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James Joyce, “according to the pictures postcard”

James Joyce was an avid postcard writer at a time when the western world’s fascination with postcards was at its peak. We know of nearly a thousand postcards that he sent, dating from a Christmas card to Frances Sheehy Skeffington in 1898 to a card to his brother Stanislaus in early January 1941 announcing his arrival in Zurich only a week before his death. Postal correspondence is a fundamental point of reference in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, their texts replete with various postal media. Postcards are an important subset of this element, comprising a distinct mode of communication whose appearances in Joyce’s works have particular resonance. Joyce exploits the distinctions between letter and postcard throughout Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, both peppered with references to the popular print culture of the early twentieth century—magazines, newspapers, handbills, sheet music. It is no surprise that Joyce’s engagement with popular print culture would extend to picture postcards, which were a favorite vehicle of communication from Joyce and his family to other family members and to friends.

The postcard, as a single-sheet, uniformly sized, pre-printed and stamped item, was first introduced in Austria in 1869.[1] Inexpensive to purchase and to mail, postcards gained quickly in popularity throughout Europe and, soon after, the rest of the world. Picture postcards were adopted in the 1880s and 1890s as cheap color printing became readily available and photography had become ubiquitous. Since the blank side of the postcard was reserved initially for the address, these postcards did not allow space for a message. The invention of the “divided back” in Great Britain in 1902 allowed space for a concise message that would share space with the address and the stamp. This is the format of the picture postcard that we know today.

The popularity of the postcard medium in the early years of the twentieth century was astounding. In Great Britain alone some 600 million postcards were mailed in 1903, and in Germany that year the number was higher than a billion. The collecting and trading of picture postcards as a hobby was popular during the same years. In the following decade the number of mailed postcards declined somewhat, but the culture and practice of postcard writing was by this time well established. Picture postcards themselves were everywhere and pictured everything—local scenes, tourist destinations, actors and actresses, works of art. Comic postcards were popular, as were holiday postcards imprinted with Christmas, Easter, or birthday greetings. They were sold widely.

Illustrated postcards have an additional dimension beyond the characteristics of plain postcards. The illustration establishes a context against which the writer’s words can be either in agreement or conflict. The writer’s words can be in a straightforward relation to the card, as when a card represents a travel destination, for instance. The well-worn greeting “Wish you were here” establishes both the sender’s location and expresses a bond of familiarity between sender and receiver. On the other hand, the writer’s words can be in direct conflict with the illustration, creating an ironic relationship.

Picture postcards rooted Joyce in the places from where he was writing just as the details in his fiction rooted his characters in Dublin. The cards were geographic touchstones that provided Joyce’s correspondents with the kind of selective detail that made Joyce’s Dublin so vivid yet enigmatic. Many of his postcards are brief greetings. They let correspondents know where the Joyce family was traveling and often to express their pleasure at being away. A day trip from Copenhagen to Elsinore on August 26, 1936 inspired Joyce to send off to family and friends a cluster of at least nine picture postcards relating to Hamlet. A photo of Hamlet’s statue sent to Stuart Gilbert and his wife reads simply “Greetings from here.”

Postcard with statue on front, text near bottom reading Helsingor, Hamlets Statue
Fig. 1. James Joyce to Stuart and Moune Gilbert, 26 August 1936. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Joyce sent a more intriguing postcard to Ettore Schmitz (Italo Svevo) on July 26, 1912. Sent during Joyce and his family’s extended stay in Ireland which included a trip to Galway for a visit to Nora’s relatives, the card featured a colored photograph of a seated man in the foreground with a small harbor in the background and a caption reading “The Oldest Claddagh Fisherman, Galway.”

