Harry Levin and the Penultimate Manuscript of Finnegans Wake

June 16 is the hundredth anniversary of the day Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom wandered through ‘dear dirty Dublin,’ the day and adventure James Joyce immortalized in Ulysses (1922). The city of Dublin is celebrating that fictive event with a festival running from April through August.

James Joyce was notorious for refusing to let his work be “finished.” He made endless corrections on every proof state of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1939). The problem was compounded with Finnegan because the typesetters, endlessly betrayed by their ability to spell and good sense, got things ‘wrong,’ and also because Joyce was endlessly tinkering with his portmanteau words–all those words he created by melding parts of two or three or four other words. After publication he issued a booklet of further corrections.

Some years after Joyce’s death, someone told Harry Levin, the great comparative literature scholar who taught at Harvard for forty-five years, that there was in existence the penultimate manuscript of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The final manuscript and the galleys and page proofs of all of Joyce’s corrections were in libraries. (Most of the Wake manuscripts are at the British Library, although they only arrived there in 1956 or so; before then they were in the possession of Joyce’s patron, Harriet Weaver.) The penultimate manuscript would be of great importance because it would provide a much more detailed trajectory for Joyce’s portmanteau words. Perhaps more than any other modern work, Finnegans Wake needs glossing, so that manuscript in conjunction with the other manuscripts could unlock many otherwise inaccessible secrets. And Harry, who had written the first important book on Joyce (an expansion of his senior thesis at Harvard), was the perfect scholar to deal with it.

I remember exactly where and when Harry told this story, and who else was there, but I can only remember the outline of the story itself. That’s because it took the form of a shaggy dog story and as he went on and on I thought, “This is never going to end.” I was wrong. It did end, but not as I expected it would.

I don’t remember the names of the half-dozen cities and connections Harry recited. What I remember is this: for several years after that person told Harry about the manuscript, Harry traveled to places, some of them easily accessible, some of them not, to see one more person who was supposed to have the manuscript or who was supposed to know who had it or where it was. Each time the road was longer than he thought and the person to whom he spoke wasn’t the person with the knowledge Harry sought but who knew about the manuscript and knew whom Harry should be talking to. Harry would go off on another search. He wrote letters, sent telegrams, continued traveling. This was back when scholars in comparative literature still studied literature rather than literary theory, and it was before long-distance direct dialing, fax, email, and jet planes.

After a long time, it all ended in a European city when Harry sat across a table from a man who said to him without any doubt or hesitation,

–Yes, Professor Levin, of course I know what happened to the penultimate manuscript of Finnegans wake.

–How do you know? Harry asked.

–Mr. Joyce told me, the man said.

–And what did Mr. Joyce say? Harry asked, his odyssey and pilgrimage finally over.

–Mr. Joyce told me he mailed the manuscript to you. So it would be safe.

Harry paused; the four or five of us listening were perfectly silent as we waited for him to finish.

–And when was that? Harry told us he asked the man.

–In 1939, the man said. “Twenty years ago. You didn’t get it?”

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He edits the web journal Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu


Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo