On this day…8 November

On 8 November 1926 Joyce updated Harriet Weaver on progress with her ‘order.’

At Joyce’s suggestion, Harriet Weaver had commissioned a piece of writing from him at the end of September. The piece was to become the opening paragraphs of Finnegans Wake, and Joyce wrote to her on 8 November 1926 to tell her how it was progressing. He sent her the first draft of the piece on 15 November.

In September 1926 Joyce had suggested to Harriet Weaver that she might ‘order’ a piece of writing from him, a commission similar to those that Renaissance sculptors and painters received from wealthy patrons. She replied from Penrith in Cumbria, where she was holidaying, with a commission for a piece about a hog-backed tomb, known as the ‘Giant’s Grave,’ in the yard of St Andrew’s Church.

In his letter of 8 November, Joyce told her that had he launched himself into writing the piece with such vigour that he nearly ‘stupefied’ himself. As a consequence, he had to take a break from it for three days, during which he lay on the sofa and read Anita Loos’ bestselling book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady (1925).

Sufficiently recovered, Joyce had set to work on his writing again on the morning of 8 November, and hoped to have the piece ready to deliver by Christmas. He announced that her ‘order’ was to have the place of honour in the book, and that it would constitute the opening pages. However, he went on to add that, in fact, the book really had no beginning or end, that it would end in the middle of a sentence and start in the middle of the same sentence.

To orient her, he told her that the piece he was writing for her would be a prelude to the piece that had appeared in the Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers (a version of what became pages 30-34 of Finnegans Wake). The first part of the book would end with what had appeared in Navire d’Argent (a version of the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ chapter), and the third part of the book would be the ‘watches of Shaun’ that she already had. Of the second part he admitted he had only written a little, but he added that the fourth part would be shorter than the others.

Joyce suggested that he could let her have a sample of the work he had done on her order sooner than Christmas if she liked, and he signed his letter ‘M. M. Inkpen & Paperasses (Writers to the Signet)’. On 15 November, Joyce sent her a sample of the piece with the first words – ‘brings us back to Howth Castle &’ – offset to the right to indicate more clearly that they were the end part of an incomplete sentence.


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.