A Portrait Of The Artist At 100

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man turns 100 this year. Not bad for a book that, like some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and Ulysses (1922) almost didn’t get published at all.

Now that the copyright is up on Joyce’s work, the Joyce estate, which has been protected like a bunch of Irish junkyard dogs, can’t do much to stem the tide of various editions of A Portrait that have flooded the market.

However, the definitive edition remains Professor Seamus Deane’s 1992 Penguin Classic, replete with a forty-page introduction and sixty pages of notes.

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The staying power of A Portrait over the past century is due in no small part to all the hard work Joyce put into the first drafts of it known as Stephen Hero and published in book form by New Directions with the editorial direction of Theodore Spencer, John Slocum and Herbert Cahoon. The legend is that Joyce was so dissatisfied with Stephen Hero that he threw it into a fire and his common-law wife, Nora Barnacle saved it from the flames. While not exactly a classic—if nothing else, Stephen Hero is hopelessly formulaic—it is still worth looking into to see how Joyce got from a standard story-telling technique to the more radical departures he was to make in A Portrait.

It is commonplace, and not incorrect, to say that Joyce’s work got more and more difficult and almost incomprehensible as he grew as a writer (one hesitates to say “matured” as Joyce always retained an almost childish sense of humor and wonder), and that’s true as far as it goes. But how to explain the very prosaic, predictable, and almost boring opening lines of A Portrait:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was…

Graduate-level literature courses demand that these lines are ironical or that the protagonist (Stephen Daedalus) is an infant—literally without speech—and is being read to by his father: “His father looked at him through a glass.” And that the glass is a glass of whiskey, because his father is a drunk. Or the glass is a monocle symbolizing The Father’s myopic view of life. Or that glass is a mirror in which Stephen is seeing himself. And so on through volume after volume of James Joyce Quarterly.

a-portrait-coverPart of the fun, then, of A Portrait is that, as Joseph Campbell famously remarked, “There is no fat in Joyce’s writing: it is all protein.” And protean. It’s not that Joyce himself was writing for comp-lit students exclusively (though he did want to “Keep the scholars busy for the next one hundred years” with Finnegans Wake), but that what you read in A Portrait isn’t always what you get. Is Stephen Daedalus really a budding artist? Or simply a pretentious aesthete? After nearly 300 pages the most the protagonist is able to produce as a twenty-year old “artist” is a single villanelle (a formal French poem)—and a theory of aesthetics based, oddly, on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Still, the book qua book has real staying power and not just for young Catholic men of Irish descent who struggle with guilty consciences. That said, the forty-page tour de force on hell gives even Dante’s Inferno a real run for its money, and few who have read it can forget the imagery:

Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of the prisonhouse is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons, the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick; and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.

This is a far-cry from The Second Vatican Council’s (1962-65) “revisionist” version of hell which is certainly acknowledged to exist—but we pray that no one is actually there (except, of course, the devil and his fallen angel horde.)

Another reason A Portrait constantly ranks in the top ten books of the twentieth century (usually number three, after Nabokov’s Lolita at number two and Joyce’s own Ulysses at number one) is that it is still written in recognizable English (or at least Joyce’s version of it). While Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is clearly his magnum opus it is also almost unreadable—and to a lesser degree the same may be said of twentieth-century classics such as William Faulkner’s The Sound And Fury (recently printed the way Faulkner originally envisioned it: in different colored inks, so the readers wouldn’t lose their way), and Virginia Woolfe’s triptych To The Lighthouse, Between The Acts and Mrs. Dalloway (all of which would be much more easily read if they were in different colored inks)—but A Portrait is pretty much truth-in-advertising: it’s A version of what an artist (one who has a striking resemblance to James Joyce) might look like. And sound like.

One of the most believable and unpretentious moments in A Portrait comes when the protagonist, Stephen, is considering a call to the religious life as a Jesuit. He even writes out his name as it would appear:

“Rev. Stephen Daedalus, S.J.”

What young Catholic man hasn’t done something similar?

However, before seeing his name in this liturgical lettering, Stephen admits what amounts to almost modesty:

He shrank from the dignity of celebrant [the priest] because it displeased him to imagine that all the vague pomp should end in his own person or that the ritual should assign him so clear and final an office. He longed for the minor sacred offices, to be vested with the tunicle of the subdeacon at high mass, to stand aloof from the altar, forgotten by the people, his shoulders covered with the humeral veil, holding the paten within its folds, or, when the sacrifice had been accomplished, to stand as deacon in a dalmatic cloth of gold on the step below the celebrant, his hands joined and his face towards the people, and sing the chant Ite, missa est.

It is always and everywhere acknowledged that Joyce chose the name of “Stephen” for his protagonist from the proto-martyr of the Catholic Church. However, St. Stephen was not only the first martyr, but the first deacon in the Roman Catholic faith (cf. Acts of the Apostles 6: 6). Here, the “naming-of-the-deacons” (Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch) mirrors the naming of the Apostles in the Gospels (cf. Matthew 10: 2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16), with the name of “Stephen” having the pride of place that “Peter” enjoys among the Apostles. And it is the Apostles who, in Acts, accept the selection of the Seven Deacons to lead the church by service (diakonia being Greek for “service”). This is perhaps the earliest scene of “Servant-Leadership” post-Ascension in the nascent Church.

While St. Stephen is obviously a man in the image of Christ (his dying words are almost exactly those of Jesus, cf. Acts 7:59b, 60b), he is ordained not to the presbyterate, but “only” to the diaconate. As John N. Collins has noted in his works, most importantly Deacons And The Church, the term “Diaconia” has been mis-translated from the Greek, and retrojectively fitted to the current “restored” and “permanent” Order of the Diaconate in the Latin Church.

However, during Joyce’s time, the diaconate was very much a mere stepping-stone to the priesthood and was known then (as it is now, especially among Religious Orders and Congregations) as “the transitional diaconate.”

But for all this Stephen is not called to the priesthood (or the diaconate) and readies to spend his life as a starving artist.

The other chestnut about Joyce is that each of his writings was a sort of thumbnail-sketch for his next major project: “The Dead” (the final story in Dubliners) is a thumbnail sketch for A Portrait; A Portrait is a thumb-nail sketch for Ulysses (where Stephen Daedalus reappears as a minor character); and Ulysses a readying for the “nerverending masterbeast” that is Finnegans Wake. In a highly-qualified sense this is true, I suppose. But it also takes a bit away from each piece (is “The Dead” a not-quite-good-enough type of A Portrait? Is A Portrait a mere set of scales for the symphony of Ulyssses?)

Regardless, at 100 Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man remains as fresh and vital and salable a book as it was when B.W. Huebsch, at the prodding of W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound (who had serialized it in The Egoist), published it in 1916.


  • Kevin T. DiCamillo

    Kevin T. DiCamillo is a freelance writer and editor who writes regularly for National Catholic Register and PublishingPerspectives. He won the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. His work has appeared in Columbia, The Priest, The Times Literary Supplement (of London), James Joyce Quarterly, The National Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, Opium and other publications. In addition to being a co-founder of The Notre Dame Review (where he earned his Master’s degree), he is the former poetry editor of Traffic East, and was a University and Doctoral Research Fellow at St. John’s University.

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