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  • Contextualizing Joyce
  • Christopher Devault
John McCourt, ed. James Joyce in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xx + 414 pp. $120.00

In the preface to James Joyce in Context, editor John McCourt argues that “today, one hundred years after Joyce was writing, it is important to reconstruct his principal contextual information” because “things that would have been old hat to a ‘common reader’ of Joyce even fifty years ago … today form part of a distant past, largely beyond recall.” This essay collection goes a long way toward rectifying what Cheryl Temple Herr later calls “our present interpretative challenge” to the writings of James Joyce. Featuring the contributions of thirty-two distinguished scholars of Joyce, Irish literature and history, and modernism, James Joyce in Context is an exemplary introduction to the [End Page 513] many contextual influences on the author’s career. Not only does this study succeed in elucidating Joyce’s historical groundings for the present- day reader, but it departs from the traditional biographical study by focusing on Joyce scholarship as well as primary texts. In so doing, it consistently highlights the contemporary significance of Joyce’s works, and by calling attention to scholarly areas that need further research, it also aids in the maintenance and development of Joyce criticism.

James Joyce in Context is divided into three sections, each covering a different contextual aspect of the author’s work. The first section, “Life and Works,” provides an effective overview of the historical development of the Joycean oeuvre. Stacey Herbert’s opening chapter on the composition and publication of Joyce’s works not only traces the writing of these texts, but also chronicles the evolution of the contemporary standard editions of the Joyce canon and provides valuable information about the locations and contents of the key repositories of Joyce manuscripts. Finn Fordham’s subsequent essay similarly notes the evolution of the standard biographies, but he also highlights their insufficiencies, arguing that “the decaying and fragmented state of Joyce’s biography threatens the next generation’s interest in Joyce’s work.” To rectify this problem, Fordham puts forth his vision of the “ideal biography,” a “single over-arching biography” that would be “exhaustive” and “objectiv[e]” in order for both “a nuanced sense of [Joyce’s] personality” and “a sense of the shifting personality of the social web in which he found himself” to “slowly appear.” The final chapter in this section, William S. Brockman’s analysis of Joyce’s letters, synthesizes Herbert’s historical focus and Fordham’s critical approach. Specifically, he presents a comprehensive history of the publication of the author’s correspondence while also highlighting the insufficiency of the current published materials and identifying a more comprehensive collection as “one of the most urgent tasks facing Joyce criticism.” Together, these chapters not only trace the evolution of Joyce’s works, but also provide a useful introduction to the scholarly work on Joyce’s life and compellingly note the importance of continued critical attention to this area.

The second section of James Joyce in Context, “Theory and Critical Reception,” focuses on the reactions of Joyce’s audiences and the methodological approaches that have been used to interpret his works. John Nash’s examination of Joyce’s reception provides an excellent introduction to this section by outlining “a narrative of Joyce’s complex reception during his own lifetime” and documenting how those reactions were disciplined by both Joyce’s influence and his critics’ agendas. [End Page 514] Joseph Brooker’s article on Joyce’s role in the post–World War II era expands this focus on reception to examine the rise of modernism in the academic canon, with Joyce at the forefront of this “artistic migration ‘from Bohemia to Academe.’” Other standouts in this section include Luke Thurston’s engaging essay on psychoanalysis, which highlights both Joyce’s well-known ambivalence toward psychoanalytic theories and the evolution of Lacanian Joyce criticism. More importantly, he also reads the “re-orientation of Joyce studies, from reading a text predominantly through general theories of subjectivity and language to approaching that text as a dense, archival resistance to theory” as giving psychoanalysis a “singular new relevance to our project of understanding Joyce...


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pp. 513-516
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Will Be Archived 2021
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