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James Joyce Dubliners

James JoyceJames Augustin Joyce was born February 2, 1882, in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar to John Stanislaus Joyce and Jane “May” Joyce (née Murray). The eldest of ten siblings—four sons and six daughters—Joyce was a precocious boy who began writing poetry at a young age, penning a poem on the death of his father’s political hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, in 1891. John Joyce, an only child who came from County Cork and had inherited property there, was employed in the Collector of Rates office of Dublin Corporation (the city government). In 1887 he was appointed rate collector, and the family moved to the fashionable suburb of Bray. But hard drinking and financial mismanagement led the elder Joyce to bankruptcy in 1891, followed by suspension from his job and dismissal with a modest pension two years later. John Joyce never secured any other employment, and the family’s fortunes declined rapidly from this point on.

Having begun his education at the age of six at Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school in County Kildare, James Joyce was forced to leave in 1892 when his father could no longer afford the tuition. For the next year, he studied at home and briefly at another Catholic boarding school before being offered a place at Belvedere College, the Jesuits’ Dublin secondary school. His father’s connection with a Jesuit priest facilitated a waiving of the fees, enabling James and his younger brother Stanislaus (and eventually the youngest brothers, Charles and George) to attend.

Joyce established himself as one of the most gifted students at Belvedere early on and remained at the school while the family moved to different homes around Dublin until 1898, when he enrolled at the recently opened University College Dublin. He studied English, French, and Italian, and soon became active in literary and theatrical circles around Dublin. He began reading European realists like Gerhart Hauptmann and Henrik Ibsen and the Decadent poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. In 1900 he published his first work, a laudatory review of Ibsen’s new play, When We Dead Awaken, in the Fortnightly Review. When the Norwegian playwright saw the review, he wrote to thank Joyce, beginning a brief correspondence between the two (once Joyce learned some rudimentary Dano-Norwegian). Ibsen encouraged Joyce to express the unvarnished truth of his experience.

At University College, Joyce was part of a close-knit community of students—many of whom he knew from Clongowes and Belvedere—who would become some of the leading figures of his generation, including John Francis Byrne, Thomas Kettle, George Clancy, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, most of whom would later appear as fictionalized versions of themselves in Joyce’s novels. In October 1901 he wrote a piece for his college magazine, St. Stephen’s, criticizing the Irish Literary Theatre’s conservative repertoire. Containing a reference to D’Annunzio’s novel Il Fuoco, which was banned by the Vatican, the article was rejected. It would be the first, but not the last, of Joyce’s brushes with censorship. He had the article, along with a tract on women’s rights by Skeffington printed and distributed privately a week later, and Arthur Griffith covered the incident in his paper, United Irishman, decrying the university’s censoring one of its students.

In March 1902 Joyce’s beloved youngest brother, George, died at the age of fourteen from typhoid fever. The death hit him particularly hard, and he would later name his own son after his late brother. Joyce graduated from University College that June and left Dublin for Paris in December to study medicine. He lasted only a few months, however, and returned home when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By this time, Joyce was a confirmed nonbeliever, and refused his mother’s requests that he make confession and take communion. After the death of his mother in August 1903, Joyce stayed in Dublin, writing book reviews for a local paper and drinking heavily.

All the while, he was continuing to write fiction, essays, and poetry. In January 1904 he had his autobiographical essay called A Portrait of the Artist rejected by the new magazine Dana. He would later rework the piece into the unpublished novel Stephen Hero (it was finally published posthumously) and eventually rewrite it completely as his landmark book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. On June 16, 1904—a date that would turn out to be pivotal not only for him but for his later fans—Joyce had his first outing with Nora Barnacle. Nora, a chambermaid originally from Galway, walked with Joyce that evening to the Dublin suburb of Ringsend, where she gave him probably the most famous (or infamous) handjob in literary history. The rendezvous would be immortalized in Ulysses, as the date of the action in the novel and is celebrated around the world by Joyce devotees as “Bloomsday,” after Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist.

Joyce and Nora Barnacle were soon inseparable, and the couple eloped to Europe in October (although didn’t officially marry until 1931). The pair traveled first to Zurich and then Trieste (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Italy), where teaching positions had been promised but never materialized. Joyce finally found employment as an English teacher in Pola (now in Croatia) for a year and then once again in Trieste. Joyce continued to work on Stephen Hero and the short stories he planned to publish as a collection titled Dubliners. He had already had “The Sisters” and “Eveline” published in the weekly Irish Homestead in the fall before leaving for Europe. In 1905 he had the ten stories he originally planned to comprise Dubliners accepted by a publisher in London, Grant Richards, though the deal fell through, leading to the nine-year publishing odyssey of his first book of fiction, which would eventually include fifteen Dublin stories, including his immortal “The Dead.”

While Joyce continued to toil unsuccessfully as an author, his first son, George (called Giorgio) was born in Trieste. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus joined him in Trieste for a time, though Joyce’s heavy drinking and profligate spending strained the relationship. Joyce left Stanislaus and Trieste behind in 1906 when he moved the family to Rome to work as a clerk in a bank. Dissatisfied with Rome and unable to write, they moved back to Trieste in 1907, where he had his first breakthrough as a writer. His poetry collection, Chamber Music, was published by Arthur Symons, who had first been introduced to Joyce by William Butler Yeats. This first book of poetry brought Joyce to the attention of the poet Ezra Pound. Joyce’s daughter Lucia was born later that year.

Joyce struggled financially for years, as he attempted one business venture after another to provide for his young family, borrowed money from friends, and still continued to write and pursue publication of his work. He returned to Ireland in 1909 and, for the last time, in 1912, each time to visit and work unsuccessfully on getting Dubliners published. When Dubliners was finally published in 1914 by his original London publisher, Grant Richards, the story collection was well-received by critics but ignored by the reading public. A grant from the Royal Literary Fund in 1915, secured through the help of Yeats and Ezra Pound, gave Joyce some much needed financial assistance, as did the generous help of other friends and admirers of his work. Around the same time, Pound facilitated the serialization of Joyce’s reworked first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which would be published as a book in 1916 in the U.S. (the same year that Dubliners was first published stateside), and then the next year in England, where it was also well-received, selling out its initial print run.

Now living in Zurich, Joyce continued to write: on his poetry; on his only play, Exiles (published in 1918); and on his next novel, Ulysses, a work that would become one of the hallmarks of modern literature. Taking place on one day—June 16, 1904—the action mirrors the story of Homer’s Odyssey and its hero Odysseus (Ulysses), cast as Leopold Bloom, with Molly Bloom (Penelope) and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus). Published serially with Pound’s help beginning in March 1918 in The Little Review, the editors of the magazine were convicted of obscenity in New York in 1921 for having published the excerpts of Ulysses. As a result, most publishers ran away from Joyce’s “obscene” novel. Ulysses was finally published in book form in 1922 by Sylvia Beach through her Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. The book would not be published in the U.S. until 1934.

Having moved to Paris during the completion of Ulysses, Joyce received a grant from Harriet Shaw Weaver, a wealthy heiress and editor who championed Joyce’s work since Pound brought him to her attention in 1914. She would take on the role of Joyce’s patron for years to come, enabling Joyce to focus exclusively on his writing. When Ulysses finally appeared on February 2, 1922—Joyce’s fortieth birthday—the book was an instant sensation, recognized as a groundbreaking literary achievement by both critics and enthusiastic supporters, including Winston Churchill, Desmond FitzGerald, André Gide, Ernest Hemingway, Yeats, and many others. Joyce became something of a celebrity in the literary world, with Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s book-length poem The Waste Land (which also came out in 1922) viewed as the two pillars of literary modernism. Eliot had even cited Joyce’s Ulysses as an influence on his work.

While this newfound success came Joyce’s way, he was battling serious problems with his eyes. Near-sighted since early in his childhood, Joyce suffered an acute attack of glaucoma in 1917 and frequently had to wear an eyepatch. He would undergo more than ten surgeries on his eyes throughout the 1920s and ’30s.

Joyce had become a famous, critically acclaimed author at the age of forty. But it would take another seventeen years before he published his next novel, Finnegans Wake, in 1939. He did publish a collection of highly regarded poetry, Pomes Penyeach, in 1927, but still needed to rely on the patronage of Harriet Shaw Weaver for financial support. That support became strained with her reservations about what became his last novel. Finnegans Wake was unlike anything Joyce had written before. While Joyce had added long stream-of-consciousness passages and parodic elements to his previous works of realistic fiction, in Finnegans Wake he innovated with the English language itself, creating one of the more experimental and, for many, difficult novels of the twentieth century.

In 1940 he and Nora fled Paris after the Germans occupied France in the early part of World War II. Settling again in Zurich in neutral Switzerland, Joyce used his contacts to help sixteen Jews escape Nazi persecution. On January 11, 1941, he underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer and fell into a coma. He awoke briefly two days later to call for his wife and son before losing consciousness and dying minutes later, as they were en route to see him. He died early in the morning of January 13, a few weeks shy of his fifty-ninth birthday.

Though Joyce had rejected the doctrine of the Catholic Church by the time he was at university, his Catholicism was a deeply ingrained, though ambivalent, part of his identity. Like Dublin, it was not something he could ever completely leave behind. Even so, when a Catholic priest offered a religious service for Joyce, Nora replied famously, “I couldn’t do that to him.” He was buried at Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich, where the Swiss tenor Max Meili sang “Addio terra, addio cielo” from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo. (Joyce had been a talented tenor in his youth, even singing professionally at times.) Later, when Nora offered to permit the repatriation of his remains to his native Ireland, the Irish government declined. It would take a few more decades before one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century literature would be as revered and celebrated in his homeland as he was elsewhere. Buried in a modest grave initially, Joyce’s remains were moved to a more prominent grave in the Zurich cemetery, where a sculpture of him by the American artist Milton Hebald now sits.