July 26, 2012

In defense of Stephen Joyce


In an essay at the Smart Set, Jessa Crispin defends James Joyce’s hated literary executor, grandson Stephen Joyce, who has for years complicated scholarly access to papers and permissions to reprint Joyce’s work. After a fresh bout of attacks on the estate—led in part by biographer Gordon Bowker, who is now flogging his James Joyce: A New Biography—Crispin writes:

I have changed my mind about Stephen Joyce. I once used to call him a bastard along with all of the other Joyceans. I railed about the integrity of the estate and the damage done to decades of scholarship. But then I started to read that scholarship. I read about Lucia’s madness. I read James Joyce’s dirty letters to his wife. I read speculation about their sex life. I read about Stephen’s mad mother and layabout father. I read all sorts of explanations for why Ulysses is less magical and more explicable than I might have wanted to believe. And I changed my mind about Stephen. I no longer saw a madman, I saw a son and a grandson protecting his family. Perhaps he did so with a shotgun when a more subtle instrument was called for, but this was a man who loved his family.

I would call for more venomous literary executors. More thwarting of snooping, more litigious threatening behavior. Let the gatekeepers build all the moats they want. Joyce himself fiercely protected his privacy, and wanted to protect the privacy of his wife and children. It’s only fitting then that the task fell to someone just as guarded. I don’t feel enriched by Bowker’s biography — I think the world could have gone on just fine without it. But a world without Stephen Joyce … that I don’t particularly care to picture.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.