Michael Groden obituary: A major figure in James Joyce scholarship for more than 40 years
Unassuming and modest to the point of shyness, Groden possessed qualities of empathy, humour and a certain fundamental integrity
Michael Groden was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in 2004, the centenary of the year on which Ulysses is set
Born: May 30th, 1947
Died: March 25th, 2021
Michael Groden was a major figure in James Joyce scholarship for more than 40 years. His commitment to one particular book, Ulysses, was extraordinary; he devoted much of his life to it. Groden’s work was crucial in reorienting the general approach to Joyce’s most famous work in the direction of its textual development.
He expanded horizons to take in aspects of Joyce’s work that had remained largely unknown before he brought them to light. A high point of his career was the day in 2002 when, in the National Library of Ireland, he explained with great authority and expertise the importance of the large collection of Ulysses manuscripts that the library had acquired from the family of Paul Léon, Joyce’s close friend and adviser.
Groden was born in 1947 into what he called “a relatively comfortable working class family” in Buffalo, upstate New York. Later, though, the family fell on harder times, an experience that did leave its scars. His initial academic interest was in maths and science. His high school grades were sufficiently good to qualify him to enter Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution, with the intention of majoring in maths. But quite early on, he abruptly switched to English literature, which he had been studying as a subsidiary course, and which was increasingly intriguing him.
Soon, in an epiphanic encounter with Prof Peter Bien, he found Ulysses and pursued the interest that this book aroused in him to graduate school at Princeton. Under the guidance of A Walton Litz, a true pioneer in textual studies, Groden began increasingly to focus on Joyce’s manuscripts. In the course of studying these, he made several significant discoveries that eventually led to his PhD, thesis and then to his book, Ulysses in Progress, published in 1977. This was by far the most thorough and innovative study of Joyce’s writing methods that had yet appeared.
In the wake of that work, Groden became a lecturer in the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, where he remained for the rest of his career, becoming eventually a distinguished professor. Though he taught in London, he had lived for many years in Toronto.
As Groden was completing his thesis, in 1975, he and Walton Litz were approached by a small New York publisher, Garland Publishing, with the apparently insane proposal to publish all of Joyce’s surviving manuscript materials, as then known, in a series of volumes, eventually named by Groden The James Joyce Archive. Groden, despite his relative youth and inexperience, became general editor.
In the teeth of all the difficulties – the manuscripts were widely dispersed, they were very bulky, especially for Finnegans Wake, scholars qualified to present them were rare – the project went ahead, and the large volumes, some 63 of them, appeared with surprising speed between 1977 and 1979. This was a remarkable achievement: although the reception was initially slow, its importance became more and more evident as time went on, heralding the major advances in textual, or genetic criticism, as it became known, in subsequent years.
From then on, Groden’s position as a major Joyce textual scholar was unassailable. But there were subsequent difficulties nonetheless. Two issues – the controversy over the “Gabler Ulysses” in the 1980s and a proposed “Hypermedia Ulysses” project – were bruising experiences. In the first, Groden had been quite active in the Hans Walter Gabler edition – which corrected mistakes and inaccuracies in the original – as a supporter and adviser. So when it came under attack from noted Joycean scholar John Kidd he strongly defended it, convinced of its merits. But the crucial issue of public perception, heavily exploited by Kidd, proved nearly impossible to shift.
In the second case, a projected “Hypermedia Ulysses”, combining many resources for online study of the book, was thwarted and defeated by the excessive demands of the Joyce estate.
But all of this was dwarfed by the satisfaction of being the first to reveal the treasures of the large collection of Ulysses manuscripts acquired by the National Library of Ireland. This was a major breakthrough; the recognition of his work that it showed was reinforced by the award of an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in 2004, the centenary of the year on which Ulysses is set.
Groden’s personal life was not initially a happy one: an early marriage failed quickly and for a time he was depressed and very alone. Plus there was a battle with cancer, kept under control until very recently, that went on since the age of 33. But, as recounted in his memoir, The Necessary Fiction: Life with James Joyce’s Ulysses, by chance he reunited after many years with his first girlfriend, the poet Molly Peacock. They married in 1992, and were luminously happy together. Unassuming and modest to the point of shyness, Groden’s qualities of empathy, humour and a certain fundamental integrity would soon reveal themselves in the right context.
Groden is survived by Molly, and by his siblings Joe and Marcia.