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Cancer Survivor Becomes James Joyce Scholar

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There have been times, Elaine Mingus admits, when she wondered what in the world made her think she, then a woman well into her 60s, could write scholarly papers on esoteric author James Joyce when she had never so much as taken a college course on him – or any other author or subject.

And then she would reflect on the words of Joseph Campbell – Joycean scholar, renowned mythologist and one of Mingus’ other favorite authors – who famously described the way he had gleaned more from great works of literature, history and philosophy than could be derived under the constraints of doctorate studies: “All I did was underline sentences and take notes.”

That was heartening for a woman whose Depression-era family could not afford to send her to college and never would have anyway, because her father believed girls did not belong in higher education but in the marital home raising children.

Book signing
Elaine Mingus, author of “Toccatootletoo! Papers on James Joyce,” talk, discussion, reading and book signing 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Flying Star hospitality room, Silver and Seventh NW Downtown.

Scholarly papers, he believed, were simply a waste of paper.

But oh, how she loved to read. How she longed to be read, longed to extract meaning and feeling and awe from the words of those great authors before her.

Mingus, now 86, did marry. She raised five children, who in turn bestowed her with eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

And then she read.

And then she wrote.

This Sunday, her writings will be celebrated at a book signing for her first book, “Toccatootletoo! Papers on James Joyce,” a compilation of seven of her scholarly papers on the esteemed Irish author, some of which have been presented at academic conferences across the country.

Another Campbell quote comes to mind when I think about what Mingus has accomplished: “Follow your bliss.”

For Mingus, her bliss has been Joyce.

“I have read so much that I easily get bored, but I find I am never bored reading Joyce,” said Mingus, a tiny, energetic woman who fancies floppy hats and colorful attire. “I always come back to him. He’s like a magnet.”

Joyce is not an easy writer to love. Two of his better-known works, “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake,” the book from which Mingus’ book title comes from, have been called everything from genius to psychotic.

Mingus appreciates that. She suggests that those new to Joyce begin with his more accessible books such as “The Dubliners” or “A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man.”

She began that way, enthralled with Joyce’s portrayal of common people clawing out an existence in dire times. She had been like those people, a poor kid from Ohio and then a struggling young widow raising five children on a clerk typist’s salary.

“He has a sympathy and an understanding for those whom society looks down upon,” she said. “I know what that feels like.”

She read “Finnegan’s Wake” around 1994 as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from her third cancer surgery.

“I did not know if I would survive,” she said. “I asked my family to bring me something to read that would take my mind off things, and this is what I asked for. I kept this 628-page book propped up on my tray and read it every minute possible.”

It worked.

And she survived.

Mingus joined online Joycean study groups and started writing papers. She became known as arguably one of the more passionate and knowledgeable Joycean scholars in the country.

She founded a Joycean study group in Santa Fe, where she lived before moving to Albuquerque. Today, there are two active study groups in Santa Fe and two in Albuquerque.

Every June, she presides over the local Bloomsday, a worldwide celebration of Joyce and his work.

She chuckles when she tells me about how often she has been mistaken for a college professor. But she no longer regrets never having attended college.

“I made up my mind some time ago that it is fine to have been self-taught,” she said.

That, as it turns out, has been a fine education.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603,
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal