James Joyce (1882 – 1941) was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegans Wake.
"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man portrays Stephen Dedalus’s Dublin childhood and youth, providing an oblique self-portrait of the young James Joyce. At its center are questions of origin and source, authority and authorship, and the relationship of an artist to his family, culture, and race. Exuberantly inventive, this coming-of-age story is a tour de force of style and technique."
I was a sophomore in college when I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man all the way to the last line for the first time. I was about the same age as Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus, though not nearly so well educated. I had working-class New Jersey to thank for that. Joyce’s Stephen had his narrow Ireland, “the old sow that eats her farrow,” as Dedalus describes the country of his birth in his monumental colloquy with his friend Cranly in the penultimate section of the novel -- Ireland with its strident priests, dour schoolmasters, inebriated fathers, and demanding God. But also with its classical curriculum.
My New Jersey was much less forthcoming with its lessons. We had no England bearing down on us, only Manhattan, twenty miles away and across the river. That was almost enough. City life set a standard for us on the west bank of the Hudson, and as soon as we were able we made foray after foray into Manhattan, at first by bus, or by ferry over to Tottenville on Staten Island, and then by rapid transit -- the “rattletrap” -- to the ferry to the tip of Manhattan. And then up the borough by subway -- or, on glorious autumn or spring days, by foot.
Standing up on that jouncing train, I read Portrait for the first time. I had already tried some Faulkner and a high-school chemistry teacher had snatched a copy of The Sound and the Fury from my hand during study hall. “Seedy book,” he said, refusing to return it to me until the end of the day.
Portrait was worse than seedy. Some Catholic kids I knew told me it was listed together with Dubliners and Ulysses on the dreaded Index of books good Catholics shouldn’t read. That first time around I had no idea why Catholics might consider it worth banning. As far as I read I had found no obscenities or even euphemisms for obscenities as in the substitution of the coinage fug for fuck in my coveted copy of The Naked and the Dead. (“Oh,” critic Diana Trilling is supposed to have said upon meeting Mailer at the publication party of his grand novel, “You’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck!”) The hellfire sermons seemed to me something Catholics were accustomed to. I just had no idea.
After my sophomoric reading of the book I finally understood why the book might have been “indexed.” The story of young Stephen’s progress from tormented but assiduous Catholic to budding aesthete stands against everything the church would have him believe, even as his serious Catholic education prepared him for arguing on behalf of his aesthetic. Without Aquinas and Augustine, Dedalus might have tarried longer in the chapel. But with Aristotle and the theologians as the wind at his back he moved faster and faster toward his vocation as a writer -- that is, toward the point at which he could look back and write the story of his life and education.
The essential self-reflexiveness of this narrative education was lost on me that first time around. I read for the story, as all naïve readers do, and God save the naïve reader in us, I loved the opening pages, got lost in the family discussions, skimmed through the middle section until the retreat sequence and was mesmerized by the depictions of a hell no Jewish kid ever was raised to believe in -- and then I settled in to the torpors of Dedalus’s sinfulness and his subsequent evolution into the aesthete of all aesthetes. I could not have imagined in what good stead the discussion of beauty and its component parts with his university friend would stand me over the years.
The long flowing pages of epiphanic wonder close to the end of the novel more than repaid the squint-eyed attention I gave to the more scholarly parts. The beautifully noticed details from the “eyes of girls among the leaves” to the louse crawling over the nape of our hero’s neck made up a world I might have felt but never could have imagined.
O Jersey boy! Or should I say, Oi! You there, standing before the gates of the 1960s, trembling book in trembling hand! What a connection to make! To feel more kinship with a fallen turn of the century Dublin Catholic aesthete than with one’s own family and friends!
My first reading, though exciting and stirring, was incomplete. Over the years I would return to it many times -- the way this novel repays the returning reader makes it an exceptional invention. Other novels beckon, but none like Portrait, none has the same effect, none more instructive for the would-be writer about the pain of education, the struggle with family, the search for a vocation, the vision of a world more beautiful than one ever could have imagined if it weren’t for that vocation opening one’s eyes and allowing one to write about what one sees and feels and hears and touches and tastes -- this dazzling novel, a first love that happens over and over again.
Editor’s Note: “A Portrait of a (Would-Be) Jersey Artist Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is modified from a version that first appeared in the Autumn 2006 issue of The Sewanee Review.