Also literary labour not merely for the kudos of the thing


Far be it from me to abstain from joining academics the world over conducting their sortes Joyceanae in search of an appropriate line for the day. Combing through my old notes got me the title of this post (“Eumaeus,” 16.1153), but what follows falls at about the level of late-night Bloomian rambling.

I taught a small excerpt from Ulysses in my fall graduate seminar (excerpt?!! scandal!), together with some evidence from Joyce’s reception history, including things like this order sent to Shakespeare & Co:

(Sylvia Beach Papers, Princeton University Library.) The London book dealer William Jackson, according to Lawrence Rainey, was responsible for the largest order of the first edition (100, all pre-ordered). Rainey argues that dealers like Jackson were the most consequential “readers” of the first edition, just because they didn’t buy it to read but to re-sell.1

Ulysses’s first book form, the thing whose centenary is marked today, initially circulated as an expensive collectible. Its scandalous literary prestige and its monetary value as a rarity increased in tandem. So what? The point is not that its literary purity was tainted by money: though culture is never totally extricated from the market in capitalist societies, if anyone was relatively autonomous from the literary marketplace, it was the Joyce of Ulysses.2

The point is rather that the spectacle of Ulysses as a rare and precious cultural object in 1922 approaches rather closely, I think, to the spectacle of Ulysses as a rare and precious cultural object in 2022. On this day in 1922 the only way to get a copy was to shell out 150 francs. On this day in 2022, you might say, anyone can get it on the internet in one form or another or another or another….and yet, will you get it? You will get it if you possess the cultural and social resources necessary to want to get it, and to make something of it when you do: resources usually, though not exclusively, conferred through higher education in English.3 To the professionals of English studies it is perhaps the most bounteous object of speculative interpretation this side of Shakespeare.4 To everyone else, it may have a vague aura of importance, but it is essentially without value.

And as we all know, the whole institutional apparatus for distributing the cultural resources necessary for valuing Ulysses is in crisis. “After all,” Bloom goes on chatting to Stephen, “from the little I know of you, after all the money expended on your education you are entitled to recoup yourself and command your price” (16.1155–56). Try that line out on your students, or your administrators! Ulysses now is simultaneously an indisputable monument of twentieth-century culture and an icon of art-literature’s relegation to a narrow social niche. Instead of paying 150 francs, you pay college tuition, and a lifetime of opprobrium directed at “English majors” for their ostensibly useless pursuits. I love reading and talking Ulysses as much as the next lit-nerd, but I wouldn’t care to speculate on the future of the literary and academic fields it did so much to shape.

  1. “In reality, individual readers played a limited role in shaping the success that greeted the first edition of Ulysses. Their importance was decidedly minor when compared with the influence wielded by a quite different group of buyers—the dealers and speculators in the rare book trade who bought the overwhelming majority of copies of the first edition.” Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 44. ↩︎

  2. I said it, and I should know, being the widely ignored expert on autonomy↩︎

  3. Not exclusively because autodidacticism and eclecticism are real and important social phenomena, there are Joyce reading groups and fan clubs, etc. etc. etc. And cultural capital can be transmitted in the home as well as the school. My own eventual fate was sealed the day my father deviously read excerpts to me as a bedtime story. ↩︎

  4. Joyce’s unshakable dominance features largely in my unpublished and unheeded essay, “Modernist Studies without Modernism”↩︎