The first published life of James Joyce came from the pen of the
author himself, and if readers had any doubts that his debut novel
was autobiographical, the title itself should have cleared up the
question.  
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), although
written as a third-person narrative, relentlessly drew on Joyce's own
youth in and around Dublin, with scenes, characters, family relation-
ships, even bits of dialogue echoing real-life counterparts.

But this was hardly Joyce’s first attempt at
fictional memoir.  Back in 1904, shortly
before his 22nd birthday, he had written a
brief autobiographical essay titled "Portrait
of the Artist."  He submitted the piece to a
magazine, but editor John Eglinton declined
to publish it on the grounds that he would
not foist off on readers anything he couldn't
understand himself.

But still another fictional autobiography would
intervene before the publication of Joyce's
debut novel.  In 1904 and 1905, he labored
over the manuscript of
Stephen Hero, a
testing ground for many of the characters and
scenes that would later appear in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man
.  At this point, Joyce envisioned a massive work—when he had
completed more than 900 manuscript pages, he estimated that he
was roughly halfway through the project.  Joyce never finished
Stephen
Hero
, but he kept a large portion of the manuscript, and it was eventually
published in 1963.  

Related Essays:
The Making of Ulysses
Revisiting James Joyce's Dubliners
The Adventurer's Guide to Finnegans Wake

In truth, Joyce never stopped writing his life story.  Stephen Dedalus,
his fictional alter ego, reappears in
Ulysses, a book that is, among
many other things, a continuation of the narrative of
A Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man
.  Joyce downplayed the autobiographical
elements in
Finnegans Wake, his final and most daunting book, but
even here he could not resist filling the text with elements, large and
small, from his day-to-day life.  In truth, Joyce knew no other manner
of writing.   Many have puzzled over his strange admission to Harriet
Weaver: "I fear I have little imagination"—a remarkable statement
coming from one of the most illustrious storytellers of modern times.  
Yet his quirky process of writing bears out the claim.  The building
blocks of Joyce’s books were the details of his day, and he constantly
jotted down what he had seen and heard, later reworking this raw
material into the stuff of his fiction.  The kind of wholesale invention
of a Balzac or Tolstoy was foreign to his temperament, and it was all
too revealing that when he did aim for epic grandeur in rewriting the
myth of
Ulysses, he had to set the story in his hometown and make
himself one of characters.   If Joyce had written
War and Peace, it
would have probably revolved around a brawl in a favorite Dublin pub.

Joyce must have been pleased when, after his rise to fame, other
people wanted to tell his life story.  He saw his own rise to maturity in
heroic terms—how many others would give themselves the fictional
last name of "Hero"?—and wanted others to do so too.  But even when
the first Joyceans stepped in to present
their portrait of the artist, Joyce
wanted to call the shots.  The demands he put on his first biographer,
Herbert Gorman, were so extreme that Gorman announced at the end
of the painful process that he would never again write the biography
of a living person.  When the book was ready for publication, Joyce
had his helper Paul Léon (the king of all unpaid interns) send a long
threatening letter full of outrageous demands.  Joyce wanted to have
for "his perusal and comparison the entire set of the typescript and
of course the subsequent proofs."  He insisted that Gorman cover up
the fact that Joyce didn't have a legal marriage with his wife Nora until
1931.  He wanted Gorman to whitewash
the story of his profligate father John Joyce.  
He wanted all mention of his daughter
Lucia's mental problems left out of the book,
and the same for comparable issues with
his daughter-in-law Helen.  As if this weren't
enough, Joyce actually wrote passages for
the biography himself, and passed them on
to Gorman for inclusion.  Given all this, one
can only laugh at the final line of Léon's
hostile letter, with its one concession: "As
to the color of the binding he is more or less
indifferent.”

Thank goodness for small favors!

This was Joyce's
modus operandi throughout his life.  Many who had
agreed to write about him or his works found Joyce ready to turn them
into puppets mouthing his own ideas and opinions.  At times, these
intrusions proved valuable to posterity—for example, when Joyce helped
the contributors to a 1929 collection of essays on his "work in progress"
(later known as
Finnegans Wake).  Of course, even the title of this book
should have been a dead giveaway of who was behind the project.  Who
other than James Joyce would have come up with a name as Joycean as
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in
Progress
?  Yes, he could be a helpful puppeteer, even as he yanked on
the strings.  But in other instances, Joyce punished and berated those
who offered visions of his life and work that deviated from his own—
although he himself had no compunction about manipulating the
biographical details of friends and acquaintances, even in ways that
might embarrass them or distort the facts, in the course of his own
writing.   

