddling through Finnegans Wake, with its stream-of-consciousness word salads that barely make sense even after several readings, you'd be surprised, too. You'd be even more shocked if you remember learning that his seminal work, Ulysses, was considered so obscene (I guess phrases like "the scrotumtightening sea" played a role in getting the morality police on Joyce's case) that American authorities seized and possibly destroyed 500 copies of the novel as soon as it landed on U.S. shores after its 1922 publication.

But seriously: The anarchic, half-blind legend of Irish literature has two children's books to his credit. The most recent of these, released early this year, has created a bit of a kerfuffle — not because of obscenity or Joyceian weirdness, but because the Zurich James Joyce Foundation thinks it owns the copyright to the story.

The thing is, Joyce's published works went into the public domain in Europe on the first day of 2012. Irish publisher Ithys Press has released a limited-edition set of 200 copies of Joyce's children's story The Cats of Copenhagen, calling it the "twin sister" to The Cat and the Devil, another kid-lit piece he wrote in the early 20th century.

The Cat and the Devil is James Joyce's other children's story. It too had its origin in a letter Joyce sent to his grandson.

The problem with publishing The Cats of Copenhagen as a book, the Joyce Foundation says, is that the public-domain status of the author's work doesn't apply to unpublished pieces. The Cats had its origin in a letter written to his grandson, Stephen Joyce, in 1936. The foundation asserts that it had never given permission to Ithys Press to publish the letter in book form and hadn't learned about the story until after it was published.

Ithys Press publicist Anastasia Herbert, who happens to be a well-known Joyce scholar (what a feat that must be!), disagrees.

"A publication such as that of The Cats of Copenhagen is legal and valid and any attempt to interfere with its free dissemination is both unlawful and morally reprehensible," she wrote on the publishing company's website.

In any case, if you're interested in buying a copy of The Cats of Copenhagen, you can order it from Ithys Press for the bargain-basement price of 300 Euros (about $370 US).

Personally, I think I'll stick with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a children's book written by T.S. Eliot, another unlikely kid-lit author.

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