Why Did James Joyce Burn his Manuscript?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureOn January 7, 1904, James Joyce completed a short essay, entitled “A Portrait of the Artist” commissioned by Dana, an Irish literary magazine. Editor John Eglinton declined to print Joyce’s essay; he explained, “I did not care to publish what was to myself incomprehensible.” The essay, of course, contained the seeds of Joyce’s unfinished novel, Stephen Hero, that would in turn be transformed into his first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Parenthetically, the essay was published many years later in the Yale Review (Spring 1960) whose editors found the manuscript comprehensible.

Joyce saw the rejection of his essay as an opportunity to expand it into a novel. He began work on the novel, initially entitled Stephen Hero, on his 22nd birthday (February 2, 1904). According to biographer Herbert Gorman, Stephen Hero was an autobiographical work (in grandiloquent literary terms, a Künstlerroman, the artist’s novel, a sub-genre of the Bildungsroman, a novel of formation): “a personal history, as it were, of the growth of the mind, his own mind, and his own intensive absorption in himself and what he had been and how he had grown out of the Jesuitical garden of his youth. He endeavored to see himself objectively, to assume a godlike poise of watchfulness over the small boy and youth he called Stephen [Daedalus] and who was really himself.” By June of 1905, Joyce had completed most of the book (915 manuscript pages) but grew frustrated with it and abandoned it. Joyce scholars speculate that the novel’s formal and conventional was too restrictive for the author and he sought a more creative modernist approach (employing stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue rather than traditional narration).

Several years later, in September of 1907, Joyce began work on the final version  of Stephen Hero, now entitled, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Some time in 1908, in a fit of rage or despair (depending on the biographer), Joyce tossed the manuscript of Stephen Hero into a fire. Thanks to their quick-thinking and lightning fast reaction, Joyce’s wife, Nora, and his sister reached into the fire and saved as much of the manuscript as they could. From the ashes, Stephen Hero was saved. Unfortunately, 518 of the manuscript pages were lost to the fire. The surviving pages were purchased by the Harvard College Library in 1938. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in  serial form in 1914-15 and in book form in 1916. Stephen Hero, or what was left of it, was eventually published in 1944 (it begins in mid-sentence); a revised edition was published in 1963, containing a few manuscript pages that had been discovered since 1944. Stephen Hero literally rose from the ashes, and the publication of both of these seminal novels has been a gold mine for Joyce scholars who have been able to analyze how the two novels differ in style and substance as well as explore the creative evolution of a brilliant writer.

Read related posts: The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
You Only Have Your Emotions to Sell

For further reading: Stephen Hero by James Joyce edited by Theodore Spencer, Jonathan Cape (1960)
James Joyce by Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press (1983)
James Joyce: A to Z by A. Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Gillespie, Facts on File (1995)

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