"SNOW IS GENERAL": NEWSPAPER WEATHER FORECASTING AND 'THE DEAD'
Few passages in Joyce's ouvre can rival the fame of the final lines of 'The Dead.' In his 1987 film adaptation John Huston memorably singled out the last paragraph for special treatment by having Gabriel Conroy intone Joyce's sibilant prose. Critics, too, have long viewed the passage as a key one, and it is often cited in analyses of Joyce's narrative technique and representation of Ireland. In their discussions of the densely symbolic ending to the story, scholars have been particularly exercised to explain the significance of the snow: Hugh Kenner points out that one of Joyce's Triestine pupils recalled the writer 'gazing into a glass paperweight of the sort containing crystals and murmuring, "Yes, snow is general all over Ireland"' (Dublin's Joyce [London: Chatto & Windus, 1955], 68); Don Gifford notes that Bret Harte's Gabriel Conroy (1875) contains a description of snow falling (Joyce Annotated: Notes for 'Dubliners' [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982], 113); Jackson Cope views it as a seasonal emblem of decline in a collection of stories which thematize weather ('Joyce's Wasteland,' The Genres of the Irish Literary Revival [Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1980], 104-5); and Richard Ellmann contends that, far from signifying death or commenting satirically upon national identity, the snow is a truly communal agent under whose canopy 'all human beings, whatever their degrees of intensity, fall into union' (James Joyce [Oxford: OUP, 1982], 252).
Curiously, however, almost all critics have passed over the fact that Gabriel's meditation upon the weather is prefaced by the statement, 'Yes, the newspapers were right' (Dubliners [London: Paladin, 1988], 255), treating the phrase 'snow was general' as Gabriel's private thought rather than what it is, an allusion to a public newspaper report. Even when acknowledged, the phrase's journalistic origin typically receives only cursory attention. R. B. Kershner, for example, finds it to imply that '[Gabriel's] vision has so broadened that he is able to verify the newspaper's account of an extremely unusual meteorological event through some absolute visionary awareness' (Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989], 140), without explaining why something as seemingly irrelevant as a newspaper weather report intrudes into Gabriel's epiphanic moment of self-knowledge in the first place.
And yet Gabriel is not in fact verifying the weather report. Indeed, for all we know, he may not have even read a newspaper that day. Rather, he is confirming what his spinster cousin Mary Jane has told him: 'They say ... we haven't had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland' (241-42). It is surprising that Kershner misses this detail, since he acutely notes that Gabriel's is a 'universe of women' (145) and that by embracing 'the female voice within him that he has unsuccessfully repressed' (148) Gabriel ultimately 'learns to speak as Woman' (150). As such, the phrase clearly invokes two of Joyce's central concerns in 'The Dead': women, including newspaper-reading women such as Miss Ivors, and the special status of journalistic writing, as exemplified by Gabriel's book reviews for the Unionist Daily Express. It is, moreover, the second time that a newspaper formula troubles Gabriel, the first being when he is disconcerted by a line from one of his own Daily Express articles, again while looking at snow. On that earlier occasion the tired cliché running through his mind, 'One feels that one is listening ...' (219), epitomizes Gabriel's shaky sense of identity and desire to shelter behind the persona of an omniscient journalist, a desire amply justified, to be sure, by Miss Ivors's triumphant deciphering of his byline 'G. C.' Clearly, then, we need to ask some new questions about this most canonical of texts. What difference does Gabriel's qualifier 'Yes, the newspapers were right' make? What significance is Joyce attaching to the printing of information-and, specifically, of the weather report-in a newspaper?
As Joyce seems to have recognized, weather reports are a far from unimportant item on the modern newspaper's bill of fare. The press tycoon Alfred Harmsworth set great store by them: an American visitor once witnessed him ticking off an employee for having changed the location of the Daily Mail's weather forecast (C. J. Taylor, The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail [London: Phoenix, 1996], 190). The importance of the meteorological report to readers of early-twentieth-century Irish newspapers such as the Daily Express and the Irish Times was apparent from its location directly above the leader column. Useful guides to Ireland's most plentiful resource, such weather forecasts were also markers of the up-to-dateness and efficiency of a journal's information-gathering. In Ulysses Joyce casts Myles Crawford as Aolus, god of the winds, presiding over the 'Weathercocks' (7.309) of his staff in the Evening Telegraph offices, while out on the street character after character passes comment upon the weather: Larry O'Rourke to Leopold Bloom; Arthur Power to Martin Cunningham; David Sheehy to Father Conmee; Simon Dedalus to William Crimmins and Miss Douce; Miss Kennedy to a barfly; a sailor to Bloom again; and so on.
