This Day In History: January 13

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James Joyce, widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest author, dies in Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 58. One of the most brilliant and daring writers of the 20th century, Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is ranked among the greatest works in the English language.

Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce grew up in poor surroundings and was educated at Jesuit-run schools and the University College in Dublin. He wrote poetry and short prose passages that he called “epiphanies,” a term he used to describe the sudden revelation of the true nature of a person or thing. In 1902, he went to Paris but returned to Dublin in the next year when his mother fell ill. There he began writing the experimental Stephen Hero, a largely autobiographical work. For the Irish Homestead, he also wrote several Irish-themed short stories, which were characterized by tragic epiphanies and spare but precise writing.

In 1904, Joyce left Ireland with companion Nora Barnacle and lived in Poland, Austria-Hungary, Trieste, and Rome, where he fathered two children with Nora and worked. He spent his spare time writing and composing several other short stories that would join his earlier works to form Dubliners, first published in 1914. The most acclaimed of the 15 stories is “The Dead,” which tells the story of a Dublin schoolteacher and his wife, and of their lost dreams. During this time, he also drastically reworked Stephen Hero and renamed it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

With the Italian entrance into World War I, he moved to Zurich with his family. Faced with severe financial difficulties, he found patrons in Edith Rockefeller McCormick and Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of Egoist magazine. In 1916, Weaver published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which received significant critical acclaim. Soon after, the American Little Review began to publish episodes from Ulysses, a novel that Joyce began in 1915. The sexually explicit work was banned in the United States in 1920 after only a few installments. Two years later, Sylvia Beach, a bookstore owner in Paris, published it in its entirety.

Ulysses brought Joyce international fame, and the work’s groundbreaking literary forms, including stream-of-consciousness writing, were an immediate influence on novelists the world over. The action of the novel takes place in Dublin on a single day but parallels the epic 10-year journey described in Homer’s Odyssey. Although colored with numerous allusions, the strength of Ulysses rests not in its intellectual complexity but in its depth of characterization, breadth of humor, and overall celebration of life.

Joyce spent more than 17 years on his last work, published in 1939 as Finnegans Wake. His most difficult work, Joyce carried his literary experimentation to its furthest point in this novel, which uses words from different languages to embody a cyclical theory of human existence. Because many find it difficult and inaccessible, Finnegans Wake is not as highly regarded as his earlier works.

Joyce lived in Paris from 1920 to 1940, but he moved back to Zurich after France fell to the Germans. In addition to his three major works, he also published several collections of verse and a play called Exiles.