The end result of all this: although there were many lives of James
Joyce, none had any real claim to objectivity until Richard Ellman
published his in-depth biography of the author in 1959.  More than a
half-century after its release, this book still stands out as one of the
great literary biographies of modern times,
worthy to stand alongside the masterful works
of Leon Edel (on Henry James), Joseph Frank
(on Dostoevsky), George Painter (on Marcel
Proust) as an exemplar of the form.  

The first thing that strikes you about Ellmann's
biography is its persnickety thoroughness.  In
my copy of the revised 1982 edition, I find no
fewer than three separate appendixes, each
filled with names of people consulted by
Ellmann during the course of his research.  
We can see that he literally scoured the
globe, from New Zealand to Tangier, in his
search for anyone whose path had crossed
with Joyce’s, and the fruits of this relentless
search for even obscure parties involved in
long-distant events constantly enliven his
narrative.  But Ellmann not only wooed the obscure, but was equally
persistent in getting help from the aloof and famous.  Among the
many names of his helpers, we find Samuel Beckett, Constantin
Brancusi, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Peggy Guggenheim, Aldous
Huxley, Carl Jung, Marianne Moore, Tom Stoppard, Alice B. Toklas,
and Rebecca West, and other illustrious parties.

This devotion to fact-finding alone alone would ensure a place on the
shelf of all Joyceans for Ellmann's book.  But Ellmann's care for
accuracy is matched by his skill as a literary critic.  Certainly there
is no shortage of commentary on the works of James Joyce, but few
explications de texte are as knowledgeable, persuasive and skillfully
written as those included in Ellmann's biography.  When he moves
from telling the story of Joyce's life to analysis and exposition of the
Joycean canon, he speaks with candor and intelligence—clearing up
misconceptions, clarifying obscurities, defending the virtues and just
as vigilantly criticizing the failings of the works under scrutiny.  

Yet even the most masterful biography can grow out-dated.  And in
2012, Gordon Bowker offered readers
James Joyce: A New Biography,
a 600-page volume that drew on more recent research, and offered a
different perspective on the great Irish author. Bowker was no newcomer
to the art of literary biography—he had written books on Malcolm Lowry
and George Orwell.  But could he displace Ellmann as the definitive
source on the life of Joyce?

I've spent considerable time studying and comparing these books,
chapter by chapter.  I recognize Bowker's strengths, especially in
presenting a smoother narrative than Ellmann, without the shifts into
intense lit-crit that we find in the older work.  I also appreciate Bowker's
more detailed and nuanced accounts of the people who surrounded
Joyce, especially the author’s wife Nora and daughter Lucia—Bowker
clearly benefited from Brenda Maddox's biography of the former and
Carol Loeb Shloss's book on the latter.  Also, some incidents, cloudy
in their presentation by Ellmann, get clarified in the accounts offered
by Bowker.  

These are considerable advantages.  Yet I still must give the nod to
Ellmann, who consistently offers more insight on Joyce the author,
and provides a surer guide to the literary milestones that are the reason
why we still care about this figure from the past.  If you want to know
why James Joyce still shapes our sense of modernism and casts a
long shadow over experimental fiction of all stripes, Ellmann, not
Bowker, is your surest guide.

Bowker, to his credit, is more forthcoming with the embarrassing or
scatological detail.  Ellmann tells us that Joyce’s father learned how
to swear like a sailor while working on a boat, but Bowker offers
actual examples (
Ye dirty pissabed, ye bloody-looking crooked-eye
son of a bitch. Ye dirty bloody corner boy, you've got a mouth like a
bloody nigger
).  Both biographers tells us about Joyce’s great-uncle
William O'Connell moving in with the family, but only Bowker specifies
that the visitor wore his tophat to the outhouse where he would sing
"The Groves of Blarney" while relieving himself.   If you want to know
the particulars behind the schoolboy practice of "smugging" that
five of Joyce’s classmates got caught doing in the closets of his
school at Clongowes (although not Joyce himself), you need to go
to Bowker not Ellman.  

On the other hand, Ellmann tells us that the earliest evidence of
Joyce's narrative skill came in organizing a play for his siblings on
the story of Adam and Eve—a subject which prefigured many later
Joycean moves, not the least the opening line of
Finnegans Wake
and reserved for himself the part of Satan.  And those who object to
Joyce's shabby treatment of Shakespeare in the pages of
Ulysses will
be interested to learn that he submitted an essay on the inadequacies
of
Macbeth to Professor Thomas Arnold (brother of the famous poet
and critic Matthew Arnold) during his student days University College,
and earned the scholar’s approval for this bold move.   Around this
same time, Joyce mocked
Hamlet while playing the role in a casual
dramatic evening at a friend's house—when told of Ophelia's death,
he replied in an Irish working-class accent:
Ach, the puirr gurrl!  
Bowker, quick to reach for the salacious, finds no time to tell these
details of Joyce’s early responses to the dramatic arts.  

