Ellmann Lectures explore literary fathers and sons

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | Nov. 21, 2017

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Acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín visited Emory Nov. 12-14 to deliver the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, where he addressed the theme of “Writers and Their Fathers: Wilde, Yeats and Joyce.” Emory Photo/Video

This year’s Ellmann Lectures, given by acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín, turned, in ingenious ways, on the subject of familial inheritance — or what Geraldine Higgins, co-director of the lecture series, calls “all the twisted roots and branches of the family tree.”

At the first of this year’s three talks, Higgins, associate professor of English at Emory and a specialist in 20th-century Irish literature and culture, introduced Tóibín following Emory College Dean Michael Elliott’s opening remarks, in which he warmly welcomed the man he called “one of the world’s greatest living writers” to the Emory family.

A writer of dazzling fluency — equally at home as a novelist, essayist, dramatist, short story writer, journalist and poet — Tóibín has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize; won the IMPAC Prize for his most well-known work, "The Master"; earned the Irish Pen Award in 2011 and, in that same year, was named to a list of top 300 British intellectuals — this despite being Irish.

According to Higgins, the wry Tóibín would have us believe that his literary success hinges on two forms of deprivation: “Never do lunch and write in the most uncomfortable chair possible.”

The Ellmann genealogy

Throughout their history, the Ellmann Lectures, established in 1988, have reflected interesting forms of literary inheritance. Across nearly three decades, the world’s most acclaimed writers have stood at the lectern cognizant of one another and, in this way, collectively authoring one of the richest conversations in North America about literature.

Richard Ellmann (1918–1987), Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor, was the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and, in a 40-year career, a leading interpreter of W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Tóibín’s topic, “Writers and Their Fathers: Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce,” bowed deeply to Ellmann by focusing on the modernist triumvirate so central to his scholarship.

Tóibín’s subject is also personal, for he lost his own father when he was 12 and told a Guardian reporter in 2014, referencing that death, “Every writer has something in their childhood that nurtures them while seeming to be very damaging at the time.” The author also hails from a country that Irish poet Louis MacNeice has said “is small enough to be still thought of with a family feeling.”

Lineages and litigants

The first of Tóibín’s lectures, “Sir William Wilde: An Eminent Victorian in England,” given Nov. 12, examined two trials in the history of the Wilde family.

Tóibín begins with the more scandalous one: Oscar Wilde sued John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, for libel after the latter — enraged over the affair between Wilde and his son, Lord Alfred “Boisie” Douglas — left his calling card in plain view at Wilde’s club. On it, Douglas wrote that Wilde was a “posing Somdomite,” thus making an enemy of the writer and committing one of history’s most famous misspellings.

The Marquess of Queensberry, wrote Wilde’s friend Frank Harris, was “the sort of man who, just because he was afraid of a bull and had pictured the dreadful wound it could give, would therefore seize it by the horns.” Wilde, similarly, would not back down or heed his friend Robert Ross’ advice to visit France for a time and let tempers cool.

As Tóibín observed, Wilde “seriously misjudged how the judge, jury and public would view him,” in part because of his mother’s experience of weathering a libel suit by her husband’s former-patient-turned-lover. Despite being the toast of London in 1895, when the "Importance of Being Earnest" was entertaining audiences, as his trial ended Oscar Wilde would be sentenced to two years of hard labor; by 1900, he would be dead at the age of 46.

Writing at Reading

While in the famous Reading jail, Wilde wrote "De Profundis" — a 5,000-word letter addressed to Lord Douglas. Kept totally isolated during his prison term, Wilde focused intently on the work. Each sheet of paper he wrote on was numbered before being issued to him and then withdrawn every evening.

Tóibín described it as a hybrid text — “an intimate address and a meditation on suffering; a love letter and a howl from the depths; composed for the world to read but for the eyes of one man; about love and treachery, despair and darkness.” When it was complete, Wilde’s friend Ross was instructed to send one copy to Douglas, who cast it aside without reading it, and one to the British Museum.

In fall 2016, Tóibín agreed to be locked in Wilde’s cell, C33, where he read "De Profundis" aloud as part of an event sponsored by the immersive art group Artangel. Initially unsure of how to approach his reading, Tóibín ultimately decided that because the text “was written by an Irishman to an Englishman, I would speak it in my voice.”

Wilde-ly different outcomes

There isn’t a moment when Wilde’s father, who died in 1876, is fully evoked in "De Profundis"; however, he still informs it, according to Tóibín. Although he sometimes took pains to deny his roots, speaking with an English accent and claiming to be a self-made “lord of language,” Oscar was inescapably the child of William.

Wilde was 10 years old when a former patient of his physician-father, Mary Travers, fell out with the family after being an intimate for many years, writing the tract "Esperanza" in which she accused the elder Wilde of raping her while she was under the influence of chloroform. In the face of Travers’ increasingly erratic behavior, Lady Wilde wrote a severe letter to Travers’ father, prompting Mary to sue for libel. 

The trial lasted six days. The jury found in Travers’ favor, but damages were set at a paltry farthing. In the end, says Tóibín, “the Travers case did not affect the lives of the Wildes in any significant way.”

The family’s skating by in that instance seems to have made Oscar too confident in his own trial. The parallels between the legal actions were several: Travers and Queensberry were singularly focused on the objects of their wrath; Oscar and his mother erred by joking during the respective trials; and both trials centered on a long and turbulent sexual relationship with a younger person.

Yet the outcomes could not have been more different. The Wildes kept on as leading lights of their society, and crowds flocked to the elder Wilde’s funeral, while his son became a pariah, discovering, says Tóibín, that the “only way he could rescue himself was by writing.”

