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Joyce's Ulysses and the Common Reader

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 5, Number 3, September 1998
pp. 19-31 | 10.1353/mod.1998.0048

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Modernism/Modernity 5.3 (1998) 19-31

Bracketing James Joyce's Ulysses with the common reader might at first blush seem to make about as much sense as talking about Ulysses and the duck-billed platypus. The common reader, a phenomenon, or perhaps rather a construct, of the eighteenth century, is generally agreed to have vanished from our age of electronically eroded readerships and embattled cultural elites; and if such an animal still existed, it would scarcely have anything to do with Joyce's famously forbidding modernist masterpiece. I shall propose a double argument here: that there are more common readers around (though I will certainly not presume to quantify them) than prevalent preconceptions allow, and that Joyce, like many other high modernists, retained a vivid if intermittent interest in addressing the common reader, for all the aggressive elitism of his literary undertaking. What is at stake in this question is the role that Ulysses and other modernist classics have to play in our cultural legacy.

Not long ago, James Atlas, an editor of the New York Times Magazine and author of a competent biography of Delmore Schwartz, announced in the pages of the Times Magazine that he found Ulysses, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Marcel Proust, and many more moderns virtually unreadable. It was time, he implied, to leave these mandarin works in the hands of pedantic professors and to turn our attention to more accessible writing. At least in this article, Atlas regrettably assumed the stance of a philistine reader masquerading as a common one. The alleged unintelligibility of the moderns is at least in part, though of course not entirely, a matter of readers who lack the attentive patience and imagination that any text less ephemeral than the daily newspaper requires. In my experience as a teacher there still seem to be reassuring numbers of twenty-year-olds capable of summoning up these readerly virtues.

Samuel Johnson gave the notion of the common reader general currency, and the idea's origins in the sturdy Christian humanism of the later eighteenth century are for many a self-evident argument for its irrelevance to our own cultural predicament. The view that we now stand on the other side of an unbridgeable historical divide has been in the air for most of the present century. Q.D. Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), which appeared just a few years after the modernist anni mirabiles, is an instructive document in precisely this regard. Leavis's vision of modern culture and the decline of the novel is relentlessly elitist. Once upon a time, she claims with the energy of passionate nostalgia, in Shakespeare's age and in the century that followed, "the artist and the ordinary citizen felt and thought in the same idiom." In the eighteenth century, the common man was still prepared, respectfully, to accept instruction from his betters and learn through them a clear and precise language of moral experience. In Leavis's view, decline begins to set in with Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens and becomes nearly irreversible with the modern bestseller, which is no more than a commercially motivated mass production of pathetic daydreams. The common readership of former times is now split into highbrow elite and mass audience with the literature cultivated by the former essentially unintelligible to the latter. Her chief examples of modern elitist literature are Joseph Conrad and Henry James -- as a member of the Scrutiny circle, she does not deem high modernists such as Joyce and Virginia Woolf worthy of discussion. The doomsaying general argument of Fiction and the Reading Public is one still often heard at the end of the twentieth century, though few now would subscribe to Leavis's paternalistic emphasis on a bravely militant critical elite that may yet save the ordinary reader from perdition by exposing the meretriciousness of contemporary culture and enforcing rigorous intellectual standards.

Dr. Johnson's own notion of the common reader actually does not presuppose a docile subject of instruction submitting to his cultural superiors. "I rejoice to concur with the common reader," he announces in his Life of Gray, "for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary...


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