On 24 April 1927 Mary Colum published a review of the first chapter of Work in Progress.
Colum was reviewing the first issue of transition (April 1927) in which ‘Opening Pages of a Work in Progress’ by Joyce was published. Her review, typical of many reactions to Joyce’s new work, claimed that Work in Progress was incomprehensible.
The first publication of part of what was being referred to as Work in Progress came in the transatlantic review in April 1924, and further parts appeared in 1925 in Criterion, Navire d’Argent, This Quarter, and in the Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers.
Joyce had completed rough drafts of much of Book I (excluding the opening chapter and chapter 6) before the end of 1923, and by the end of 1926 large sections of the ‘Shaun’ episodes from Book III and some sections of Book II had already been completed. But the first chapter of the book was only drafted in the autumn of 1926, and it was this opening chapter that was published for the first time in transition in April 1927.
Mary Colum had met Joyce through her husband, Padraic Colum, who had known Joyce since 1901 or 1902. The Colums were close friends and supporters of Joyce and had been instrumental in getting a substantial grant for Joyce from Scofield Thayer during the war. They also promoted his work by publishing supportive reviews in Irish, English, and American newspapers and magazines.
When it came to Work in Progress, however, Mary Colum claimed it could not be comprehended by ordinary readers, and she had no hesitation in telling Joyce this to his face. After reading part of his work to a group of friends one day, he asked Mary Colum what she thought: she replied that she thought it was “outside literature.” Joyce didn’t answer her. However, perhaps considering that his work was expanding the boundaries of what constituted literature, he later told Padraic Colum to tell his wife that, though his work might be outside literature now, in the future it would be inside literature.
Mary Colum’s review in the New York Herald Tribune of Sunday 24 April 1927 was complimentary about Ulysses. She claimed that, though Ulysses was a complex work, it was comprehensible to ordinary readers. But Joyce’s new work would prove incomprehensible to anybody, she thought. She quoted a passage and claimed that, if read aloud, it would sound like a river flowing. She pointed out that this might have associations with Dublin’s history and topography, and with the story of Tristan and Isolde, but challenged any literary critic to state that it could be called literature.
She challenged the editors of transition, asking them if they had understood what they had published, or if they had published it only because of Joyce’s reputation. She claimed that what Joyce had given them for publication was something which had almost no meaning.
Sources & Further Reading:
Deming, Robert H: James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, vol. I, 1902-1927, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.