On this day…4 May

On 4 May 1939 Finnegans Wake was published.

Joyce’s final novel, on which he had been working for almost seventeen years, was finally published on Thursday 4 May 1939 by Faber & Faber in London, and by Viking Press in New York.

After the publication of Ulysses in February 1922, Joyce had been occupied with making corrections to the text of the first edition. He later claimed that he started writing again in October or November while he was on holidays in Nice, and he was probably also going through Ulysses notebooks scouting for unused material. However, it is not until the beginning of March 1923 that he announced to Harriet Weaver that he had written the first pages since finishing Ulysses.

During the summer of 1923, while he was on holiday in Bognor in the south of England, Joyce continued working on drafts of several pieces at once: the pieces concerned King Roderick O’Conor, Tristan and Isolde, St Kevin, and Berkeley and St Patrick. Harriet Weaver typed them up from Joyce’s handwritten pages, and he asked her to keep copies of them as he’d already managed to lose a page in moving from one room in the hotel to another. From then on, Weaver amassed an enormous collection of material relating to every stage in the production of Finnegans Wake.

Apart from the fact that it was mainly her money that enabled Joyce to live, Harriet Weaver was also an important touchstone for Joyce as he wrote the novel. He regularly solicited her opinion about it, and was often put out if she didn’t appear entirely enthusiastic and supportive. He also wrote lengthy explications of particular passages, pointing out the multiple references and associations, and sent her a list of the sigla that he was using as shorthand designations for characters in his notes.

Joyce’s method of composition was anything but straightforward. He started by composing small pieces but claimed that these were not mere fragments but “active elements” which, as they grew and expanded, would fuse into one another to form the novel. He described the process as being like tunnellers starting from opposite sides of a mountain, hoping that two separate tunnels would break into one continuous one when (if!) they met in the middle.

It was also as fragments that the work started to appear in various magazines and publications. The first piece to be published appeared in the transatlantic review in April 1924, and a great deal of the book appeared in instalments in transition, edited by Eugene Jolas. Some parts, such as ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle,’ ‘Tales Told of Shem and Shaun,’ and ‘Haveth Childers Everywhere,’ were also published as short books.

Partly for copyright reasons, Joyce refused to reveal the name he had chosen for the book, and so the parts that were published before 1939 appeared as excerpts from Work in Progress, a name suggested by Ford Madox Ford, editor of the transatlantic review, who published the first excerpt. Joyce kept up a guessing game with friends who suggested all kinds of titles for the work until Eugene Jolas finally figured out in August 1938 that the name would be Finnegans Wake.

Joyce finished writing Finnegans Wake on Monday 14 November 1938 and he wrote to Harriet Weaver let her know. He then set about reading and correcting the proofs in the hope that the book might be published on his birthday. Though it wasn’t ready by then, Faber & Faber in London did manage to produce a bound set of proofs that they sent to Joyce in time for the celebrations on 2 February 1939.

In 1926 Joyce had suggested to Harriet Weaver that she might commission him to write something, in the way that sculptors or painters were commissioned by wealthy patrons. At the time, she was on holidays in Penrith in Wales, and she replied by sending him photographs of a hogbacked tomb known locally as the ‘Giant’s Grave,’ and commissioned him to write about it. Perhaps indicating her misgivings, she added that she would prefer to commission another book from him! On 4 May 1939, when the book was finally published, Joyce wrote to her announcing that her commission had finally been executed and that he hoped she liked the goods!


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, London: Faber & Faber, 1957; vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Lidderdale, Jane, & Mary Nicholson: Dear Miss Weaver – Harriet Shaw Weaver 1876-1961, London: Faber & Faber, 1970.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.