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  • "And yet—and yet!":Connections between Stevens's Poetry and Joyce's Ulysses
  • Bart Eeckhout

YES, THE LIBRARIAN SAID, yes, I will, yes. And so she brought up Wallace Stevens's copy of the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. It was no. 466 out of a print run of 1,000 and had been smuggled into the US by the poet's Harvard friend Pitts Sanborn in the fall of 1922. For years, the copy had been sitting among the books from Stevens's personal library housed at The Huntington in California. The person who wished to inspect the copy was a generic Everyscholar whose experience was predictable. Hoping to disprove what had been long established, Everyscholar tried to turn the leaves of the book only to find that none of them—not even the very first—had been cut. There really was no hope of finding the slightest underscoring or marginal annotation. This was likely the single surviving copy of that first print run that managed so bluntly to communicate the owner's refusal to read the book. No, Mr. Stevens said to Everyscholar, no, I have not and will not, and now it's too late anyway, no. Joyce's game-changing novel suffered the fate of so many works published by Stevens's contemporaries: back in Hartford, the poet preferred to play Mrs. Alfred Uruguay, insisting, "I have said no / To everything, in order to get at myself" (CPP 225). We shouldn't be surprised, then, that connections with Joyce and Ulysses have been consistently underexplored in Stevens criticism. For evidence, let's look at three of the most valuable critical tools, produced over three decades and involving some seventy-five individual essays: Teaching Wallace Stevens (1994), The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (2007), and Wallace Stevens in Context (2017). Theoretically, we might expect the poet's allusions to the figures of Ulysses and Penelope—from "The World as Meditation" to "The Sail of Ulysses" and "Presence of an External Master of Knowledge"—to have inspired at least one contributor to the teaching volume to explore possibilities for juxtaposition with the most canonical of modernist novels. Yet nothing of the sort is on offer in Teaching Wallace Stevens. We get only David Dougherty fleetingly tying "The Idea of Order at Key West" to "Joyce's epiphanies," which in any case are more important to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man than to Ulysses (165). The Cambridge Companion [End Page 143] proves to be equally unforthcoming. Although it contains a chapter on "Stevens and His Contemporaries," James Longenbach found no need or room to mention Joyce in it. Again, only a single reference is made in the entire volume, and it is just as perfunctory as Dougherty's: Robert Rehder contrasts Stevens's injunction "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully" with Finnegans Wake, which to his mind "goes to incommunicable extremes" (CPP 306; Rehder 25). Aiming at contextual exhaustiveness, Wallace Stevens in Context raises the mentions of Joyce to a mere two (out of thirty-six essays). In both cases, moreover, the Irish writer serves to set up a contrast in critical attention: Al Filreis notes Stevens's glaring absence from an anthology of historical avant-gardism that does include Joyce (126), and Andrew Epstein highlights how recent writings about modernist literature have tended to "privilege the mundane, the small, and the everyday over the extraordinary, the exotic, or the heroic," with Ulysses as a prime embodiment of a "potent aesthetics of everyday life," but that discussions of Stevens have been largely missing from this critical debate (326).

Scholars can be easily forgiven for their lack of attention if we further consider how Stevens's own published prose managed to resist Joyce and his novel almost successfully. In Holly's rich selection of letters, we find precisely one mention again—the one I needed to launch my column: in October 1922, Stevens reported in a letter to Harriet Monroe, as an after-thought, that "Pitts Sanborn brought back a copy of Ulysses for me and other things including some liqueur from Santa Maria Novella which we absorbed in his room to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-0570
Print ISSN
0148-7132
Pages
pp. 143-152
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-05
Open Access
No
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