Jul. 4, 2009

Highway Hypothesis

by Maxine Kumin

Nothing quite rests the roving eye
like this long view of sloping fields
that rise to a toyshop farmhouse
with matchstick barns and sheds.
A large yellow beetle spits silage
onto an upturned cricket while
several inch-high cars and trucks
flow soundlessly up the spitcurl drive.

Bucophilia, I call it—
nostalgia over a pastoral vista—
where for all I know the farmer
who owns it or rents it just told his
wife he'd kill her if she left him and
she did and he did and now here come
the auctioneer, the serious bidders
and an ant-train of gawking onlookers.

"Highway Hypothesis" by Maxine Kumin, from The Long Marriage. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1776 that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England.

It was on this day in 1931 that James Joyce (books by this author) and Nora Barnacle went down to a courthouse in London and got married. Joyce was 49 years old, and Nora was 47. The two had eloped more than a quarter of a century before.

Nora and James had their first date on June 16th, 1904. It was the day that he later chose as the setting for his novel Ulysses, the day that's now celebrated around the world as Bloomsday. They'd taken a walk around Dublin, and immediately Joyce was convinced that this uneducated witty girl from Galway was the one for him. He wrote her a letter in August that said, "When I am with you I leave aside my contemptuous suspicious nature. I wish I felt your head over my shoulder now."

By September, Joyce knew that he wanted to leave Ireland for the continent and be a writer there. But he could not imagine going without Nora, and he was not sure if he, a young man with no money and no prospects, could rightfully ask her to run away with him. Joyce consulted one of his best friends, JF Byrne, about what to do. Byrne asked him if he loved Nora, and Joyce said that he could not feel the same about any other girl. Byrne told him, "Don't wait and don't hesitate. Ask Nora, and if she agrees to go away with you, take her."

Nora agreed readily, and the next night, Joyce wrote her: "The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy. … Allow me, dearest Nora, to tell you how much I desire that you should share any happiness that may be mine and to assure you of my great respect for that love of yours which it is my wish to deserve and to answer."

It was a bold move in early 20th-century Ireland, and they knew that their families would not approve. Joyce told his father that he was headed off alone to Europe, and when his father came to see him off at the ship dock, Joyce fooled him by boarding the steam liner for England separately from Nora.

They landed in England and continued on to Paris and then to Zurich, in a honeymoon of sorts. In Zurich, he and Nora consummated their love for the first time. And then Joyce learned that the teaching job that he'd lined up with the Berlitz language school had now fallen through. He was devastated; they had very little money in their pockets and now no foreseeable income.

He and Nora bounced around among residences in Pola, Rome, Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, and had two children, Lucia and Giorgio. Joyce held sporadic jobs teaching English and even as a bank clerk, but he drank his family into poverty. Most of the time, they were supported by Joyce's brother, Stanislaus, who also lived with them.

Ulysses was published in 1922. The Joyces lived in Paris through out the 1920s, and then in April of 1931, they packed up and moved to England. In May, they settled in a flat in Kensington, and with no plans to move on, Joyce became a permanent legal resident of England and spoke with lawyers about legalizing his union with Nora. He wrote to a friend at the time: "If twenty-six years ago I did not want a clerk with a pen behind his ear or a priest in his nightshirt to interfere in my matrimonium, I certainly do not now want a score of journalists with pencils in their hands intruding where they are not wanted and as I am somewhat in the public eye I wish I knew how to end the matter as quickly and quietly as possible."

Joyce chose today, July 4th, his father's birthday, as the wedding date. His father had been upset and offended by Joyce's elopement with Nora, and Joyce chose this date as a nod toward making amends. But the real reason that he felt compelled to get legally married after all these years was to make sure that his children and grandchildren were assured of their inheritance. Joyce was by now famous for Ulysses and the royalties were pouring in. He wanted to make sure that his children wouldn't be hung up in legal battles and denied their inheritance by the state because of the questionable legality of their parents' marriage. So he and Nora went through an English civil law marriage ceremony to comply with English legal standards and thus secure his offspring's future endowments.

Many years prior, in 1905, Joyce had written to his Aunt Josephine that he was thinking of leaving Nora, complaining, "Nora does not seem to make much difference between me and the rest of the men she has known and I hardly believe that she is justified in this. I am not a very domestic animal — after all, I suppose I am an artist — and sometimes when I think of the free and happy life which I have (or had) every talent to live I am in a fit of despair."

Nora, for her part, complained that Joyce knew nothing of women. She was utterly apathetic to his writing, and remarked to an admirer of his soon after Ulysses was published: "I've always told him he should give up writing and take up singing."

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