On Editing James Joyce’s Dubliners

[This summer we were excited to publish a new edition of Dubliners.  Below our editor Keri Walsh shares some thoughts on the process of editing James Joyce.]

Why edit Joyce? In retrospect, I think it was to repair my relationship with him. My previous project had been editing the correspondence of his publisher Sylvia Beach, the charismatic American who had run the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank from 1919 to 1941. Ten years after she published Joyce’s modernist epic Ulysses in 1922, Beach and Joyce had a falling out when he sold the novel’s rights to the American publisher Random House, sharing none of the proceeds with her. Beach had spent a decade of her life fighting for his book, taking legal and financial risks on its behalf, and even going so far as to have Ernest Hemingway smuggle copies into America when it was declared illegal as obscenity there. Joyce’s treatment of Beach wasn’t his finest moment. But he certainly had his own reasons and problems, and even Beach could understand them (she said that after all, a book ultimately belonged to its author). She took the high ground and absorbed the emotional and financial hit, but she and Joyce were never close again. He moved on to a new circle of friends and supporters.

After The Letters of Sylvia Beach came out, I did a few readings at independent bookstores, sharing some of the highlights of Beach’s correspondence. In my presentations, I saved for last a particularly telling “unsent letter” of 1927—it was a letter Beach drafted to Joyce one day in a moment of exasperation. He had asked for holiday funds for himself and his family, and his request reached her just as she was staggering under more than £200 of unpaid bills from English publishers. “When you are absent,” she chided, “every word I receive from you is an order. The reward for my unceasing labour on your behalf is to see you tie yourself into a bowknot and hear you complain. (I am poor and tired too).” But she never got up the courage to send it. That was the nature of their relationship.

I was interested in returning to the story of Joyce’s life and work from his own point of view, in shifting my perspective so that I saw where he was coming from and how he ended up being the person he was later. I wanted to get to know Joyce better on his own terms, beginning with his first important work, the short story collection Dubliners. In the end, the sheer artistry of Dubliners and the emotional maturity it contained allowed me to love Joyce again. I marvelled at the fact that he had written it in his twenties. I was reminded of what great odds this writer had beaten to make his voice heard, and just what a beautiful voice it was.

These days, Joyce feels like a friend, and a friend whom I know quite well. In revisiting the biographers on his youth, I was especially moved by the accounts from his college friends Padraic and Mary Colum in their memoir Our Friend James Joyce. They present a sketch of Joyce as a rather slovenly but still sympathetic youth kicking around Dublin after the death of his mother, alternating between lassitude and fierce, ambitious energy (if you’ve read Portrait of the Artist or Ulysses, you’ll recognize these elements in Stephen Dedalus). I borrowed the spirit of their portrait of Joyce in writing my introduction to the edition. Meanwhile, in my teaching I paid special attention to how my students responded to the stories in Dubliners, trying to get a feel for what North American undergraduates needed in a first encounter with Joyce. I aimed to give a deep enough history of Ireland and Irish literature, and then of modernism and Europe in the early twentieth century, so that students could understand the achievements of Joyce within the contexts of late-Victorian empire, Irish cultural nationalism, and the literary experimentation that accompanied the First World War and its aftermath (Dubliners was published in the first year of the war, 1914, though it had been written a few years earlier). I scoured the previous editions, I roamed the shelves of Joyce criticism, and so too did I roam the streets of Dublin, getting a feel for the particular gritty fascination of its Parnellian north side. I spent a night in the Gresham Hotel, the setting of the final story in Dubliners, seeing if I could learn something about its protagonists, Gretta and Gabriel Conroy.

That closing tale of the collection, “The Dead,” was my favorite to edit, just as it is my favorite to read. Nothing quite compares to the mood it develops—crisp, funny, satirical, and tragic all at once. There is such sincerity in this story which Joyce wrote from Rome while thinking back on Dublin’s foibles and charms. As I annotated “The Dead” I especially appreciated the depth of its musical references and judgements, and the way it contrasts different kinds of music loved for different reasons. The history of the singers and cultural institutions of the Dublin performance world of the late nineteenth century is mesmerizing. My favorite anecdote in the story is the one “of how the gallery boys would sometimes in their enthusiasm unyoke the horses from the carriage of some great prima donna and pull her themselves through the streets to her hotel.” The gallery boys were the ones in the cheap seats, presumably young and impressionable. To show how transported they had been by the music, these giddy young men transported the singer home.

A few people have asked me which of Joyce’s stories was the trickiest to annotate. I had expected that “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” Joyce’s elegy for the fallen political hero Charles Stewart Parnell, would be the most challenging, with its turn-of-the-century slang, large cast of characters, and in-jokes about local politicians and their hangers-on. But it was nothing compared to “Grace.” In this story, a group of Dubliners gather for an intervention for one of their friends who has lost control of his drinking. But someone brings alcohol to the intervention. As they drink in the drunkard’s bedroom, they air their knowledge of Catholic doctrine and history, which it seems they’ve acquired through a drunken game of Telephone. From the circumstances surrounding the declaration of papal infallibility to the reduction of the pope’s temporal powers as a result of the gains of Italian nationalism, they get just about all of it wrong. I ended up having to write footnotes explaining not just the facts but also all the ways in which these mixed-up characters keep mangling them. Some of my footnotes for this story are pretty labyrinthine. Joyce had researched the facts himself by visiting the Vatican library in Rome, and the more I pursued his references and the fictional uses to which he put them, the funnier I found his humor of misinformation. You have to respect a writer who buries his jokes like that. But you also have to stay on your toes to keep up with what he’s doing.

Editing Joyce, like reading Joyce, is never a straightforward affair. One runs into many diversions that lead to unexpected research quests, and soon it seems that Joyce has you seeking out musical, religious, political, linguistic, and historical arcana alongside him. You look up and realize how he’s gotten you hooked on his own fascinations. Luckily, each diversion teaches something new and increases our interest in the work as a whole, drawing our attention to its subtle, recurring patterns. I suspect that this will be as true for students and readers as it was for me as an editor. Though Broadview’s series editor Martin Boyne and I may have disagreed about whether the word “Irishman” still passes muster (or indeed, whether the phrase “passes muster” needs a footnote), I know that this Dubliners is much the stronger for the energy and passion that he and all of the staff at Broadview put into curating it. I hope it proves useful in the classroom and that a new generation of college readers can experience Joyce’s first masterpiece as a work that meets them where they are, and then takes them to places they’ve never been.

Comments are closed.