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  • Dead Men’s News: Joyce’s “A Painful Case” and the Modern Press
  • Stephen Donovan (bio)

Yes, the newspapers were right . . .

“The Dead”

Until the 1980s, it was a critical commonplace that James Joyce had been fiercely hostile to the newspaper press. In The Consciousness of Joyce (1977), for example, Richard Ellmann identified it as Joyce’s “principal emblem of modern capitalism . . . wasting the spirit with its persistent attacks upon the integrity of the word, narcotizing its readers with superficial facts, [and] habituating them to secular and clerical authority.” 1 More recently, influential studies such as Cheryl Herr’s Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture (1986) and Jennifer Wicke’s Advertising Fictions (1988) have sought to modify this view, claiming that Joyce incorporated and subverted the language of the press in a spirit of parodic playfulness. In Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature: Chronicles of Disorder (1989), R.B. Kershner even extends Herr’s and Wicke’s arguments about Ulysses to Dubliners, a work that Kershner sees as offering an impressively ecumenical or “dialogical” view of journalism and popular culture. 2 Nonetheless, the exact nature of Joyce’s representation of journalism in Dubliners remains very much open to question. For example, when his treatment of newspapers in “A Painful Case” is set alongside some key changes in the late-Victorian British press as well as the ongoing debate over the press in fiction and periodical commentaries, a rather different picture emerges. In fact, Ellmann’s argument may still hold good for the early stages of Joyce’s career, when he portrayed journalism in a way that had much in common with his contemporaries. This affinity is particularly striking in Joyce’s en bloc quotation of the Dublin Evening Mail article “A PAINFUL CASE” which, although now familiar as a stylistic trope of high Modernism, [End Page 25] relies for its effect upon a literary convention about the inferior epistemological value of newspaper text. What is more, Joyce’s deeply-felt resentment against journalism may well be the reason for a curious and hitherto unnoticed non sequitur in the story.

“I have had no breakfast and read no papers for five days,” complained James Joyce to his brother Stanislaus in September 1906. 3 The elder brother’s newspaper reading was normally voracious and eclectic: nationalist Irish papers such as Sinn Féin and The Republic, the pro-empire Times and Daily Mail of London, the radical Reynold’s Newspaper and T.P.’s Weekly, the muckraking Herald and Journal of New York, the conservative Parisian daily Le Figaro, as well as Italy’s socialist Avanti! and anti-clerical L’Asino. As Joyce knew full well, the idol of his youth, Henrik Ibsen, had grown up reading little else but newspapers:

Ibsen ibself [sic] seems to have disclaimed some of the rumorosity attaching to A Doll’s House. He said testily to one Italian interviewer, . . . “But you people can’t understand it properly. You should have been in Norway when the Paris fashion journals first began to be on sale in Christiania.” This is really my reason for constantly plaguing reluctant relatives at home to send me papers or cuttings from them. 4

Small wonder, then, that Joyce should rank the deprivation of news as an evil second only to starvation. He might confess to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1921 that “I have not read a work of literature for several years,” yet to endure just a week without a paper was clearly a torment for him. 5

Joyce’s thinking, even about members of his family, was leavened by newspaper phrases. He announced to Stanislaus in February 1907 that Nora was “as Reynold’s Newspaper would say, enceinte.6 In calling his daughter, Lucia, “an ‘absentminded beggar’” in July 1917, he alluded to the Kipling poem commissioned and made famous by the Daily Mail. 7 In October 1925, he sent Weaver his relatives’ harsh words about Anna Livia Plurabelle under the rubric “some advance press opinions.” 8 Years later, while devising what Constantin-George Sandulescu has called “the language of the devil,” he mischievously sent his grandson a fairy-tale which portrayed the Devil as “always reading the newspapers.” 9 Joyce’s famous...

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pp. 25-45
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