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“Ulysses” in Focus: Genetic, Textual, and Personal Views (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 380-384 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0034

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Works of literary criticism, on the whole, tend to be those we turn to for information or insight into a particular problem with a specific genre or text; as such, they are not regularly regarded as books or essays that delight or inspire. We do not go to them for the same “pleasure” we feel in picking up a novel, poem, or short story, in part, because we are either plodding through them, looking for something that will help us further our own arguments, or secretly setting up a counter-argument with which we will show our own (and obviously much better) sense of the issue. These texts do not tend to focus on the authoring scholar or offer anything in the way of interesting tidbits about how the criticism was inspired or any other kind of personal context regarding the material. We consider works doing that as akin to personal nonfiction, which is often ignored in academic circles.

Michael Groden’s new book, however, cannot be so easily dismissed because “Ulysses” in Focus is, indeed, a forceful exploration of Joyce’s masterpiece with a difference. “‘Ulysses’ in Focus considers some changing, moving aspects of Joyce’s novel in three broad areas: genetic criticism, textual studies, and personal criticism. As the focus changes in various ways in these three views, the book’s chapters attempt to show the monumental Ulysses turning into a mobile” (3). Expert genetic and textual criticism is thoughtfully coupled with the personal, Groden notes, not to be “subversive, transgressive, or performative but rather to look at why Ulysses attracted me so much when I first read it and has continued to affect me so powerfully in the more than forty years since then” (9).

As such, the book is warm and inviting, as well as challenging in the best possible sense. It shows from the outset that those who endeavor to make literary studies a profession or, indeed, a vocation are not merely looking for a way to deconstruct a text out of existence. This work, overall, recalls many scholars’ views, particularly that of Fritz Senn, that no one can be an expert on Joyce.1 We can only be students or, perhaps, more aptly amateurs—in effect, someone who does something for the pleasure of the activity. As a professional amateur, Groden offers tenacious readings of a difficult text with insight and clarity while simultaneously revealing what we all do when we read: insert ourselves into the task or the novel and come away (hopefully) with a complementary understanding of the book and of who we are (or who we become) when we read it.

We learn here, for example, that Groden’s first love, even before Molly Peacock, was mathematics, and apparently he was good at it, enjoying the elegance of finding an answer to the problem in nice, precise logic. This is something we can hardly say has an equivalent in the study of Joyce’s novel, which “trains its readers to put aside expectations of simple or even complicatedly single answers to questions” (35). Groden’s personal criticism, I argue, gives us reasons to consider why we, too, decided to study Joyce or any other author or subject.

Groden’s study is vitally important, particularly for the historical discussion of his own experience in genetic criticism in general, and his manuscript work specifically. His early research can be found in the James Joyce Archive, and in 2001 Noel Kissane, Keeper of Manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland, asked him to review some Joyce manuscripts that had recently come up for auction. The manuscripts discovery is well documented now, but Groden’s account of the beginning returns us to a time when, like the letter unearthed by Biddy Doran, no one was quite sure what had been found nor how important the papers could be to the study of Joyce’s oeuvre. Indeed, we learn that, “[b]ecause of the delicate negotiations between Alexis Léon and the National Library that were already ongoing and would likely soon intensify, [Groden] was asked to keep the manuscripts’ existence completely secret” (20). In addition to the excitement over what these manuscripts might contain, Groden...

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