18-Year-Old James Joyce Writes a Fan Letter to His Hero Henrik Ibsen (1901)


When it comes to the­o­ries of artis­tic lin­eage, few have been as influ­en­tial as Harold Bloom’s The Anx­i­ety of Influ­ence, in which the august lit­er­ary crit­ic argues, “Poet­ic Influence—when it involves two strong, authen­tic poets—always pro­ceeds by a mis­read­ing of the pri­or poet, an act of cre­ative cor­rec­tion that is actu­al­ly and nec­es­sar­i­ly a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion.” This kind of misreading—what Bloom calls “mis­pri­sion”—often takes place between two artists sep­a­rat­ed by vast gulfs of time and space: the influ­ence of Dante on T.S. Eliot, for exam­ple, or of Shake­speare on Her­man Melville.

When we come to a study of James Joyce (1882–1941), how­ev­er, we find the ground­break­ing mod­ernist cor­re­spond­ing direct­ly with one of his fore­most lit­er­ary heroes, Nor­we­gian play­wright Hen­rik Ibsen (1828–1906), whom Maria Popo­va calls Joyce’s “spir­i­tu­al and men­tal ances­tor.” As Bloom points out, Joyce described Ibsen’s work as being “of uni­ver­sal import.” He  extolled and defend­ed Ibsen’s then-con­tro­ver­sial work in his stu­dent days, both in a 1900 lec­ture he deliv­ered at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege, Dublin, and in an essay he pub­lished that same year in the Lon­don jour­nal Fort­night­ly Review. (See the young Joyce above in 1902, at 20 years of age.)

Joyce’s arti­cle, “Ibsen’s New Dra­ma,” focused on the play­wright’s lat­est, When We Dead Awak­en, and was warm­ly received by Ibsen him­self, who—through his Eng­lish trans­la­tor William Archer—described the essay as “velvil­lig,” or “benev­o­lent.” Archer con­veyed Ibsen’s sen­ti­ments in a let­ter soon after the essay’s pub­li­ca­tion, and there­after, Joyce’s essay—writes the James Joyce Cen­tre—was “no longer just a review but a review that Ibsen had read and praised.”

Thus began a three-year cor­re­spon­dence between Joyce and Archer, and a friend­ly relationship—at some remove—between Joyce and Ibsen. In 1901, on the play­wright’s 73rd birth­day, Joyce wrote a let­ter to Ibsen direct­ly. He men­tions the cir­cum­stances of the review and express­es much youth­ful admi­ra­tion, self-con­fi­dence, and grat­i­tude for Ibsen’s response. The young Joyce laments that his “imma­ture and hasty arti­cle” came to Ibsen’s atten­tion first, “rather than some­thing bet­ter,” and boasts, “I have claimed for you your right­ful place in the his­to­ry of dra­ma.”

Read the let­ter in full below, in all its exu­ber­ant ego­tism. Accord­ing to James Joyce A to Z: The Essen­tial Ref­er­ence to the Life and Work, as he matured, the nov­el­ist “drew upon Ibsen less for cre­ative encour­age­ment than for psy­cho­log­i­cal inspi­ra­tion. In Joyce’s mind, Ibsen remained the mod­el of the artist who defies con­ven­tion­al cre­ative approach­es and who remains true to the demands of an indi­vid­ual aes­thet­ic.” Whether Joyce “mis­read” and “cre­ative­ly cor­rect­ed” Ibsen is a ques­tion I leave for oth­ers. You can read many more “fan let­ters” writ­ten by oth­er famous authors to their lit­er­ary heroes—including George R.R. Mar­tin to Stan Lee, Charles Dick­ens to George Eliot, and Ray Brad­bury to Robert Heinlein—at Fla­vor­wire.

Hon­oured Sir,

I write to you to give you greet­ing on your sev­en­ty-third birth­day and to join my voice to those of your well-wish­ers in all lands. You may remem­ber that short­ly after the pub­li­ca­tion of your lat­est play ‘When We Dead Awak­en’, an appre­ci­a­tion of it appeared in one of the Eng­lish reviews — The Fort­night­ly Review — over my name. I know that you have seen it because some short time after­wards Mr. William Archer wrote to me and told me that in a let­ter he had from you some days before, you had writ­ten, ‘I have read or rather spelled out a review in the Fort­night­ly Review by Mr. James Joyce which is very benev­o­lent and for which I should great­ly like to thank the author if only I had suf­fi­cient knowl­edge of the lan­guage.’ (My own knowl­edge of your lan­guage is not, as you see, great but I trust you will be able to deci­pher my mean­ing.) I can hard­ly tell you how moved I was by your mes­sage. I am a young, a very young man, and per­haps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an under­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­si­ty as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held so high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will under­stand my feel­ing. One thing only I regret, name­ly, that an imma­ture and hasty arti­cle should have met your eye, rather than some­thing bet­ter and wor­thi­er of your praise. There may not have been any will­ful stu­pid­i­ty in it, but tru­ly I can say no more. It may annoy you to have your work at the mer­cy of striplings but I am sure you would pre­fer even hot­head­ed­ness to nerve­less and ‘cul­tured’ para­dox­es.

What shall I say more? I have sound­ed your name defi­ant­ly through a col­lege where it was either unknown or known faint­ly and dark­ly. I have claimed for you your right­ful place in the his­to­ry of the dra­ma. I have shown what, as it seemed to me, was your high­est excel­lence — your lofty imper­son­al pow­er. Your minor claims — your satire, your tech­nique and orches­tral har­mo­ny — these, too, I advanced. Do not think me a hero-wor­ship­per. I am not so. And when I spoke of you, in debat­ing-soci­eties, and so forth, I enforced atten­tion by no futile rant­i­ng.

But we always keep the dear­est things to our­selves. I did not tell them what bound me clos­est to you. I did not say how what I could dis­cern dim­ly of your life was my pride to see, how your bat­tles inspired me — not the obvi­ous mate­r­i­al bat­tles but those that were fought and won behind your fore­head — how your will­ful res­o­lu­tion to wrest the secret from life gave me heart, and how in your absolute indif­fer­ence to pub­lic canons of art, friends and shib­bo­leths you walked in the light of inward hero­ism. And this is what I write to you of now.

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is grow­ing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it — to the end of ‘John Gabriel Bork­man’ and its spir­i­tu­al truth — for your last play stands, I take it, apart. But I am sure that high­er and holi­er enlight­en­ment lies — onward.

As one of the young gen­er­a­tion for whom you have spo­ken I give you greet­ing — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sad­ly because you are an old man and I a young man, not pre­sump­tu­ous­ly, nor sen­ti­men­tal­ly — but joy­ful­ly, with hope and with love, I give you greet­ing.

Faith­ful­ly yours,

James A. Joyce

via Fla­vor­wire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Record­ings (1924/1929)

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

The Very First Reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A Work of High Genius” (1922)

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

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

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