Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Murphy

Manuscripts | Publications | Reviews

 

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Written in London and Dublin, Murphy, Beckett’s great first published novel, was rejected by more than forty publishers, among them the august Boston firm of Houghton Mifflin, whose editorial pasha was Ferris Greenslet, a man of legendary if somewhat eccentric editorial style. He was renowned for his manner of reading a manuscript: what he called “pricking it to see if it bled.” He would dig into it with his letter opener three times, in that manner selecting three pages at random. If those three didn’t interest him, the manuscript went back where it came from. Apparently when he dug into Murphy, Murphy bit back. After an interminable delay, Houghton Mifflin recommended that Beckett cut the novel by one third. They didn’t care much for the title, either. In reaction to the report, Beckett wrote to Mary Manning Howe on 14 November 1936 that if this was to be the standard reaction of the publishing world his next work would “be on rice paper wound about a spool, with a perforated line every six inches and on sale in Boots” (an English chain of drug stores).

 

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Murphy did occasionally find a sympathetic reader. Acting as Beckett’s agent, George Reavey sent the typescript to J. M. Dent & Sons, where the writer Richard Church read it and wrote to Reavey:

I think this man is a most remarkable and highly equipped writer. The humour, the sophistication, the sense of structure, and the queer originality make me agree with you that he is a man fully worth while fostering. I have been on the telephone with Harold Raymond of Chatto & Windus and said what I think about the book and also that I believe they are making a mistake if they let him go. Raymond has accordingly asked to see the manuscript again and I am taking the liberty of sending it to him but he does not want Beckett to know this in case he has to come to the same conclusion as the other directors and again disappoint the author.

Whether Mr. Raymond turned thumbs down or the sales record of More Pricks than Kicks proved an insurmountable barrier to acceptance, Chatto and Windus abstained.

 

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In this letter to Beckett, Margaret Frohnknecht had learned from her cousin Helen Joyce and Helen’s husband, Giorgio, that Beckett “had written a book of which they and Mr. Joyce senior thought very highly.” As a manuscript reader for Random House and Harcourt Brace, she offers “to read the manuscript Murphy and pass it on to either one of them.”