Can a single piece of unsolicited mail change the course of literature? In my opinion, only one letter justifies such a bold claim—a query sent a hundred years ago this month, on December 15, 1913, when Ezra Pound, searching for new talent, reached out to a struggling Irish author living in Trieste.
James Joyce, thirty years old, had faced rejection after rejection during the previous decade. He had completed his collection of short stories, Dubliners, eight years before Pound contacted him—but Joyce still hadn’t found a publisher willing to issue the book. Every time he came close to seeing this work in print, new objections and obstacles arose, and even Joyce’s offer to make changes and censor controversial passages failed to remove the roadblocks.
Joyce had even fewer prospects to publish his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1911, his frustration had grown so intense, Joyce threw the manuscript into a fire, and only the quick intervention of his sister Eileen, who pulled the pages out of the flames, prevented the loss of the novel. Joyce had made even less headway with Ulysses, a work he had been planning since 1906. His constant financial pressures and despair over his inability to publish his fiction sapped his determination to push ahead with the future masterpiece.
During his late twenties, Joyce explored other ways of earning a living. He tried his hand at setting up a chain of movie theaters in Ireland, and worked at importing Irish tweed to Italy. His opportunities to write for hire declined, and most of his income came from teaching English at Berlitz schools. Joyce worked tirelessly at this humble job, but still needed to rely on constant financial support from his brother to pay his bills.
At this low point, James Joyce received a letter from a total stranger.
“Dear Sir,” it began, “Mr. Yeats has been speaking to me of your writing.” Ezra Pound offered to make useful connections for Joyce, and find places where he could publish his writings. “This is the first time I have written to any one outside of my own circle of acquaintance (save in the case of French authors),” Pound admitted, but he was quick to add: “[I] don’t in the least know that I can be of any use to you—or use to me.”
Yet Pound proved of incalculable value to his new friend. In the coming months, he would arrange for the serialization of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a fashionable literary journal. He sent off Joyce’s short stories to H.L. Mencken, the influential American journalist and editor. Pound also featured Joyce’s poem “I Hear an Army,” written a decade earlier and now all but forgotten, in an anthology of Imagist poetry.
But Pound’s efforts on Joyce’s behalf didn’t stop there. He spread word of the Irish author’s genius to his numerous contacts in the literary world, and started laying the groundwork for the later success of Ulysses. In championing his new discovery, Pound brought his work to the attention of Harriet Weaver, later Joyce’s chief financial backer, and Sylvia Beach, the Parisian bookseller who would eventually publish Ulysses. In the face of every obstacle stifling Joyce’s prospects—financial, editorial, legal—his new American friend searched for solutions, and more often than not found them.
Ezra Pound ranks among the finest poets of his generation, but his greatest trait may have been his eye for talent in others. In addition to advancing the prospects of James Joyce, he also served as mentor and advocate for T.S. Eliot. (Joyce, for his part, later grumbled that Eliot gained renown by borrowing from his Ulysses.) Pound also offered encouragement and support to Ernest Hemingway—whom he also introduced to Joyce—Robert Frost, and many other writers and artists.
“Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known,” Hemingway later remarked. “He helped poets, painters, sculptors and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble.” By Hemingway’s estimate, Pound devoted only around one-fifth of his time on his own writing, focusing the rest of his energy on advancing the careers of others.
Yet he would never have heard of James Joyce, had not poet William Butler Yeats mentioned the Irish ex-pat in response to Pound’s pointed questioning about possible poets to include in his anthology. Yeats certainly remembered Joyce from the latter’s time in Ireland, although he may have preferred to forget his dealings with the brash newcomer on the literary scene. When George Russell had first told Yeats about Joyce, years before, he had described the impetuous youth in a memorable phrase: “I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.” At their eventual meeting, the all-but-unknown Joyce allegedly told the celebrated Irish poet: “You are too old for me to help you.” Yeats was certainly impressed by Joyce’s talent, but the younger man’s crass audacity probably made an even deeper impression.
More than a decade had transpired since that meeting. Now Pound held the enviable role of Yeats protégé, serving as the older poet’s secretary, house tenant and informal adviser. Pound was twenty years younger than Yeats, and a member of Joyce’s generation. On the basis of the older man’s recommendation, Pound reached out to his struggling contemporary, and indirectly set in motion a literary revolution.
These two young men were unlikely allies. In his first letter to Joyce, Pound admits: “I imagine we have a hate or two in common—but that’s a very problematical bond on introduction.” In later years, the two drifted apart. Joyce never had much enthusiasm for Pound’s poetry (although it’s unclear how much of it he actually read). Pound expressed reservations about Joyce’s final work Finnegans Wake, and after his move to Rapallo, Italy in 1924, maintained only sporadic contact with the author’s whose work he had once fiercely championed.
Of course, Joyce had little need for Pound at this point. Joyce was now the more famous of the two. Pound, for his own part, was descending into new obsessions, with fascism and amateurish economic theories, fixations that led to ruptures with old friends, a lasting taint on his literary reputation, and perhaps even the unhinging of his mental faculties.
But imagine what might have happened if these two literary lions had not crossed paths a hundred years ago! Would Joyce have risen to fame without Ezra Pound? I suspect that the Irish author would have eventually published most of his major works, but probably at a later date with less acclaim and certainly less financial support. Stream-of-consciousness might have emerged as an accepted narrative technique, but certainly without the same impact on later fiction. Joyce’s greatness would still stand out on the printed page, but his fame and influence would be much less. This unsolicited letter, sent a century ago, made a different destiny for James Joyce. With the help of his American friend, the Irish master changed the course of modern literature.