James Joyce Likely Had Syphilis From Prostitutes, New Book Says

James Joyce—literary titan, slayer of Victorian shibboleths, bane of schoolchildren the world over—was probably crippled and blinded by hooker-caused syphilis, according to new medical and documentary evidence uncovered by a Harvard researcher.

While conducting research for his forthcoming volume The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, author Kevin Birmingham pieced together forensic clues about the iconic modernist's persistent pain and infirmities and came to a clear conclusion: The Irishman suffered from the dreaded venereal disease.

"His first encounter with a prostitute was at the tender age of 14," Birmingham tells me. "One prostitute lovingly said of Joyce, 'He has the fuckin'est best voice I ever heard.' Yeah, fuckin'est. He sometimes took his prize money for winning essays to Dublin's red light district."

The book explores Joyce's sexual exploits in deeper detail. But it's the medical sleuthing that makes the case for the author's social disease, as Birmingham related to The Guardian this morning:

Birmingham [claims] that Joyce was going blind because he was suffering from syphilis – "his eye attacks were recurrent because syphilis advances in waves of bacterial growth and dormancy". The array of symptoms Joyce described in detail to his correspondents, "the abscesses that ravaged his mouth and the large 'boil' on his shoulder", were probably syphilitic, writes Birmingham. "Syphilis 'disabled' his right arm in 1907", and the psychological toll of the disease "likely caused Joyce's periodic fainting spells, his insomnia and his 'nervous collapses'", according to the scholar.

For decades, rumors that the visually-challenged stream-of-consciousness pioneer had syphilis were just that: rumors. But using subtle clues in Joyce's letters, Birmingham determined that the writer must have been taking a treatment called galyl, which is prescribed only for syphilis:

"Add to Joyce's treatment (and his penchant for prostitutes) the fact that syphilis is virtually the only reasonable explanation for Joyce's decades of symptoms, and it seems rather difficult to refute."

The author adds that Joyce probably tried to confess he had syphilis, writing of his blindness in 1931 that "I deserve all this on account of my many iniquities."

Birmingham, who studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker writer and Harvard Professor Louis Menand (and who, for full disclosure, is a high school classmate of mine), will publish the book on June 16—Bloomsday, the anniversary of the events in Ulysses, which is now celebrated annually by Joyce fans.

[Photo credit: AP]