James Joyce (1882-1941)

James Joyce was an Irish novelist, best known for his novel, Ulysses, and his later novel, Finnegans Wake. He is regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century.

Ulysses is a seminal work in which Homer’s Odyssey is paralleled in a range of episodes and literary styles. Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, is regarded as one of the best collection of stories of the century. His first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) marks a new era in British fiction, and Finnegans Wake is legendary for its complexity and depth. Samuel Becket said about it: ‘His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.’

Joyce’s influence on other writers, particularly Americans, is incalculable. We see several examples of recent American novels that allude to Ulysses while employing traditional narrative storytelling techniques and well-defined characters. These novels are both popular and critically substantive. A huge number of them invoke, the shape and central characters of Joyce’s masterpiece.

It is more than just writers, it is culture generally that Joyce’s influence can be felt. In Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion there is an episode in its “Lives of the Cowboys” spoof where Martin Sheen plays James Joyce in a gunfight with Clint Eastwood. One can hear the New Orleans-style jazz band, Ulysses, on Saturday nights at the James Joyce pub in Santa Barbara, California. There are tributes to James Joyce with references to his works in music clubs across America.

Photograph of James Joyce

Photograph of James Joyce

Ulysses and Finnegans Wake changed the literary landscape. The nineteenth century novel was dominated by the English Romantics and the French and Russian realists, but with the emergence of modernism in the twentieth century writers began to pay more attention to language. Modernism led to a change in emphasis from focus on character and plot to the elements of the language itself. That is the particular thing that changed the landscape of fiction and created some of the famous names of twentieth century fiction: such writers as different as Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Flann O’Brien, William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson.

In 1999 Time magazine named Joyce one of the hundred most important people of the twentieth century. In 1998, the US publisher of Joyce’s works ranked Ulysses number 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man number 3, and Finnegans Wake number 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.

The work and life of Joyce is celebrated annually as Bloomsday on 16 June, in Dublin and in several other cities worldwide. In April 2013 the Central Bank of Ireland issued a silver €10 commemorative coin in honour of Joyce.

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