James Joyce and the Struggle
to Publish Dubliners





by Ted Gioia
Poet George Russell clearly had some trepidation when he
asked his friend and fellow writer James Joyce to submit a
short story to
Irish Homestead, a periodical he was editing
for the Irish Agricultural Organization Society.  It was the
summer of 1904, and Joyce hadn't yet published any fiction
—his
focus hitherto had been on poetry and drama—but
he had made a reputation as a gadfly and
iconoclast, quick to denounce and ready to
shock all and sundry with his unconventional
views.  

That is, if and when they could understand
him.  Joyce was known as much for his
obscure and indirect communications as
for his rebellious temperament.  During his
days at University College, a journalist had
written in response to one of Joyce's fiery
public pronouncements: "Everyone said it
was divine, but no one seemed quite to
know what it meant."  Joyce’s nickname
among his college peers at the time was the Mad Hatter.


Related Essays
The Adventurer's Guide to Finnegans Wake
The Many Lives of James Joyce
The Making of Ulysses


Russell offered a pound in payment.  "It is easily earned
money," he promised, adding, “if you can write fluently and
don't mind playing to the common understanding and liking for
once in a way." Russell wanted something simple and rural,
but realizing how little these adjectives described Joyce's
public persona, he conceded that Joyce could publish under
a pseudonym.  

Joyce derided the periodical, which he later referred to
contemptuously as "the pigs’ paper," but this offer of a quid
had quite an impact on 20th century literature.  Joyce now
turned his attention to fiction, and conceived of the idea of a
series of short stories—or
epicleti as he called them (although
epicleses is the proper term) in reference to the invocation
of the Holy Spirit in Eastern Rite Christianity—that resulted
in his book
Dubliners.  As Joyce explained to his brother
Stanislaus, he saw a "certain resemblance between the
mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do." Joyce also
decided upon the pseudonym Stephen Daedalus, a name
that (with a slightly different spelling) would serve as the
author’s literary alter ego in his later novels.  

But after this promising start, Joyce would encounter a
legion of difficulties in completing and publishing
Dubliners.  
Irish Homestead accepted three of his stories—"The
Sisters," "Eveline" and "After the Races"—but the editor
rejected his fourth submission "Clay" because he had
received so many letters of complaint from readers in
response to the earlier tales.  Joyce continued writing the
stories, and looked to publish the them as a book.  But
potential publishers had even more objections than the readers
of
Irish Homestead.  A full decade elapsed between Joyce's
first vision of
Dubliners and its long-delayed release.

Joyce approached 15 different publishers, some of them more
than once, before he found one brave enough to take on the
book.  His merits as a writer were not in question, but rather
the fear of legal repercussions.  As early as 1905, Grant
Richards had agreed to release the book, but the printer
objected to the questionable nature of one of the stories
("The Gallants"), and in time a host of other problematic
passages and phrases raised the ire and concern of various
interested parties.  By 1909, Joyce had given up on Richards
and signed a contract with Maunsel and Roberts, but this
proved to be an even greater waste of time and energy, as
his new editor George Roberts insisted on censoring more
and more passages, even to the point of insisting that the
name of every Dublin commercial establishment mentioned
in the work be given a new fictional identity.   

The angry author eventually exacted revenge in the time-
honored way of writers in general and Joyce in particular:
he used his art to ridicule his adversary.  In a broadside
published at his own expense, Joyce lampooned his overly
cautious editor.  

He sent me a book ten years ago;
I read it a hundred times or so,
Backwards and forwards, down and up,
Through both ends of a telescope…
Shite and onions! Do you think I’ll print
The name of the Wellington Monument,
Sydney Parade and Sandymount tram,
Downes’s cakeshop and Williams’s jam?
I'm damned if I do—I'm damned to blazes!
Talk about Irish Names of Places!...

In an even bolder move, Joyce wrote to King George V to
get his blessing for a contested section the book—a
remarkable step, given the insult to the monarch’s grand-
mother, Queen Victoria, in the passage under consideration.  
A secretary at Buckingham Palace responded with a dismissive
note stating the King found it "inconsistent with rule" to pass
verdict on such matters.  Joyce, always willing to spin facts
to suit his interests, interpreted this as an indication that his
story had not given offense to the House of Windsor.   

Joyce may have felt better after scoring these points, but they
hardly improved his relations with Roberts or moved his book
any closer to publication. After more rejections, he eventually
came back full circle to Grant Richards, who was now willing
to take a chance on
Dubliners.  Finally, a decade after he first
announced his plans for a collection of
epliceti, James Joyce's
first book of prose fiction showed up in bookstores in June
1914, just a few days before the outbreak of World War I.

Dubliners seems like tame fare nowadays, but the book stood
out for its frankness and psychological realism back at the time
of its release, especially in the context of an Irish literary culture
where the two dominant influences were the Catholic Church
and Celtic revivalist pride.  By this time, James Joyce had left
his native Ireland far behind, and would never return.  But even
those who merely judged
Dubliners by its stories, and knew
nothing of the author’s self-imposed exile, would have been
struck by how much they owed to continental European trends.  
Joyce himself had aligned himself early on with the aesthetic of
Henrik Ibsen, but we can also see elements of Flaubert,
d’Annunzio, Zola and other writers who had few followers in
Dublin. The spirit of Chekhov also seems to hover over these
stories, although Joyce claimed he had not read the Russian's
works at this time.  Nowadays admirers speak of Joyce as the
quintessential Irish author of the 20th century, but to his
contemporaries he represented everything that was opposed
to home-grown Irish culture and values.  In
Dubliners, despite
all the local color (and names of commercial establishments),
Joyce made clear at every turn that his vision for Irish fiction
involved modernization and retrofitting on the continental model.

