James Joyce - The University of Tulsa

James Joyce

Reading of the green: Irish treasures in TU’s Special Collections

In the middle of March each year, Tulsa, like much of the Western world, goes a wee bit barmy for all things Irish. Guinness flows, green beads get tossed and eyes moisten to the warbling strains of “Danny Boy” and “Wearing o’ the Green.” Here at The University of Tulsa, St. Patrick’s Day is a good moment to reflect on the extensive Irish materials kept within the Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

Infographic illustrating the number of volumes, archival objects and collections in Special Collections at McFarlin LibraryIn this rather magical part of McFarlin Library affectionately referred to as “TU’s Attic,” students, scholars and the public encounter everything from medieval music manuscripts and a 1493 printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle to published and unpublished writings by such internationally regarded literary figures as Nobel Laureate Sir V.S. Naipaul, Muriel Spark, Stevie Smith, Walt Whitman and Robert Bly. With the centenary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, Special Collections’ gathering of World War I posters and photographs garnered a lot of attention. Lately, there has been a surge of interest in the many photographs, books and other records associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Shamrock Modernism

The Irish literary holdings in Special Collections are a particularly bright jewel in this dazzling archival crown.

One of the prime movers behind gathering Irish materials was Thomas F. Staley. Beginning in the 1950s, Staley – who was an English professor and TU’s provost – spearheaded an effort to build a concentration in British, Irish and American literature associated with the aesthetic and cultural movement called Modernism. Working with his colleagues in the Department of English and McFarlin Library, Staley strategically expanded to Special Collections’ Modernist literary assets. To this day, subsequent librarians have continued to build upon that Hibernian foundation.

Staley had a particular interest in one Irish Modernist author: James Joyce. In 1963, Staley founded the James Joyce Quarterly (JJQ), and this peer-reviewed scholarly periodical continues to be published at TU. Today, it is under the editorship of Professor of English Sean Latham. Besides being the focus of this international journal, Joyce is one of the main Irish authors whose works – and a catsup-stained necktie – are found in the university’s Special Collections.


“The centerpiece of our Irish collection truly is the James Joyce library,” noted Adrian Alexander, the R. M. and Ida McFarlin Dean of the Library. “It is also the genesis of our Irish literature collecting.” Indeed, TU’s holdings are one of the world’s five most significant repositories of Joyce materials.

The other luminaries of Irish Modernism present in Special Collections are Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, William Trevor and Richard Murphy (a poet who taught for a short while at TU). Adding to these Irish treasures are dozens of boxes containing the research files of Richard Ellmann, a highly regarded American scholar who wrote landmark biographies of Yeats (1948), Joyce (1959; rev ed. 1982) and Wilde (1984).

Surprised by Joyce

One scholar who over the years has delved deeply into Ellmann’s Joyce materials is William Brockman, the Paterno Family Librarian for Literature at Penn State University and the bibliographer for the checklist of writings about Joyce that appears in each JJQ issue. Brockman’s most recent visit to Tulsa was in February, when he spent several days continuing a years-long international search for unpublished letters by Joyce (Brockman is part of a team of scholars developing a digital collection of Joyce’s unpublished letters).

William Brockman in Special Collections at McFarlin Library
William Brockman

“The staff at TU Special Collections has been wonderful to work with,” Brockman noted. “And doing this kind of research is a lot of fun and always enlightening. You never know what you’re going to be surprised by. So far during this trip to Tulsa I’ve found Ellmann’s photocopies of two Joyce letters that I didn’t know about – that nobody knew about. They were hidden away in an unlikely folder.” When Brockman locates such items, he takes photographs of them that then become his working copies for use back in Pennsylvania.

“These and other letters,” Brockman explained, “are valuable because of the light they shed on Joyce’s works. He wasn’t an easy writer. Knowing more about his life through the letters really brings you into deeper contact with his published writings.

“Joyce was very down to earth in his letters, and he could also be quite entertaining and funny. I have enjoyed watching the alteration in voice that he uses; for example, he became quite casual and jocular when writing to Ezra Pound, compared to his more formal style in the letters to his Aunt Josephine or his benefactor Harriet Weaver. The letters also tell us about the contexts in which he wrote, such as Ireland ruled by the Roman Catholic Church and Britain, Trieste under the Austro-Hungarian empire, Zurich during the First World War and Paris until the Germans invaded in 1940.”

Joyce in 100 Objects

For the last three years, the JJQ has been running an occasional web series called Joyce in 100 Objects. The series “seeks to tell the story of the Irish author’s extraordinary life and career through the papers, objects and books in McFarlin Library’s Special Collections,” explained Latham.

Title page of James Joyce's poetry collection Pomes Penyeach
Title page of Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach

The initiative was initially led by Mason Whitehorn Powell, a TU English major who became fascinated by the many cultural treasures that reside at the heart of the campus. Working with the JJQ staff, he began photographing the materials and creating short narratives that tell a story through the things Joyce wrote, owned and published.

