Monday, March 16, 2009

This Day in Literary History (The Singing Career That James Joyce Threw Away)

March 16, 1904—In a Dublin singing contest, 22-year-old James Joyce, taking a break from writing poorly remunerated book reviews, won a bronze medal. Hoping for more, however, the disgusted entrant subsequently tossed the medal into the city’s Liffey river.

As prone to vent his anger as to reshape the English language, Joyce’s seemingly perverse action over the Feis Ceoil, an annual celebration of Irish traditional music, dancing and other cultural traditions, led many people to shake their heads over how odd and contrary he could be. And yes, he certainly held no small opinion of his worth.

In this case, though, his action might have resulted more from poverty than from egotism. A credible source for believing this was Oliver St. John Gogarty (the inspiration for “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” of Ulysses). In his memoir Intimations (1950), the writer-doctor recalled that his onetime friend had been poor at the time of the contest.

Consequently, Gogarty concluded, with the medal “useless for barter,” Joyce had simply chosen to get rid of it.

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