Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned books week: Joyce's Ulysses

Since Nathan Bransford asked in a post this spring what readers consider the most influential book in history, I've been meaning to blog about how I answered his question (my answer was Homer's Odyssey). Why do I think that? Well, a corner of the reason is that it's the archetype of one of the most compelling plots in storytelling: "Voyage & Return" the way Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories calls it out.

Another reason I answered Nathan's question as I did is that Homer's Odyssey is the classical epic that James Joyce chose as the model and substrate of his modern epic, Ulysses. Why does that matter? Because, in my view, Joyce did something deeply influential when he published that novel: he asserted that an ordinary person's story is a worthy subject of epic literature.

A bit more on that in a moment. First, a digression about banned books.

If you're reading this post within a couple days of its publication date, you are living Banned Books Week, a "national celebration of the freedom to read" according to one of its sponsors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. In 2010, Banned Books Week is Sept 25-Oct 2. The ABFFE site informs us that
"The American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores also sponsor the event. Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress."

To honor Banned Books Week, blogger/author Tahereh Mafi and "a cranky, underpaid, whiskey-swilling, snack-deprived assistant to a Very Important New York Literary Agent" who blogs as The Rejectionist are co-sponsoring a review-your-favorite-banned-book today (Thursday, Sept 30, 2010). And that's why, after dithering since Nathan posed his question in late March, I'm proposing why Homer's Odyssey is the most important book ever in terms of Joyce's Ulysses.

In a Wikipedian nutshell, here's the publication and censorship history of Joyce's novel:
"Written over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, the novel was serialised in the American journal The Little Review from 1918 until the publication of the Nausicaä episode led to a prosecution for obscenity. In 1919, sections of the novel also appeared in the London literary journal The Egoist, but the novel itself was banned in the United Kingdom until the 1930s. In 1920 after the US magazine The Little Review serialised a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating, a group called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who objected to the book's content, took action to attempt to keep the book out of the United States. At a trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene and as a result Ulysses was banned in the United States. In 1933, the publisher Random House arranged to import the French edition and have a copy seized by customs when the ship was unloaded, which it then contested. In United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled on 6 December 1933 that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene [...]. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 1934."


I don't think it's ambiguous or contested that Joyce's novel is written as an epic. To quote an obscure and unimportant venture into scholarship (a paper I wrote in my senior year of college),
"The title of James Joyce's Ulysses first calls the reader's attention to the possibility of the novel's parallel's to Homer's epic work." Insightful, eh? I went on to cite Aristotle and S.H. Butcher in making a case that this novel conforms to aspects of the classical form, and -- perhaps somewhat more cleverly? -- observed the following:

"[...] we notice -- once we understand that Leopold Bloom is supposed to correspond to Odysseus, Stephen to Telemachus, and Molly to Penelope -- the tremendous gulf between the Homeric and Joycean portrayal of these heroes. Bloom has no goddess Athena guiding and inspiring him, though he does display some interest (as well as a degree of incompetence) in scientific reasoning. Stephen accomplishes no heroic reunion with either his own father, Simon, or with Bloom as a father-figure, although he establishes a tenuous link with the latter in the garden scene in 'Ithaka.' Molly, Joyce's Penelope, accomplishes on this Bloomsday an adulterous tryst with Blazes Boylan. If we can find heroism in any of these characters [...] it is clear that it won't be the same kind of heroism that Homer sang of his Greek heroes."

I'll spare you the rest of my five thousand word assault on the fields of academe. But I think the core of the analysis stands. Joyce's Blooms -- both Leopold and Molly -- are heroes in a modern, urban, individual, interior, and psychological way. They apprehend the world as it is; whereas Joyce's contrasting characters -- notably Stephen and Gerty -- see through abstracted, literary, idealized lenses that are ultimately self-defeating. Heroism in Ulysses is cast as ability and determination to confront everyday problems and achieve real, if modest, resolution. The Joycean hero is far from perfect. Unlike Homer's Odysseus or Milton's Christ, Leopold has no infallible protector. He nonetheless achieves triumphs that the author marks as significant (if only by including them as the watershed achievements of his novel's principal characters).

Are Joyce's the first ordinary characters portrayed in fiction? Or portrayed heroically? Hardly. Consider Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier, Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The ordinary, the ordinary & admirable, and the ordinary & heroic have been fiction's stock in trade for a long while. What Joyce did differently, I think, was to cast ordinary characters in classical form.

And what did this marriage of 'low' and 'high' influence? Well, everything, more or less.

Let's look, for example, at the Nobel Prize for Literature in the decades following Joyce's publication of Ulysses.

  • In 1930 the prize was awarded to Sinclair Lewis, who wrote at epic pitch about the meat packing industry. He published The Jungle before Joyce even began to write Ulysses, and portrayed working class characters engaged in a tumultuous struggle for equity and justice; but it was a post-Ulysses world in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • There were four years during WWII when the prize for literature was not awarded; William Faulkner won it in 1949. Faulkner was honored for work published at roughly the same time as Joyce's, portraying slaves and their descendants, agrarian southerners, and working class women and men in Mississippi, focusing on their interior responses to ordinary life.
  • In 1954 Ernest Hemingway took home the prize. His tales of taciturn men confronting themselves, wilderness, and war cast ordinary people in epic landscapes or movements of history.
  • John Steinbeck won the Nobel for literature in 1962. His portrayal, in The Grapes of Wrath, of a farm family driven from their land to a hard and hostile California is an archetypal example of movement in literature toward showing ordinary people engaged in epic struggle.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the prize in 1970 for his portrayals of ordinary people trapped in Stalin's gulag, a prison system of epic scale and devastating consequence for the Soviet Union and the world.
  • In the 1980s ... I don't think I've read enough of the authors who won the prize in these years to say much here. Help me out in the comments, anyone?
  • Toni Morrison and Jos√© Saramago won the Nobel Prizes for Literature in 1993 and 1998, respectively, for work that casts ordinary African-Americans and Portugese, respectively, in their peoples' national sagas.
  • In the 'oughts, I have a hard time picking between J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, and Doris Lessing (2003, 2006, and 2007, respectively): each of these authors tells stories of national or international moment in the voices of women and men who might pass unremarked except for their rendering by masters of language and psychological insight.

By 'influenced everything,' of course, I don't just mean literature worthy of a Nobel Prize. I mean from better to worst.

Have you looked, for example, at the movie listings recently? Has Scott Pilgrim vs. The World been playing in a multiplex near you? Did you notice its sub-title: "An epic of epic epicness"?

I rest my case.

Thanks once again to nikkorsnapper for the photo of Joyce's Ulysses.


  1. Thank you for the story. I have shared my thoughts on this, primarily on (un)banned books, movies and songs in China.

    Banned Books in Mao's China

  2. This is a very thoughtful post about banned books. The best books are often banned because they raise questions and challenge conventions.

    I also participated in Tahereh's banned book reviews. Here's my post if you want to read it: