Revisiting James Joyce’s legacy from Yale’s rare book library

James Joyce was hit hard in the press for his controversial literature.

Ira Buch

Revisiting James Joyce’s legacy from Yale’s rare book library

‘History, Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,’” wrote James Joyce in one of his famed novels, “Ulysses.”

My experience with the Hotchkiss MacLeish Program at Yale Beinecke Library transformed this nightmare into a beautiful adventure – another theme Joyce holds dear to his heart. Through his manuscripts, letters, and notes, I researched the history behind the novelty of Joyce’s writings.

James Joyce, a 20th century Irish modernist author, dedicated his life to battling the constraints of writing. The recurring themes in Joyce’s compositions include Irish nationalism, critique of religious institutions, personal beliefs, and familial expectations, and, perhaps most notably, paralysis – corruption of thoughts and body,

When choosing an author to study for my MacLeish project, I initially looked at the writers who were exiled due to their explicit attacks on governmental institutions and whose work centered around the notion of propaganda. Joyce, however, doesn’t directly investigate the power of language in social, familial, and political contexts through his compositions’ storylines. Instead he incorporates ambiguous diction, unconventional punctuations, and seemingly mundane storylines to hint at these topics, making him a perfect pick for my research.

My arrival at Yale was followed by bookmaking and creative writing sessions – the two components of the MacLeish program in addition to archival research. Our discussions, which often centered around the correlation between the writing’s form and content, as well as the author’s unique approach to conveying their ideas, whether through unexpected diction, line breaks, and symbols, or the literal book form, inspired me to investigate how Joyce utilizes these aspects in enhancing his work’s novelty.

With this question, I entered the library of rare books and manuscripts, planning to focus on Joyce’s earlier prose writings: “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of an Artist as A Young Man.”


A writing sample from Joyce on file in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.Ira Buch

I found that in the drafts of these works, Joyce experimented with changing words and sentences, inviting the reader to engage with a multi-layered puzzle he constructed. For instance, in the last story of “Dubliners,” “The Dead,” Joyce changes Michael Furey’s last name from Fury, disguising the implications of potential rage and anger.

Despite my initial intentions to focus only on these two works, “Finnegans Wake” holdings emerged as the collection’s gem. This work was the culmination of Joyce’s experimental vision. In his notes, a fusion of words, multiple foreign languages, and numerous symbols, such as lines, hashtags, and geometrical shapes, have become Joyce’s allies in creating a novel method of shattering language barriers.

As a result of his provocative style, none of Joyce’s works had an easy trip to publication. “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” was termed as “too progressive” in one of the first readers’ reviews. Entire passages from “Dubliners” were altered or deleted due to political connotations, and over a thousand copies of “Ulysses” were burned due to the themes explored within the novel. After Joyce’s death, the novel was termed a “leg pull” by Oliver Gogarty, an Irish poet and Joyce’s friend.

Despite publishers’ predictions of Joyce’s inability to resonate with the public, his work flourished long after his death. As I reflected on my findings, the long-standing relevance of the themes explored by Joyce became obvious. Knowing from personal experience how language can be used as a powerful tool in disguising political terror, I recognized the attention Joyce’s writings draw to shattering the imposed linguistic constraints, the power of ambiguous diction in hiding the actual connotations, and censorship.

Ira Buch is a rising senior at The Hotchkiss School who attended the MacLeish Program at Yale University in June. She has returned home to Ukraine for summer but continues to write for The Lakeville Journal as an intern.


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