James Joyce Picked Drunken Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hemingway; Hemingway Called Joyce “The Greatest Writer in the World”

Ernest Hemingway seemed to feud with most of the prominent male artists of his time, from Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a “very strange relationship” with Orson Welles—the two came to blows at least once—and he reportedly slapped Max Eastman in the face with a book. All his bluster and bravado makes his warm friendship with James Joyce seem all the more remarkable. They are a literary odd couple if ever there was one: Joyce the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts and creator of symbolic systems so dense they constitute an entire field of study; physically weak and—despite his infamous carnal appetites—intellectually monkish, Joyce exemplifies the artist as a reclusive contemplative. Hemingway, on the other hand, well… we know his reputation.

Hemingway’s 1961 obituary in The New York Times characterized Joyce as “a thin, wispy and unmuscled man with defective eyesight” (perhaps the result of a syphilis infection), and also notes that the two writers “did a certain amount of drinking together” in Paris. As the narrator of the rare film clip of Joyce informs us above, the Ulysses author would pick drunken fights, then duck behind his burly friend and say, “Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him.” (That scene also gets mentioned in The Times obituary.) Hemingway, who convinced himself at one time he had the makings of a real pugilist, was likely happy to oblige. Joyce, writes Hemingway biographer James R. Mellow, “was an admirer of Hemingway’s adventurous lifestyle” and worried aloud that his books were too “suburban” next to those of his friend, of whom he said in a Danish interview, “he’s a good writer, Hemingway. He writes as he is… there is much more behind Hemingway’s form than people know.”

Joyce, notes Kenneth Schyler Lynn in Hemingway, realized that “neither as a man nor as an artist was [Hemingway] as simple as he seemed,” though he also remarked that Hemingway was “a big powerful peasant, as strong as a buffalo. A sportsman. And ready to live the life he writes about. He would never have written it if his body had not allowed him to live it.” One detects more than a hint of Hemingway in Joycean characters like DublinersIgnatious Gallaher or Ulysses’ Hugh “Blazes” Boylan—strong, adventurous types who overawe introverted main characters. That’s not to say that Joyce explicitly drew on Hemingway in constructing his fiction, but that in the boastful, outgoing American, he saw what many of his semi-autobiographical characters did in their more bullish counterparts—a natural foil.

Hemingway returned Joyce’s compliments, writing to Sherwood Anderson in 1923, “Joyce has a most god-damn wonderful book” and pronouncing Joyce “the greatest writer in the world.” He was “unquestionably… staggered,” writes Lynn, “by the multilayered richness” of Ulysses. But its density may have proven too much for him, as “his interest in the story gave out well before he finished it.” In Hemingway’s copy of the novel, “only the pages of the first half and of Molly Bloom’s concluding soliloquy are cut.” Hemingway tempered his praise with some blunt criticism; unlike Joyce’s praise of his writing, the American did not admire Joyce’s tendency towards autobiography in the character of Stephen Dedalus.

“The weakness of Joyce,” Hemingway opined, was his inability to understand that “the only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined… Daedalus [sic] in Ulysses was Joyce himself, so he was terrible. Joyce was so damn romantic and intellectual.” Of course Stephen Dedalus was Joyce—that much is clear to anyone. How Hemingway, who did his utmost to enact his fictional adventures and fictionalize his real life, could fault Joyce for doing the same is hard to reckon, except perhaps, as Joyce certainly felt, Hemingway led the more adventurous life.

Related Content:

James Joyce Reads a Passage From Ulysses, 1924

Ernest Hemingway’s Very First Published Stories, Free as an eBook

Virginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Never Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

Ernest Hemingway: T.S. Eliot “Can Kiss My Ass As a Man”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Edward Champion says:

    This article is somewhat misleading. The only source for the claim that Joyce liked to start fights (and it comes from Hemingway) is this Time article (http://content.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,27803,00.html), which Ellmann also cites. But keep in mind that Joyce was very blind. (The famous clip of Joyce reading from FINNEGANS WAKE involved someone whispering the words into his ear because he could not see text at that point. And, of course, Joyce went through countless eye operations.) If Hemingway is to be believed (and the man was known to bullshit), any calls from Joyce to “Deal with him” had less to do with cowardice and more to do with blindness. Joyce had no problem pissing people off with his work or in person. He even managed to infuriate his benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver.

    Even so, Joyce was very much opposed to violence (there are only two violent acts in ULYSSES: the brothel scene in “Circe’ and The Citizen in “Cyclops”) and counted Hemingway as more of an acquaintance than a friend. Nevertheless, Ellman’s bio excavates these appreciations:

    Joyce on Hemingway: “We were with him before he went to Africa. He promised us a living lion. Fortunately we escaped that. But we would like to have the book he has written. He’s a good writer, Hemingway. He writes as he is. We like him. He’s a big, powerful peasant, as strong as a buffalo. A sportsman. And ready to live the life he writes about. He would never have written it if his body had not allowed him to live it. But giants of his sort are truly modest; there is more behind Hemingway’s form than people know.”

    Hemingway on Joyce: “Once in one of these casual conversations you have when you’re drinking, Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. Nora Joyce said, ‘Ah, Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.’ Joyce replied, ‘The thing we must face is that I couldn’t see the lion.'”

  • Jon says:

    Hemingway liked to take on men smaller than himself. He taunted Max Eastman, and Eastman wound up on top of him. He invited the Canadian novelist Morley Callaghan into the ring, then got mad when it turned out Callaghan knew something about boxing. Hemingway did better against the portly, 19 year older Wallace Stevens.

  • Mary Murie says:

    For a fascinating insight into the world of Hemingway and Joyce– Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation:A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties by Neol Riley Fitch. One of those books you feel yourself living in as you read it.

  • Roger Nyle Parisious says:

    I have had similar stories from two separate sources in two countries.
    Arthur Power(“My Conversations With Joyce” ) remembered one of those “You take ’em ,Hemingway,you take’em” incidents with Joyce who was mostly blind insulting the ugliest guy at the bar and then throwing them back on Hemingway.By the way,Arthur(whose uncollected writings and memoirs I am preparing for publication) really cared about Joyce and disliked Hemingway.There was no malice in this.
    The other account(which is more typical) came from the co-founder of Alfred Knopf and Company as he told the story to Ree Dragonette and I at a late dinner she held for the three of us.He was in a Florida Keys Bar watching a very distinguished gentleman walk up to a soused Hemingway and extend his hand.”Hello,Mr.Hemingway,my name is Wallace Stephens.” There was the sound of a falling body.And a very satisfied looking Hemingway.

  • Daniel Pico says:

    Here is what I got about this subject: In the first edition of Ulysses (1921) Hemmingway send an enthusiastic letter for the book, along with Yets. Who receive the letter was Harriet Weaver. Later Hemmingway ask to know Joyce with a letter from Sherwood Anderson. In that time Joyce use to spend night on a bar called “Gipsy” in Paris… this quotes probably comes from a letter to Anderson. Te fact is that Hemmingway was praising Joyce and his work since the beginning. He use to be kinda envious because in that time Joyce spend money with friends at bars. Around 1923 is possible to find an interview by Ole Vinding, when he ask Joye an opinion about Hemmingway he recalls that “Hemmingway is a good writer, he writes as he is: powerful and big like a bull.. but the giants like him are pretty honest (…) Under that shape there is much more that does ppl think” .. what that means?.. a soft side of course. The story about this fight comes from Hemmingway and is related by Robert McAlmod on “Being Geniuses Together” 1907. Hemmingway tell that Joyce was too drunk to know who was his opponent.. when he says “Deal with him, Hemingway!”

  • Hem says:


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