GENETIC JOYCE STUDIES - Issue 1 (Spring 2001)



"Shaun MacCormack"1


Ingeborg Landuyt


John McCormack has always been considered as one of the primary prototypes for HCE's "good son," Shaun the Post. There is ample evidence available within Finnegans Wake, which is corroborated by the directions of Joyce himself. The subject has consequently exhaustively been treated in various publications, but more remains to be said about the origins of this connection.2 Joyce gave his first hints when he was revising and adding to book III in 1925. A disk had just been made with his reading from Ulysses and he advised Miss Weaver to get some of McCormack’s recordings as well (25 March 1925, L III 118). In August, he encouraged his maecenas to go to one of the concerts the tenor was sure to give in London. She apparently did so in September, for Joyce asked her for the program and afterwards explicitly referred to "Shaun McCormack’s concert" (letter of 27/9). In the following years, he would make numerous similar overt references to Shaun’s identification.

Joyce’s interest involved more than collecting the singer’s records and attending concerts. Sylvia Beach reported that Joyce "followed the career of John McCormack step by step", and "read all the newspaper accounts of McCormack's doings, his love affairs, his tennis playing, his way of dressing and his curly hairdo."3 As usual, a personal element was involved in Joyce’s interest. The two artists had known each other since their Dublin days and shared a concert stage in 1904. After both had left Ireland, they met on several occasions. Moreover, superstitious as he was, Joyce always attached much importance to superficial and coincidental connections and analogies. Apart from outspoken differences between himself and the tenor, points of resemblance between both could be found in their voices, their voluntary exile, their children, ...4

McCormack united in his person many of the characteristics that Shaun embodied from the beginning. His success as a singer (and as a result his enormous wealth), may have inspired feelings of rivalry and jealousy in Joyce. McCormack's Irishness was especially manifest in his performance of many traditional Irish songs and ballads. The tenor also was a convinced Catholic. In 1920, he had urged Joyce to "get straight with the church",5 a bit of preaching that would have fitted the opposite of Shem/James, perfectly. McCormack would have worked for the Post Office as well, if he had not failed his entrance examination (purportedly on purpose). In accordance with Joyce's plans for a via crucis were a dangerous disease and concomitant miraculous recovery on Easter Monday 1922. However, it is doubtful that McCormack’s model inspired Joyce’s earliest plans and drafts of book III. The close examination of an elaborate index in one of the Wake notebooks may shed some light on when and how McCormack first came to be incorporated in Joyce’s project.

References to the singer are not always self-evident in the text of Finnegans Wake. Several of the McCormack allusions that are attributed to the final text are only the result of later projections. That Shaun is "dressed like an earl" (FW 404.16f) for instance has been interpreted as a reference to the title of papal count the singer received in 1928.6 This makes perfect sense, but only in retrospect, and not at the time when the phrase was first inserted into the text (April 1924). Joyce took this note from an Irish Times article (via VI.B.6: 137), in which a victim of robbery describes the person who assaulted her. In the original:

Trials at Dublin commission [...] "A terrible swell" [--] Martin Keely, described as a music hall artist, was found guilty of having on the 23rd September last, stolen from Mrs. Moira Merriman, [...] a handbag [...]. [...] She described him as a "terrible swell," wearing evening clothes and a Broadway hat, and looked like a real earl.7

The robber’s "broadway hat" (VI.B.6:137) was incorporated in III.3 (FW 476.11f). John Scarry interprets the pheasants on FW 449.17 as an indication of McCormack’s hunting activities in his county Kildare estate, which had been turned into "one of the finest pheasant shoots in Ireland".8 The relevant passage however predates McCormack’s lease of Moore Abbey with one year.

It takes quite an amount of goodwill to identify any allusion to the famous tenor in the first versions of the later book III, Shaun's chapters. Neither the first draft, nor the second or the first fair copy contain any element that overtly links Shaun and the tenor. Shaun initially was casted primarily as a postman to fit in Joyce’s "Letter" plot. He took notes from several histories of the mail to complement this aspect. Joyce’s version of Boucicault’s Shaun the Post was also conceptualised as the angelic counterpart of Shem, who was modelled on the writer himself and all rumours and accusations surrounding him. This immediately involved that Shaun was to be not a coward but an aggressive fighter who would "half kill" any suitors of Issy (103), a healthy glutton and a nationalist who "painted the town green" (79-81). The composition of Catholic Shaun’s Lent sermon coincided with the actual Easter season in 1924, a year that was also a leap-year. Christ was another important model for the postman, who was to follow an inverse via crucis.

