Evolution of a Fable: Finnegans Wake at Salisbury House

The Salisbury House library contains an amazing collection of works by James Joyce.  One of these works is his last book, Finnegans Wake.  What is even more amazing in the collection are the preliminary parts of the Wake that Joyce published as he continued to revise the work from around 1924 until the final release as a book in 1939.  This essay will discuss the evolution of a small part of the book through these preliminary versions.  Most of them are found at Salisbury House. Below is the signed half-title of one of these early fragments – Tales Told of Shem and Shaun (Black Sun Press, Paris, 1929).

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

Finnegans Wake is one of the most complicated works in literature; it consists of puns and portmanteau words in 27 languages, with the base being English.  An essay such as this can only discuss one tiny aspect of many recurring themes.  Mankind is represented in the book by a family consisting of a man, his wife, their daughter, and their twin sons, basically referred to as Shem and Shaun. The relationship and conflict between the two brothers is shown in many different guises throughout the book. One of the instances of this fraternal conflict is framed by the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper – or, as Joyce wrote it, “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  In this title, he was playing on the Danish “ondt” meaning “evil” and note that the grasshopper is hoping for grace.  We will follow this fable from its first short version published in 1928 through to the final book.

Folklore is one of the frequently used frameworks in the book.  Joyce calls it “fokloire”, playing on the Gaelic “foclóir” meaning “vocabulary” – Joyce’s book was intended as a world of all languages.  The fable derives from Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, which pits the frugal, hoarding ant against the profligate but ultimately starving grasshopper.  Joyce evens the match by letting the grasshopper have the last word.  The first published part of the fable was in transition (note the lower-case “t”), a prominent literary magazine in Paris (#12, March, 1928.)  This snippet remained nearly unchanged from first to last.

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Norman Hills Collection

In Joyce’s scheme, the Gracehoper represents Shem, Time, the ear, and Joyce himself.  The Ondt represents Shaun, Space, the eye, and Wyndham Lewis. Lewis, who had attacked Joyce in his book Time and Western Man, had a long-standing feud with Joyce. Among the many interpretations of the overall intent of the fable, Eric McLuhan views it as a conflict between ages of technology.  Other critics emphasize the opposition and interaction between space and time, or the stages of the cyclic theory of history of the philosopher Giambattista Vico.

Joyce scatters various reference clusters throughout the fable, such as many names of insects and parts of insect anatomy.  There are many names of philosophers and words with repeated syllables recalling the stuttering of the brothers’ father.  It includes many references to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There are other clusters, but we now turn our attention to our main concern: the revision history of the text as reflected in the Salisbury House library.

The original three hand-written drafts of the fable were written quickly – probably beginning in February 1928, and published the following month.  This transition version is quite short (less than one half of the length of the final text), so the obvious main method of revision was additive.  There were many levels of revision added to the transition proofs.  The editor, Eugene Jolas, had the same problem with endless revisions that had plagued Sylvia Beach when publishing Ulysses and later, Harry Crosby.  transition had been publishing parts of Work in Progress (as the draft Finnegans Wake was called) starting with the first issue in April 1927 and would continue with portions of it in almost all the remaining issues. A small amount of this text had been published earlier in other magazines, but most of it was new and transition provided the first extended publication.

The next published version of the fable was in the Black Sun Press Tales Told of Shem and Shaun in 1929.  The editor, Harry Crosby, started work on this edition by asking Joyce if he would agree to him publishing part of Work in Progress.  Joyce gave him heavily hand-modified sheets of the transition version (known, but not extant.)  Crosby produced a number of proofs, and each time Joyce added more text.  One of the last of these proofs (probably the next to the last) is in the Salisbury House library.  The following image shows a major addition to it in Joyce’s handwriting.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The following image shows this hand-written addition as it appears in the final Tales Told of Shem and Shaun.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The revision process was slow and frustrating for Crosby, as shown by this note accompanying the proof in Crosby’s hand urging Joyce to finish the changes. The final Tales Told of Shem and Shaun and this note are also in the Salisbury House library.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The final version of Tales Told of Shem and Shaun includes a commissioned “portrait” of Joyce by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.  This abstract drawing is a very loose interpretation of a “portrait”, but it is widely reproduced in the Joyce literature.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The next published part of this fable, which the Salisbury House library also has, is a very brief excerpt from Tales Told of Shem and Shaun in the Imagist Anthology, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1930.)  This edition has no significant textual changes.

The next-to-final version was published as a small book entitled Two Tales of Shem and Shaun, (Faber and Faber, London, December 1932). This re-prints two of the three fragments from the earlier Tales Told of Shem and Shaun including “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  Although the text was re-set, I could find no textual differences between the two.  The cover of this book is shown below.

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Norman Hills Collection

The fable’s final version is in the book published as Finnegans Wake (Faber and Faber, London, May 4, 1939.)  It was followed very shortly also in May 1939 by the American first edition (Viking Press, New York.) The fable is on pages 414.19 to 419.20 (the number after the period of each is the line number.)  The text throughout the book has been greatly expanded from earlier versions with many additions of major blocks of text.  Some of these are within previously published fragments, but many are completely new. The following image shows the beginning of the song that ends the “the Ondt and the Gracehoper.”  This is from the first edition/first printing included in the Salisbury House library.

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Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection

The subsequent publishing history of Finnegans Wake is quite brief.  Surprisingly, the book has remained in print for the last 76 years with no textual changes of any kind. This is partly because of the refusal of his heirs to allow any change as long as it was under copyright and because of the difficulty in determining what in the text constitutes an error.  One exception is a 16-page list of corrections compiled by Joyce before his death on January 13, 1941, though not published until 1945 (Faber and Faber, London, printed in the U.S.A.)  These corrections were incorporated into the text starting with the eighth edition in 1958.  None of these corrections affect the Ondt fable. The upper part of the pamphlet title page is shown below.

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Norman Hills Collection

In 2010, Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon edited The Restored Finnegans Wake, which included thousands of changes.  Most critics have not liked this version and their Penguin trade edition of it is no longer in print.  A hypertext version is supposedly in preparation, although it will likely meet the same fate.

James Joyce is widely considered to be the greatest prose writer of the 20th century.  Ulysses regularly appears as the head of lists of great 20th century novels.  The distinguished critic, Harold Bloom, has said that “if aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon, the Wake,…, would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante.”  Given the extraordinary literary value of Joyce, it is not surprising that Carl Weeks, as a collector living in the time of Joyce, would collect the major works, such as first editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  What is truly astonishing is the depth of the Joyce collection in the Salisbury House library, including early printed pamphlets, a corrected proof, and many secondary items that are found only in the best of Joyce research libraries.  Central Iowa is indeed fortunate.

About Norman Hills
Tour Guide at Salisbury House

One Response to Evolution of a Fable: Finnegans Wake at Salisbury House

  1. Pingback: The Black Sun Press and Harry Marks at Salisbury House | SALISBURY HOUSE & GARDENS

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