(Short Story Criticism)

James Stephens 1882–-1950

(Pseudonyms include James Esse, Shemus Beg, Samuel James, Seuman James, and Stephen James) Irish short story writer, novelist, poet, and playwright.

Designated “the Leprechaun of Irish literature,” Stephens is counted among the great short fiction writers of the Irish Literary Revival. His work was much admired by contemporaries such as poet George William Russell (known as AE), James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats. Stephens's stories are known for their wry humor, adeptness in capturing lower-class spoken cadences, chilling epiphanies, and links to Irish folktales and legends. Through characters such as tinkers, philosophers, gods, and charwomen, Stephens examined both Irish cultural traditions and the conditions of Ireland's common citizenry. His early stories, based on Irish mythology, are filled with humor and larkish fun, but his later stories, colored by personal tragedies, are more realistic and darkly toned. Greatly concerned with the plight of the poor, these later stories are set in contemporary times and focus on the hardships endured by those trapped in poverty. Stephens's short stories are commonly viewed as indispensible to the modern dawning of the short fiction form in Ireland.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Stephens's childhood and youth, other than that he was born in Dublin and that he claimed to share the exact birth date as James Joyce, down to the hour. Between 1896 and 1912 Stephens worked as a typist for a Dublin solicitor and published his first short story by 1907. His early publications drew the attention of AE, who became his mentor and one of his closest friends. In 1912 Stephens published the novel The Crock of Gold. This was followed by a prolific outpouring of poetry and short stories, and by 1913 he was a regular contributor to The Nation. Later that year he published Here Are Ladies, his first collected work of short fiction. Many publications followed, as did lecture tours of America, which was his chief occupation from 1925 to 1935. Stephens began broadcasting on the BBC in 1934, an activity that led to great popularity; when he moved to London in 1937, he broadcasted regularly. Stephens's work turned solemn after the accidental death of his only son and the death of his two closest friends, AE and Stephen MacKenna. An ardent Irish nationalist during World War I, Stephens was so impressed by the way that the British people coped with the blitz that he declared himself British for the duration of World War II. During the war he was supported as a government pensioner, but lived in great want and his friends took up a collection to help pay Stephens's expenses when his health began to fail. In 1947, when he was awarded an honorary degree from Trinity College in Dublin, Stephens needed grant money from the Royal Bounty Fund to afford the trip. He died on St. Stephen's Day, December 26, 1950 and was mourned with eulogies by a host of literary celebrities.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Stephens's two novellas, Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924), are drawn from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology. They were intended to be part of a five-volume work, an Irish Epic, but Stephens abandoned the idea, discouraged by critical reaction. Deirdre is the story of a young girl raised in isolation to become the Ulster King's wife. She instead falls in love with a young man and they elope to Scotland. Lured back to Ireland many years later, her lover and his brothers are killed through treachery and Deirdre dies of a broken heart. In the Land of Youth recounts the rivalry between the courtly Queen Meave and Eochaid, the earthy king, and is filled with scenes of ribaldry and revelry. In Irish Fairy Tales (1920) Stephens retells the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology—the stories of Fionn, who lived in both the world of reality, with its love rivalries and devotion to family and children, and the world of the faerie, with its magical dwellings, shape changings, and gods in disguise. Here Are Ladies is a book of realistic short stories about common people, described but seldom named, and their dilemmas. The characters are clerks and typists, and their employers—the middle-class and shabby genteel folk of Dublin. The last of Stephens's short fiction works, Etched in Moonlight (1928), contains none of Stephens's famous whimsy, humor, and levity. Instead, the stories are much more gloomy with uniformly unhappy endings. The volume does, however, contain two of his most famous stories: “Hunger,” in which Stephens details the starvation of an impoverished family; and “Desire,” in which a man who has been given one wish longs to look his present age until death, only to die in his sleep that night.

Critical Reception

Stephens's short fiction is often appreciated for its imaginative and lyric power in depicting personas which emulate his homeland of Ireland. In her book The Writings of James Stephens: Variations on a Theme of Love, Patricia McFate comments, “Stephens' works reveal a personality like that of Ireland: brooding highly comic, and bold. His novels and poems show us the gaiety and the loneliness of the Irish people: their estrangement from the land which was once theirs and their desire to return to an earlier, pastoral peril; their animosities and suspicions; their flights of fantasy and their love of words. His works are filled with sunshine and thunder, lush vegetation and dirty slums, green trees and bloody combats of Ireland.” Stephens was awarded the Medal for Fiction at the Aonach Tailteann festival for Deirdre. In 1937 he was offered the Mark Twain Medal for Irish Fairy Tales, but he refused it, saying self-mockingly, “I deserve many medals, each as big as a barn door, and composed of massy ore enriched with diamonds: but—so metaphysical am I!—I also want to know who has the right to give ‘em, and what I am getting them for.”