James Joyce’s “Dirty Letters” to His Wife (1909)

Writer and artist Alis­tair Gen­try once pro­posed a lec­ture series he called “One Eyed Mon­ster.” Cen­tral to the project is what Gen­try calls “the cult of James Joyce,” an exem­plar of a larg­er phe­nom­e­non: “the vul­ture-like pick­ing over of the cre­ative and mate­r­i­al lega­cies of dead artists.” “Untal­ent­ed and non­cre­ative peo­ple,” writes Gen­try, “are able to build last­ing careers from what one might call the Tal­ent­ed Dead.” Gentry’s judg­ment may seem harsh, but the ques­tions he asks are inci­sive and should give pause to schol­ars (and blog­gers) who make their liv­ings comb­ing through the per­son­al effects of dead artists, and to every­one who takes a spe­cial inter­est, pruri­ent or oth­er­wise, in such arti­facts. Just what is it we hope to find in artists’ per­son­al let­ters that we can’t find in their pub­lic work? I’m not sure I have an answer to that ques­tion, espe­cial­ly in ref­er­ence to James Joyce’s “dirty let­ters” to his wife and chief muse, Nora.

The let­ters are by turns scan­dalous, tit­il­lat­ing, roman­tic, poet­ic, and often down­right fun­ny, and they were writ­ten for Nora’s eyes alone in a cor­re­spon­dence ini­ti­at­ed by her in Novem­ber of 1909, while Joyce was in Dublin and she was in Tri­este rais­ing their two chil­dren in very strait­ened cir­cum­stances. Nora hoped to keep Joyce away from cour­te­sans by feed­ing his fan­tasies in writ­ing, and Joyce need­ed to woo Nora again—she had threat­ened to leave him for his lack of finan­cial sup­port. In the let­ters, they remind each oth­er of their first date on June 16, 1904 (sub­se­quent­ly memo­ri­al­ized as “Blooms­day,” the date on which all of Ulysses is set). We learn quite a lot about Joyce’s predilec­tions, much less about Nora’s, whose side of the cor­re­spon­dence seems to have dis­ap­peared. Declared lost for some time, Joyce’s first reply let­ter to Nora in the “dirty let­ters” sequence was recent­ly dis­cov­ered and auc­tioned off by Sotheby’s in 2004.

I do not excerpt here any of the lan­guage from Joyce’s sub­se­quent let­ters, not for modesty’s sake but because there is far too much of it to choose from. If those prud­ish cen­sors of Ulysses had read this exchange, they might have dropped dead from grave wounds to their sense of deco­rum. As far as I can ascer­tain, the let­ters exist in pub­li­ca­tion only in the out-of-print Select­ed Let­ters of James Joyce, edit­ed by pre-emi­nent Joyce biog­ra­ph­er Richard Ell­mann, and in a some­what trun­cat­ed form on this site. Alis­tair Gen­try has done us the favor of tran­scrib­ing the let­ters as they appear in Ellmann’s Select­ed Let­ters on his site here. Of our inter­est in them, he asks:

Does any­one have the right to read things that were clear­ly meant only for two spe­cif­ic peo­ple…? Now that they have been exposed to the world’s gaze, albeit in a fair­ly lim­it­ed fash­ion, does any­body except these two (who are dead) have any right to make objec­tions about or exer­cise con­trol over the man­ner in which these pri­vate doc­u­ments and records of inti­ma­cy are used?

Ques­tions worth con­sid­er­ing, if not answered eas­i­ly. Nev­er­the­less, despite his crit­i­cal mis­giv­ings, Gen­try writes: “These let­ters stand on their own as bril­liant and, dare I say, arous­ing Joycean writ­ing. In my opin­ion they’re def­i­nite­ly worth read­ing.” I must say I agree. Joyce’s broth­er Stanis­laus once wrote in a diary entry: “Jim is thought to be very frank about him­self but his style is such that it might be con­tend­ed that he con­fess­es in a for­eign language—an eas­i­er con­fes­sion than in the vul­gar tongue.” In the “dirty let­ters,” we get to see the great alchemist of ordi­nary lan­guage and expe­ri­ence prac­ti­cal­ly rev­el in the most vul­gar con­fes­sions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Plays the Gui­tar, 1915

On Blooms­day, Hear James Joyce Read From his Epic Ulysses, 1924

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load the Free Audio Book

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

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Comments (13)
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  • Patrick Hawe says:

    Dirty? I am upset to learn that peo­ple in the inter­ven­ing years since these let­ters were penned and post­ed neglect­ed to wash their hands before han­dling them.

  • Martin Beck says:

    it should stay per­son­al and if any more secret mails from celebri­ty’s or non celebri­ty’s are opened may the read­er be struck blind . Here’s look­ing at you kid .

    • Raymond says:

      This isn’t just some celebri­ty though… This is James Joyce. I think to call him a celebri­ty is a bit of an insult. That’s like call­ing Shake­speare a celebri­ty, or Neru­da a celebri­ty, or Picas­so a celebri­ty (okay I would even maybe under­stand call­ing Picas­so a celebri­ty, but Joyce?). It’s just..no… just no. Why would you?.. No.

  • Raymond says:

    Now that I was not expect­ing. Wow, it’s weird we tend to think of famous authors who lived that long ago (I’m in my 20s so it was a very long time ago for me and I’m sure most of you) to some­how be above that lev­el of dirty talk. I did­n’t even know they talked that way in those days. But it’s just inter­est­ing to see. I kind of want to read more now..

  • D.Patrick says:

    It’s inac­cu­rate to refer to Nora Bar­na­cle as James Joyce’s “wife” in this con­text. They were not mar­ried to each oth­er (nor to any­one else) at the time, nor for anoth­er twen­ty-odd years after the let­ters in ques­tion were writ­ten. The two mar­ried in the end only because Joyce believed that the men­tal ill­ness of their daugh­ter, Lucia, arose from guilt aris­ing from her being a bas­tard, and that it could be cured by his mar­ry­ing Nora. Lucia was actu­al­ly schiz­o­phrenic and this mar­riage made no dif­fer­ence to her con­di­tion. Joyce was philo­soph­i­cal­ly opposed to mar­riage and an angry non­con­formist in all mat­ters where­in he could open­ly flout the teach­ings of the Roman Catholic Church. See the Ell­mann biog­ra­phy cit­ed. See also Bren­da Mad­dox’s biog­ra­phy of Nora Bar­na­cle, “Nora.”

  • D.Patrick says:

    In the con­text of ques­tions about the valid­i­ty and pur­pose of exam­i­na­tion of such sec­ondary arti­facts as these let­ters of Joyce’s (e.g. “Just what is it we hope to find in artistsu2019 per­son­al let­ters that we canu2019t find in their pub­lic work?”), the omis­sion of the inde­fati­ga­ble com­plaints of Joyce’s lit­er­ary execu­tor (and grand­son, via Joyce’s son Gior­gio), Stephen Joyce, is remark­able. I think that no-one has ever been more vocal­ly neg­a­tive on this top­ic than Mr. Joyce has been, and his posi­tion is not with­out rea­son, how­ev­er much it may frus­trate both pruri­ent curios­i­ty-seek­ers (the more-edu­cat­ed equiv­a­lent of a pub­lic that hangs on every indis­cre­tion of Paris Hilton or Brit­ney Spears) and legit­i­mate lit­er­ary schol­ars. Mr. Joyce famous­ly announced some­time in the 1980s that he had burned all of the cor­re­spon­dence that he’d had in his pos­ses­sion between Samuel Beck­ett (James Joyce’s one­time sec­re­tary) and his aunt, Lucia Joyce, con­cern­ing the love affair that the cor­re­spon­dents either did or did not have. His posi­tion has always been that his fam­i­ly’s pri­va­cy is per­pet­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed, which is self-evi­dent; the case for pub­lic exam­i­na­tion and dis­cus­sion of the let­ters — of the dirty let­ters in par­tic­u­lar, inas­much as they have no bear­ing on the pub­lished ouvre — is gen­er­al­ly less clear.

  • Always fas­ci­nat­ing to see the dif­fer­ent takes on this from var­i­ous sec­tors of the inter­net… I’m hap­py to con­tin­ue the dis­cus­sion here, or in the com­ments of my own blog.nnnnD.Patrick may be inter­est­ed to know that if you read the linked arti­cle I actu­al­ly do note that Nora was not Jim’s wife at the time of the let­ters (though she was absolute­ly his part­ner and the moth­er of his chil­dren, albeit out of wed­lock, and did end up as his wife so it’s a bit pedan­tic to quib­ble over the term) and I do dis­cuss the estate/Stephen Joyce’s inde­fati­ga­ble efforts to police the James Joyce lega­cy. In my opin­ion these efforts have most­ly been far from rea­son­able or ratio­nal, and often sil­ly and obtuse. One par­tic­u­lar­ly pet­ty exam­ple was refus­ing Kate Bush per­mis­sion to use a few lines from Ulysses in a song.

  • Jack Hunter says:

    Imag­ine writ­ing dirty let­ters to your wife and then years lat­er peo­ple are read­ing them and blog­ging about them on the inter­net lol!

  • rogercummiskey says:

    Fifty shades of Joyce!

  • D.Patrick says:

    Mr Gen­try: I con­fess I didnu2019t read the linked arti­cle, as Iu2019ve been famil­iar with the u201cdirty lettersu201d for close to thir­ty years and donu2019t find them that inter­est­ing any longer. Of course I take your point that Nora was func­tion­al­ly Joyceu2019s u201cwife,u201d and I wouldnu2019t nor­mal­ly quib­ble about it (I myself have nev­er been mar­ried in a for­mal sense, but rou­tine­ly refer to a spe­cif­ic past part­ner as my u201cex-wifeu201d). In terms of strict accu­ra­cy, though, it isnu2019t cor­rect, and I think that in point­ing that out, I was most­ly moti­vat­ed by the writer of the Open Cul­ture entryu2019s hav­ing passed up the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make an addi­tion­al point about Joyceu2019s rebel­lious­ly non­con­formist (and to my mind,nforward-thinking) life choices.nnAs to Stephen Joyce, again, I didnu2019t read your linked arti­cle, and I should have done so before com­ment­ing, but my point, again, was to the writer of the Open Cul­ture entry. I would agree that Mr Joyce has been nar­row­mind­ed in the extreme. I think it would not be unfair to say that he is hos­tile to even the most respect­ful Joyce schol­ars and unin­ter­est­ed in any dis­cus­sion of the Joyce lega­cy that leaves room for shades of grey. My point is that that doesnu2019t mean that his posi­tion in the mat­ter can be dis­missed as that of a crank any more than it means that his posi­tion should be the final word. It is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion.

  • Bill Lehane says:

    It may be of inter­est that there is also a lit­tle-seen film about Joyce and Bar­na­cle’s rela­tion­ship, ‘Nora’ (2000), based on a 1988 biog­ra­phy of the same name by Bren­da Mad­dox, one of many ref­er­ences for which is Ell­man­n’s ‘Let­ters’.

  • mckavitt says:

    It should read “celebri­ties’ ”. :-)

  • Fano Rydberg says:

    Just by the way, the pic­ture at the top shows Joyce with his daugh­ter Lucia, not Nora.

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