Joyce's decision to adopt McCormack as a model probably coincided with or slightly predated the singer's 1924 appearance in Paris in a Beethoven Festival. He sang on 20 May the recitative and aria from Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Beethoven song Adelaide (JMC xxvii-xxviii)9. The first of these formed a natural extension of Shaun’s stations of the cross. Shaun McCormack’s first appearance in book III is documented by a contemporaneous extensive list of notes on the singer in Buffalo notebook VI.B.16.10

As his notes attest, Joyce avidly read Pierre V.R. Key's John McCormack. His Own Life Story (1918) in order to update and supplement his knowledge of the tenor's life. The volume was inspired by the success of several newspaper articles on the tenor. The first biography of McCormack in book form was the result of a series of interviews, which were framed in descriptions of Key’s several meetings with the singer and his family. Thus the reader is not only informed of McCormack’s past, but also learns about his Belgian police dog Nellie, walks and picnics in the neighbourhood of his Connecticut villa Rocklea, trips in his boat the "Cyril", etc. Key usually quotes the tenor himself, instead of telling the story for him. This element in itself must have recommended the book to Joyce, who often extracted direct quotes from Irish newspapers (mostly testimonies in court cases) for use in Work in Progress. In his introduction to the facsimile edition (1973), John Scarry mentions that McCormack withdrew the entire edition of John McCormack after publication (in 1918), and that the book has remained virtually unobtainable except through rare book dealers. If that is the case, Joyce was one of the few who did get his hands on one of the remaining copies (perhaps from the singer himself?), but Scarry's statement may also have been exaggerated to emphasise the necessity of a reprint. On the other hand, even the National Library in Dublin does not own a copy.

The nearly twenty-five pages of notes in VI.B.16, which are only occasionally and very briefly interrupted are a demonstration of Joyce’s continued interest in all 433 pages of his source text. Also revealing is that of the approximately one hundred and seventy entries that Joyce collected, he used over a third, the majority of them soon afterwards in the first chapters of what was to become book III. This is much more than his average use of sources. The notes that Joyce took in VI.B.16 on McCormack were often tagged to the Shaun siglum or immediately transformed accordingly: The "McCormack way"(JMC 18) in the original is "the Shaun way"(VI.B.16: 101; FW 442.22) in the notebook, and when the tenor is reported to have said something ("said the tenor" JMC 29), Shaun's profession replaces the original ("said the postman" VI.B.16: 103). Many of the elements that Joyce recorded reflect the singer's life, especially his personal characteristics and his idiom. However, it is not just his language and peculiarities that were appropriated for Shaun. Not McCormack but one of his competitors in the Feis Ceoil prematurely shook hands with himself after his performance, on VI.B.16: 107: "/\ shakes hands with self" (FW 21.65). The "masculine Irish rose" on the same notebook page (FW 92.18) is the "feminine Irish rose" in the original, McCormack's wife Lily Foley. And it is a music expert who would "give [his] socks, [his] shoes, [his] shirt -honest" (VI.B.16: 133/JMC 352/FW 450.02) for McCormack's voice. Many turns of phrases and actions that Joyce copied from the biography can be attributed to McCormack's interviewer (who "[did his] duty by" eating potato cakes which "melt[ed] in [his] mouth" (JMC 40/VI.B.16:106/FW 477.30)), or even occasionally to McCormack's son (who exclaims "the water's great" (JMC 59/VI.B.16:107) or his daughter (Gwendoline McCormack, who "mussed his hair" in "most familiar fashion" (JMC 23/VI.B.16:102/FW 430.23)),...

The elements that Joyce selected were probably meant to lend some colour to Shaun's character, and several positive characteristics (to be opposed to Shem's defects) were enhanced as well. McCormack stresses the "pathway of right" (JMC9/VI.B.16: 99/FW 432.28), he has a stride that "gets somewhere" (JMC 30/VI.B.16: 103/FW 469.06), and half a page is filled with notes from the chapter describing his visit to the Vatican and his meeting with the pope (VI.B.16: 123).

