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“Coming Home to Joyce”: A Report on “Eire on Erie,” the North American James Joyce Conference, 13–17 June 2009

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 2, Winter 2009
pp. 201-204 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0156

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On 14 June 2009, Morris Beja stood before a large gathering at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at “Eire on the Erie,” the North American James Joyce Conference sponsored by the University at Buffalo, and asked us to consider what a world without Joyce might be like. The sun shining through the windows of the Ellicott Room enveloped him in a luminescent halo and added a serendipitous visual image to his request that we momentarily suspend disbelief and see him as Clarence Odbody, George Bailey’s guardian angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. After Beja/Odbody ended our imaginative journey to a hypothetical world where Joyce had never existed, I saw over his shoulder a reminder of a world where Joyce had not yet existed for me: Main Street, Buffalo, the city of my youth and my world before I read Ulysses. Main Street’s boarded-up shops in the heart of its theater district reflect the troubled history of my hometown, whose financial decline began long before the current global economic crisis and whose lively arts community has long thrived despite the city’s economic woes. Although I first became enchanted by Joyce’s “DEAR, DIRTY DUBLIN” in Chicago and then in Ireland, I returned home to Buffalo to attend my first Joyce conference and to wade into the “fishful seas” of Joyce scholarship on the shores of Lake Erie.

The Joyce archives housed in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo comprised a major focus of the conference’s events, panels, and workshops. During his plenary address, Luca Crispi reviewed the substantial work that he and others have done to make Joyce’s voluminous archives accessible; also in the foreground of his talk and the discussion that followed were the copyright laws preventing scholars and Joyce enthusiasts from having online access to Joyce’s notes, letters, and drafts. Crispi’s message to the Joyce community was enlivening: despite these obstacles, the Buffalo archives are open for business, and the herculean task before us can best be achieved through active collaboration. Archival collaboration was one of the conference’s key themes, with Hans Walter Gabler, Christopher Whalen, and Michael Groden running a series of informative work-shops on “Working with the Making of Ulysses,” which surveyed and modeled the theoretical and methodological premises of Joycean genetic studies. These workshops led to focused discussions about what remains to be done to illuminate Joyce’s creative process as demonstrated in his notes and drafts. In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gabler edition of Ulysses, reading groups proceeded through careful and creative analyses of passages taken from the synoptic edition. These discussions showed the range of interpretive moves mobilized by attention to genetic questions. They also hinted at the vast scholarly potential arising from situating Joyce’s drafts within the biographical, cultural, and historical contexts that exerted pressure on Joyce as he wrote.

The “Discovering James Joyce Exhibition,” opened on 14 June 2009 at University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery, enhanced the conference’s archival focus. The walls lined with articles from the Buffalo News about the accumulation of Joycean materials from 1950 onward displayed the city’s pride in having become an epicenter of genetic Joyce scholarship over the past fifty years. Although I had previously only read about Joyce’s simultaneously idiosyncratic and methodical compositional processes before this conference, the nearly illegible pages of Ulysses drafts, with their multicolored cancellations and palimpsestic accumulations of corrections, brought to life for me the creative imagination behind Dubliners, A Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake and made me appreciate all the more the conference’s emphasis on various intellectual paths we might follow in deciphering the drafts to enhance our understanding of Joyce’s writing. (Visitors to the gallery, take note: while beholding this collection of Joycean memorabilia, you will discover that—although Ezra Pound often chided Joyce for such fixations—you need only follow the sign toward “cloacal obsessions” to arrive at a Joycean bathroom.)

Animated discussions followed the rich variety of panels assembled by conference organizers Mark Shechner and Damien Keane of the University at Buffalo, as audience members, taking out their copies of Ulysses, engaged, challenged, and...

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