On this day…20 May

On 20 May 1927 Joyce proposed that James Stephens finish Finnegans Wake.

Partly because of the poor reception of his new work, Joyce proposed to Harriet Weaver that James Stephens might take over and finish work on the book. He didn’t mention this to Stephens until much later and, in the end, the proposal came to nothing.

Joyce had already written to Harriet Weaver on 12 May suggesting that he might hand over work on Part II of his book to someone else, but he concluded that letter by saying that there was no ‘waster’ wasteful enough to take on such a project. On 20 May, however, he wrote that he was considering James Stephens for the role.

Up to this point, there had been little contact between Joyce and James Stephens. At least as early as 1909, Joyce had read works by Stephens in the Sinn Féin newspaper, to which Stephens was a regular contributor. Apparently they met and went drinking together in Dublin in 1912, when Stephens told Joyce he hadn’t read a word of his. Though Stephens thought Chamber Music was pleasant, he called Dubliners ‘unpleasant,’ and after Ulysses was published he claimed that Joyce had written the same book three times and hadn’t developed at all as a writer.

Apart from what he had read in Sinn Féin, Joyce does not seem to have been familiar with Stephens’ writing. In his letter of 20 May 1927, he mentioned that he had started reading Stephens’ Deirdre the day before, but this seems to be all he has read. It is hard to say what Joyce saw in Stephens’ work that made him think Stephens would be able to do anything with Work in Progress. Joyce claimed that Stephens would not give the book the same time or effort that Joyce was giving it, but he adds that this might not be a bad thing for the book, or for him.

Joyce’s hope was that if Stephens agreed to maintain certain essential points, he would show him the basic strands so the pattern could be completed. Perhaps most of all, Joyce liked the idea of the initials ‘JJ&S’ (standing for James Joyce & Stephens, but also John Jameson & Sons, the Dublin whiskey makers) appearing under the title of the book.

At the end of May 1927 Joyce remarked on coincidences between him and Stephens, including that Stephens was born on the exact same day as him, and that Stephens’ name was made up of Joyce’s first name and the first name of Stephen Dedalus. Even so, it was some time before Joyce broached the subject with Stephens, and Stephens thought the whole thing had more to do with the coincidence of birthdays than anything else.

After discussing the idea with Stephens in July 1929, Joyce was reassured that Stephens would do everything he could. But Stephens also told Joyce that Anna Livia Plurabelle was the ‘greatest prose ever written by a man,’ and insisted that Joyce would finish the book himself. In November 1929 Joyce spent most of a week with Stephens explaining Finnegans Wake to him, after which Stephens promised to continue the work if Joyce himself could not.

Joyce sent Stephens telegrams in 1935 and 1936 wishing him many happy returns for ‘our’ birthday, but nothing more came of the idea of him completing Finnegans Wake. And it now seems that Stephens wasn’t born on 2 February 1882 after all.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Finneran, Richard J: ‘James Joyce and James Stephens: The Record of a Friendship with Unpublished Letters from Joyce to Stephens,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 3, Spring 1974, 279-292.

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.