James Joyce Picked Drunken Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hemingway

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 make 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 pugilistwas 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 Hem­ing­wayreal­ized 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 Dublin­ers’ Igna­tious 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 Ulysses1924

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

Ernest Hem­ing­way to F. Scott Fitzger­ald: “Kiss My Ass”

James Joyce’s “Dirty Let­ters” to His Wife (1909)

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



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