James Joyce Picked Drunken Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hemingway; Hemingway Called Joyce “The Greatest Writer in the World”


Ernest Hemingway seemed to feud with most of the prominent male artists of his time, from Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a “very strange relationship” with Orson Welles—the two came to blows at least once—and he reportedly slapped Max Eastman in the face with a book. All his bluster and bravado makes his warm friendship with James Joyce seem all the more remarkable. They are a literary odd couple if ever there was one: Joyce the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts and creator of symbolic systems so dense they constitute an entire field of study; physically weak and—despite his infamous carnal appetites—intellectually monkish, Joyce exemplifies the artist as a reclusive contemplative. Hemingway, on the other hand, well… we know his reputation.

Hemingway’s 1961 obituary in The New York Times characterized Joyce as “a thin, wispy and unmuscled man with defective eyesight” (perhaps the result of a syphilis infection), and also notes that the two writers “did a certain amount of drinking together” in Paris. As the narrator of the rare film clip of Joyce informs us above, the Ulysses author would pick drunken fights, then duck behind his burly friend and say, “Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him.” (That scene also gets mentioned in The Times obituary.) Hemingway, who convinced himself at one time he had the makings of a real pugilist, was likely happy to oblige. Joyce, writes Hemingway biographer James R. Mellow, “was an admirer of Hemingway’s adventurous lifestyle” and worried aloud that his books were too “suburban” next to those of his friend, of whom he said in a Danish interview, “he’s a good writer, Hemingway. He writes as he is… there is much more behind Hemingway’s form than people know.”

Joyce, notes Kenneth Schyler Lynn in Hemingway, realized that “neither as a man nor as an artist was [Hemingway] as simple as he seemed,” though he also remarked that Hemingway was “a big powerful peasant, as strong as a buffalo. A sportsman. And ready to live the life he writes about. He would never have written it if his body had not allowed him to live it.” One detects more than a hint of Hemingway in Joycean characters like DublinersIgnatious Gallaher or Ulysses’ Hugh “Blazes” Boylan—strong, adventurous types who overawe introverted main characters. That’s not to say that Joyce explicitly drew on Hemingway in constructing his fiction, but that in the boastful, outgoing American, he saw what many of his semi-autobiographical characters did in their more bullish counterparts—a natural foil.

Hemingway returned Joyce’s compliments, writing to Sherwood Anderson in 1923, “Joyce has a most god-damn wonderful book” and pronouncing Joyce “the greatest writer in the world.” He was “unquestionably… staggered,” writes Lynn, “by the multilayered richness” of Ulysses. But its density may have proven too much for him, as “his interest in the story gave out well before he finished it.” In Hemingway’s copy of the novel, “only the pages of the first half and of Molly Bloom’s concluding soliloquy are cut.” Hemingway tempered his praise with some blunt criticism; unlike Joyce’s praise of his writing, the American did not admire Joyce’s tendency towards autobiography in the character of Stephen Dedalus.

“The weakness of Joyce,” Hemingway opined, was his inability to understand that “the only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined… Daedalus [sic] in Ulysses was Joyce himself, so he was terrible. Joyce was so damn romantic and intellectual.” Of course Stephen Dedalus was Joyce—that much is clear to anyone. How Hemingway, who did his utmost to enact his fictional adventures and fictionalize his real life, could fault Joyce for doing the same is hard to reckon, except perhaps, as Joyce certainly felt, Hemingway led the more adventurous life.

Related Content:

James Joyce Reads a Passage From Ulysses, 1924

Ernest Hemingway’s Very First Published Stories, Free as an eBook

Virginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Never Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

Ernest Hemingway: T.S. Eliot “Can Kiss My Ass As a Man”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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