The one shadowy transaction during his career, the hiring of a claque, is attributed to cheater Shem (VI.B.16: 122 "claque"). Some of the notes also show that while Joyce was reading Key's book even the form of his Shaun chapter(s) was on his mind, and he adapted quotes to the plural narrator ("much as I yearned" became "much as we hate" (JMC 70/VI.B.16: 108)) or Shaun himself ("he generally is" became "I generally am" (JMC 46/VI.B.16: 106)). Possibly "see you Sunday" (originally "see you Thursday", JMC 424/VI.B.16: 135) was to stress the Catholic context (and allude to the resurrection?).

The index was amply used in additions to the second fair copy of III.1-2 (still a unity at the time), covering the whole chapter (or Shaun's part in it) with a McCormack-layer. All of the entries that Joyce used, however, are hardly (and without the Key index, not) recognisable as McCormack-related. In "shoulder to shoulder" for instance (FW 446.33 "shouter to shunter"), no uninformed reader could see a reference to the relationship between McCormack and his wife (JMC 227/VI.B.16: 122), nor could such a reader suspect that it was McCormack's entrance into college which proved "more or less an event" (JMC 19/VI.B.16: 101/FW 443.13). The same goes for virtually all of the other notes. A more overt introduction of this prototype would be for later versions. Information that is easier to distinguish, such as the songs McCormack sang and personal references, would be inserted piecemeal during the following years of revision. The additions to the transition proofs for the final version of the text during the thirties importantly contributed to the McCormack layer in III.1-2. It is at this stage that Joyce included McCormack's name, his place of origin "athlone", his hit record "the lillabilling of killarnies" (FW 450.25, 28-9; JJA 61:38), his "topnoted delivery" (FW 439.19; JJA 61:32) and his "operoar style" (FW 442.34; JJA 61:33). One of the notebooks that provided Joyce with entries to be added to this version was France Raphael's transcription of notebook VI.B.16 (in VI.C.1), which had originally been intended for this chapter anyway. Quite a few of the McCormack entries thus reached their destination after a long period of incubation.

Concluding, we could say that though it remains uncertain when exactly Joyce decided to use John McCormack as a prototype for Shaun, his decision was triggered, influenced or at least reinforced by the singer's performance in Paris in 1924, as is amply demonstrated by the contemporaneous notes from Key's biography. Perhaps the fact that these early references can not be recognised by outsiders is an additional argument that Joyce had only just made up his mind to include the tenor in his text. Only years after the first versions did his textual references become explicit, after he had already presented his protagonist as "Shaun McCormack" to all his close friends and collaborators. And when many of the references to McCormack had already found their place and he started to champion John Sullivan in 1930, Joyce expressed what we could regard as his motto for the intimate intertwining of opera, song and their performers with his writings:

I have always insisted that I know little about literature, less about music, nothing about painting and less than nothing about sculpture; but I do know something about singing, I think.11



1. Letters III 177.

2. In this article, I am not going to analyse the presence of McCormack and his songs in Finnegans Wake, which has already exhaustively been documented by John Scarry, Leo Knuth, Carole Brown, Matthew Hodgart, Ruth Bauerle and many others.

3. Beach, Shakespeare and Company (London: Faber & Faber 1960), 191.

4. For a more elaborate comparison between Joyce and McCormack, see Matthew J.C. Hodgart & Ruth Bauerle, Joyce's Grand Operoar.

5. John Scarry. "James Joyce and John McCormack," Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire, vol. LII, no. 3 (1974), 529.

6. John Scarry "Finnegan's Wake III,i: A Portrait of John McCormack," Irish University Review, vol. III, no. 2 (1973), 156.

7. Irish Times 240207-9/5.

8. John Scarry. “Mozart, Beethoven, and John McCormack in ‘Finnegans Wake’ II, ii”,105.

9. JMC: Pierre.V.R. Key. John McCormack. His Own Life Story. (New York: Vienna House, 1973). This is a photographic reprint ot the original, edited and introduced by John Scarry. Original edition: Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1918.

10. This notebook was dated by Danis Rose April-May 1924, but the list is at the end of the notebook (on pages 99-135). A few pages earlier Joyce took a note from an Irish Times article of 28 April 1924. The index is interrupted by a few sentences from a court case that was in the Irish Times of 30 April. Probably Joyce’s Irish newspapers reached him with a slight delay, which gives us a probable date of somewhere in May.

11. From an unpublished letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver of 18 March 1930.


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