On 23 April 1900 William Archer wrote to Joyce.
William Archer, the English translator of Henrik Ibsen’s works, wrote to Joyce to pass on Ibsen’s compliments about the review of his play When We Dead Awaken that had just been published in the Fortnightly Review.
Ibsen wrote to Archer on 16 April about Joyce’s review. Ibsen didn’t have much English but, according to Archer, he had “spelt out” Joyce’s review which Ibsen described as “velvillig” – benevolent. Ibsen wrote that he would like to thank Joyce for the article but that he didn’t know enough English, hence Archer’s letter to Joyce on 23 April passing on Ibsen’s comments.
The fact that Joyce’s review had been accepted for publication in the prestigious Fortnightly Review was significant in itself, but Archer’s letter and Ibsen’s comments elevated it to a still higher importance: it was no longer just a review but a review that Ibsen had read and praised. Joyce replied to Archer on 28 April thanking him for his kindness in passing on Ibsen’s comments. He told Archer that he was an eighteen-year-old Irishman, and that he would always treasure Ibsen’s words.
As a respected drama critic and translator, Archer was an important figure in the London literary world, and Joyce quickly followed up on this new contact. Joyce wrote to Archer before his visit to London in May 1900, and Archer invited him to dine at the Royal Services Club, where (appropriately) they ate wild duck.
In August 1900, Joyce sent Archer his first play, A Brilliant Career, which he had just written. Joyce had dedicated it to his own soul, which Archer must have found precocious, but Archer’s reply was not dismissive of Joyce’s effort. Archer wrote that the play interested him but also puzzled him, and he suggested that Joyce write something with fewer and more clearly individualised characters.
When Joyce followed this by sending Archer some of his poems, Archer answered again with patient criticism. Apologising for being a pedant, he pointed out a line in one poem which he felt Joyce must surely have miscopied, and a rhyme in another poem which he felt was not worthy of serious verse. In a second letter he went on to say that if Joyce published these poems now he would probably regret it in the future.
Joyce did not forget Archer’s assistance and criticism, and after Ulysses was published he asked Harriet Weaver to see that a copy of the book was sent to Archer.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.