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Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Review

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

This slim volume is comprised of a series of literary lectures that Colm Tóibín, the author of THE MASTER and BROOKLYN, delivered at Emory University in 2017. The three literary geniuses whose fathers are portrayed here spent part of their lives in Dublin (where Tóibín has a home) and had many connections to each other. W.B. Yeats, for instance, supported both Oscar Wilde and James Joyce at various points.

Though the three men were very different from each other, Tóibín writes, “They created chaos, all three of these fathers, while their sons made work.”

"All three fathers disappointed their children --- and all died in penury --- but each gave his son both a touch of genius and, at least from Tóibín’s telling, a remarkable linguistic legacy."

Tóibín begins with perhaps the most accomplished of them, Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, who he describes as a polymath --- a surgeon, statistician, writer and amateur archaeologist who could talk about any subject in depth. Oscar’s mother, Jane, was a poet and folklorist who later defended herself in a libel suit brought against her by a woman who had accused Sir William of seducing her. It was a scandal at the time that was only dwarfed by Oscar’s own scandal some 20 years later.

If Sir William was accomplished (though ultimately nearly bankrupt), John Butler Yeats was a delightful and witty companion who turned down the opportunity to be a distinguished barrister in order to paint. He lived with his son and daughters in Dublin until 1907 when he moved to New York on a whim, and where he spent the last 15 years of his life. The insightful, imaginative letters he wrote while there (which are liberally quoted here) have sealed his reputation as a master of the form.

John Stanislaus Joyce had the most complex relationship with his son, who modeled Simon Dedalus in ULYSSES after him. For the last 19 years of his life, he didn’t see James, who was living in Paris. Still, after his death, James wrote to T. S. Eliot that “I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults.” His younger son, Stanislaus, wrote bitterly about those many faults, chief among them being his abusive drunkenness.

All three fathers disappointed their children --- and all died in penury --- but each gave his son both a touch of genius and, at least from Tóibín’s telling, a remarkable linguistic legacy.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on November 2, 2018

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce
by Colm Tóibín

  • Publication Date: October 30, 2018
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1476785171
  • ISBN-13: 9781476785172