by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.".... ....James Joyce.
Commentary of the Day - December 6, 2006: Does it Matter if English Majors Read Ulysses? Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
If the question, "Does it matter if English majors read Ulysses?", had been posed to me a decade or two ago I would have responded with a rousing, unqualified “Yes!" "Yes!," readers of Ulysses will know, is the final word of James Joyce’s epical 1922 novel, and represents Molly’s acceptance of Leopold Bloom’s proposal of marriage as well as an affirming word, for Joyce, that characterized the human spirit at its best.
It will probably surprise nobody who kept even a half-eye on academic politics over the last few years to learn that I was largely in the minority about the importance of reading Ulysses -- and I'm not talking about all-college curriculum committees but about my colleagues in the English department. Since I've retired, things, alas, have grown worse on the Ulysses front: none of my former colleagues teach Ulysses because none of them have read it, nor do any of them plan to pick up Joyce's bulky tome any time soon.
As they were quick to tell me years ago, our English majors can live productive, happy lives without wracking their brains over Joyce's multi-leveled puns and his nasty habit of drawing from languages of Europe: French, German, Italian, and others.
I don't apologize for my days as a high culture warrior or for asking, as gently as I could, if the newest course being proposed meets the warranty of an eight-speed blender test -- namely, will the books we're assigning our English majors still be read eight years from now? In retrospect, I can see how some of my colleagues got mighty tired of crying (usually without success) that it's high time our majors were exposed to a wider range of long-silenced multicultural voices.
In roughly the same way that political correctness was a juggernaut that swept through most English departments (including mine), multiculturalism was the trump card that no elitist work could bet -- not Ulysses, not Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, not Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.
Given how swamped the boat of modernist culture was, I continued to paddle against the current (an allusion to a popular F.Scott Fitzgerald novel that most of English majors did, in fact, read) but by seeing how far the adjective "serious" would get me. Here's how it worked: I would tell a seminar of English majors that they were soon be able to call themselves college graduates, with a major in English. In a few (unnamed) cases I would prefer that they tell people they majored in geology but if they wanted to insist on being called English majors, there was absolutely nothing that I, or the College, could do. They satisfied all the requirements and that, as they say, was that.
But to call yourself a serious English major . . . , now that was a very different matter. Why so? Because when English majors of an older generation find out that you haven't read Ulysses, they will roll their eyebrows, and some may even burst into guffaws.
There is a way to avoid this embarrassment -- and that, I would tell them, is to read Ulysses. There were always two or three takers and I would meet with them before summer vacation. Nobody can "read" Ulysses, you can only re-read it, but you have to start somewhere. So, follow my outline and I’ll see you in the Fall. When we chat over coffee and you write me a short (ungraded) paper on an aspect of Ulysses that interests you, then I'll allow you to call yourself a serious English major.
Not every eager beaver in the late Spring was able to hang on long enough to finish what many regard as the most important, most imitated, and surely the funniest novel written in the 20th century. But a substantial number did over my last few years of classroom teaching, and I was not the only one who took pride in their accomplishment. They were serious English majors -- not because I jokingly told them that they were but because they knew it in their bones, and for themselves.
I am told that current students at my old college cannot take a course in Ulysses because no current professor wants to teach it for the simple (?) reason that no current professor has read it. No matter, our majors can take a course in "The Male Body Image" and read "novels" by and about weight lifters, or a new course in body variations that includes discussions of body piercing and tattooing.
What can I say to my former colleagues? People teach their passions, and if that means body piercing instead of Ulysses, so be it. But just don't tell people you turn out serious English majors because alumnae who know better will laugh you out of town.
© 2006 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College. Sanford divides his time between the New Jersey shore and the Florida shore -- what a life! He is a frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor.
The IP comments: The IP checked the catalog here at Krispy Kreme U. to see if our English majors are required to study Ulysses. While we offer a senior-level course in "Modern British and American Novels" that covers the period from 1900 to 1950 (Ulysses was first published in its entirety in 1922), the IP doubts that the entire novel is required reading. In addition, this is not a required course so it would be quite easy for one of our English majors to avoid the course. Our English department also offers a graduate seminar on major writers, Joyce included. In that respect we probably are not quite as bad off as Franklin & Marshall. We still have a few faculty members who can teach Joyce's novel. But then our English, Comparative Literature, and Linguistics department has nearly 70 faculty members (full- and part-time).