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2 When First I Saw, Part 1 Choosing and Being Chosen by Ulysses I first read Ulysses when I was nineteen, in the fall of 1966 at the start of my sophomore year at Dartmouth College. I had been miserable during much of my freshman year there, to the point of considering transferring to another college. Because during my high school years I had planned to become a mathematician and my teachers told me about Dartmouth’s outstanding math department, it was the school I most wanted to attend. No one in my family had gone to any college, and I was stunned and thrilled when I was accepted there. But I came from a working-class Jewish family in suburban Buffalo, and I felt overwhelmed by the wealth, privilege, and New England WASP-iness that seemed to be everywhere around me once I arrived. My high school was a large public one, and I had a particularly hard time adjusting to tiny, isolated Hanover, New Hampshire, and to the absence of women at the college. I felt lonely for my high school girlfriend, Molly Peacock, who was at a college three hundred miles away in New York State, especially as our relationship was falling apart. Dartmouth’s academic life was almost everything I could have asked for. Only almost, though: my math courses disappointed me, but I found myself increasingly attracted to my English classes. As I finished my freshman year, I had many doubts but decided to return to Dartmouth in the fall, and as I signed up for my fall courses I officially switched my major from math to English. Back in Hanover in September a few days before classes started, I was only slightly less unhappy than I had been the year before. But then on a Monday afternoon, I went to a large lecture hall for the start of a course on the twentieth-century European novel. At 2:00, a smallish, thin man, balding When First I Saw, Part 1 33 and with wire-rimmed glasses, looking quite formal in a jacket and tie, came into the room holding a large three-ring binder, which he opened at the podium. Professor Peter Bien handed out a class schedule and many pages of blue mimeographed notes on Joyce’s Ulysses, the first book on the course, and started to speak in a somewhat high-pitched voice, clear, articulate, and serious, as he read a lecture from the large binder. He wasted little time, was thoroughly organized, packed even the first class with a great deal of information , rarely made small talk or told jokes—and held the audience, well over one hundred of us, completely spellbound from almost his first word. That initial class set the tone for all the others. During each hour, Mr. Bien was full of information and interpretations, intense, serious, rarely funny but far from humorless. I remember hardly ever being bored. We covered an amazing amount of material: works by Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, André Malroux, and Nikos Kazantzakis. The first three weeks, the ones that covered Ulysses, turned out for me to be the meal; the other classes dealing with all those other wonderful novels were only side dishes. I dutifully read the assigned pages about Stephen Dedalus for the first couple of classes, wondering a little why people made such a fuss about Joyce’s book. I even got through the third episode, although I barely understood a word of it. In his lectures, Mr. Bien surprised me by talking about what I had treated as routine reading assignments with an extraordinary amount of enthusiasm, finding much more humanity in the episodes than I had seen and also (at least in the first two) much more humor. But even though Stephen Dedalus was like me in many ways—college age, unhappy and confused, moving away from his family, no longer practicing his childhood religion, lonely without a girlfriend—he hardly interested me. Things started to happen when we got to the fourth episode, though. Leopold Bloom in many ways lived precisely the kind of life I was trying to avoid: no university education; moving from job to job; full of half knowledge ; married to a woman about to betray him by having an affair; and, a Jewish man in Catholic Dublin, an outsider in the only home city he ever knew. And, at a time when people were telling us never to...


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