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James Joyce | Biography

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Family and Education

James Joyce was born in Rathgar, outside of Dublin, on February 2, 1882. He was the oldest of John and May Joyce's 10 children to survive infancy. The family was not wealthy and descended further into poverty throughout his childhood as his father squandered his earnings and drank heavily. When Joyce was six years old, he attended Clongowes Wood College, a prestigious Jesuit boarding school in County Kildare, but he had to leave in 1891 when his parents could no longer afford his tuition. He spent two years schooling himself at home before he and his brother Stanislaus were admitted, tuition-free, to Belvedere College, a Jesuit school, in 1893. Joyce was a good student and in 1899 entered University College in Dublin, where he studied modern languages and Latin. He completed his BA in 1902. Joyce departed for Paris to attend medical school but quickly discovered he lacked the qualifications and instead worked a series of jobs, including teaching and banking. He returned to Ireland in 1903 when his mother became sick.

Early Work

May Joyce died in August 1903, and Joyce refused to take part in the Catholic sacraments associated with death, having abandoned his faith some years before. In June 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, who quickly became his lifelong partner. On principle he rejected the institution of marriage, but he married Nora in 1931 to secure his children's inheritance. Joyce continued to work on his writing after three of his short stories were published in the August, September, and December 1904 issues of Irish Homestead magazine. In 1905 Joyce and Barnacle moved to Trieste in northern Italy, where their two children were born. They also lived briefly in Rome, but the onset of World War I forced the family to move to Zurich, Switzerland. After the war Joyce's friend Ezra Pound, the American expatriate poet, convinced Joyce to move to Paris, where the family lived for 20 years.

Joyce made four trips to Ireland after 1904 but did not return after 1912. Despite his self-imposed exile, Joyce's work strives to capture the texture of Irish society and culture. The short stories in Dubliners (1914) provide a series of portraits of that city and its inhabitants, while his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15), is a semiautobiographical account of his own beginnings. Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Publication and Reception of Ulysses

Joyce began writing Ulysses, also set in Dublin, in 1914. From 1918 to 1920 he published installments of his work-in-progress in a New York literary magazine, The Little Review. Joyce published roughly half of Ulysses in this way. But Bloom's masturbation scene in the "Nausicaa" episode resulted in an obscenity conviction for the magazine's publishers. Several plans to publish the complete Ulysses in the United Kingdom collapsed; its typographic complexity and dubious legal future discouraged publishers. The book could not be published in the United States because of the obscenity conviction.

In 1922 Joyce's friend Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, published Ulysses in France. Initially printed in a run of only 1,000 copies, Ulysses was soon being smuggled into England and the United States. In 1933 a U.S. district court in New York ruled that Ulysses was not obscene and had literary merit and that Joyce was a "great artist." The trials and surrounding publicity influenced the reception of Ulysses, which came to stand for the fight of artistic freedom against censorship.

Early reviews of Ulysses were evenhanded, praising the book's genius while slipping in a few complaints. Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Republic in 1922 that it had "appalling longueurs" (boring passages), but nonetheless "Ulysses is a work of high genius." The reviewer Joseph Collins in the New York Times claimed "the average intelligent reader" would get "little or nothing" from Ulysses except "bewilderment and a sense of disgust." Even so, Collins wrote, "Ulysses is the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century. It will immortalize its author." Collins also presciently suggested Ulysses should come with "a key and a glossary." In fact, Ulysses has prompted the publication of many such guidebooks. As Joyce himself said to his French translator, "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 ensuring one's immortality."

Later Work and Death

With this success Joyce was financially secure as a writer and devoted himself to the massive project of writing his next book, which incorporated poetic styles, allusions, and more than 40 languages. With the help of Paul Léon, another expatriate in Paris, Joyce published his final work, Finnegans Wake, in 1939. Léon would also help preserve Joyce's manuscripts and other personal effects when the Joyce family fled Paris in 1940 ahead of the Nazi invasion. Under political asylum, Joyce settled again in Zurich, where he died of a perforated ulcer on January 13, 1941.

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