Journalism and the writing of James Joyce

Irish Blogs, Journalism, MediaHQ.com, Uncategorized
June 17, 2019
by Laura McCormack

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the annual celebration that commemorates the life and work of James Joyce. It takes place on June 16 each year, the day his novel Ulysses takes place in 1904, it also marks the anniversary of Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. In celebration of Bloomsday, we’ve taken a look at James Joyce’s relationship with journalism and the press.

Over a 30 year period, Joyce’s writing appeared in over 36 publications. Journalism played a huge role in his writing career, and his fascination with the newspaper industry reveals itself in a number of his works, through a number of his characters.

James Joyce as a journalist

Early in his career, after seeking help from Lady Gregory, Joyce obtained a position writing literary reviews for the Daily Express, a pro-British, conservative paper. He was, according to his biographers, happy to be paid for his writing in any respect and so there isn’t much evidence to suggest he felt conflicted about the paper’s position on Irish affairs. His experience with the Daily Express is shadowed in “The Dead” through Gabriel Conroy who refutes claims that he is a Unionist by pointing to the 15 shillings he gets per week and the books which “were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque”. Joyce’s relationship with the Daily Express did, however, end in conflict when after a dispute, the editor threatened to kick him down a flight of stairs if he ever returned to the office.

Later, when Joyce moved to Trieste he began working as a journalist again. It was here that he met Roberto Prezioso, the editor of Il Piccolo Della Sera, who was a student of his. Prezioso saw a profound connection between Trieste’s struggle for Italian reunification and Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain. In total contrast to his work at the Daily Express, Joyce began writing articles about Fenianism for the paper.

Joyce’s articles for Il Piccolo Della Sera mainly dealt with Irish history and politics. He aimed to correct a “humiliating” view of Ireland through his articles. His work was well received among the paper’s relatively large audience. Having made somewhat of a name for himself in Trieste, Joyce told his brother “I may not be the Jesus Christ I once fondly imagined myself, but I think I have a talent for journalism”.

The Freeman’s Journal and Ulysses

It was while writing for Il Piccolo Della Sera that Joyce travelled back to Ireland where he met the staff of the Freeman’s Journal. Joyce was in Ireland on the pretence of having been sent from Trieste to review a George Bernard Shaw play. He often used his status as a journalist for practical gain, this time, securing a free ticket to the new Abbey production. At the play, he met the critic Piaras Béaslaí, who later invited him to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal. The Freeman was, at that point, the second longest-running publication in Ireland, it would become the inspiration for a significant part of Ulysses.

Joyce’s time spent with the Freeman’s staff is reflected in the Aeolus episode of Ulysses when Leopold Bloom also visits the offices of the Freeman’s Journal. Up until this point in the text, readers are given immediate access to the narration. Now, newspaper-like headlines break up the chapter and impose editorial distance between the reader and the events of the episode.

This scene parallels Odysseus’ visit to Aeolus, the god of the winds, in The Odyssey. The newspapermen at the centre of this scene mock the god of the winds with their own windy rhetoric and boastful, inflated conversations. Joyce’s disdain for the Freeman’s Journal is made clear here.

Joyce and Scandal

While having worked as a journalist himself, Joyce did not have a straightforward relationship with the press. In her book Scandal Work, Margot Gayle Backus frames the body of Joyce’s work as a response to newspaper scandals of the early 20th century. By the mid-19th century, libel laws had been liberalised, making it much easier for newspapers to weaponise scandal against public figures.

In her work, Backus details Joyce’s fixation with journalism, particularly the kind of scandal-stoking journalism that relied on provoking moral outrage, and argues that Joyce harnessed scandal in his own work. Arguably, Joyce confronts scandalmongering by blurring the lines between public and private information in his work. By revealing intimate details that would otherwise provoke controversy, Joyce’s work challenged the “scare journalism” that was common at the time.

Ultimately, the developments of the press in the 20th century, along with his own experience in journalism, had substantial influences on Joyce’s writing. Traces of his time as a journalist are echoed throughout his most famous works.

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