‘Gentlemen of the Press’: James Joyce, “Sir” Davy Stephens and Popular Journalism

As of January 1st, 2012, the work of James Joyce is in the public domain in the European Union.

It seems rather fitting to celebrate the occasion with a link to Episode 4 (‘Calypso’) of Joyce’s Ulysses, which mentions Tit-Bits. Tit-Bits, a popular entertainment paper founded by George Newnes in 1881, was famously unconcerned with issues of copyright [1]. Not only was the paper made up of extracts from ‘all the most interesting books, periodicals and newspapers in the world’, as proudly declared on its masthead, but it ran a weekly competition to find ‘The Prize Tit-Bit’, which Joyce refers to at some length here. This competition was rather ‘democratic’ in terms of its entrance requirements:

In awarding the Prize the arbitrators will take into consideration the pithiness and interest in each Tit-Bit sent, and the Prize will be given to the sender of that one which the arbitrators consider most interesting to the general reader.

Competitors should state from what book, periodical, or newspaper (if any) their contribution is taken. [2]

As John Carey has noted, Joyce’s depiction of ‘mass’ culture is rather less scathing than many of his literary contemporaries, such as E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Joyce ‘pointedly embroils’ Leopold Bloom, the central character of the novel, ‘in newsprint and advertising’. [3] Bloom is not a two-dimensional figure whom we are meant to poke fun at but a character that, by the end of this day in his life and the novel, we know intimately. And yet, as Carey claims, there is a ‘duplicity’ at work here, because the style of Ulysses serves to ‘exclude people like Bloom from its readership’.[4] And even Bloom considers Tit-Bits the perfect substitute for toilet paper…

Also mentioned in passing in Joyce’s description of Kingstown, the port near Dublin now called Dún Laoghaire, is “Sir” Davy Stephens. Stephens was a news vendor who, rather inexplicably, became a minor celebrity. Quite by chance, last week I happened upon this postcard of Stephens advertising the accident insurance scheme also offered by Tit-Bits. Other than this rather strange biography, I know very little about Stephens, or even the date of this postcard (possibly early 1920s?) – any information gratefully received. I would suggest that, as the circulation of Tit-Bits would have been rather larger than Ulysses on its first publication, “Sir” Davy Stephens would have been a more recognisable face to its readers than Joyce ever was.

More to come on the material history of Tit-Bits in future posts. In the meantime, enjoy this image of Leopold Bloom wiping his backside with it.

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

[1] For more on Newnes and Tit-Bits, see Kate Jackson, George Newnes and the New Journalism in Britain, 1880-1910 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001); Kate Jackson, ‘The Tit-Bits Phenomenon: George Newnes, New Journalism and the Periodical Texts,’ Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol.30, No.3, (Fall, 1997), pp. 201-227.

[2] From the announcement of the competition in the first issue: Tit-Bits, Vol.1, No.1 (Oct. 22nd, 1881), p. 16.

[3] John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 20.

[4] Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 20.

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