James Joyce: down and out in Dublin
His landmark collection ‘Dubliners’ finally appeared 100 years ago. The struggle to publish it cut Joyce off from the Irish literary movement
Saved from destruction: the Maunsel proofs of Dubliners, which Joyce rescued
Family: Joyce’s brother Charles with his first wife, Mary, and their first child, James, in 1909
‘The Abbey Theatre will be open and they will give plays of Yeats and Synge. You have a right to be there because you are my bride: and I am one of the writers of this generation who are perhaps creating at last a conscience in the soul of this wretched race.”
Thus James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle, who was in Galway, from Dublin on August 22nd, 1912. This letter was written during a roller-coaster ride of emotions that he was experiencing over the planned publication in Dublin of his first major work, Dubliners, the centenary of whose eventual publication we are celebrating this month.
Joyce wrote it after an apparent sign of relenting from the publisher, George Roberts, over the many obstacles he was placing in the way of publication, and Joyce here reacts with what turns out to be vastly excessive optimism to the prospect of his book’s eventual appearance.
This passage marks perhaps the high water mark of his identification with the group of writers collectively known as the Irish (or Anglo-Irish) revival, and it is tempting to wonder, in one of the great counterfactuals, what might have happened if the publication had gone ahead. Would this identification have been to some extent cemented, and would it have led to a somewhat different approach to the country in his work?
Of course, it did not happen, and the saga of this book’s nonappearance in Dublin marks instead the moment of Joyce’s decisive break with his native country, of his complete severance from it in terms of any involvement in its literary movement, in its politics, in its development.
Joyce’s experience in Dublin over the publication of Dubliners in the fateful summer of 1912 was nerve-racking, embittering and, in a word, disastrous. Those who feel that the saga of Joyce’s “exile” from Ireland is overdone, that it does not reflect any reality, might consider what happened with Dubliners. The treatment of Joyce was appalling. Although some writers might be inclined to suggest other claimants for the honour, he had met the publisher from hell.
A vivid picture of the turmoil that Joyce went through is provided by letters that his Dublin-based brother, Charles, sent to their other brother, Stanislaus, in Trieste as the debacle reached its climax.
It would be nice to imagine that Joyce had always wanted to see Dubliners published in Dublin, but such is not the case. The book had already done the rounds of many London publishers (and been rejected, often contentiously) before Joyce submitted it, in 1909, to the Dublin firm of Maunsel & Company. Although at this stage Maunsel was still a very young firm, having been founded in 1905, it was already the leading publication outlet for writers of the revival and played a vitally important part in the revival’s development.
Having sent the Dubliners manuscript to Maunsel in April 1909, Joyce follows this up with direct contacts with Roberts, the firm’s manager, and its cofounder and chairman, Joseph Hone, on the first of his two 1909 visits to Dublin that year. They sign a contract in August that year for the publication of Dubliners in 1910.
In early 1910 the first hint of difficulties arise, when Roberts expresses doubts about a passage in Ivy Day in the Committee Room that is disrespectful, to say the least, about the British royal family. Roberts promises to forward proofs shortly, but deadlock continues over the passage, with Roberts finding Joyce’s proposed alteration insufficient. In July 1910 Dubliners is printed in its entirety by John Falconer, Maunsel’s printer, in an edition of 1,000 copies, but if ever the adage about many a slip between cup and lip were to hold true, this is the occasion.