Such incessant talk about the weather made accurate forecasts a valuable commodity for modern newspapers. At the same time, weather reporting has never quite been the stable, banal entity it can sometimes appear. Almost as old as the practice of newspaper weather forecasting is the popular wisdom, which survives to the present day, that it is mostly wrong. Thus the narrator of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1889) ridicules what he calls 'this "weather-forecast" fraud': 'It "forecasts" precisely what happened yesterday or the day before, and precisely the opposite of what is going to happen today' ([Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994], 42). Likewise, even as it lauded the Meteorological Office's achievement of a fifty percent accuracy rate, the Daily Graphic conceded that 'the predictions which appear in the daily press as to the characteristics of the weather during each day have been subject to so much good-humoured irony, that people have come to look upon them as something to be amused over' (22 March 1890). Perhaps Gabriel is merely noting that the newspaper has got it right for once?
And yet, as Andrew Ross observes, 'there is a long and well documented history of deep-rooted suspicion of centralized weather forecasting' (Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits [London: Verso, 1991], 215). 'In this world where the journalists read the signs of the sky, and the wind of heaven itself, blowing where it listeth, does so under the prophetical management of the Meteorological Office . . . the secret of human hearts cannot be captured either by prying or praying,' declared Joseph Conrad in his 1912 memoir A Personal Record ([London: Dent, 1946], 91). This ideological tension was doubtless exacerbated by the prominence accorded to centralized forecasting in the emergent national daily press. During the First World War, for example, British and German censors regularly deemed it necessary to suppress weather reports in their respective national presses, a measure that was the object of widespread mockery (Edward Cook, The Press in War-Time [London: Macmillan, 1920], 141-44). The imperialistic connotations of weather reporting were also visible in expressions such as 'queen's weather,' coined to describe Victoria's seeming command over the elements themselves: 'IN QUEEN'S WEATHER THE GREAT CELEBRATION PASSES WITHOUT HITCH OR ACCIDENT,' blared the Daily Mail's gilt-edged Diamond Jubilee number on 22 June 1897. Joyce, too, includes in 'Circe' the directions 'Bloom's weather. A sunburst appears in the northwest' (15.1469), echoing Arthur Griffith's quip about the Freeman's Journal logo being 'a homerule sun rising up in the northwest from the laneway behind the bank of Ireland' (4.101-03).
National weather forecasts of the kind 'snow was general all over Ireland' should therefore be understood as politicized by their journalistic context in several ways. Firstly, such forecasts presumed a number of economic conditions in modern newspapers, above all the means to pay for telegraph-delivered news, to distribute it effectively in a short space of time, and to raise the lion's share of its costs from advertising revenue. Ever the canny ad-canvasser, Bloom recalls how 'Stubbs the park ranger got me in with Whelan of the Express' (8.353). Secondly, as Len Platt notes, the national bourgeoisie's political aspirations predisposed them to become involved in daily newspaper production ('Pisgah Sights: The National Press and the Catholic Middle Class in "Aeolus,"' JJQ 35/4 [Summer 1998]: 735-46). When Joyce came to write 'The Dead,' the Irish Daily Independent, founded by Parnell, had been recently acquired by William Martin Murphy, the capitalist whom Joyce's Citizen sneeringly describes as 'the Bantry jobber' (12.237). Thirdly, the parameters of a national weather forecast relied upon the cultural perspective of a class of newspaper readers for whom 'national' weather constituted a interesting subject in its own right, such interest deriving precisely from a constructed national imaginary. 'A British Blizzard,' announced the Daily Graphic on its front page on 11 March 1891, offering readers of the following numbers meteorological charts, an interview with a Meteorological Office expert, and a string of illustrations of 'Incidents of the Great Snowstorm.'
What all this means is that a press which can, rightly or wrongly, assert that 'this is the weather across our country right now,' implicitly draws upon a very special kind of authority. Blizzards, as the Daily Graphic's reports testify, only become truly 'British' when there exists a newspaper press capable of documenting their putatively national character. When, as in 'The Dead,' this authority is further legitimated by the startlingly accurate prediction of an unusual meteorological event, it becomes clear that what the newspapers say is never merely one textual statement among others, but approaches, rather, the status of a fiat. It is in this precise epistemological space that we must locate what Kershner identifies as Joyce's contrast between the newspaper phrase and Gabriel's 'visionary awareness.'