Ellmann offers more judicious literary opinions, while Bowker's most
penetrating commentary comes from quoting the assessments of
others, which are sometimes disappointingly superficial.  In the opening
page of the preface, Bowker notes that
Ulysses wins "almost every poll"
to select the greatest modern novel—an alarming starting point for a
book of literary biography, especially when I consider that Ayn Rand
a L. Ron Hubbard also score well on such surveys.   When Ellmann
draws on a literary assessment, it is more likely from Ezra Pound,
Carl Jung or Ernest Hemingway than a popularity contest.  But these
citations from respected authorities merely supplement the judicious
opinions and critiques that Ellmann presents again and again from
his own pen.  

This contrasting priorities of the two biographers stand out as
numerous points.  For example, both give vivid details of the firestorm
of criticism that Joyce met—and defied—at his presentation of the
paper "Drama and Life" at University College on January 20, 1900.   
But only Ellmann offers a brilliant exposition of surviving text, showing
how this contentious declamation served as the first public announce-
ment of Joyce’s main intentions as an author.  Here, a few days shy
of his 18th birthday, Joyce asserted the value of myth, even as he
demanded primacy for the most contemporary aspects of everyday
life—seeing a compatibility between the two where others might
assume a divergence; Joyce also expressed his distaste for
conventions, whether social or religious; and he even prophesied
the arrival of Leopold Bloom.  "Even the most commonplace, the
deadest among the living," Joyce insisted, "may play a part in the
great drama….Life we must accept as we see it before our eyes,
men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we
apprehend them in the world of faery." Indeed, I might go further
than Ellmann and suggest that we can even detect here a central
theme of
Finnegans Wake, in Joyce's upholding of the "deadest
among the living" as a proper subject for art.  Bowker, for his part,
doesn't bother to probe the importance of these bold statements as
a harbinger of later works and a revelation of Joyce’s core artistic
principles.  But he does mention that audience members must have
been shocked by his praise of a play (Ibsen's
Ghosts) that deals with
syphilis—a fact that Ellmann passes over in silence.  Once again,
readers looking for a colorful biography will be entertained by Bowker,
but those seeking insight into a literary revolution must turn to Ellman.  

The same contrast between the two biographers emerges when
dealing with the literary aspirations of Joyce's friend (and rival)
Oliver St. John Gogarty.  Both Ellmann and Bowker mention that
Joyce contributed a line to Gogarty's poem "The Death of Shelley,"
which won the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize at Trinity College; but only
Ellmann actually quotes the line ("Shines on thee, soldier of song,
Leonidas"), and tells us that, when the Professor gave out the award,
he called attention to this specific part of the poem.  On the other
hand, Bowker finds time to introduce a dirty limerick by Gogarty,
although it has no bearing on Joyce in particular or literary matters in
general:

There was young man from St. John's
Who wanted to Roger the swans
"Oh no, said the porter,
Oblige with my daughter,
The birds are reserved for the dons."

Ellmann is either unaware of the limerick or (more likely) willing to pass
over it in silence.

These odd inclusions by Bowker are perhaps forgivable, and justified
by his desire to make a literary biography of a difficult author as
readable as possible. But his cursory descriptions of literary milestones
in Joyce's development are as frustrating as they are puzzling.  I have
already mentioned Ellmann's superior treatment of Joyce's important
lecture on "Drama and Life" from 1900, but Bowker again falls short
when dealing with Joyce’s first attempt at personal memoir, his 1904
essay entitled "Portrait of the Artist."  This early effort set the roadmap
for Joyce’s major literary works, and Ellmann gives it the detailed
presentation and exegesis it deserves, but Bowker dismisses the
subject after less than a paragraph (and doesn't even list the work in
his index of Joyce’s writings).  On the other hand, when Joyce
contracts a venereal disease around this same time, Bowker is
now the biographer who provides all the details, while Ellmann makes
only the most cursory and discrete reference to the subject.  

