- Learning to Be James Joyce’s Contemporary? Richard Ellmann’s Discovery and Transformation of Joyce’s Letters and Manuscripts
James Joyce’s letters, notes, manuscripts—in fact, all of his unpublished writings—have always had a significantly public role in relation to the works that he published during his lifetime. Joyce himself, his friends, his family, collectors and dealers, and libraries have employed these papers to promote a variety of agendas that at times have threatened to overshadow their content. We tend to take for granted the wealth of the great Joycean library collections such as those at Buffalo, Cornell, Yale, the British Library, and the National Library of Ireland. Yet the paths taken by these papers into the library collections have been determined, with few exceptions, by motives of financial interest, intellectual monopoly, and family privacy.
Especially illustrative is Richard Ellmann’s use of Joyce’s papers in the 1950s and 1960s as he was writing his biography of Joyce and editing the second and third volumes of Joyce’s Letters. 1 In the forefront of the burgeoning Joyce industry at that time, Ellmann was uniquely involved with family, friends, and collectors alike, and he both suffered from others’ control of documents and benefitted from several instances in which he was able to monopolize sources for his own ends. Ellmann began to plan his biography of Joyce in 1952, at a time when the terrain of Joyce studies differed significantly from what it is today. Nora Joyce had died the previous year, not long after the sale of many of the belongings that the family had abandoned when she and her husband had left Paris forever. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus [End Page 253] continued to teach in Trieste and, unknown to the world, to hoard notebooks and letters of his brother’s from forty to fifty years previously. A small coterie of manuscript dealers and collectors was eagerly speculating in the few autographed writings of Joyce’s that would surface from time to time. There were yet but two major library collections of Joyce’s manuscripts. The University of Buffalo had acquired its collection of Finnegans Wake notebooks and other papers in 1950, but the collection was not yet even catalogued; and the collection of letters and documents gathered by Paul Léon and deposited at the National Library of Ireland was to remain sealed for another forty years. Virtually the only documentation of Joyce’s life was Herbert Gorman’s biography, whose content had been controlled carefully by its subject. 2
Ellmann was extraordinarily successful in his attempts to bring to light documents held in private hands. The warmth and subtle persistence, balanced by assurances of privacy, that characterized Ellmann’s letters during the period enabled him to gain the confidence of and subsequently to obtain the information he needed from occasionally reluctant but potentially useful sources. He customarily opened his letters with cordial greetings, proceeded in engagingly persuasive but deferential tones to discuss the matter at hand, and closed his letters with snippets of informal news. One can follow through these letters the renovation of the study on the third floor of the Ellmann house, the birth of a child, the health of his wife, and other such family matters.
An example of his gentle perseverance was his correspondence with Sylvia Beach in 1961 as he was gathering material for publication in the Letters. In May, he wrote to Beach asking that she select some of Joyce’s correspondence in her possession for inclusion in a forthcoming volume. 3 She sent some letters in October but wrote that she was omitting a letter that Joyce had written to her in 1923 which gave details of Harriet Weaver’s gifts to him, believing that he would not have wanted the information to be made public. 4 His appetite whetted, Ellmann replied that a volume of the Letters would be an appropriate place to offer details of Weaver’s gifts. 5 Beach replied in turn,
You will think it very wavering of me, but I have the feeling that the publication of Joyce’s letter to me about the sum of money given him by...