Irish Writer James Joyce And His Work Honored In Burns Library

It’s fitting that an exhibit about the Jesuit-educated James Joyce lies just across the street from the decadently simple St. Mary’s. “Unhemmed As It Is Uneven: Joyce’s Odyssey in Print” has called Burns Library home since mid-June. It ends Oct. 8. The exhibit is a study of the publication of Joyce’s work—the struggle between a genius, often rightfully egotistical Irish writer and the publishing industry machinery he found standing between his work and its intended audience.  

Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce—one of first and foremost critical modernist of the 20th century—spent the majority of his life and career transposing the people of his Dublin from the city street to the page. He did it first in the more manageable short stories of Dubliners, and then against Homer’s Odyssey in the heralded Ulysses and then in the even more difficult, language-overlapping, Finnegan’s Wake.

“Unhemmed As It Is Uneven” is set up in the opening corridor of the Burns Library, just before the distinguished reading room. The Ulysses editions face the Finnegan’s Wake, along the typical plaques that offer timely explanations and timelines. The Dubliners history lies along the same wall in an adjoining room. It’s these three rows, these rivers of edition and histories that make up the heart of the exhibit, as the viewer walks along the quiet carpet and examines the old, broken books and reads about how they got there.

The exhibit also features the JoyceWays app and the Digital Dubliners iBook, for those who prefer the screen experience.

Joyce’s first serious work ended up being his most difficult to publish. Dubliners is a series of naturalistic short stories detailing the hum-drum depravity of Dublin in the beginning of the 20th century. Joyce first inquired about its possible publication in the summer of 1906, and it took about nine years of haggling, mostly over its obscene language and content, for the collection to be published by London publisher Grant Richards in 1914. Joyce submitted revised manuscript after revised manuscript to publisher, as he and Barnacle moved from Dublin, to Rome, and then Trieste. In the following year, Joyce began work on Ulysses, which takes many of the concerns of Dubliners but widens in epic scope and task.

As the exhibit succinctly explains, “The narrative of Ulysses parallels Homer’s Odyssey in 18 episodes. The central character is a non-practicing Jew, Leopold Bloom, who the reader follows around Dublin during the course of an ordinary but not arbitrary day—June 16, 1904—the date of Joyce’s first outing with his life companion Nora Barnacle, subsequently celebrated in annual “Bloomsday” festivals.”

Ulysses was eventually published in 1922, after first being serialized in the Little Review—an American literary magazine—beginning in March 1918. It was successfully published due to Joyce’s heightened status after Dubliners, the help of other avant-garde writers like T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein among others, but mostly American-in-Paris publisher Sylvia Beach who handled the printing and advertising for Joyce’s modern epic.

In 1923, now living in Paris, Joyce begins work on “Work in Progress” which would eventually become his multi-lingual, purposely incoherent Finnegan’s Wake. “Work in Progress” would be heavily serialized in avant garde literary magazines in the 1930s and the final novel would eventually be published by Faber and Faber in London and the Vikings Press in New York on May 4, 1939. He’d die at age 59 on Jan. 13, 1941.

The exhibit also features a few more fun, less instructional items. Joyce’s death mask rests in the Dubliners row. It’s a copy of the casing made by Swiss sculptor Paul Speck. Joyce looks quietly self-satisfied, with an air of dignity, like he knew Speck was coming.

Another highlight was an edition of The Cat & the Devil, a French folklore infused with Joyce’s Irish wit. In the tale, “the mayor by of the little town by the Loire made a pact with the Devil to build a bridge across the river.” The Devil agrees to build the bridge, as long as the first soul to cross the bridge is his. And so the mayor arrives at the new bridge the next morning, carrying a cat. Then, it’s the cat that crosses the bridge into the Devil’s arms. The tale is a nice respite from historical publication talk.

The exhibit has been a quiet, thoughtful addition to the memorialization of Irish writing on the Boston College campus. Joyce and his work have found their way across the world, and have found a bit of an honorary home at BC.

Featured Image by Boston College Library

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Ryan Dowd was the Arts & Review Editor. He's amassed 16,323 (at last count) unread emails. He'll work on it tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter @RPD_1993.