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Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 1, Number 3, September 1994
pp. 277-279 | 10.1353/mod.1994.0052

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Modernism/Modernity 1.3 (1994) 277-279

Book Review

Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses

Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses. Jeffrey Segall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. 208. $25.00.

Hans Robert Jauss's call, issued almost a quarter of a century ago, for the renewal of literary history through an aesthetics of reception and influence has had lamentably little impact upon the study of British and American modernism. However, using Jauss's understanding of the role that "horizons of expectation" play in reception, Jeffrey Segall has attempted a history of the American reception of Joyce's magnum opus in order to document the ideological and cultural battles waged over it. Segall charts the trajectory of Joyce's American reputation, not so much to provide a new understanding of Ulysses, but rather to offer a "commentary on the state of our criticism and our culture." "In short," he adds, "Joyce's books continue to read us" (10).

Joyce in America provides the first detailed exploration of the critical reception of Ulysses, a book over which cultural wars are still fought today, though now largely within the confines of academia. While Segall's study does not venture much beyond the 1950s, he notes that neo-Marxists, poststructuralists, and feminists have recharged the dispute. One might add to this list the ideological and theoretical conflicts fought over Ulysses by psychoanalytic feminists, and what will probably be a new field for academic contention in the near future -- post-colonial studies of Ulysses.

The strength of Segall's work lies in his ability to navigate the dizzying array of positions taken in debates over modernist literature. He shows that both the conservative New Humanists of the twenties and the Stalinist left of the thirties rejected Joyce's work for similar ideologically informed reasons. These increasingly politicized intellectuals greeted Ulysses with hostility; its content and formal experimentation conformed neither to the doctrine of socialist realism nor to the similarly rigid call for spiritual values, nationalism, and Christianity of Paul Elmer More's New Humanism. Right and left alike dismissed Joyce as nihilistic and decadent. Even writers who disavowed orthodox Stalinism, like Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald MacLeish, mounted attacks on modernism and Joyce for not conforming to their instrumental notions of literature and their vision of American culture.

Joyce was defended by Trotskyists and fellow travelers, such as James Farrell and Edmund Wilson, who rejected the prescriptive view toward art codified in the doctrine of socialist realism. But the rapid change in Joyce's reception -- from ostracism in the thirties to canonization in the forties -- was primarily due not to the independent Left but rather to New Criticism's shifting of critical discussion from the political litmus test to the exegesis of style and form. Segall notes that the New Critics nevertheless displayed insensitivity to many of the implications of Joyce's work -- for instance, his progressive politics and the comic aspects of Ulysses. He goes on to discuss the Catholic critics of Joyce, almost all of whom refused to take seriously Joyce's disavowal of Catholicism.

Segall does not merely elaborate critical positions; he frequently points out their shortcomings. His defenses of the complexity of Joyce's work against simplifying and reductive tendencies serve to highlight the ideological motivations operating in the American arena. But they also reveal Segall's own understanding of Joyce as a progressive liberal with sympathies for more radical politics, a committed artist, a champion of the common man, a good-natured comic, and an innovator of creative possibilities for form and language. Segall is thus most sympathetic to figures like Wilson, Farrell, and Ellmann. And as he moves his discussion closer to the present, his bête noire becomes Hugh Kenner, whose understanding of Joyce as an antihumanist Catholic thinker, pessimistic about the Hell of modern Dublin, is portrayed as both mean-spirited and untenable.

Despite the breadth of Segall's work, however, Joyce in America has its limitations. Some chapters seem unintegrated and contain annoying redundancies. For instance, in each of the first two chapters Segall discusses the reactionary or fascist politics of Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence...


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