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Reviewed by:
  • Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses, and: Narrative Con/Texts in Dubliners
  • Garry Leonard
Jeffrey Segall. Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. x + 208pp. $25.00 cloth.
Bernard Benstock. Narrative Con/Texts in Dubliners. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1994. 171 pp. $34.95 cloth.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when we "discover" in Joyce what we wish to believe. Poststructuralist theory has long railed against the idea that history is, as Mr. Deasy officiously informs Stephen Dedalus, a slow march toward the manifestation of God. But the idea that criticism generally, and theory in particular, slowly refines the truth about art, is a concept we might disavow, if put to it, but harbor a secret attraction to, nonetheless. How interesting, then, and, I suspect, instructive, that Segall's work, which surveys reactions in America to Joyce's work from the 1920s to the twilight of New Criticism in the 1970s, should be the work which persuasively asserts a maxim poststructuralism prefers not to examine too closely: "The trajectory of [Joyce's] career and reputation in America offers us a running, albeit implicit commentry on the state of our criticism and our culture. In short, Joyce's books continue to read us." Because Joyce is so thoroughly accepted now as a writer of undoubted genius and nearly inconceivable importance, contemporary scholars bring to bear on his work theories of exhilirating complexity, without worrying the scaffold upon which they build [End Page 406] (Joyce's work) might collapse under the weight of a particular application. Joyce is our rock. And upon this rock we build our theories.

But, by taking us back in time, all the way back to B. C. (Before Canonization), Segall presents us with Joycean texts that were regarded as anything but Biblical: "Joyce's current prominence induces a sort of historical amnesia that in its most extreme form tempts us to believe his reputation was given, not wrought from fierce debate." We simply don't have debates anymore about Joyce, or even literature, of the sort Segall brings to life before us. Here is Van Wyck Brooks, for example: "Was not James Joyce, for one, the ash of a burnt-out cigar, were they not all of them ashes of the eighteen-nineties, aside from the matter of technique? . . . merely bats . . . that had flown in the twilight between the wars?" The short answer, of course, is "no, they weren't." New Critics, for one, will prove to have more than a little difficulty accepting Brooks's hasty allowance "aside from the matter of technique." But Segall is right to insist that just because these comments seem easy to ignore does not mean that seriously reviewing them again can serve no purpose: "By reading Ulysses through the eyes of Joyce's contemporaries, our own understanding of the novel is deepened." And besides, isn't the idea of Joyce as a sort of "late Victorian" an idea that is currently making the rounds as "new"? The difference is, now, no one attempts to present this sort of reading as a dismissal. Quite the contrary, regarding Joyce as a "late Victorian" has enabled me, in my work, to note how attuned Joyce was to the rise of advertising and commodity culture, and how he viewed its presence as the latest incarnation of a religious impulse in modern times. So Brooks is not all wrong, even if his dismissive tone seems comically misguided. Nor is Eliot wrong in his famous assertion that Joyce, by hearkening back to classical myth, made literature possible in the twentieth century. Eliot's sleight of hand consists of his failing to note Ulysses was a classical hero, and is now an ad canvasser. Instead, reversing the direction of Joyce's mythical method, he sees. Bloom as an ad canvasser who (against all evidence) transcends the regrettable grubbiness of the twentieth century and becomes a classical hero. In this way, Eliot, in essence, thanks Joyce for allowing him (Eliot) to fantasize the twentieth century is not really happening (a fantasy that—thankfully—Eliot's poetry also fails to support...


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pp. 406-411
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