Dear James Joyce,
Thank you for writing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Man#Reception. It was the first book on the syllabus of my freshman English course at Vassar in 1958. An avid reader, I’d found my high school English classes unsatisfying and looked forward to a challenge. I rushed to the bookstore to buy the books for English 101 and arrived in class on the first day clutching my green paperback copy of Portrait. I’d hoped to get a head start on the reading, but the epigraph was an untranslated quote from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, another book I’d never heard of in a language I’d studied for only two years and mostly forgotten. As you well know, Portrait takes place in your native Ireland, a country I’d never visited and whose idioms, history, and customs were foreign to me. The only Irish person I actually knew was a friend of my dad’s. I also knew that Scarlett O’Hara’s dad and St. Patrick are Irish.
Your iconic opening- written in the third person from the child Stephen’s point of view and with no quotation marks to lead me to and through what dialogue there is, and with little deference to chronological progression, left me befuddled. My sixty-year-old copy of Portrait, open beside me today as I type, is revealing. Its pages are covered with explanatory notes, definitions, and translations provided by Professor Julia McGrew.
She pointed out how even as a child, Stephen uses language to understand, navigate, and endure his world. He plays with sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and touches and uses words to convey his many, many sensory impressions. “Suck was a queer word. . . . But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.”
So thanks to you and Professor McGrew, I began to learn to read in a whole new way. This was timely because other writers like William Faulkner, another author on our syllabus, were writing in a whole new way. I pored over your text and my notes and asked questions in class and on my second reading of Portrait, I reaped the rewards of all this unaccustomed effort. I was able to feel for the tormented Stephen, trapped in a family that didn’t “get” him, in a body that drove him to “sin,” in a religion that demeaned and threatened him, in a school where he was often bullied, and finally in an island country where he felt like a prisoner.
I’d never before reread a book from cover to cover. But that second reading enabled me to understand Stephen better, and I even began to identify with him. Like many adolescents, I’d often felt that my parents were clueless, my body was a travesty and a trap, my hometown an intellectual and cultural desert, my religious education farcical, and my peers cruel. And while I didn’t feel imprisoned in my country, I checked out Ireland on a map and saw how tiny it was and understood how easy it would be for a person living there to feel like a captive of both church and state.
A state religion that governed one’s most private thoughts and feelings seemed strange to me. Growing up Jewish in Passaic, New Jersey, I did have a few Catholic friends, but most of my friends were Jewish and so I didn’t really know too much about Catholicism when I left for college. Thanks to Stephen Dedalus though, I learned a lot about the Church’s prohibitions against masturbation, sex before marriage, and even sexual urges. Stephen describes a trip to the confessional, and also reiterates a priest’s sermon describing the punishments reserved for those whose sexual sins doomed them to hell. As a Nice Jewish Girl reared in the Fifties, I knew I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant before I married, so I wasn’t supposed to have sex. If I did have sex, the guy I had it with would probably dump me for a more virginal bride. And if I got pregnant, well, that would be just awful. I might have to have an abortion, secretly arranged by my parents. Or my baby might have to be put up for adoption. I would live out my life in disgrace. And, worst of all, no one would want to marry me. Ever. But these punishments were rarely mentioned and quite tame compared to those Stephen contemplated every time he felt a little horny. I do wonder what he (and you) would make of the many child molesters outed among the Catholic clergy in recent years. I wonder if that sort of thing was going on in the schools Stephen attended.
I can’t close without telling you that I have reread Portrait twice more since 1958. In graduate school I was taking an exam on modern British writers as part of my work for an MA in English and had the pleasure then of reading Ulysses and rereading Dubliners and Portrait. I’ve taught some of the stories from Dubliners. And when I finally visited Ireland, like so many of your fans, I often enjoyed imagining it through the eyes of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Soon I’m going to begin to write a kind of memoir and so once again, I reread Portrait to reexamine how you used Stephen to give voice to the events that influenced the development of your own artistic sensibility. And, like you, I will write and rewrite until I hear the voice I need to articulate the events that influenced my own literary development. Reading Portrait was one of these events.