World-Renowned James Joyce Collection
Ends Successful Exhibit
by: Dr. James Maynard, Assistant Curator of the Poetry Collection
On Sunday, September 13, the highly successful and well-reviewed exhibition Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection came to a close at the UB Anderson Gallery. Its opening three months earlier on June 13 occurred during a reception for donors and an international crowd of Joyceans who had assembled in Buffalo for Eire on the Erie, the 2009 North American James Joyce conference hosted by the UB English Department. A collaboration between the University Libraries, the University Art
Galleries and the School of Architecture and Planning, Discovering James Joyce incorporated a substantial selection of Joyce’s literary papers and personal effects to examine the historical context and working methods of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
The remarkable story of the Joyce Collection and how it came to Buffalo is one that has been told quite frequently over the past two years' worth of exhibition planning, fundraising activities and Joyce events, and is one that bears repeating. Partly the result of philanthropic generosities, a little bit of luck and a great deal of foresight by the library’s early directors, almost all of the Joyce Collection was acquired from four different sources. In 1949, eight years after Joyce’s death, the Librairie La Hune bookstore and gallery in Paris held an exhibition that was later to be sold to raise money for Joyce’s family. After a visit to La Hune by Oscar Silverman, a UB professor of English and subsequent director of the university libraries, the university submitted a closed bid for the items which was accepted. Shortly thereafter, the La Hune exhibition’s substantial body of manuscripts including Ulysses drafts and Finnegans Wake notebooks, Joyce’s family portraits and photographs, a large collection of letters and newspaper clippings, Joyce’s personal library and some personal effects such as his canes, glasses and passports arrived in the fall of 1950.
Donations from B. W. Huebsch, Joyce’s first American publisher, then followed in 1951 and 1959, which was also the year the first of two major consignments arrived from Sylvia Beach. Beach ran the famous lending library and bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and it was she who first published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Her collection included a vast array of manuscript and production materials as well as her business records and the personal items given to her by Joyce, and the rest came after her death in 1962. The final installment arrived in 1968 with the acquisition from Maria Jolas of corrected galley proofs from the serialized publication of Finnegans Wake in the magazine transition. The majority of these acquisitions were made possible by the generosity of local benefactors, with important contributions made by Margaretta F. Wickser in memory of her husband Philip J. Wickser, Constance W. and Walter F. Stafford, Jr., Mrs. Spencer Kittinger and the Friends of the Lockwood Memorial Library. To this day, the collection requires ongoing support for the preservation of endangered materials that are almost one hundred years old.
Discovering James Joyce spanned the entire arc of Joyce’s life and career with special emphasis on the genetic evolution and publication of his acclaimed novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Because it would require dozens of galleries to display all of the items in the collection, a careful selection was made by Dr. Michael Basinski, the Poetry Collection’s curator. Intended equally for scholars and anyone with an interest in Joyce, the exhibit traced the writer’s creative process through various stages of his notebooks and manuscripts, and explored the publishing venues through which Joyce’s works first came into print. In the 1920s and 30s, as well as today, almost all innovative poetry and prose entered the world thanks to the perseverance and faith of small press publishers, and much of what we now consider the canonical works of modernism were first disseminated through “little magazines” (usually noncommercial in nature and often committed to certain literary ideals). Indeed, both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake were first serialized in such publications. The exhibition also offered a view of Joyce’s personal life using family photographs and portraits, personal items and books from Joyce’s private library.
Visitors found themselves immersed in Joyce’s compositions. For Ulysses, one could see firsthand, for example, how a piece of music enters into the text, how the Circe chapter evolves from the very first page of Joyce’s notebook and how the French typesetters working with Sylvia Beach introduced their own interpretations. Likewise, the Finnegans Wake section illustrated the changing nature of Joyce’s late notebooks, the early manifestations of the novel under different titles and Joyce’s habit of making changes and corrections even into the last stages of his publications’ production. There were also historical treasures and curiosities such as Joyce’s outline of Ulysses, signed and inscribed to Beach; a limited edition of six signed etchings by Matisse for a 1935 collector’s edition of Ulysses; Shakespeare and Company’s business records and a 1920s poster advertising “The Scandal of Ulysses” (the book’s colorful history includes everything from pirated editions to censorship trials).
The benefits of such an exhibition are several. First and perhaps foremost, it humanized an author often regarded as difficult and distant. Here Joyce was presented in association with his closest friends, patrons, publishers and family. Secondly, it demonstrated just how much time and meticulous care—by Joyce and others—went into the preparation and publication of his books, sometimes with unexpected results. Furthermore, in laying bare the compositional methods of Joyce’s writing practice, the displays of notebooks and working papers helped debunk the myth of authorial genius by demonstrating the elaborate means by which the final texts evolved and by indicating many of the prior texts upon which Joyce himself relied. In other words, the exhibition emphasized the social nature of writing and the ways in which the personal, the literary and the historical converge and overlap. “Joyce’s work is engaging in its play of language,” says Basinski, “in part because it incorporates the personalities of an intriguing array of other people. The complexity of the writing, its arcane references and word play present deliberate puzzles for readers that can never be appreciated fully except in person.”
More fundamentally, the exhibition addressed the question of what can be learned from literary archives in general. In their archiving of first editions, little magazine appearances, manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence and ephemera, special collections like the Poetry Collection maintain a constellation of material objects—an “ineluctable modality,” as Joyce might say—that together represent at least in part the vast and chaotic fields of culture and history out of which all literature emerges and which literature in turn shapes in myriad ways. Paradoxically, these complex relations and associations are often erased by the time a given text reaches the level of mass-market success. By opening the archive to a much wider audience, expositions like this one make it possible for a greater number of people to explore for themselves such fascinating histories. The result was a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in Joyce, modern literature, literary manuscripts or the idiosyncrasies of an influential writer’s imagination.
Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection also featured docent-led tours, lectures on Joyce and workshops for teachers, families and children (private tours were available upon request), all organized by the UB Anderson Gallery’s curator of education, Ginny O’Brien. Throughout the summer months, over 2,000 people came to visit the exhibition, and, with plans being made now to tour a version of the exhibition nationally, it will hopefully continue to represent UB, its Libraries and the Poetry Collection as a significant research destination for the study of twentieth-century literature. To inquire about bringing the exhibition to other institutions, contact the Poetry Collection at firstname.lastname@example.org or (716) 645-2917.