Portrait of the Yeats family

The next evening, Nov. 13, Tóibín took on another famous father for his second lecture in the series, titled “John Butler Yeats in Exile: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?"

The poet W.B. Yeats summed up the problem his father posed, critiquing his “infirmity of will.”

Certainly, the story is widely broadcast of John Butler Yeats, a painter, spending 11 years on his own self-portrait and dying before it could be completed. Tóibín encountered the portrait in the home of Michael Yeats, W.B. Yeats’ son, who became friendly with the author as a result of wanting “to meet someone as interested in his grandfather as his father.”

John Butler Yeats trained to be a barrister yet, in 1867, set off for art school in London, leaving his wife, Susan, and two children at the time — W.B. Yeats and his sister Lily — to their own devices.

Although the elder Yeats had talent as a painter, his record of completed portraits was dismal; as a result, the family struggled financially, with Susan and the children often living with her relatives. When John Butler Yeats gained some fame after an exhibition, his studio became a gathering place, but more people came to talk than to purchase art. When his wife died at the age of 59, he lamented that, had he provided her with a barrister’s lifestyle, her death might not have occurred so early.

By 1907, as he neared 70 years old, two of his sons had eclipsed him: W.B. as a poet and Jack as a painter. Hoping to revive his spirits, friends raised money for him to go to Italy, but he instead used the money to go to New York with Lily. Even after she returned to Europe, he stayed and, says Tóibín, “the father's exile was enabling and inspiring for the son’s work.”

John Butler Yeats was a beloved figure in his adopted country and became “one of the best letter writers of the age.” He even had a second chance at romance, with Rosa Butt, daughter of Isaac Butt, the Irish barrister and politician who forms an amusing leitmotif by cropping up repeatedly in the three lectures.

The two were elderly and separated by an ocean, but exchanged intimate letters that they pledged to burn upon reading, to allow for complete frankness. While Yeats kept his word, Butt did not, so only his letters to her were preserved.

Even getting bawdy sometimes, Yeats was clearly swept away by Rosa, telling her, “You are more to me than I am to myself.” The elder Yeats, says Tóibín, “did not write about the life he had lived, but the life he imagined.” And surely that gift of imagination passed in even larger measure to his famous son.

John Butler Yeats wrote to W.B. after the latter visited him, saying that if he returned home, he would be "just an old man in his second childhood.” And so he stayed away, giving his son the space he needed and a literary challenge besides, writing in one letter: “The best thing in life is the game of life and someday a poet will find this out. I hope you will be that poet.”

The two tenors

In the final lecture, “John Stanislaus Joyce and Dublin: Old Father, Old Artificer,” delivered Nov. 14, exile continued as a theme, although this time on the part of the son.

Tóibín characterized James Joyce’s father as “a popular fellow and much admired.” Yet, like the foregoing fathers, he too was incapable of managing the family finances and was, according to James’ brother Stanislaus, “a man of absolutely unreliable temper.” In Joyce’s "Stephen Hero," he recalls the abiding image of his father: “The hearth at night was a sacred witness of his revenges, pondered, muttered, growled, and execrated.”

Stanislaus wrote two books, both unsparing about his father. In them, he talked of the family’s “gypsy-like life” and noted of his father that, “though he had many children [10], he was quite unburdened by any care for them.” Most any day in that household could bring, as Tóibín described it, “drunkenness and outrages.” In this light, he said, “it would be easy, then, to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of one of the worst Irish husbands and fathers in recorded history.”

Although James’ brother called out the father on every wrong, James’ solution was escape. Following university, James fled to Paris and didn’t see his father for the last 19 years of his life. At the time of his father’s death, alone in a boardinghouse, the contents of his room consisted of an “old suit of clothes, a coat, hat, boots and stick — and a copy of his son’s play 'Exiles.'”

Inevitably, James felt guilt, writing to T.S. Eliot: “He had an intense love for me. It added anew to my grief and remorse that I did not go to Dublin to see him for so many years. I kept him constantly under the illusion that I would come and was always in correspondence with him. But an instinct I believed in held me back from going, much as I longed.”

The separation would help his artist-son come into his own. As James told his benefactor, “I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages, and scores of characters in my books, came from him. I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice and an extravagant, licentious disposition, out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs.”

Shutting him out, writing him in

Tóibín traces the depiction of James’ father from the story “Grace” in "Dubliners" all the way to "Ulysses," concluding, “instead of openly killing his father, James Joyce sought not only to memorialize him but to retrace his steps, enter his spirit, use what he needed from his father’s life to nourish his own art.”

In Joyce’s masterwork, "Ulysses," the stand-in for his father, Simon Daedalus, appears frequently — in seven of the 18 episodes. Simon is depicted as a witty man but one mourning the loss of his son Stephen, who has abandoned him.

In 1922, John Stanislaus Joyce received a copy of "Ulysses" at his boardinghouse. Lonely though he might have been for his first-born son James, his wit never eluded him. When he saw the famous Brancusi ink portrait of his son, he remarked dryly, “Jim has changed quite a bit since I have last seen him.”

In Tóibín’s view, “Nothing was resolved by his staying away from Dublin. His father remained all and present. Because Joyce found a space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him, so hard to deal with, so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking the shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true. … That achievement did not settle anything, however, or stop Joyce from accusing himself, as though he were the one who had caused all the damage.”

We feel how deep the roots of these misgivings were when James Joyce writes a poem to honor the birth of his first grandchild, named Steven. In the last stanza of “Ecce Puer” (“Behold the Young Boy”), Joyce bears witness to the burden of all famous sons:


A child is sleeping:

An old man gone.

O, father forsaken,

Forgive your son!