Postcard of sitting fisherman
Fig. 2. James Joyce to Ettore Schmitz, 26 July 1912. Joyce Museum Trieste

The Claddagh was a fishing village just outside of Galway in the west of Ireland. Joyce’s text to Schmitz, on the back of the card, read simply: “A portrait of the artist as an old man” and was signed “Stephen Dedalus.” Schmitz had been an early supporter of Joyce’s nascent manuscript of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, writing to Joyce in 1909 of his appreciation of its first three chapters.[2] Joyce’s trip to Ireland was dominated by his attempts to publish Dubliners, but he also had A Portrait in mind, writing to Nora Barnacle from Dublin on August 22, “If only my book is published then I will plunge into my novel and finish it.”[3] Joyce’s card to Schmitz, signed with the name of the protagonist of A Portrait, was a greeting from a weary correspondent who was nonetheless recalling a friendship.

The Joyce family celebrated their first Parisian Christmas in 1920. To Paul Ruggiero, a close friend of Joyce’s during the family’s residence in Zurich from 1915 to 1919, they sent a seasonal card on December 22, 1920.

Cartoon of man in suit hearing Happy New Year come out of a gramophone in different languages
Fig. 3. James Joyce to Paul Ruggiero, 22 December 1920. James Joyce Tower and Museum, Dublin

While the handwritten message on the back of the card reads simply “from James Joyce and family,” the real message is in Joyce's annotations to the card’s illustration. The printed image (signed by “Right,” a prominent postcard designer of the time) shows a well-dressed man in the foreground listening to a gramophone in the background from which is emanating New Year's greetings in French and English. Joyce added to the card handwritten Christmas greetings in Greek, Italian, German, and English—languages that he and Ruggiero shared in wartime Zurich. The bilingual message printed at the bottom of the card—“Merci! / Thanks!”—could be read as Joyce's gratitude for Ruggiero's staunch friendship during their Zurich years. As an instance of the recorded spoken word, the card suggests Leopold Bloom’s mental wanderings during the “Hades” episode of Ulysses, imagining the gramophone recording of the posthumous voice of “poor old greatgrandfather” entertaining his survivors.[4]

Joyce sent a New Year’s card to Ezra Pound on the last day of the year in December 1924.

Little girl standing with juvenile elephant
Fig. 4. James Joyce to Ezra Pound, 31 December 1924. Beinecke Library, Yale University

It features an illustration of a little girl standing next to an artificial baby elephant decorated with garlands on its head and a greeting of “Bonne Année.” The motif—young girl holding bouquet posed next to an artificial elephant—can be found on other postcards of the period (perhaps the elephant was making the rounds of photo studios). Joyce’s message reads: “Exclusive illustration of E.P, lyrical poet, presenting Ulixes, well known elephant, to the American public. Πόλλα κρόνια! [New Year’s wishes in Greek].” The postscript reads “This animal has just been decorated (see wreath) by the Stockholm Thickhide Society.” Pound had been a vigorous early supporter of Joyce’s work, arranging for the serial publication of Ulysses in the American Little Review from 1918 to 1920. In the spring of 1924 Pound had published an article urging that Joyce be awarded the Nobel Prize for Ulysses.[5] This never happened, of course, but Joyce’s reference to Stockholm’s Nobel committee as the “thickhide society” may reflect a slight resentment in the year following Yeats’s win of the literature prize in 1923.The text of Joyce’s postcard of May 5, 1928 to his friend Thomas MacGreevy consists mostly of mundane instructions for correcting proofs of “Work in Progress” for transition magazine. But what captures the eye is Joyce’s caption on the card, itself entitled “L’Arraisonnement” (in English, “The Boarding”). Signed prominently by H[enri] Gervèse, the pseudonym of Charles Marie Joseph Millot (1880-1959), a prolific designer of postcard illustrations with humorous nautical themes, the card shows a sailor climbing into a large ship with the Greek flag on its side. Other figures on the ship and on the sailor's small boat are busy with various activities. At the bottom of the card Joyce’s caption reads: “Ulysses entering the wooden wallhorse.”

Drawing of men in a lifeboat
Fig. 5. James Joyce to Thomas MacGreevy, 5 May 1928. Library of Trinity College Dublin

Though the card was written six years after the publication of Ulysses, a French translation was being prepared and the book was on Joyce’s mind. A colleague suggests that “wooden wallhorse” could allude to the story of the oracle given to Athens before the Persian War—at Herodotus Book 7, chapters 139-43. “The Delphic oracle foretold disaster but in a second oracle said Athens had a gift of ‘wooden walls’ to rely on. Most people thought it meant the Acropolis, but Themistocles made his first important stand by convincing people it meant that they should rely on ships—and so they evacuated to Aegina while Athens was sacked, and won at Salamis. If so, the Joyce caption could be a clever undermining of the idea of the ship as refuge by linking it to the wooden horse.”[6]

Three postcards that Joyce sent to male acquaintances from Zurich on February 22, 1938 illustrate the multiple perspectives that picture postcards can provide. Addressed to Nino Frank, Herbert Gorman, and Samuel Beckett, these were various views of the Alkoholfreies Kurhaus Zürichberg. Promoted by a Swiss women’s temperance society and situated in the hills to the east of Zurich, the Kurhaus was a dry alternative to hotels that served alcoholic beverages.

Photo of large house in black and white
Fig. 6. James Joyce to Nino Frank, 22 February 1938. McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University

The building remains and is a short walk from Joyce’s grave in Fluntern cemetery. All three of the postcards contain the same lines in French: “Je ne suis pas où que l’on pense, Je ne suis pas où que l’on dit”: “I am not where they think, I am not where they say.” Richard Ellmann’s footnote to the published postcard to Gorman speculates that the lines were an obscure reference to a French riddle (Joyce, Letters, 416). But in fact they are a direct reference to lines in a work by composer Oscar Straus, a well-known contemporary of Joyce’s, who had a string of successful productions in the European musical theatre. Straus’s comic operetta Drei Walzer opened in Zurich in 1935. Joyce was in Paris at the time and would not have seen this production, but the work was soon translated as Trois Valses and came to be known primarily in its French language incarnation. Straus added a song for the Paris production to be sung by the star Yvonne Printemps. Trois Valses opened at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in April 1937 and continued for months to wide acclaim.[7] In the third act, Printemps’s character Irène, playing an actress, sings a song whose refrain is “Je ne suis pas ce que l’on pense, Je ne suis pas ce que l’on dit”: “I am not what they think, I am not what they say.”[8] The operetta was in the cultural air of Paris at the time and was widely known, and there was ample opportunity for Joyce and many others to have seen it and to have been familiar with the lyrics. As for the Alkoholfreies Kurhaus: situated a short tram ride from Joyce’s favorite drinking places such as the Pfauen and the Odeon, it was not a likely place for him to have spent time. His paraphrase of these lines on the back of a postcard photograph of a temperance hotel was a sarcastic inversion of the “wish you were here” theme. The present proximity of the Kurhaus to Joyce’s grave lends an even further dimension—a posthumous one—to the meaning of “Je ne suis pas où que l’on pense, Je ne suis pas où que l’on dit.”

Joyce’s varied use of postcards for over forty years of correspondence infuses his literary work. Postcards turn up as collectibles in the Dubliners story, “A Mother,” adding a pretentious detail to Mrs. Kearney as she strives to bring culture to her daughter: “When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable Mrs Kearney determined to take advantage of her daughter's name and brought an Irish teacher to the house. Kathleen and her sister sent Irish picture postcards to their friends and these friends sent back other Irish picture postcards.”[9] The name “Kathleen” recalls “Kathleen ni Houlihan,” a representation of Irish nationalism. Kathleen’s exchange of picture postcards with her friends during the heyday of postcard culture shows the cards to be not so much communication as collectibles whose possession alone lent an “Irishness” to the friends. In the “Eumaeus” episode of Ulysses, the picture postcard that sailor D.B. Murphy shows to the customers in the cabman’s shelter exemplifies the misdirection of that episode's narrative. “The printed matter on it stated: Choza de Indios. Beni, Bolivia” (Joyce, Ulysses, 16.474). When Leopold Bloom turns over the card, he finds that it contains no message, but only an address—to someone other than Murphy. The facts do not matter—from Murphy’s point of view, the postcard is proof of his adventures, as malleable as his flexible tattoo.[10]

