James Joyce Once Tried Automotive Journalism. It Didn’t Go Well

Trawling the archives in search of the great writer’s first—and only—piece of auto journalism.

byDavid Mullen| PUBLISHED Jul 6, 2022 1:31 PM
James Joyce Once Tried Automotive Journalism. It Didn’t Go Well
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I must have passed the piece by six or seven times before finding it, even though I knew where it was supposed to be. Up and down the microfilm I scrolled, zooming in and out on articles about a looming crisis in the Balkans, a “grave situation” in Spain, and an upcoming royal visit to Dublin, Ireland. I was reading the newspapers from a week on either side of April 7, 1903. It was no wonder I kept missing it; when I eventually spotted it, the top half of the article was overexposed and bleached out, the bottom half dark and smudgy, making the whole thing barely visible at first glance.  I fiddled with the settings on the microfilm reader until I could eventually make out the copy, a piece headlined “The Motor Derby” with a byline simply reading “A Correspondent.”

That correspondent, though, wasn’t just one of The Irish Times’ staff hacks. It was James Joyce. Joyce is the great modernist master, from his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (sublime, though only in parts) to his outstanding collection of stories Dubliners, to the eternal Ulysses, his hefty and joyful epic taking place over the course of a day in Dublin. And for a brief stretch in 1903, he was also an early (if unwilling) pioneer in automotive journalism.

I’m a huge fan of Joyce and actually, we’ve a lot in common. We’re both bespectacled Irish writers, both drunks, and both of us have, at one point or another, been described as the greatest prose stylist in the English language. Scholarly opinion tends to favor Joyce on that latter point, though I’m not so sure. One area where I do have the edge over Jim is when it comes to writing about cars and racing. Where I’ve written literally hundreds of pieces on the topic over the years, Joyce only wrote one.

[Editor's note: We've reprinted Joyce's original interview in full here for what's quite possibly the first time. David Mullen's story on the history, background, and contemporary analysis of the interview continues below.]

James Joyce in 1930 (Getty Images)

Racing at the Turn of the 20th Century

As an obscure piece of Joycean ephemera, “The Motor Derby” has only ever been of mild, passing interest to Joyce scholars and racing historians. The article itself takes the form of an interview that Joyce conducted in Paris, France, at the beginning of April 1903 with a driver, Henri Fournier, ahead of what was set to be the biggest sports event Ireland had ever seen. 

The Gordon Bennett Cup was like the Eurovision Song Contest in that the country that won had to host the next year’s event. The Cup had been founded in 1900 by the New York newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett—a millionaire famed for funding yacht and balloon races and for pissing into pianos at parties—with the aim of fostering better cars through sport. The 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup saw a grueling three-day race on open roads between Paris, France, and Innsbruck, Austria, that had been won by a British driver, Selwyn Edge, in a Napier. Holding the 1903 race in the United Kingdom, however, presented one major obstacle—a speed limit of 12 mph.

Previous races on open roads had resulted in carnage, with cars traveling at 50 mph and beyond totally alien to simple country folk who had a habit of getting run over. The British weren’t willing to risk any major disasters on home turf, so, for the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, they came up with a solution, which was to hold the event in Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom) where any major loss of life wouldn’t make as big a splash in the London papers and a where a little spectacle and excitement would likely be welcomed. They weren’t wrong.

It’s hard to understand just how much enthusiasm the prospect of an international motor race generated in Ireland at the time. This was big—soccer World Cup big—and with just around 100 cars in the whole country, the prospect of the arrival of ultra-modern foreign racers was like an air show, a space launch, and a World’s Fair rolled into one. An Act of Parliament ensured that the 12-mph speed limit could be lifted for the event, and in the six months leading up to the race, the Gordon Bennett was all anyone could talk about, the newspapers running articles about its organization nearly every day. That’s where Joyce comes into the story. 

James Joyce, Motoring Journalist

In April 1903 Joyce was aged 22 and in Paris, having abandoned his medical studies and was living on remittances from home and occasional small paychecks from writing gigs. One of those gigs for The Irish Times involved interviewing the racing driver Henri Fournier, who was scheduled to pilot a Mors for France in the Irish Gordon Bennett race.

Fournier was a successful driver, having won the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux and Paris-Berlin races. He was forced to quit the 1902 Paris-Vienna race due to transmission failure, the 1902 Gordon Bennett due to a broken clutch, and he crashed in the disastrous Paris-Madrid of May 1903, the month after Joyce’s interview. As a works driver for Mors, he’d won plenty of races and even held a land speed record of 76.59 mph for a while in 1902, but in the lead-up to the 1903 Gordon Bennett, victories had been hard to come by thanks to a combination of bad luck and mechanical problems. 

1904: Portrait of Irish writer James Joyce, (1882 - 1941) aged 22, standing outdoors. (Photo by C. P. Curran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Henri Fournier in 1901 (Wikimedia)

Fournier was a mechanic, running a garage in the center of Paris, the frenetic atmosphere that Joyce describes well, capturing the excitement of an age where the automobile was at the cutting edge of technology, but still a luxury for the wealthy.

“In the Rue d’Anjou, not far from the Church of the Madeleine is M. Henri Fournier’s place of business. 'Paris Automobile'—a company of which M. Fournier is the manager—has its headquarters there,” he wrote. “Inside the gateway is a big square court, roofed over, and on the floor of the court and on great shelves extending from the floor to the roof are arranged motorcars of all sizes, shapes and colours. In the afternoon, this court is full of noises, the voices of workmen, the voices of buyers speaking in half-a-dozen languages, the ringing of telephone bells, the horns sounded by the ‘chauffeurs’ as the cars go in and out—and it is almost impossible to see M. Fournier unless one is prepared to wait two or three hours for one’s turn. But the buyers of ‘autos’ are, in one sense, people of leisure. The morning, however, is more favourable, and yesterday morning, after two failures, I succeed in seeing M. Fournier.”

The interview goes downhill from there. Despite Fournier being a works driver for Mors, Joyce doesn’t even know what car he’d be driving in the race and seems totally ill-prepared. Fournier doesn’t seem too interested in answering his questions either. 

JJ: "I suppose you are preparing actively for your races?"

HF: “Well I have just returned from a tour to Monte Carlo and Nice.”

JJ: “On your racing machine?”

HF: “No, on a machine of smaller power.”

JJ: “Have you determined what machine you will ride in the Irish race?”

HF: “Practically.”

JJ: “May I ask the name of it—is it a Mercedes?

HF: “No, a Mors.”

The 1903 Mors Racer (Getty Images)

JJ: “And its horse-power?”

HF: “Eighty.”

Joyce is quite staggered by the fact of Fournier’s Mors’ top speed of 86 mph and the fact that he expects his average speed to run at around 61 mph. 

JJ: “Let me see, then your top speed is nearly 86 miles an hour and your average speed is 61 miles and hour.”

HF: “I suppose so, if we calculate properly.”

JJ: It is an appalling pace. It is enough to burn our roads. I suppose you have seen the roads you are to travel?”

OK, this isn’t a good interview. Joyce comes across as completely lost at sea on the topic of auto racing. Even his biographer, Richard Ellmann, described the piece as “bored and indifferent.” But that in itself can tell us a lot, both about Joyce and about Ireland. 

A Sign of the Times

Joyce did not much care for cars. After all, his magnum opus, Ulysses is, in one sense, a book about walking. 

According to Ellmann: “Joyce’s opinion of auto racing was, he said, like the opinion of horse racing of the late Shah of Persia. When the Shah was invited by King Edward to go to the races, he replied ‘I know that one horse runs quicker than another, but which particular horse it is doesn’t interest me.’”

But Joyce’s total lack of familiarity with cars or some of the basic concepts of motor racing would also have been reflective of the same sense of novelty and suspicion with which The Irish Times’ readership would have viewed racing. In a sense, his ignorance of the topic likely mirrors that of most of his readers. “It is enough to burn our roads,” is obviously a silly statement, but considering that donkeys and carts were still dominant in Ireland then, and that most of the roads were pitted, potholed and barely paved, it’s slightly more understandable.

As that April of 1903 went on, Joyce had more pressing matters than racing on his mind. Three days after the interview appeared in The Irish Times, he received word that his mother, May, was dying of cancer, and he immediately returned to Ireland to care for her.

