Born: February 2, 1882
Died: January 13, 1941 (complications from surgery)
Little known fact: legendary writer James Joyce was the first ever hipster. He pioneered a type of writing that you’ve probably never heard of. From his bow ties, porkpie hats, and those iconic glasses, Joyce was into being obscure and awkward way before it was cool to be obscure and awkward.
But he did more than spawn a subcultural phenomenon 70 years after his death; his work changed the face of modern writing, opening up a new literary world for writers like Samuel Beckett, John Updike, and Joseph Campbell. Some literary scholars argue that creative writing as it exists today – full of lyricism, art, elegance, and soul – is all a result of Joyce’s impact on literature.
His opus, the Homeric parody, Ulysses, predominantly features stream of consciousness writing; a style and idea that was otherwise unknown until Joyce put pen to paper in 1918 and had a novel serialized in Ezra Pound’s The Little Review. It earned him a place at the head of the Modernist movement which threw classic Aristotelian philosophy to the wind in favor of what Joyce called “epiphany” or “discovering the soul” of a situation.
But he was fringe and strange at the time he wrote, only accompanied by the likes of Virginia Woolf (who oddly enough, was born and died the same years as Joyce). His work was greeted with a mixture of praise and derision. Critic Oliver Gogarty (an author, and Irish contemporary of Joyce’s) dubbed Ulysses “the most colossal leg pull in literature” and even his publisher, Ezra Pound wrote of the book, “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization.” But others, like Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), marked it as “one of the most entertaining books ever written” and later went on to write an exploratory biography of Joyce that offered explanations of the more complex themes.
Despite being an Irish expatriate who studied medicine in Paris and spent most of his adult life outside of the country, Joyce’s heart and mind resided squarely in Dublin. His early collection of short stories was an eponymous nod to his childhood heritage, and began the trend of Joyce using Ireland and Irish culture as a cornerstone of his work. His love for his country was tainted by his disdain for the stagnation of its culture. He said of Ireland:
“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 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.”
– James Joyce, during a lecture entitled “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages”, April 27, 1907
But with genius and talent comes equal amounts of instability and melancholy. Joyce was a notorious hypochondriac, constantly fearing he had and was dying from syphilis, while still frequenting dozens of prostitutes. His symptoms were much more likely the ramifications of his intense drinking binges. He was known to drink what he liked to call bottled lightning – or French white wine – sometimes up to three bottles a day. He suffered from myriad health issues related to alcohol, but drank to drown the memories of a painful childhood and to fit into the drinking culture that was so prevalent in Dublin during his time.
He began drinking after the death of his mother in 1903, and continued binging heavily through his entire career which no doubt fueled the eccentricity of his writing. He was one of fourteen children, but a number of his siblings died in infancy or later in life from typhoid. He was haunted by the ghosts of his family and the ravages of illness, only finding solace in the bottom of a bottle of sweet wine. His drunken stupors often led to awkward street brawls, something laughable considering that Joyce was a frail man that could easily be carried home by his friends after a night of too many chardonnays.
Joyce was packed to the bowtie with quirks: he carried a stick to ward off dogs (which he was deathly afraid of), refused to travel to America in fears that the boat would sink or that he’d die of scurvy on the trip, and feared thunder and lightning with such an intensity that he passed the trait along to his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. Joyce’s phobias ruled his life, and in turn seeped into the very fabric of his literature.
Joyce is celebrated yearly on June 16, a day dubbed Bloomsday throughout Ireland. The people of Dublin relive the acts of Ulysses, performing dramatic readings, downing Guinness during pub crawls, and even donning period, Edwardian attire in honor of their patron writer.
Joyce’s legacy lives on in both Irish culture and his work. His writing remains some of the most debated and studied in all English literary history, something to which Joyce would be appropriately smug:
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
– James Joyce, in a conversation with his French translator, Jacques Benoîst-Méchin
Even Joyce’s last words are appropriate for his status as the grandpa of all hipsters; three simple words said ironically as he lay dying in Zurich, 1941:
“Does nobody understand?”
JOYCE’S NOTABLE WORK
Chamber Music (1907)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Pomes Penyeach (1927)
Collected Poems (1936)
Finnegan’s Wake (1939)
It may seem strange, given his impact on the written word, that Joyce didn’t win any major awards while he was alive. His work was critically received, but he died without any official recognition or any shiny plaques or trophies.
James Joyce (Oxford Lives). Richard Ellman. October 20, 1983.