Joyce was often forced, in the course of these pages, to present
the raw realities of his stories in indirect or roundabout ways
—otherwise they would not have been published at all.  But the
book is, strange to say, even more powerful and realistic
because of areas of silence within the text. After all, the Dublin
that Joyce was attempting to capture in prose was filled with
characters whose public behavior and statements were at odds
with their private activities.  So when Mrs. Mooney, in "The
Boarding House," finds a husband for her daughter by
deliberately putting the girl in a compromising situation….well,
of course, she won't dare state openly what she has planned
all along, even when plotting out the details with her child.  And
when Eliza and Nannie Flynn, in "The Sisters" remain guardedly
vague about the struggles their brother Father James Flynn
faced in fulfilling his responsibilities as a priest, this discretion
—full of ominous hints—is both plausible and accentuates the
sense of existential foreboding that inhabits the story.

But Joyce is more than a chronicler of secret scandal.  In
"Araby" he captures the longings of adolescence with
bittersweet poignancy.  In "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"
he delivers one of the great fictional accounts of political
campaigning, and in just a few pages draws in all the
contradictory elements—idealism, rivalry, expediency,
ennui—that come together on election day for those who
have worked at the grassroots level in such contests.  "A
Mother" is about a parent who wants to push the musical
career of her daughter, but on her own unrelenting terms;
with a slight change of setting, this story could be just as
persuasive if set in the current day.

But Joyce saves the best for last.  "The Dead," which closes
out
Dubliners, is the longest and most ambitious of his stories,
and deservedly ranks among the dozen or so most important
works of modern short fiction in English.  A small party of
friends and family serves as a vehicle for Joyce to develop
many of the subjects and themes that would dominate his
fiction for decades to come—including cuckoldry, religion,
Irish nationalism, the challenge of foreign values, the power of
song, the persistence of memory and, above all (as the story's
title suggests) death and dissolution.  The ease with which he
develops these themes, while simultaneously orchestrating
the festive activities of more than a dozen vividly-developed
characters, is awe-inspiring.  And, all the while, he is building
up his narrative for a tragic epiphany in the final page.  Joyce
would never write a conventional plot- and character-driven
novella of this type again in his life.  But it is hard to imagine
that he could have constructed a better one.

Why would a young author at the dawn of his career focus
so closely on death—a concern that both begins and ends
Dubliners?  The subject seemed to afflict Joyce at a deep
psychic level during this period of his life.  In a letter from
August 19, 1906, he wrote of suffering from disturbing night-
mares: "horrible and terrifying dreams” of "deaths, corpses,
assassinations in which I take an unpleasant prominent part."   
He was residing in Rome at the time, struggling to make a
living as a bank clerk, and the city itself seemed to echo his
night visions.  He enjoyed comparing Rome to a cemetery—it
was made up, he insisted, of "the flowers of death, ruins, piles
of bones, and skeletons." This thought was repeated again
and again in his conversations and correspondence.  In a letter
to Stanislaus, he proclaimed: "Rome reminds me of a man
who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother’s corpse."

Then again, Joyce had his own family corpses to display—
albeit in the form of fiction.  Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus
is confronted by the ghost of his mother in
Ulysses, and we
can only wonder at what visions the author had of his own
deceased mother, who had died in August 1903, that caused
him to incorporate these elements associated with horror tales
into his modernistic novel.  The death of Joyce’s brother
George in 1902 also weighed heavily on him (and he would
name his own son Giorgio after his sibling). Adding to this
melancholy note, his lover Nora Barnacle also had her own
intimate stories of death to share—her two previous boyfriends
had died while courting her, Michael Feeney of typhoid at age
16, Michael Bodkin of tuberculosis at 20.  At the convent where
she worked, Nora had even earned the nickname of "the man-
killer."  Joyce found himself in the strange situation of feeling
jealousy for dead rivals, but in a manner typical of his process,
responded by finding a way of transforming this anxiety into
fiction.  It was in this frame of mind that Joyce, with intimations
of mortality assailing him from all angles, set out to write "The
Dead" shortly after his return to Trieste from Rome.  

Some may carp that this story—and indeed all of
Dubliners
is given undeserved notoriety, solely because it is assigned
in classrooms by teachers who fear that Joyce's more daunting
later works would be too hard for their students to digest.  But
make no mistake, this is
not Joyce light, or Irish Lit for
Beginners
.  Those who grasp the full scope of the forces at
work in these may pages, may even be more shaken by
their implications than by the ostentatious avant-garde effects
of
Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  

So don’t read this book as a stepping-stone to the "harder"
Joyce books.  
Dubliners is no preparatory effort leading
toward something more fully realized.  You might even be
wise to come to this book at the end of your Joycean studies.  
It is after all a work obsessed with the endgame.  If
Ulysses is
the book recounting the epic struggles of a single day and
Finnegans Wake the literary equivalent of a long, deep sleep
reviving in an ever-recurring cycle with each dawn,
Dubliners
is the even darker approach into a far more opaque night, one
from which there is no renewal.  As such, it belongs on the short
list of masterful fictions about the looming void inherent in the
human condition—
Death in Venice, The Death of Ivan Ilyich,
The Wings of the Dove and a handful of other works come to
mind.  The fact that it came from a brash writer at the beginning
of his career only adds to the marvel of its mature resignation.  



Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book
is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


Published on May 6, 2013
Joyce spent a decade trying to find a
publisher for the most famous book of
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