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The Oconee River in Finnegans Wake

by Hugh Kenner


Note: The life of the city of Athens has now flowed bountifully through two centuries on the hills beside the Oconee River which itself has gone on flowing bountifully through the hills and valleys of Georgia to issue ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. In a contemporary affirmation of that long past “judicious choice” to acquire the property on the “north fork of the of the Oconee River,” referred to in the previous essay, this offering by Professor Hugh Kenner serves as a rather marvelous reminder that in some ways this place is indeed “open to every wind of heaven.”

When we moved to Athens in 1992, lo and behold, downhill from our new house flowed the Oconee River. A circularity, this; for the name “Oconee” had been impressed on my mind almost a half-century earlier. I met it on the first page of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book I’d explored when a University of Toronto course left me hungry for more of Joyce, and Ulysses turned out to be banned in Canada, whereas the Wake, being unintelligible to censors, was available.

“The words the reader will see,” Joyce once remarked of this book, “are not the ones he will hear.” Thus the title tells us that a multitude of Finnegans comes awake, also that a Wake – a rowdy Irish celebration of someone dead – is being held for a man named Finnegan. And the book begins in mid-sentence:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Numerous clues identify that river as the Liffey, which flows through Ireland’s Dublin. “Eve and Adam’s,” that’s the Church of Adam and Eve’s, on the shore of the Liffey; Howth Castle is situated atop a hill at the eastern side of Dublin.

So we’re in Ireland. We’re also on the first page of a book that opens, like a fugue, with a statement of themes. A principal Wakean theme is that there are (as it appeared in the mid-1920s, when Joyce was laboring) two Irelands. One is the island in the North Sea. The other consists of a scattering of Irish exiles the length and breadth of America. They are descendants of the many boatloads who left Ireland during the famine of the 1840s. The populations of the two Irelands were, in Joyce’s time, more or less equal. And the American one tended to supply the disturbers of the peace who made headlines in the North Sea one.

Well, the first Ireland has been introduced via a river that flows through its Dublin. To parallel that, we need a North American Dublin, flowed through by a river with a name that’s manifestly non-European. One of these is Dublin, Georgia; and it’s located on a stream called Oconee. Aha!

Hence, in the long second sentence of Finnegans Wake, we find embedded the following 23-word sequence:

...   nor had  topsawyer’s  rocks  by   the  stream  Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time ...

The site of Dublin’s public buildings was donated by an Irishman, one Jonathan Sawyer. (Hence “topsawyer,” which also shifts our attention   to   America in echoing  “Tom  Sawyer.”)  “Gorgios” is “Georgia” fused with Italian “gorgo,” whirlpool. And the city’s motto is “The City That’s Doublin’ Daily.”

I used to mention to Athenians that their river was mentioned early in Finnegans Wake, and the answer was always a skeptical “How’d Joyce hear of it?” Well, now you know!

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