When Ellmann addresses the major works of Joyce's career, he
is unsurpassed in his judicious blending of biographical detail,
psychological insight, telling anecdote and literary assessment.  
His analysis of the ingredients that went into the creation of "The
Dead," Joyce’s greatest work of short fiction, is a
tour de force, and
should be required reading for any serious student of this seminal
story.  When he arrives at the dawn of
Ulysses, Ellmann again
interrupts the chronological narrative and offers a stand-alone
chapter—some 22 pages—on the concomitant factors that set the
stage for this literary masterpiece.   There is nothing comparable in
Bowker's biography.  And if you want to know what Joyce might have
written after
Finnegans Wake, had he lived long enough to publish
another book, you need to consult Ellmann rather than Bowker. These
are not small matters.

Yet Bowker is not unskilled at assessing literary matters, when he
puts his mind to it.  In offering readers a comparison between Joyce
and Yeats, he shows that he can be pithy and illuminating in his
analysis:

"The two men were from different backgrounds with different
interests – Yeats a child of the Protestant Ascendancy, fascinated
by aristocracy and peasant superstition, Joyce from the Catholic
lower middle class, intrigued by Dublin's demi-monde; Yeats
embracing the beauty of nature, Joyce drawn by the ugliness of
the city;  Yeats seeing in Homer the true expression of high art,
Joyce preferring Dante and the journey to Hell and back.  They were
also two different kinds of creative intelligence—Yeats's originality
moulded by considerations of poetic form; Joyce's wanting always to
spill into shapes beyond the formal.  Yeats was also committed to a
cultural nationalism which Joyce thought a betrayal of poetic genius."

This is concise and expansive at the same time, and helps the
reader understand the awkward and sometimes contentious
relationship between the two Irish literary masters. Yet such passages
tend to be the exception with Bowker; Ellmann typically offers the
more intelligent—and certainly more in-depth—appraisals of literary
matters.  

Bowker occasionally comes up with a detail about Joyce's writing habits
that Ellmann has missed.  I was fascinated to learn that Joyce tended to
write wearing a white jacket—since he believed that his poor eyesight
was helped by the reflections off this garment.   Ellmann does not tell us
this, nor that Joyce often wrote while lying on top of his bed.  Bowker
also lets us know that Joyce pronounced the name of his most famous
book differently from the rest of us, rendering it as
Oolissays.  While
not pathbreaking discoveries, these do add to the story and give us
a view of the celebrated Irish author that Ellmann misses.

In other instances, Bowker offers accounts of key incidents that differ
slightly from Ellmann's.  These discrepancies are rarely significant,
but they leave the reader wondering why these two books, which
by necessity draw mostly on identical sources (usually surviving
correspondence), do not coincide in their details.  But since Bowker
does not stop to explain why his "facts" conflict with Ellmann's, the
rest of us are left uncertain which biographer to trust.  Since Bowker's
book is the more recent, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to him.  
But he should have helped us by alerting us in a few footnotes why he
is correcting the record.

Above all, Ellmann's superiority is best measured by his skill in
directing us back to those other lives of James Joyce I mentioned
earlier, namely those written by the novelist as a young man.  Literary
biography, let us remember, only exists because some other books
have interested us enough to stir up our curiosity about the author
whose creativity and boldness gave them birth.  Thus a biography of
James Joyce is not like an account of, say, Hugh Hefner or Evel
Knievel, where salacious detail and juicy anecdote must serve as the
main bill of fare.  A litany of scandals and shenanigans can never take
center stage in a biography of a literary genius and cultural innovator;  
our attention must be focused on the great vocation that Joyce, even
more than most famous writers, pursued with unflagging conviction
and an almost desperate persistence.

So read Ellmann, by all means.  But then turn, or return, to the other
Lives of Joyce—Joyce as Stephen Hero, or Gabriel Conroy, or Stephen
Dedalus, or Shem the Penman.  Joyce, you see, led many lives,
most of them still vibrant and speaking to us from inside the pages
of his stories.  And isn't that fitting for an author whose biggest book
is about a dead man who rises to confront an audience at his own
wake?

Yes, Joyce the biographer's subject is long dead and buried.  But
like one of his own resurrected protagonists, he still speaks proudly
and confidently to us in the guise of the visionary young artist of his
famous self-portrait.  He still echoes the epic pretensions of Homer
in
Ulysses, and circles eternally along the riverrun of Dublin in
Finnegans Wake.   Indeed, in a century whose art, as it evolved
became increasingly self-referential, he did more than anyone to blur
the border between fiction and memoir, external detail and internal
monologue, communal history and personal narrative, imagination
and private memory.  Others may delight us with the art of biography,
but he, preeminently, reminds us that higher plateau, where we
encounter the biography as art.  And that is the most powerful life story
of them all.


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


Published April 11, 2013
The Many Lives of James Joyce


by Ted Gioia
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