Jolas, Maria (1893–1987)

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Jolas, Maria (1893–1987)

American publisher, editor, translator, critic, and journalist who co-founded with her husband the Paris literary review, transition. Born Maria McDonald in Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1893; died in Paris, France, on March 4, 1987; studied voice in Berlin, New York, and Paris, 1913–25; married Eugene Jolas in New York, on January 12, 1926; children:Elizabeth Jolas known asBetsy Jolas (b. 1926, a French composer); Maria Christina Jolas known asTina Jolas (b. 1929).

Co-founded with husband, transition, in Paris (1927); met James Joyce (December 1926); established the École Bilingue (Franco-American school) in Neuilly, France (1932); moved school to château near Vichy, France (October 1939); left France (August 1940); edited A James Joyce Yearbook (1949); published "Joyce en France 1939–40" published in Mercure de France (1950); Eugene Jolas died in Paris, France (1952).

Maria Jolas was born Maria McDonald in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1893, but lived in France during most of her adult life. "I've never felt that I was an exile, an expatriate," she noted, "and I've never had any of those feelings of being detached either from my own country or from [France]." In 1913, Maria studied voice in Berlin, but left when war broke out in 1914. At the end of hostilities, her teacher went to Paris, and Maria followed. "There was no romanticism, no chestnut trees in bloom, no April in Paris, none of those things," she characteristically recalled. She went there to study, not to escape the provincial, material, philistine culture of America that drove so many expatriates to Paris in the 1920s. Maria was an international woman, fluent in several languages, who could live and work in France without succumbing to the highly charged social life that interfered with the productivity of so many talented expatriates.

When Maria met Eugene Jolas in Paris in 1925, he was city editor of the Paris Tribune, "focusing upon intellectual and cultural developments" which allowed him to introduce French writers to Americans and the "real America" to Europeans. Through his articles entitled "Rambles Through Literary Paris," he came in contact with the French and expatriate avant-garde. Maria and Eugene shared an interest in literary experimentation and language. Eugene had been born in the United States, but was brought up in Lorraine, France; like Maria, he was comfortable living in Europe or America. They were married in New York and shortly thereafter moved to New Orleans where Eugene worked for a local newspaper. Their friends included many local artists and writers, and they considered taking over the literary journal Double Dealing. However, the Jolases did not want to appeal only to an American audience. Their aim was "to build a bridge between Europe and America, and … to make known to America the new aesthetic currents in Europe." This kind of endeavor, they agreed, could be done best in Paris. Thus, transition was founded in the fall of 1926, "the most prestigious review in Paris."

Twenty-seven issues of the review appeared from 1927 to 1938. Elliot Paul, who was literary editor for the Paris Tribune, served as co-editor for several years. But as Maria Jolas observed, Paul had only a "meager knowledge of French and unfamiliarity with any other foreign language [and] was only superficially aware of what was being written in Europe." Moreover, Paul, unlike the Jolases, was not an admirer of Surrealism, and he often disagreed with them about what should be included in the review—the Jolases' literary taste inevitably won out. Maria was an especially talented translator of both French and German writers; she and Eugene rendered two of Franz Kafka's works into English for the first time. They also prepared a collection of Negro spirituals, translated into French and published in Paris. As well, Maria contributed an article to transition in which, writes Shari Benstock , "she urges the Negro to fight the forces—political and literary—which had exploited him and to return to his people." Further, she encouraged blacks to "sink their roots even deeper into the rich black loam that is their heritage, lest their inspiration be withered and destroyed by transplanting in soils which are either unfertile or entirely foreign to their genius." This bold call for a genuine black voice in America was considered radical and anomalous in the late 1920s.

Maria had stated that the purpose of transition was "to create a meeting place for all those artists on both sides of the Atlantic" who would be given "an opportunity to express themselves freely, to experiment." Transition fulfilled this mission. Two writers who were featured in numerous issues were James Joyce and Gertrude Stein , both residents in Paris. The Jolases had approached Joyce through a mutual acquaintance, and on December 21, 1926, Joyce invited the couple to join a few friends at his house where he read the first section of his work in progress (Finnegans Wake). Ten fragments of the manuscript were published in transition. The Jolases became close friends of James and Nora Joyce and were among James' most devoted advocates, notes Benstock, "giving [Joyce] the unswerving homage of true believers." Joyce's use of language exemplified the "Revolution of the Word" proclaimed by the Jolases in transition: "The writer expresses, he does not communicate. The plain reader be damned," they had declared. Among the future famous writers who were introduced to the literate public throughtransition were Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, Samuel Beckett, Allen Tate, and Dylan Thomas.

