“Ezra Pound ranks among the finest poets of his generation, but his greatest trait may have been his eye for talent in others.” That’s the opinion of Ted Gioia in The Daily Beast today, on the 100th anniversary of an unsolicited letter that changed the course of modern fiction. The object of Pound’s benevolent eye was the unsuccessful young writer James Joyce.
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.”
And then Pound performed miracles. “Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known,” Ernest Hemingway said. He estimated that Pound devoted about a fifth of his time on his own writing, and the rest to advancing the careers of other artists. Who knew?
Read the whole thing here. And it’s nice to know something nice about Ezra Pound among all the nasty things that get said, because, well, it’s Christmas.