Cornell's James Joyce collection goes on display; Joyce conference begins June 14

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Letters, first drafts and more from James Joyce's formative years as a writer are going on display after years in the Cornell University Library vaults, in "From Dublin to Ithaca: Cornell's James Joyce Collection."

The exhibition opens June 9 and continues through Oct. 12 in the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in Carl A. Kroch Library.

The 2005 North American James Joyce Conference, starting Tuesday, June 14, at Cornell with more than 180 Joyce scholars expected in attendance from around the world, is a perfect opportunity "to showcase this spectacular collection," said Katherine Reagan, the library's curator of rare books and manuscripts.

The 11 display cases holding more than five dozen artifacts comprise only highlights of Cornell's major collection of Joyceiana, established in 1957 with items obtained from Joyce's sister-in-law. The collection already attracts Joyce scholars on a regular basis.

"One of the things that we're noted for is we have a lot of the letters to and from his friends and family," said Jim LeBlanc, head of post-cataloging services at Olin Library and chairman of the conference's host committee. "We've got a lot of the 'Ulysses' drafts. He would get proofs and write all over them; so you can see how it came along."

The exhibit has been culled from the university's array of 63 original Joyce manuscripts, several hundred books and more than 1,400 documents -- with more than 300 letters, postcards and telegrams; photographs, private papers, business documents and other ephemera. 

"Among the most notable aspects of the collection is a remarkable series of letters between Joyce and his wife, Nora, in 1909 when he went to Ireland and he left her in Trieste," Reagan said. "Their correspondence while Joyce was away forms one of the most celebrated series of erotic letters in modern literature … in which he poured out his longing and desire for her while he was away. These letters provide powerful insight into their relationship as well as his subsequent writing."

Also notable in the collection is Joyce's correspondence with other famous writers, such as Ezra Pound, a tireless advocate for Joyce and his work, Reagan said. The Cornell Joyce collection contains 58 letters between Joyce and Pound, including the letters Pound wrote to Joyce commenting on the draft chapters of "Ulysses" that Joyce would send to him as he finished writing them.

"Pound thought 'Ulysses' a revolutionary work of art, but he cautioned Joyce against the book's obscene and scatological language, as detrimental to the novel's artistic aims," Reagan said. 

In 1922, "George Bernard Shaw wrote and said he had read parts of 'Ulysses,' and he said that it was 'a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization,' but a truthful one; and that it was 'full of foul-mouthed obscenity,'" she added.

The challenge in assembling the exhibit, Reagan said, was "just to do the author justice and to give a view that's balanced and doesn't have an ax to grind, and to let the documents speak for themselves. We try to feature the most powerful or relevant or revealing materials from the collection."

Among the items on display are essays Joyce wrote as a teenager; various first editions of the massive, controversial "Ulysses," which was banned from publication in the United States until 1933; a pirated 1920 serialization of the first chapter of the novel; photographs, including one of Joyce as a young boy in a sailor suit and others on loan from the SUNY-Buffalo Joyce collection; and correspondence with his family, friends and fellow writers.

Items from Cornell's Joyce collection have occasionally been placed on display, but a retrospective or summary exhibition devoted to the author has not been mounted in at least 30 years. 

For the benefit of alumni attending Cornell's Reunion Weekend, the exhibit will open with a lecture by M.H. Abrams, Class of 1916 Professor Emeritus of English. His talk, "An Unlikely Story: The Joyce Collection at Cornell," is Thursday, June 9, at 4:30 p.m. in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall. The talk is open to the public and will be followed by an opening reception for the Joyce exhibit at 5:30 p.m. in the Hirshland Gallery. Abrams will reprise his talk during the Joyce conference, at a plenary session with Reagan.

Abrams, 92, has been a longtime supporter of Cornell's libraries and literary collections. His students here included Thomas Pynchon and Harold Bloom. He has written six books, and he conceived and edited the two-volume "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," which first appeared in 1962 and is now in its seventh edition. In 1999, Abrams' 1953 work of literary criticism, "The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition," was named No. 25 on Modern Library's list of the top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century.