Inscription by James Joyce in Harriet Shaw Weaver's copy of Pomes Penyeach
Joyce’s inscription in Harriet Shaw Weaver’s copy of Pomes Penyeach

One example of an “object” curated in this series is Joyce’s tiny book of 13 poems titled Pomes Penyeach. Printed in Paris by Shakespeare and Company in 1927, this slim volume contains poems Joyce wrote between 1904 and 1924 in Dublin, Trieste, Zurich and Paris. Special Collections’ copy is one of only 13 copies printed on Dutch hand-made paper, and it bears Joyce’s initials, inscription to “H.W.” (Joyce’s supporter and patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver) and the date.



“Inside of the boxes were many things:” Joyce, Ireland and archival wonder

Let’s leave the last word on Joyce and the TU archive to a student – Sydney Rubin – whose work regularly takes her to Special Collections.

There are some writers whose names are invoked like saints. Whose words are whispered like scripture on the lips of readers. Like holy artifacts, their letters, artifacts, treasures and trash are collected and preserved in glass and boxes.

James Joyce is one of these writers, not just for his Irish countrymen, but for readers the world over.

As a child, I visited Ireland and, while in Dublin, a museum dedicated to Joyce. I gazed with wonder at his books, letters and other personal items preserved there. Many years and journeys later, I found my way to TU’s Special Collections, another sort of Irish and Joycean repository.

The Jack and Tybie Satin Rare Book Room at McFarlin Library
The Jack and Tybie Satin Rare Book Room, McFarlin Library

Special Collections is an archipelago of knowledge that cannot be found on websites, servers or in any database. Only on old paper growing older. And more than that, I know, as everyone that sees such places must know, that upon each visit I am seeing only the surface of the collection.

On one of my first trips to the top of McFarlin Library, I asked to see “the Joyce archive.” The archivists smiled, and I knew immediately that what I had requested did not exist; at least, not in the form I had conceived. There was no singular “Joyce archive” but, rather, archives upon archives, spilling into each other, bounded with uncertain borders, gathered haphazardly from Ireland, from Trieste, from around the world.

The archivists drew my half-random, guessed-at selections out of storage and brought them to me in the shadowy Satin Room. Every box was neatly bound. I opened each one reverently. Inside of the boxes were many things. Old essays Joyce had written as a child, then as a college student. Countless letters, not all written by him, many from his family members, friends, acquaintances. Richard Ellmann, the biographer who had gathered this particular portion of the Joyce archives, had compiled every scrap of Joyce he could find with the same meticulous yet undiscerning eye of a magpie assembling a nest of ribbon, golden beads, grass and feathers plucked from her own breast.

Even Joyce’s tie was there, a bit stained, but looking surprisingly new, like something that could be stumbled upon in anyone’s drawer. There was a carefully wrapped porcelain statue of a white lion, so large it took up a box all its own. Joyce, who apparently adored lions, had given it to a friend, saying the friend reminded him of a lion.

Crayon portrait of James Joyce by August John with Joyce's signature in the bottom left
Crayon portrait of James Joyce by Augustus John (signed by Joyce)

Everything of Joyce’s had the touch of Ireland in it. Although he left Ireland early in his career and never returned, in every box I saw that he carried his country with him always. Joyce wrote about Ireland the way one would speak of a difficult parent: angry and loving, regretful and forgiving, bitter and nostalgic. Ireland was always his, which is such an obvious statement to those who read his books, that it may seems strange to even mention. Yet, the way every artifact he possessed was steeped in Irish culture told this truth in a different tongue.

So many of his friends, family and acquaintances from Ireland wrote to Ellmann, speaking of their impressions of Joyce from his childhood. A college classmate remembered him as having seemed arrogant, but seen again through the re-evaluating eyes of an old man, the former classmate wrote that Joyce seemed instead to have been lonely, and slightly sad, like one who always wished to join in on the merriment of his Irish student peers, but held himself apart.

People who had known Joyce during his lifetime, before his canonization in the chapels of literature, people who had never read his books or ever thought of him as a genius but only as the child and young man he had been, wrote of him as a little boy, playing like any other, or as a studious young teen or as a quirky, superstitious adult.

Joyce’s physicians wrote of his sickness and death from an ulcer as they would any other patient. No one was with him in the hospital when he died, although he called for his family repeatedly. He died far from his country, and was only buried there afterward, when his body was unearthed and then reinterred. Much like Joyce’s books, his body was welcomed home only afterward, when the words and books he had written had accrued enough time to sink in and become valued as the potent astringents for Ireland, and for all of us, that they are.


Department of English PhD student Sydney RubinSydney Rubin is a doctoral candidate in TU’s Department of English Language and Literature. She loves writing novellas, poems, short stories, essays and novels, and she is currently editing and illustrating the Eden trilogy. Rubin spends her days discussing the intelligence of plants, the new generation of supercomputers made of molecules and strands of DNA and her belief that the world is haunted, especially in the least likely places, such as a middle-school locker or the deepest reaches of the ocean.