James Joyce Essay

by Jim Cripps

In about 1998*, I finally took English Lit II. We had to do an essay, and I looked around in the school library for possible ideas. Pulling out a Time© magazine, There was a story about the greatest novelist/writer of the 20th Century. Sure, there were still two years to go before the end of the Century, but back then, no one cared about that, and there was a rush to announce the best of whatever the 1900s had to offer. So, trying to recall now, I think there was a small two-page spread about some authors, with slight, culled discussions from 'experts' or those with experience (whatever that might have been). Out of this jumped a man with a patch over one eye, wearing a suit like he was Tom Wolfe (in fact, I suspect that Mr. Wolfe was trying to mimic Mr. Joyce).

Naturally, I thought James Joyce was a great subject, and I farmed what information I could from the library, and set out to digest and discern the author James Joyce. After several versions, and a couple of months, I ended up with a breakdown of what drew Joyce to write Ulysses, and what his infuences were during the writing. Why exactly I chose Ulysses, I don't know, but ironically, on the night I was finishing the final draft, Tom Brokaw announced that professors and critics from all over the world agreed (I'm sure in a majority), that the greatest English language book of fiction was..., Ulysses.

Here, below, is a short snippet of my essay.

James Joyce

Godfather to 20th Century Storytelling

{Or, The Immense James Joyce, and a Little Thing Called Ulysses}

by Jim M. Cripps, 1998

Tolstoy, Hemingway, Steinbeck. Authors respected, revered and read by millions of people, but not heartily referred to as shapers of writing style. Charles Dickens, another author read by a large number of lithophytes, and often imitated, had a genre created on the basis of his flowery, picture-perfect style of writing. Along with Tolstoy’s grand narration and the elegant, aristocratic Victorianism of the day, bookstore shelves at the latter part of the 19th century and on into the first quarter of the 20th, were stocked with what was soon becoming old, contrived reading fare. Few people recognized the need for a new voice in literature, and even fewer tried to change it. The one person most vocal for change succeeded in creating a new narrative style, one that has endured for the past 75 years. The call for a new direction came from James Joyce, the visionary for the modern novel, and a liberator for/of free thought. He was to become the godfather of 20th Century Literature.

The catalyst for a new style now seems to have come all at once. Embodying heavy religious symbolism, epiphany of the characters, and a new literary form coined as the stream-of-consciousness, the new writing style appeared, taking the reader from the first person narrative to the thoughts of the character. This leads to the perception of hearing the mind of the character at work. But no, this was not at all sudden inspiration, nor was the evolving grammatical style of Joyce, one that would lead him to drop all quotations and replace them with the em-dash to signify oratory. These techniques were admired (and sometimes embraced) by his coterie, a group consisting of young and old authors, most of who were ahead of him in publishing success. And what of prosperity? It was not necessarily profit or popularity that Joyce wanted, and certainly with writing dark passages, monologues brooding on religion and self-will, or the harsh socially imposed restrictions of personal behavior, he could not have expected much from his audience. Attention Joyce got, but not from the purchasing public. His readers were critics, one and all. And it was only after his work was touted as obscene and immoral did he garner a lay following.

What did his peers see in his work, and what did his critics loathe about it? Much would have to do with his growing years in Dublin, Ireland, living in a strict family and surrounded by an eclectic group of people. Ireland would be the stage for his novels, and Joyce’s acquaintances would show up regularly to breathe life into his words. Upon opening his first novel, Dubliners (1907), (early) readers would have read about uncommon topics all blended together, such as love, erotic fantasies, hate sex, religion, and death and its circumstances. A far cry from the single-minded books of the day; it was an accurate account of life’s chaotic rhythm. This was Joyce’s vie of the world, how everything should be dealt with, including thoughts, problems and incidental events though they may not seem connected. This was his underlying style, garnered from his Catholic schooling where French 19th Century Realism and Symbolism was taught (Levin). There is also his structure, (Joyce called it his lattice work), which he took from Henrik Ibsen, a playwright that Joyce idolized during his college years. It could also be said that a hereditary trait played a role in the make-up of Joyce, for his paternal grandfather was a writer of the Aesthetics (a movement that glorified the beautiful).

The Aesthetic and Victorian movements perplexed Joyce. He wanted to bring real life and literature together (Gray). It was a predicament that stayed with Joyce in his youth, but though writing, it would help him come to terms with his grandfather’s death by stroke, and his father’s similar death later on. That was an emotional blow for Joyce, but he carried on like a young college man, and graduated with a Modern Languages degree in five languages. He showed great skill at essay writing in school, yet forsook formal writing and left for Paris to study medicine. Never feeling at ease in France, Joyce longed for a Dublin that would not bear to have him anymore. In his hometown he felt confined and restricted,

When the Irishman is found outside of Ireland in another environment, he very often becomes a respected man. The economic and intellectual conditions that prevail in his own country do not permit him the development of individuality…. No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove (In Bloom).

The French Ministry of Education would not recognize Joyce’s Dublin degree, which would have allowed him to accept a chair, or at least teach, at some college. So now he had to eke out a living on his reviews for the Dublin Daily Express, and others (Costello 199). In 1903, he had to return home, leave a carefree life behind, to visit his dying mother.

*This was the year of the Home Run Race, between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, to see who would break Roger Maris' long-standing record. The night McGwire did it, did interrupt class during that Fall's Electronic Theory class.

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