Relations with Gertrude Stein were less amiable. Stein's experimentation with language appealed to the Jolases, and her work, including Tender Buttons and her operatic libretto Four Saints, appeared in six issues of the review. But a well-publicized falling-out with the Jolases caused a permanent break; according to Samuel Putnam, it "seems to have been due to jealousy on [Stein's] part of the space and advertising given to Joyce." Maria was also critical of Stein's penchant "to play the queen in public," and informed Stein that transition had not been established "as a vehicle for the rehabilitation of her own reputation, although it undoubtedly did do this." Stein was one of many women whose work was featured in transition, making the Jolases "an exception among literary editors of the period," Benstock writes. Djuna Barnes , Kay Boyle , Laura Riding , Katherine Anne Porter and other less well-known writers found sincere appreciation of their work from Eugene and Maria.

Maria Jolas displayed her energy and organizational skills in many areas. She was actively engaged in helping the Joyce family, not only in proofreading the numerous revisions of Finnegans Wake, but in their personal lives. Their daughter Lucia Joyce suffered from severe mental illness, and Maria, over a period of many years, arranged for her care in England and on the Continent, even after James Joyce died in 1941. Maria had arranged for the Joyces to settle near her in Vichy when the Nazis occupied Paris in June 1940, and she constantly solicited funds to aid the family when they finally sought refuge in Switzerland. Later, Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, contacted Maria who shared her memories of his subject, and she read the chapters on Joyce in Paris and suggested changes.

Maria was also interested in education, especially in fostering international communication among the young. In 1932, she started a successful École Bilingue (Bilingual School) in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. Among her students were Peggy Guggenheim 's daughter Pegeen Vail and the Joyces' grandson Stephen. In September

1939, war broke out in Europe, and in October, Maria moved her school south to the village of St-Gérand-le-Puy, near Vichy. She encouraged the Joyces to join her there and found accommodations for them. Eugene was in New York, and finally in August 1940, after France fell to the Germans, Maria, her two young daughters, and the grandson of the artist, Henri Matisse, left for America via Madrid and Lisbon. She wanted the Joyces to come to the States, but James did not like America or airplanes, so he remained in Europe.

After the war, the Jolases returned to Europe. Eugene was working for the U.S. Office of War Information in Germany, and Maria settled again in France. In 1948, she sold transition, but she continued to do translations. Friend and translator of the writer Nathalie Sarraute , Maria found a house near her in Chérence, on the fringe of Normandy; the villagers "had an aversion to outsiders," Sarraute's son-in-law, Stanley Karnow notes, but Maria won them over, and when Eugene died in 1952, she paid "a healthy sum" to have him buried there. In the early 1960s, Maria approached Samuel Beckett, who had been close to Joyce, to help her sort through Joyce's increasingly valuable literary estate, but he refused "saying he wanted no part of Joyce's literary remains," Indeed, Beckett had never liked Maria's "domineering manner" and had always resented her influence over the Joyce family. However, she continued to help with the organization and sale of the Joyce estate so that Nora Joyce would benefit financially.

Certainly Maria Jolas contributed to the success of transition, was a fervent advocate of the "Modernist movement," a loyal and caring friend, an educator, and a translator. Moreover, she raised her two daughters and worked to further her husband's literary career without sacrificing her own individuality and interests. Benstock notes that living in Paris "wore down some of the expatriates," but not Maria Jolas who, she says, "maintained her joy of living."


Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. NY: Summit Books, 1990.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank, Paris, 1900–1940. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. NY: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Jolas, Eugene. Man from Babel. Edited, annotated and introduced by Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Maddox, Brenda. Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Putnam, Samuel. Paris Was Our Mistress: Memoirs of a Lost and Found Generation. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

suggested reading:

Brennin, John M. The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Fitch, Noel Riley. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. NY: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Karnow, Stanley. Paris in the Fifties. NY: Random House, 1997.

Lottman, Herbert. The Left Bank: Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War. San Francisco, CA: Halo Books, 1991.

Paul, Elliot. The Last Time I Saw Paris. NY: Random House, 1942.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Visiting Scholar, Department of History, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah