On 2 September 1932 Yeats invited Joyce to join the Irish Academy of Letters.
Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were working to establish an Irish Academy of Letters, a body that would represent Irish writers in general and would help in the fight against censorship in particular. Both Shaw and Yeats felt that Joyce was an obvious member for the Academy but, despite urging from James Stephens and Padraic Colum, Joyce turned down the invitation to join.
In the mid-1920s, the Minister for Justice established a Committee on Evil Literature to examine Ireland’s censorship laws. The Committee’s conclusion was that the laws were insufficient, and a Censorship of Publications Act was passed in 1929. The Act established a Censorship of Publications Board to assess individual publications and to advise the Minister.
In his letter of invitation to Joyce, Yeats explained that the planned Academy was to be “a vigorous body capable of defending our interests, negociating [sic] with Government, and I hope preventing the worst forms of censorship.” Perhaps to encourage Joyce to join, he added that all the writers who would form the Council of the Academy were ‘students’ of Joyce’s work. Apart from Yeats and Shaw, Padraic Colum, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Austin Clarke, Lennox Robinson, and St John Ervine were among the members.
Joyce didn’t reply to Yeats’ letter immediately, and he received another letter of invitation from Bernard Shaw shortly afterwards with a copy of the rules of the Academy. Joyce replied to Yeats on 5 October 1932, reminding Yeats that it was thirty years since Yeats first offered Joyce help and thanking him and Shaw for their invitation. Though he wished them success in their venture, he claimed he could see no reason why his name should have been considered for the Academy. In a letter to Harriet Weaver, he claimed he was declining it because he lived abroad and his eyesight was poor.
Given Joyce’s experiences with censorship in America and in Britain, it seems strange perhaps that he did not want to join the Academy. Curiously, though Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in the US and had been destroyed by customs officers in Britain, it was never banned by the Censorship of Publications Board in Ireland.
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, vol. III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.