Writing Elijah (U 15.2188-224)
In the summer of 1920 Joyce was in Paris, collecting and writing up material for the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses. This article looks at the background to the Elijah passage in ‘Circe’ (U 15.2188 ff) and finds new evidence which helps us to understand the network of references within the passage.
Commentators have rightly concentrated in the past on John Alexander Dowie, ‘Prophet Dowie’, the charismatic Scots-born religious leader known as ‘Elijah III’ (next in line after John the Baptist), who lectured, preached, and published widely, established a community at Zion City, Illinois, and famously led a march on New York in 1903 in search of new adherents.1
But Joyce interwove references to Dowie (who died, disgraced, in 1905) with another American evangelist, Thomas Jefferson Shelton – ‘inventor’ of the ‘sunphone’ – to produce the composite ranter of the Elijah passage. And he drew heavily on expressions regarded as typical of fast-talking America (especially commercial sales pitches, gambling talk, and advertisements), as well as other topical references, to provide the mishmash of verbal impressions which assault Bloom.
U 15.2199-2200, 2203-4, 2206-7: Are you all in this vibration? I say you are [...] It restores. It vibrates. I know and I am some vibrator [...] You call me up by sunphone any old time.
John Alexander Dowie was the restorer, and Thomas Jefferson Sheldon was the vibrator. Ireland was kept informed when Dowie marched on New York in October 1903:
But by 1907 Dowie was dead. Thomas Jefferson Shelton was steaming through on the inside track.
Thomas Jefferson Shelton was born in Boxville, Kentucky on 13 June 1849. He had a rather colourful early life, and an even more colourful later one. By 1865 he was enlisted in the Union army and afterwards returned home to marry. Events conspired to send him out to Mexico soon after, in search of gold. Later he returned east, and re-married in Illinois. By 1880 he was in Wichita, as a minister of the Christian Church there, but after some dissension in the church he tried to form an independent congregation. For a few months in 1881 he edited the Republican-Times.
The church and the newspaper business continued to be significant factors in his life from now on. Later on in the 1880s he had moved with his (second) wife to Little Rock, Arkansas, and there – as pastor of the First Christian Church – started to publish the Arkansas Christian (later just the Christian, and later still the Scientific Christian) in February 1889.
He is still some way off from developing his laws of vibration, and certainly a decade or so away from the sunphone. But he has begun, it would seem, to identify himself with Jesus Christ (cf. ‘Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ... A. J. Christ Dowie and the harmonial philosophy’ from the Elijah passage). Despite being hailed as a first-rate preacher, his eccentricity appears to land him in hot water, as heralded by the headline in the San Francisco Examiner for 29 March 1891 - ‘A Preacher Goes Daft’2:
Little Rock (Ark.), March 28. – A decided sensation was caused in this city today by the arrest on a charge of insanity of the Rev. T. J. Shelton, a prominent divine of this city and editor of the Arkansas Christian, the organ of the Christian Church of this State.
The First Christian Church seemed unwilling to have him back. In 1894 he has gone independent and we start to hear of his vibrations. He was a sitting duck for journalists, and the State (Columbia, South Carolina) enjoys the story – ‘A Crazy Preacher..Introduces ‘The Law of Vibrations’:
This was the making (or breaking) of Thomas Shelton. He concentrated almost all of his efforts on his newspaper the Christian (as well as spending a while editing the Wichita Daily Eagle). He switches from being a first-rate preacher to becoming a first-rate salesman. He won’t advertise, but builds up the readership of the Christian worldwide to an alleged 40,000. In 1898 his book The Law of Vibrations was published (ed. 2, 1900), available for 25 cents from Thomas Shelton in Little Rock.
By now he was attracting ridicule, presumably mixed with a taint of incredulity and perhaps admiration. He was said to be earning $50,000 a year from the annual $1 subscription to his newspaper plus additional money sent to his extensive mail-order business. The St Paul Globe in Minnesota explains the source of this additional income:
In the early 1900s Shelton remarries and moves to Denver, Colorado. But his money-making schemes continue. The journalist Elbert Hubbard pulls together a number of the aspects of Shelton’s ‘ministry’ that feature in Ulysses:
Hubbard throws in the name of John Alexander Dowie at the end to hammer home the eccentricity of his subject.
Shelton’s old paper, the Wichita Daily Eagle notices the direction its old editor is taking, and brings to our attention a slight shift in Shelton’s emphasis: the highly profitable vibrations are still there, but a more scientific gloss is provided by reference to mental telepathy and the power of the sun to contribute to his own healing powers. The article gives a helpful summary of Shelton’s career to this point:
Business seems to have boomed. Shelton orientated himself amongst the radical-thinking ‘New Thoughters’ of his day.3 By 1916 he had introduced the ‘sunphone’ to his repertoire of accessories:
Shelton talked to his subscribers by sunphone, and they could speak to each other the same way. In February 1919 a woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania even used the ‘Sunphone wireless’ to help clear up ‘the mystery surrounding the death of Edmund A. Gretschel..of this city’ (Wilkes-Barre Times 11 February, p. 1). As it turned out, even serious physicists had been experimenting during the First World War with the possibility of harnessing the power of sunbeams for secret communication.4
As the 1920s opened, Thomas Jefferson Shelton felt drawn to spread his message in California, home even then of many exotic cults. We find the Oakland Tribune advertising a series of lectures by him in October and November, after which the message was to be taken on to Los Angeles. Here is a typical advertisement of his religion-plus-musical entertainment:
Almost certainly copies of the Christian were sent to Paris and Dublin. Perhaps Joyce saw firsthand some examples of Shelton’s work. The seller of vibrations and inventor of the sunphone died in Denver in 1929, but his place was taken by others whose influence did not stretch as far as Ulysses.
Harald Beck/John Simpson
1 A number of Dowie’s works are readily accessible at archive.org, and cylinder recordings of three of Dowie’s talks are accessible at http://www.james-joyce-music.com/extras/dowie_bio.html (accessed 18 November 2011). NB Bloom hears Dowie’s ‘Scotch’ voice on the ‘Gramophone’. See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the American National Biography for further information on Dowie.
2 See Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and soldiers in context: a critical study (2004) by Donald T. Blume. With reference to this incident Blume suggests that Bierce (prefiguring Joyce) ‘may have found Shelton’s story irresistible fodder for his own creative urges’ (p. 321).
3 For a short account of New Thought in 1910 see World’s Work, vol. 19, p. 12471-5 [sic], accessible at archive.org. The article publishes a paragraph from the cover of the latest issue of the Christian:
4 See, for example, the work of Dr (later Professor) A. O. Rankine of University College, London:
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