Finnegans Wake’s postcards surface periodically in the text like other bits of cultural ephemera, related more to their immediate surroundings than—as with the “Letter” authored by Anna Livia Plurabelle and carried by her son, Shaun the Post—to a pervasive motif. Early in the book, the group of mourners that is trying to keep the presumably deceased Finn from rising from his coffin make reference to the tour led by Kate (cleaning woman and museum curator) of the “museyroom,” exclaiming, “She’ll do no jugglywuggly with her war souvenir postcards to help me build me murial, tippers!”[11] In the section of the book known as “Mamalujo” (a conflation of the names of four old men who merge with the four evangelists), the windy rhetorical memories of Marcus (one of the four) become illuminated: “And then again they used to give the grandest gloriaspanquost universal howldmoutherhibbert lectures on anarxaquy out of doxarchology (hello, Hibernia!) from sea to sea (Matt speaking!) according to the pictures postcard” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 388.27–31).[12]

Given the importance to Joyce of picture postcards in both his own correspondence and in his works, James Joyce’s Correspondence will publish digital images of many of Joyce's picture postcards.[13] What 21st-century readers cannot know are the circumstances under which Joyce acquired the cards that he sent. Certainly, he or family members bought many of them hurriedly or without forethought in railway stations or newsstands. Nevertheless, his fondness for the medium and his inventive use of particular images makes documenting these cards an important aspect of an edition of his correspondence.

With thanks to Sabrina Alonso for research collaboration and valuable suggestions.


[1] Historical information on postcards is from Bjarne Rogan, “An Entangled Object: The Picture Postcard as Souvenir and Collectible, Exchange and Ritual Communication,” Cultural Analysis 4 (2005): 1–27; Guy Atkins, “The Edwardian Social Network,” History Today 63, no. 6 (June 2013): 38–42; and Julia Gillen and Nigel Hall, “Edwardian Postcards: Illuminating Ordinary Writing,” in The Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually Mediated Worlds, edited by David Barton and Uta Papen (London: Continuum, 2010), 169–89.

[2] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 273–74.

[3] James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann, vol. 3 (New York: Viking, 1966), 310.

[4] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior (New York: Vintage, 1986), 6.964.

[5] Ezra Pound, “Le Prix Nobel,” Der Querschnitt 4, no. 1 (Spring 1924): 41–44.

[6] Thanks to Stephanie Nelson. Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, whose insightful speculation regarding the “wooden wallhorse” is quoted here.

[7] Encyclopédie multimedia de la comédie musicale théâtrale en France,, which includes a link to a recording of Yvonne Printemps’s performance.

[8] Oscar Straus, Léopold Marchand, and Albert Willemetz, Trois valses. Opérette en 3 actes et 11 tableaux (Paris: Éditions Musicales, 1937).

[9] James Joyce, “A Mother,” in Dubliners (1914), ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Walter Hettche (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 43–47.

[10] An image of this card is available at JoyceImages, curated by Aida Yared.

[11] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939) (New York: Penguin, 1999), 27.32–33.

[12] Considerable scholarship has been devoted to letters and postal themes in the Wake, notably in connection with deconstructive theory. See, for example, Shari Benstock, “The Letter of the Law: La Carte Postale in Finnegans Wake,” Philological Quarterly 63, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 163–87; and Andrew J. Mitchell, “Meaning Postponed: Finnegans Wake and The Post Card,” James Joyce Quarterly 44, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 59–76.

[13] Illustrations of and notes about many of Joyce’s postcards can be found in James Joyce's Correspondence.