Ireland Hosts the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup

When the race arrived in Ireland at the end of June 1903, it brought with it a carnival atmosphere, both in Dublin itself and in Kildare, where the race was to be held. Even though Joyce didn’t go to the race, he likely would have seen the cars arriving off the boat in Dublin ahead of the event and heard all the hubbub and chatter. One person that didn’t, though, was Henri Fournier.

Driver Fernand Gabriel in the Mors at the start of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup. (Getty Images)

The preceding Paris-Madrid race was a catastrophe, with eight people killed, including five drivers and three spectators. Following the event, there were even moves by French politicians to have auto racing banned outright. Fournier survived, but his Mors was one of the whole half of the field which did not finish. It’s not entirely clear why Fournier was not part of the trio of Rene de Knyff, Henri Farman, and Fernand Gabriel, who actually competed for France in the Irish Gordon Bennett Cup race. It may have been politics on the part of the Automobile Club de France, or it may have been something to do with his less-than-stellar recent performances.

Either way, he was not with the competitors who lined up in Kildare on the morning of July 2, though one of his compatriots, de Knyff, put in a good showing, finishing second in his Panhard over the 327 miles which were covered between dawn and dusk. This race, however, was totally different to events such as the Paris-Madrid on account of one particular innovation—actually closing the course to all but the competitors. It may have required a small army of 7,000 policemen, stewards and actual soldiers, but it was better than the alternative. 

Unstoppable was Camille Jenatzy, a red-haired Belgian nicknamed The Red Devil, piloting a Mercedes for Germany who took victory. An American named Percy Owen driving a Winton finished third. The Cleveland-based automaker Alexander Winton himself also competed in his own creation, but failed to finish despite a dogged performance. The car that he campaigned, Bullet No.2, is now part of the Smithsonian collection. 

In its organization and staging, the race was a total success, and, following the Paris-Madrid catastrophe, is sometimes described as “the race that saved motorsport” by historians. Not a single competitor or spectator fatality was recorded, and the 1903 Gordon Bennett proved that although racing could never be totally safe, it didn’t have to be a bloodbath. Another open-road event like the Paris-Madrid wouldn’t take place in Europe again until the first Mille Miglia in Italy in 1927.

Though he wasn’t a spectator, none of this passed Joyce by. Set less than a year later—on June 16, 1904—Jenatzy gets a brief mention in Ulysses; appropriate, given that the name had become part of the fabric of Dublin’s consciousness. More indicative of the race’s impact on Joyce, however, is that his short story, “After the Race,” also written in 1904, was based on the events surrounding the race. That appeared in Dubliners in 1914 and like the interview with Fournier, it’s not his best work and he didn’t much like the story himself, saying so in a 1906 letter to his brother Stan. Today, it’s regarded as the worst in the collection, which, considering that Dubliners contains “The Dead”—possibly the finest short story written in English—doesn’t exactly make it bad.

There is one part of the interview that still holds up today, regardless of whether your name is Henri Fournier, Pierre Gasly or Sergio Perez, and that’s Fournier’s nugget of wisdom that sometimes a driver can come out on top in a race purely thanks to another one’s misfortune. Ending the interview, Joyce asks Fournier who he thinks might win the Gordon Bennett, something which Fournier is reluctant to answer. 

JJ: “I suppose you would not like to be asked your opinion of the result?”

HF: “Hardly.”

JJ: “Yet, which nation do you fear the most?”

HF: “I fear them all—Germans, Americans, English. They are all to be feared.”

JJ: “And how about Mr. Edge?”

HF: [No answer.]

JJ: “He won the prize the last time, did he not?”

HF: “O yes.”

JJ: “Then he should be your most formidable opponent?”

HF: “O yes... But you see, Mr. Edge won, of course, but... a man who was last of all and had no chance of winning might win if the other machines broke.”

“Whatever way one looks at this statement,” Joyce concluded, “it appears difficult to challenge its truth.”

David Mullen is an automotive writer—and dare we say a better automotive writer than James Joyce—based in Ireland, with bylines in Driving.co.uk, Jalopnik, and other outlets.