Aug. 13, 2009


by Pat Schneider

The day your son calls you on the telephone
and is no more your boy, you know
he is someone else's man.
Hi, Mom! he calls across a chasm.
You guess the joy that carved it,
and you cry, Hello!

She will be the bridge, now,
between you and your son.
Overnight he has become shy with you.
Now that he knows her secret
he has guessed your own, guessed
the journeys that his father made
to fetch a son from darkness
on the other side of utter letting go.

Hello, you say, and suddenly remember
how in the fourth grade he brought a pigeon home.
How, as if it were an ordinary coming home,
he opened the front door, walked in and called,
Hi, Mom! How his eyes were pleading,
with love, like pinions, feathering the air.

"Overnight" by Pat Schneider, from Long Way Home. © Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1904, James Joyce published his first work of fiction. It was a short story, "The Sisters," narrated by a boy who finds out that an elderly priest he'd known has died. It was published in an agricultural digest, The Irish Homestead Journal, and 22-year-old Joyce was paid one pound sterling for it.

Irish writer George Russell (AE) sat on the editorial board of The Irish Homestead and had suggested that Joyce write the story. He'd met Joyce a couple of summers before, when 20-year-old Joyce came knocking on Russell's door at midnight and, after beating shyly around the bush, came out and announced his literary genius to Russell. Russell was a friend of W.B. Yeats and a leading figure of the Irish Revival himself. They conversed for a few hours, and Joyce read some poems he'd written. Russell was convinced of the young man's genius and tried to create opportunities for Joyce. Russell wrote him this letter:
Dear Joyce Look at the story in this paper The Irish Homestead. Could
you write anything simple, rural?, livemaking?, pathos?, which could
be inserted so as not to shock the readers. If you could furnish a short
story about 1800 words suitable for insertion the editor will pay £1.
It is easily earned money if you can write fluently and don't mind playing
to the common understanding and liking for once in a way. You can sign it
any name you like as a pseudonym. Yours sincerely,
Geo. W. Russell

In response Joyce wrote the short story published on this day, "The Sisters." He was commissioned to write a series of stories for the paper. Flush from getting paid for his first one, he concocted creative ways to try to borrow money from his friends. If only they'd give him money now, he promised them his future writing income payments with a higher return. For example, he was supposed to write six more stories for The Irish Homestead and get paid a pound for each of them; he offered one friend all six future pounds if only the friend would give him five pounds that day. Joyce also tried to make himself a public stock option, where people would invest in him now as capital, and once he became rich from publishing fiction, he'd pay them dividends.

And as it turns out, The Irish Homestead rescinded the commission after the third story because so many people were writing in to the paper to complain about the stories that Joyce was writing. But all three stories he wrote for them would later appear in Dubliners, and he had formed a vision for the structure and themes of the collection. He kept writing the stories he'd originally planned, even though the paper would not publish them. He wrote each of the 15 stories that form Dubliners between the years of 1904 and 1907, but it took until 1914 for Joyce to get Dubliners published. He was engaged in a colossal argument with his publisher that dragged on for years. Early on, he'd informed the publisher in a letter: "I cannot write without offending people."

In the decade between its appearance in The Irish Homestead and Dubliners, Joyce revised "The Sisters" extensively; the plot remained the same, but he made a lot of stylistic changes and altered the nature of relationships between some of the characters.

The version of "The Sisters" published 10 years later in Dubliners begins:
"There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse."

On this day in 1928, James Joyce's ever-loyal younger brother Stanislaus Joyce got married to a woman named Nelly Lichtensteiger. He was 44 years old, and it was his first (and only) marriage. In 1943, Nelly and Stanislaus had their only child, a son they named James. For many years, Stanislaus had lived with James and Nora and supported them and their children financially. He kept journals all his life, and published Recollections of James Joyce in 1950. My Brother's Keeper (1957) and Dublin Diary (1962) were published posthumously. Stanislaus Joyce died on Bloomsday 1955.

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