On this day…4 December

On 4 December 1935 William Magee sent Joyce his book Irish Literary Portraits.

William Magee (who wrote under the pseudonym John Eglinton), whom Joyce had known as a librarian at the National Library of Ireland, had included two essays on Joyce in his latest book, Irish Literary Portraits, published in London by Macmillan in 1935.

Magee was born in Dublin in 1868 and was a prize-winning student at Trinity College, Dublin, before joining the National Library of Ireland in 1895. At the Library, he worked with Thomas Lyster and Richard Best, and all three are depicted in the ‘Scylla & Charybdis’ episode of Ulysses. With the formation of the Irish Free State, Magee left Ireland and settled in England. He died in Bournemouth in 1961.

In 1904 Magee and Fred Ryan started the magazine Dana in which one of Joyce’s poems was published. But the editors rejected another piece, entitled ‘A Portrait of the Artist,’ as Magee said he couldn’t publish what he couldn’t understand. Joyce later referred to this piece as ‘an introductory chapter’ of his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce had a copy of the pamphlet Bards and Saints (1906) by Magee in his Trieste library, along with Magee’s Anglo-Irish Essays (1917). He also seems to have had a copy of Magee’s Pebbles from a Brook. In Irish Literary Portraits, Magee collected his memoirs of WB Yeats, George Russell and George Moore as well as two essays on Joyce, ‘The Beginnings of Joyce’ and ‘A Glimpse of the Later Joyce.’

Magee’s essay ‘The Beginnings of Joyce’ had appeared as an article in Life and Letters in December 1932. Of Joyce and Ulysses he says: ‘The discovery of a new method in literary art, in which the pen is no longer the slave of logic and rhetoric, made of this Berlitz School teacher a kind of public danger, threatening to the corporate existence of “literature” as established in the minds and affections of the new generation…’

Magee also claimed that ‘When Joyce produced Ulysses he had shot his bolt… He is a man of one book, as perhaps the ideal author always is,’ and he also claimed that Joyce’s real interest was not in literature as such but rather ‘in language and the mystery of words.’

In ‘A Glimpse of the Later Joyce’ Magee recorded Joyce’s reaction to bafflement about the way in which he was writing what became Finnegans Wake. Joyce told Magee: ‘I write in that way simply because it comes naturally to me to do so, and I don’t care if the whole thing crumbles when I have done with it.’



Sources & Further Reading:

Deming, Robert H: James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Eglinton, John: Irish Literary Portraits, London: Macmillan, 1935.

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, vols II & III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.