James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was published on December 29, 1916, when Joyce was 34 years old.
It is an autobiographical modernist novel that tells the story of Joyce’s stand-in, Stephen Dedalus, up to the age of twenty — the age that Joyce was when he left Dublin for Paris. The novel also draws on the myth of the Greek craftsman Daedalus, who built the Minotaur’s Labyrinth in Crete and the wings for his son Icarus.
Joyce had begun an earlier version of the book in 1904, tentatively titled Stephen Hero, but abandoned it in 1907 to work on the short stories that would eventually be published in 1914 as the book Dubliners.
He returned to the book several times but threw the manuscript (by now over 900 pages long) into the fireplace in a fit of frustration over not being able to get it right. Luckily, his sister and others on hand managed to rescue most of it.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats recommended Joyce’s work to fellow poet Ezra Pound who arranged for the completed manuscript, now with its current title and substantially shortened, to be serialized in a leading modernist literary journal, The Egoist, published in London.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man appeared in 25 installments from early 1914 to late 1915. After failing to find a British publisher Pound also arranged to have the book published in New York on December 29, 1916.
Stephen Hero was a realistic novel with a traditional third person omnipotent narrator but by the time it became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce was employing modernist techniques such as direct speech and stream of conscious narrative. The novel was also now dominated by Stephen’s point of view.
Like the young James Joyce, the adolescent and teenaged Stephen grapples with family life, sex, the Catholic Church, Irish nationalism and aesthetic ideas about art and beauty.
I first read it when I was a teenager and remember preferring Stephen to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Reading both books again some years later I found that my allegiance had switched. Great art stays the same but also changes with changing perspectives!