- Ghosts from Limbo Patrum:Dalkey Archive Press and Institutional Literary History
When JAMES JOYCE’s ’s Stephen Dedalus famously proclaims that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” he does so in the midst of a literary work (Ulysses) whose historic and geographic specificity is designed to bring Dublin to life.1 However, Stephen does not denounce history in Dublin proper. He speaks the line while sitting uneasily in an educational institution in Dalkey, a town just south of Dublin. That space is the eponymous one of FLANN O’BRIEN’s The Dalkey Archive (1964).2 More than mere coincidence, O’BRIEN responds to Stephen’s nightmare-inducing Dalkey by making the same town a setting for fictional awakening. In The Dalkey Archive, JAMES JOYCE has survived World War II and renounced nearly all of his literary works, and in his last appearance in the novel—a joke fitting what O’BRIEN describes as his fictional “class of fooling”3—he is offered a job washing the underpants of Jesuits. Whereas Ulysses finds Stephen wishing to awaken from the nightmare of history, The Dalkey Archive awakens Joyce himself within the unlikely place of literary history. His [End Page 439] description of Dalkey as an “unlikely town . . . pretending to be asleep,” where streets are “not quite self-evident as streets and [have] meetings which seem accidental,” works as a reflection on the curious diegetic space—and fictional pathways—developed in his novel, and on the inconspicuous modes of literary-historical succession taking place therein.
Extending the focus of the novel from which it takes its name, Dalkey Archive Press took shape around a constellation of literary-historical claims ranging from the intertextual to the institutional. The press formed in the suburbs of Chicago in 1984 primarily as a response to what the scholar-turned-publisher John O’Brien saw as the troubled status of contemporary fiction. Even when publishers took risks on publishing formally complex fiction, they too readily let those works go out of print, creating an abandoned archive of books within American letters. These out-of-print books, in O’Brien’s eyes, were symptomatic of an academic failure to write about and teach works of fiction by lesser-known writers. Academic criticism perpetuated work by established authors—often published by major houses with large marketing budgets—while neglecting authors with little celebrity status and books with small print runs.4
In 1980, O’Brien addressed these problems by founding the Review of Contemporary Fiction, which published brief critical essays on understudied authors and sought to “define contemporary fiction in terms of its aesthetics, its traditions, and its internal relationships.”5 Following the success of the Review, O’Brien broadened his literary-historical task by publishing out-of-print books with the newly established Dalkey Archive Press. The young literary historian turned away from a traditional academic path in order to found alternative outlets for contemporary fiction. The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Dalkey Archive Press continue to make contemporary fiction readily available to readers while also presenting them with contemporary fiction’s alternative histories in the form of books that have often fallen outside the purview of corporate publishing models and academic rubrics.
Dalkey Archive Press, which took shape by republishing out-of-print books, compels us to consider what institutional literary histories leave behind. While studies by Mark McGurl and Margaret Doherty, for example, provide institutional optics that bring into focus many aspects of the literary field that have [End Page 440] remained obscure, such institutional histories often begin with the example of institutional success. McGurl’s study of the effect creative writing programs have had on contemporary American fiction is a prominent example of scholarship that reads contemporary fiction through such an optic.6 In Margaret Doherty’s more recent account of the relationship between the National Endowment for the Arts and literary minimalism in the 1980s, the NEA operates as an “overdetermined” influence on pervasive minimalist form.7 Narrative forms and literary categories that have lodged themselves most firmly in institutions become the starting points for McGurl’s and Doherty’s institutional accounting. I tread lightly here, for...