February 21, 2018

Joyce, Dublin, Dubliners

On this day in 1914 James Joyce's Dubliners was published, an event which required "nine years of my life." Three years later Joyce was still fuming at the "litigation and train fare and postal expense," the correspondence with "seven solicitors, one hundred and twenty newspapers and several men of letters," the refusals from forty publishers, and the humiliation from the two who had accepted the book: "The type of the abortive first English edition (1906) was broken up. The second edition (Dublin 1910) was burnt entire almost in my presence."

This was the same sort of trouble Joyce would have with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a great deal less than the furor over Ulysses, but it came to a younger writer, one merely wishing to be the first "who presented Dublin to the world," and gave the Irish "one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass." "It is not my fault," he went on to his first, abortive publisher, "that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories." The publisher continued to balk, fearful that many would see in the stories little more than an irreligious, anti-Irish, spit-in-the-eye. Joyce agreed to some of the changes requested but as these grew he dug in, refusing to make Dubliners "like an egg without salt," or make himself "a literary Jesus Christ."

On several trips home from Europe Joyce tried to complete a deal; on his way out of Ireland in 1912, his last ever visit, he composed a satiric poem about an Irish printer who, for love of country, burns an anti-Irish book and keeps the urned ashes for mock-penitence:
    . . . This very next lent I will unbare
    My penitent buttocks to the air
    And sobbing beside my printing press
    My awful sin I will confess.
    My Irish foreman from Bannockburn
    Shall dip his right hand in the urn
    And sign crisscross with reverent thumb
    Memento homo upon my bum.
Joyce had the poem printed in Italy, and distributed back in Dublin by his brother, Charles-though even "Pappie kicked up blue hell" at the idea.

Privately, Joyce thought his stories were perhaps too "mischievous," and not the entire truth about home or his feelings for it. The last story in the collection, "The Dead," was the last-written, and critics see a more ambivalent or generous Joyce in it. At its close, young Gabriel quietly weeps as he feels that "His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world . . .":
    Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Much has been written about these lines, and the story is regarded as a classic in the genre. Richard Ellmann says that "In its lyrical, melancholy acceptance of all that life and death offer, 'The Dead' is a lynchpin in Joyce's work":
    In Trieste and Rome he had learned what he had unlearned in Dublin, to be a Dubliner. As he had written his brother from Rome with some astonishment, he felt humiliated when anyone attacked his "impoverished country." "The Dead" is his first song of exile.

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