Friday, 20 December 2013

The Letter That Changed the Course of Modern Fiction

A hundred years ago, Ezra Pound wrote a letter to the struggling and largely unpublished James Joyce offering to help him—and set in motion a literary revolution. Can a single piece of unsolicited mail change the course of literature? In my opinion, only one letter justifies such a bold claim—a query sent a hundred years ago this month, on December 15, 1913, when Ezra Pound, searching for new talent, reached out to a struggling Irish author living in Trieste.

James Joyce, thirty years old, had faced rejection after rejection during the previous decade. He had completed his collection of short stories, Dubliners, eight years before Pound contacted him—but Joyce still hadn’t found a publisher willing to issue the book. Every time he came close to seeing this work in print, new objections and obstacles arose, and even Joyce’s offer to make changes and censor controversial passages failed to remove the roadblocks.

Joyce had even fewer prospects to publish his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1911, his frustration had grown so intense, Joyce threw the manuscript into a fire, and only the quick intervention of his sister Eileen, who pulled the pages out of the flames, prevented the loss of the novel. Joyce had made even less headway with Ulysses, a work he had been planning since 1906. His constant financial pressures and despair over his inability to publish his fiction sapped his determination to push ahead with the future masterpiece.

During his late twenties, Joyce explored other ways of earning a living. He tried his hand at setting up a chain of movie theaters in Ireland, and worked at importing Irish tweed to Italy. His opportunities to write for hire declined, and most of his income came from teaching English at Berlitz schools. Joyce worked tirelessly at this humble job, but still needed to rely on constant financial support from his brother to pay his bills.

At this low point, James Joyce received a letter from a total stranger.

“Dear Sir,” it began, “Mr. Yeats has been speaking to me of your writing.” Ezra Pound offered to make useful connections for Joyce, and find places where he could publish his writings. “This is the first time I have written to any one outside of my own circle of acquaintance (save in the case of French authors),” Pound admitted, but he was quick to add: “[I] don’t in the least know that I can be of any use to you—or use to me.”

Yet Pound proved of incalculable value to his new friend. In the coming months, he would arrange for the serialization of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a fashionable literary journal. He sent off Joyce’s short stories to H.L. Mencken, the influential American journalist and editor. Pound also featured Joyce’s poem “I Hear an Army,” written a decade earlier and now all but forgotten, in an anthology of Imagist poetry.

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