On 11 March 1923 Joyce announced his first piece of writing since Ulysses.
In a letter to Harriet Weaver on 11 March 1923, Joyce announced that he had written two pages which he claimed were the first pages he had written since finishing Ulysses. What he wrote was an early draft for part of what we now know as Finnegans Wake.
Most of the letter to Harriet Weaver is taken up with practical matters to do with the seizure of another 500 copies of Ulysses (by the customs authorities at Folkestone, at the end of January 1923), and to do with Joyce’s continuing problems with his eyesight. It is only at the very end of the letter that he mentions that he had written two pages, and he explains that he had to copy them out in large handwriting on a foolscap sheet so that he could see them.
The two pages did not, however, come out of the blue, and his contact with Harriet Weaver over the previous few months gives indications of where he was heading. He had sent her a copy of Sir Edward O’Sullivan’s book about the Book of Kells as a Christmas gift. Joyce later compared his own work to the intricate illuminations in the Book of Kells, and hoped that a page of his work would be as easily identifiable as a page of the Book of Kells.
Writing to Harriet Weaver on 6 February 1923, to thank her for her good wishes on his birthday, he says he is pleased that she liked O’Sullivan’s book, and then remarks that he had made lots of notes from Homer’s Odyssey that he couldn’t fit into Ulysses and that he had recently been sorting them out. In going back over the unused notes for Ulysses, Joyce seems to have been scouting for material for a new work.
It is significant that it was to his patron, Harriet Weaver, that he announced the beginning of his new piece of writing. Over the following sixteen years, she was to become a vital part of the composition of the book. He kept her up to date with his progress on the book which he considered a commission from her. He was concerned that she should understand what he was attempting, and his letters to her were often filled with explications of parts of the book. When Harriet Weaver doubted what he was doing, he often lost confidence in the book himself.
The typescripts and proofs of Finnegans Wake that Harriet Weaver accumulated, and the many letters that Joyce wrote to her about the book, were all carefully preserved and ordered by her. Today, they provide an extensive record of the writing and revising of Finnegans Wake in the sixteen years after he drafted that first piece of it on 10 March 1923.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957; vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.