Interestingly, Joyce also mentions newspaper weather reporting in Stephen Hero, a work he abandoned shortly before starting 'The Dead.' Indeed, the novel as a whole abounds in references to journalism: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington appears as the 'steadfast' (31) albeit absurd reader of W. T. Stead's pacifist weekly digest The Review of Reviews; Stephen Dedalus proposes living upon 'the united labours of the bees and of their keeper' (113), an allusion to Joyce's own twenty-four hours as editor of the Irish Bee-Keeper; his college debating opponent is a trainee solicitor who sends self-publicizing notices to 'all the papers' (133); and even his sweetheart Emma Clery writes 'skits' (167) for her convent magazine. Significantly, Stephen chooses to play the part of intellectual saviour to Cranly, a naif who reads 'nothing but the weekly illustrated papers' ([London: Jonathan Cape, 1944], 108): 'Stephen spoke to his impoverished ear out of the plenitude of an amassed vocabulary, and confronted the daring commonplaces of his companion's moods with a complex radiance of thought' (109). Thus the two youths walk through the town with some fellow-students:
Cranly stopped before the window of a little huckster's shop in one of the mean streets through which they passed, staring fixedly at an old yellow copy of the Daily Graphic which was hanging sideways on the glass. The illustration was a winter scene. No-one said anything and as silence seemed about to set in permanently Madden asked him what he was looking at. Cranly looked at his questioner and then looked back again at the dirty picture, towards which he nodded his head heavily:
-- What is ... what is? asked Temple, who had been looking at some cold crubeens in the next window -
Cranly turned his vacant face again towards his questioner and pointed to the picture, saying:
-- Feuc ar esi super stradam ... in Liverpoolio - (95)
Freak weather was a key item in the genre of 'human interest' stories popularized by the New Journalism of the 1890s. Violent storms, monster hailstones, lightning strikes, and unseasonable heatwaves provided a dependable supply of material, particularly visual material, for newspapers and magazines eagerly seeking the 'human' side of life. 'How We Get Our Weather, with Photographs Illustrating the Queer Side of the Matter' ran the title of a long article in The Harmsworth London Magazine's first number in July 1898. (Newspaper readers today take similar delight in the Sun's self-ironic headline: 'PHEW, WHAT A SCORCHER!') With its international reputation for high-quality pictures and proud claim to be Britain's first illustrated daily, the Daily Graphic stood in the vanguard of such journalism, and the priority it gave to weather coverage was boldly advertised by its symbol of the day's forecast, a classical female figure in appropriate pose, displayed prominently as the front page's first item (Figure 1). As the Graphic explained in its first anniversary number:
We know that ladies are privileged to change their intentions, their opinions, and their appearance as often as they please, and that in this respect they may well typify the clerk of the weather. Female clerks have, for a long time, been ousting the sterner sex from their desks, and are said to do their work with more precision and steadfast attention to business than those whom they have displaced. It has been reserved for the Daily Graphic to establish a school of lady clerks of the weather-and each day one of these handsome damsels is pictured in the current issue. (7 February 1891, p.6)
Indeed, so famous was the Graphic's 'Weather-Young-Woman'-the world's first weather girl, no less-that Punch once humorously depicted her taking a holiday (Figure 2). Like his reference to an 'old yellow copy,' Joyce's use of the term 'illustration' rather than 'photograph' suggests that the Daily Graphic number cited in Stephen Hero may be from the early- to mid-1890s. More specifically, he may have had in mind the paper's extensive coverage of the exceptionally severe winter of 1890-91 during which a 'British' blizzard had sunk ships, derailed trains, and frozen rivers solid. (Alternatively, the winter recalled by Molly Bloom: "it was so biting cold I couldnt keep it when was that 93 the canal was frozen" [Ulysses 18.554-5].)
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| Figure 1. Daily Graphic, 26 February 1896 Figure 2. Punch, 19 September 1891
In this oddly grave moment 'as silence seemed about to set in permanently' Cranly's innocuous comment upon the Graphic's 'winter scene' ('See the ice on the street ... in Liverpool') evinces the peculiar quality which has drawn Stephen to him. Rather than simply dismissing such journalistic matter as cultural detritus, Stephen wishes to integrate it into his aesthetic practice as part of a strategy of defamiliarization:
It was not only in Skeat that he found words for his treasure-house, he found them also at haphazard in the shops, on advertisements, in the mouths of the plodding public. He kept repeating them to himself till they lost all instantaneous meaning for him and became wonderful vocables. He was determined to fight with every energy of soul and body against any possible consignment to what he now regarded as the hell of hells-the region, otherwise expressed, wherein everything is found to be obvious ... (24)
Hence his interest in Cranly: 'vacant face' notwithstanding, Cranly already enjoys the immediate, unmediated vision of the world behind commodified language and images which Stephen wishes to access. In A Portrait of the Artist Joyce similarly presents Stephen as walking among 'heaps of dead language' and Cranly as solving a chess problem in a 'journal' ([London: Paladin, 1987], 182, 231). And there, once again, it is a newspaper that indirectly triggers the artist's inner vision:
What day of the week was it? He stopped at a newsagent's to read the headline of a placard. Thursday. Ten to eleven, English; eleven to twelve, French; twelve to one, physics. He fancied to himself the English lecture and felt, even at that distance, restless and helpless. He saw the heads of his classmates meekly bent ... (181)
Stephen even bases an exposition of his aesthetic system upon a journalistic misuse of the word 'tragedy':
Stephen repeated the definitions slowly.
-- A girl got into a hansom cab a few days ago, he went on, in London. She was on her way to meet her mother whom she had not seen for many years. At the corner of a street the shaft of a lorry shivered the window of the hansom in the shape of a star. A long fine needle of the shivered glass pierced her heart. She died on the instant. The reporter called it a tragic death. It is not. It is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions. (209)?????????
Returning to 'The Dead,' we can now appreciate that Gabriel's admission, 'Yes, the newspapers were right,' is also a recognition that he has been living-not least, in his journalistic activities-in a kind of reified linguistic detachment, Stephen's 'hell of hells.' In the real world, after all, people only ever use such stilted expressions as 'snow is general' when, like Mary Jane, alluding to a newspaper. The young Joyce's opinion of this phenomenon is clear from his contemptuous description of journalists as 'the phrase-makers of Fleet Street' in his 1907 essay 'Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages' (Critical Writings [London: Faber, 1959], 165). Seen in this light, Gabriel's qualifier, a very Modernist kind of quotation to be sure, appears as a distillation of the perspective on journalism that Joyce seeks to convey in Dubliners as a whole.
The press is a ubiquitous presence in Dubliners, appropriately enough, given that Joyce planned it as a series of stories 'for a paper' (Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann [London: Faber, 1975], 22). Throughout the collection, he indicts journalism for what he regards as its complicity with the cultural stagnation and political zero-sum game of fin-de-siecle Ireland. In 'The Sisters' a priest tells the young narrator that 'the fathers of the Church had written books .... as closely printed as the law notices in the newspapers' (11); later, his own death notice appears in what his sister calls the 'Freeman's General' (15). In 'An Encounter' magazines such as The Halfpenny Marvel offer children escapist fantasies in an adult world of guilt and perversion. 'After the Race' evokes the empty world of Jimmy Doyle, the wastrel son of a father 'alluded to in the Dublin newspapers as a merchant prince' (45). In 'The Boarding House' Bob Doran pathetically recalls his weekly purchase of Reynold's Magazine as an act of rebellion, even as he finds himself snared by a blackmailer's threat of 'publicity' (70). In 'A Little Cloud' the legal clerk Tom Chandler dreams of cutting a 'brilliant figure on the London Press' (76) like his jejune reporter friend Ignatius Gallaher. The protagonist of 'A Painful Case,' James Duffy, is by turns repelled and broken in spirit by the Evening Mail's account of the inquest on Mrs Sinico, an article which Joyce carefully reproduces en bloc. The musical revue of 'A Mother' is a flop despite (or perhaps because of) the special puffs in the evening papers 'remind[ing] the music-loving public of the treat which was in store for it' (159). Mrs. Keary is rebuked for her 'scandalous exhibition' (166) by O'Madden Burke, a self-important Freeman's Journal contributor, only minutes after he and another unnamed 'Freeman's man' (162) have been 'chatting familiarly'-free men making free, as it were-with her hapless daughter Kathleen. Lastly, in 'Grace' the self-important Tom Kernan blusters to a circle of cronies that includes a former Irish Times and Freeman's advertising canvasser, Mr. McCoy, about 'writing a letter to the papers' (182) in defence of the provincial constabulary.
Restored to these historical and literary contexts, it becomes far easier to understand Joyce's decision to present Gabriel's imagination taking flight in response to that most trivial of things, a newspaper phrase. In effect, the phrase 'snow was general' serves as a coda to a host of interrelated concerns-national politics, gender conflict, narrative authority, and modernity itself-but, above all, to the tremendous pressures now being exerted upon literary production by mass culture. Indeed, the same motif recurs in the fiction of contemporaries such as Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent (1907) ends with both Winnie Verloc and Comrade Ossipon being shattered by their reading of newspaper articles. In the final instance, then, it may be that Joyce's bleak description of Gabriel's identity 'fading out into a grey impalpable world' (255) is an enduring emblem of the Modernist writer's struggle against a world seemingly in thrall to the modern press.
© Stephen Donovan