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Andrew Gibson’s The Strong Spirit is the welcome addition to his Joyce’s Revenge (2002), one of the most significant books on James Joyce to come out in the last thirty years. Joyce’s Revenge argues through meticulous historical research that Joyce was not the writer in exile, aloof from Irish nationalism. Rather, Ulysses took an intimate and measured revenge against a range of mutually supporting English nationalist discourses, mocking and resisting Ireland’s imperial neighbor. One of Joyce’s Revenge’s pleasures is its combination of an authoritative and profound understanding of Joyce with a rigorously scholarly immersion in the complexities of Irish history. Gibson’s sensitivity as a literary critic and keen sense of informed balance as a historian are twin virtues sustained in The Strong Spirit, which considers Joyce’s prose writing before Ulysses.
The Strong Spirit takes its cue from Joyce’s early lecture on James Clarence Mangan, delivered to University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society in 1902. The student Joyce applauded Mangan’s poetic lamentations “against the injustice of despoilers,” but regretted that he lacked “the strong spirit” to “cast down with violence the high traditions of Mangan’s race—love of sorrow for the sake of sorrow” (qtd. in Gibson 3). Joyce’s own aesthetic vision, Gibson argues, was contrastingly vigorous in its commitment to national and aesthetic liberation. His writing from 1898 to 1915 pursues a close engagement with Irish political events and changing tempers. The Strong Spirit takes up the relationship between Joyce and nationalism already explored by Dominic Manganiello (Joyce’s Politics, 1980), Emer Nolan (James Joyce and Nationalism, 1995), and others [End Page 550] probing Joyce’s postcolonial or even semicolonial sensibilities. But he does so with a new, compelling, and wholly revelatory specificity.
Gibson’s methodology is, self-declaredly, historical-materialist, but its key strength is its commitment to “micrology or microanalysis”: an attention to “the fleeting precisions of historicity” (2) he shares with Joyce himself. The Strong Spirit’s primary significance lies in patient explications of the intimacy of Joyce’s engagements with discrete and shifting Irish political developments. Accordingly, it is structured by four distinct timespans in Irish history: 1898–1903, 1904–06, 1907–12, and 1912–14. These are “periods respectively of expectation, deflation, complication, and decision” (3), and they color and define Joyce’s early writings (1898–1903), including Dubliners and Stephen Hero (1904–06), the Triestine lectures and essays (1906–12), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1907–14), and Exiles (1912–14).
Chapters 1 through 3 set out, with lucidity and rigor, to demonstrate how a spirit of optimism in Joyce’s student political writings gave way to disillusion in Dubliners and Stephen Hero. That narrative arc, Gibson explains, is derived from and fully participates in the political shifts, advances, and disappointments of the years between 1898 and 1906. Joyce came of age at a moment of new Irish awakening, which arose from alliances between socialism and radical nationalism, was fortified by the Revival and by boisterous pro-Boer agitations, and fizzed with a sense of national resurgence. Joyce’s University College Dublin peers were in the vanguard, but Dubliners and, later, Stephen Hero, trace the disaffection that followed. Both were written during years of “stymied progress” (69), when the devolutionary promise implicit in the 1898 Local Government Act gave way to “failure and paralysis” (69), rather than the anticipated Home Rule. Paralysis has been long established as central to Dubliners, but the freshness of Gibson’s approach lies in micrological detail. Sparkling readings of “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” and “The Dead” are informed by accounts of a contemporary political sensibility moribund in comparison to the recent and the not-so-recent past—Parnell, Fenianism, and the anger of the post-Famine years. Dubliners’s backward glance is continued, Gibson argues, into Stephen Hero, where Stephen’s political anger is derived not from his own generation but from that of his father’s. The vitality of...