March 30, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
JOHN STANISLAUS JOYCE:
THE VOLUMINOUS LIFE AND GENIUS OF JAMES JOYCE'S FATHER
John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello
St. Martin's Press,1997, $35.00.
John Joyce was born in 1849 to Ellen O'Connell and James Joyce, both members of prosperous Irish families. He remained an only son and an only child, like his father before him. Both men grew up in privileged circumstances, and both developed the carelessness and expectations of special treatment of spoiled children. Although John Joyce fathered sixteen children, his first living child, the writer James Joyce, received the love and respect of an only son. The other children, ten more who survived infancy, were the recipients of neglect, abuse and scorn. Perhaps James Joyce's determination to become famous, an ambition he announced at a young age, was due to his privileged position in the family, with the praise and attention of his father to develop his ego and the guilt he must have felt at some level about the lack of positive attention his siblings received to inspire him to cultivate his native genius.
John Joyce was a man of his time in Ireland: his eighty-two years, from 1849 to 1932, were years of extremes for his country, and his own character was equally uneven: "He generated both obsessive love and extreme hatred, sometimes in the same person. He inspired much devotion and at least as much dislike. He was a good companion, a relisher and raconteur of life, a font of humour, a blasphemer, a drinker of mythological stature. But the world, inasmuch as it is knows him, would judge him to have been a failure."
This man would certainly be correctly judged a financial failure, for his family often went without the necessities of life while he spent his earnings, more and more meager with each year, in pubs and hotel bars. He was also a failure as a father, literally stealing the wages of his children to buy his drinks. Just as he loved only one child, so did only one child love him, and that child was James Joyce. The authors speculate that James Joyce did not spend as much time with his father as the other children since he was sent to boarding school and university and then went off to Europe in 1904, where he would spend the rest of his life. John Joyce was easier to love at long distance.
James and John had much in common. They both had problems with drinking, neither could handle money, and both were unscrupulous about using other people and their money. In fact, Joyce got the money to leave Ireland from John, who was enraged when he learned that James had left with Nora Barnacle, a servant in a Dublin hotel. Both took their aristocratic ancestors too seriously, and John considered Nora unworthy of the Joyce family name.
Father and son eventually reconciled. In 1909 James took his son George to visit his grandfather, who would be sixty that year. John and James went out into the country together and went to a pub. "Inside, they discovered an empty room with two pianos. When drinks had been bought, John, without saying anything, sat down to play a baritone cavatina from the second act of LA TRAVIATA. Jim, generally as traditional in music as he was to be avant-garde in literature, loved Verdi's 1853 opera and recognised the piece. He knew that the words of the aria were: "....What has caused your dear heart to roam?/ From the love that is ever with you there,/ From your father and your home." James then answered John on the other piano with a piece that gave the proper response.
There is a passage in the Ithaca section of Ulysses that exemplifies the connection music made between father and son. Bloom and Stephen are discussing various subjects, and they conclude that one major point of agreement they share is a love for music, a masculine and abstract art. Both John and James Joyce were fine singers; both could have had professional careers in music. James saw this mutual interest as significant in the father-son relationship. Ithaca is followed by the last chapter in ULYSSES, told in Molly Bloom's earthy voice. Women to both father and son were of the earth, while men were of a more rarified substance.
James Joyce insisted that all his writing depended on the verbal wit and virtuosity of John Joyce. The Dublin of his books is the Dublin of John Joyce. The books are populated with John's friends. James must have been the source of the story published in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE on the death of John. "He was a master of English vernacular and a fine story-teller. His versatility enabled him to adapt his style to all surroundings, whether that of a drawing-room or a saloon. He was full of reminiscences of Irish life of the last half century and his stories were unusually embellished with rare artistry."
John Joyce's wife died in 1903 at the age of forty-four. She had given birth to the sixteen children John fathered, and her role in giving birth and rearing the children who lived was much more difficult than that of the one who fathered them. She struggled to make a home and put food on the table in the most impossible of circumstances. She too appreciated John, in spite of all the trouble he brought her. "Attraction and affection had flowed both ways--John had appreciated May's rich sense of the ridiculous, and her ability to mimic their friends had been a good complement to his more cynical and verbal wit." After her death, "the whole family missed her earlier energy, gentleness and humour. Not the least bereft was her widower."
The authors conclude with a reminder that John Joyce gets no tributes from "moralists'“ or from his own family and that it no longer matters. What matters is that "To at least one of his children he had seemed an overflowing fountain of personal human history, worthy to be turned in FINNEGAN'S WAKE into the teeming history of the world. The genius of John Stanislaus Joyce has become a universal possession."