Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero
“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”
By Maria Popova
One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?
Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).
His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.
Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):
Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours
Jas A. Joyce
But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.
Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:
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 as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.
And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:
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 your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.
But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:
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… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.
Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:
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
Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.
Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.
Published April 2, 2015