Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
James Stephens grew up in the slums of Dublin and for the most part educated himself by reading widely. To earn a living he taught himself stenography, and while working as a stenographer he began to write poems and stories, some of which were praised by George W. Russell (Æ; 1867-1935), who read them in manuscript. Even the praise of an established writer was, however, insufficient to secure publication, and Stephens’s first success did not come until he was thirty, with the publication of The Crock of Gold. A contemporary fantasy involving two philosophers, leprechauns, and Irish gods, The Crock of Gold achieved the status of a minor classic and won the Polignac Prize for 1912. This was followed by another fantasy set in the present, The Demi-gods, about three angels who come to earth to accompany an engaging Irish vagabond. After that Stephens set out to retell Irish legends. Irish Fairy Tales offered stories from the legend cycle revolving around Finn MacCumhal, and Stephens planned a five-volume series of stories from the Táin Bó Cuailnge cycle but only completed two volumes: Deirdre, which was awarded the Tailteann Gold Medal, and In the Land of Youth.
Stephens was married and had two children. Among his lifelong interests was almost every phase of Gaelic culture, language, art, and literature. As an authority on Gaelic art, he served for some years as an assistant curator of the Dublin National Gallery. Among his amusements was singing Irish folk songs, playing an accompaniment on the concertina.
As an adult Stephens spent much time away from his native city and land. After a first visit to the United States in 1925, he returned a number of times, once spending almost a year on the West Coast lecturing on literature and Gaelic culture at the University of California. Stephens left another imprint on American higher education with two anthologies he edited with E. L. Beck and R. H. Snow which became standard college textbooks: English Romantic Poets and Victorian and Later English Poets. Between the two world wars Stephens also spent a great deal of time in France, especially Paris. In spite of his travels abroad, Stephens remained an ardent Irish nationalist, belonged to the Sinn Féin movement, and ardently supported Eamon De Valera (1882-1975), the Irish political leader and president of Éire. During World War II, however, he felt obliged to go against Irish neutrality and declare himself a supporter of the Allies. The British government granted him a pension in 1942.
In addition to his novels and poetry, none of which achieved wide popularity in America, Stephens tried his hand at other literary forms: Here Are Ladies and Etched in Moonlight, collections of short stories; Julia Elizabeth, an attempt at drama; and On Prose and Verse, a critical study of literature. He forged a strong friendship with the Irish expatriate James Joyce (1882-1941) and at one point formally agreed to complete Finnegans Wake in the event of Joyce’s untimely death.
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