- My Life in Joyce Studies, Such as It Is
I. INITIAL ENCOUNTERS
Coming from someone who takes pride in writing clearly, that simple, seemingly comic add-on, “Such as It Is,” seems strangely ambiguous: Does it refer to “My [Academic] Life” or to the state of “Joyce Studies”? And why the ambiguity?
I have never thought of myself as a Joycean. My professional interest in Joyce has almost from the start been his place among the Modernist Masters—the great age of the novel, as I (continue to) understand it—and in his role as a lodestar for the generations of novelists who have followed him. But from the very start, nearly half a century ago, Joyceans have insisted that I was indeed one of them. I feel honored by the label and also a bit limited.
I first read Ulysses in an undergraduate course at Dickinson College in 1957 … if “read” is quite the right word for it, even if I did approach every word on every page with all the concentration and goodwill then at my command. We were assigned fifteen novels in a fifteen-week course, and although I can’t recall the entire syllabus, I know that midway through the course Ulysses was followed first by Swann’s Way, then by The Magic Mountain and The Trial, and finally by The Sound and the Fury,ina frustrating, fascinating, intimidating five-week excursion into the modern novel. (I didn’t know the term Modernism at the time. But in a sign of how mysterious—or misleading—literary definitions can be, we also read Arnold Bennett’s contemporaneous novel Riceyman Steps.) It was obviously impossible for me to read Ulysses—indeed, any one of these five novels—in the single week assigned to it (I was taking five other courses that semester) so that I determined to continue reading Ulysses while starting the next assignment and then on to the ones after that and then, finally, at last, to the fifth, so that by the final week, quite literally, I was [End Page 1] reading parts of each of the five demanding novels every day. The wonder is that I would ever consider entering a profession in which I would feel challenged—obligated—eventually to master each of these novels, along with other works by these novelists, as well as the works of many of their contemporaries and followers. Thinking back about these self-imposed goals of mine, I feel as much masochist as Modernist, as joyous as Joycean. That experience perhaps explains my continued insistence that I am not really—or not simply—a Joycean. In some perhaps perverse way, it may also explain why I did not become a lawyer, as I had been expecting when I registered for that course.
My guide through that crazy first reading of Ulysses as an undergraduate was a stereotypical 1950s liberal arts college English professor named Frank Warlow: underpaid and overworked, expected to teach others to write while not having the time to produce writing of his own (the teaching load then, I believe, was five courses per semester), a decent, admirable, rumpled man (he rarely wore matching socks, as I recall) who did the best that he could with the limited time and tools available to him. (I took two Creative Writing courses with him as well: He let me get away with more than I would subsequently allow my students. It was in one of those courses that I first learned about point of view, the narrative concept which would subsequently drive much of my writing about Modernist novels, including Joyce’s.) As for Ulysses, we approached it through Joyce’s chart of the so-called Homeric correspondences, on the assumption—then current—that this would somehow lead us, like some talisman, to the truth(s) of the novel. Young Joyceans today are privileged not to need to overcome such a background. Looking back to that primitive time, I date my initial progress with Ulysses to the moment when I decided to discard that chart. It may have been a useful crutch for Joyce during the years when he was writing the novel...