- Bloom’s Job: The Role of the Advertisement Canvasser in Joyce’s Dublin
Advertising is everywhere in Ulysses, and the subject has understandably received considerable critical attention. Early commentators assumed that they followed Joyce in scorning the practice. For Ezra Pound, writing in the early 1920s, Bloom’s advertising career was part of the novel’s “mordant satire,” central to Joyce’s indictment of “universal imbecility” in his depiction of “the world under the yoke of measureless usury.”1 In the lighter atmosphere of 1960s America, more tolerant voices could be heard. With the advertising industry now fully professionalized, Alfred Paul Berger could praise Joyce “as critic, innovator and prophet” of the practice, and declare with happy hyperbole that “the distance is very short from Eccles Street . . . to Madison Avenue.”2 And in the late 1980s, as the relationship between modernist literature and “popular culture” continued to be revised, tolerance gave way to enthusiasm. Jennifer Wicke argued that advertising was the true subject of Ulysses, and that Joyce’s canvasser protagonist was presented “on a mission in support of the master-language of advertisement.”3
Along with key chapters by such influential critics as Franco Moretti and Thomas Richards, Wicke’s argument brought a new seriousness to the discussion of advertising in Ulysses, and the flourish of critical enquiries that followed—most notably in the 1993 James Joyce Quarterly special double issue “Joyce and Advertising,” guest-edited by Wicke and Garry Leonard—introduced a new theoretical sophistication to the subject, moving still further away from the old assumption that Joyce’s portrayal was oppositional.4 However, this work was far from comprehensive, [End Page 651] particularly in its treatment of the novel’s relationship with its historical background. As one critic immediately wrote to the James Joyce Quarterly, what was “consistently missing” from the special edition on advertising was “some true sense of turn-of-the-century Dublin.”5 And yet historical claims were continually being made. Wicke’s contribution to the volume is emblematic: she asserts that Ulysses engages with “not just any mass culture, but to this specific mass culture of the city of Dublin, Ireland, colony of Great Britain, circa 1904,” yet she presents a “social reading” of this engagement that consists only of conceptual play between theoretical notions of “desire” and “decolonization.”6
Subsequent studies extended this conceptual inventiveness, but continued to neglect the particular history of the subject.7 To be clear, the problem is not that these studies were over-theorized and under-historicized; this is a complaint that depends mostly upon perspective. The problem is that they introduced and entrenched untried historical claims, particularly about the relationship between Dublin’s advertising industry and Ireland’s colonial position, even as Ulysses was made to stand for the general history of twentieth-century Anglo-American consumerism—a history so broad as to defy generalization. And here the picture stuck. No significant new research has appeared on the subject in the twenty-first century, apparently justifying the 1998 reviewer who referred to the “Joyce and Advertising” special as “the source that most of us would think of as the last word on the subject.”8
This article is an attempt to open the subject of Joyce and advertising back up for more careful analysis, with particular reference to Bloom’s job as an advertisement canvasser. This aspect of Joyce’s characterization goes to the heart of the problem here very briefly described. Bloom’s role has been misinterpreted in almost every respect, from his job title to his responsibilities, and Joyce’s positioning of his protagonist within the fictional Dublin advertising industry has likewise been seriously misunderstood. With few exceptions, critics have approached Joyce’s representation of advertising with an undefined and amalgamated history of twentieth-century British and American consumer culture in mind. Against such a generalizing standpoint, this article participates in the more carefully historicizing approach to Joyce’s work that has emerged in recent years, an approach that Andrew Gibson and Len Platt describe as “a specifically Joycean historical materialism.”9 With close attention to the text, it argues that Bloom’s professional responsibility in advertising has been overestimated. At...