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Joyce & the Dems: Ulysses, Politics, and Cultural Capital

Ulysses on the Simpsons“We are still learning to be Joyce's contemporaries,” intones Richard Ellmann, the first words of his James Joyce, published in 1959.[1] Sixty years later, Joyce’s most famous book (and second-hardest to read) has become a talking point and prop of two Democrat candidates in the race for the US presidential nomination. Ulysses, over a century since avant-garde magazines started publishing it serially, has been seen trending on Twitter. Have we, have the United States, caught up to Joyce?

For Joyce devotees it has been surprising to the point of unnerving to spot Ulysses appear on the popular radar not on Bloomsday, not on The Simpsons. In late 2018 Beto O’Rourke rose to national prominence dragging along his children: Ulysses, Molly and Henry. Readers blinked seeing the book title adjacent to names recalling main characters Molly and Leopold Bloom (nom de plume Henry Flower). After O’Rourke declared his presidential candidacy, stories emerged about his admiration for Ulysses partly for its rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon thereafter, along came Pete Buttigieg, who turned out to be an avowed Joyce enthusiast, his late father a longtime University of Notre Dame English professor who passed on a love for Ulysses. Buttigieg’s Joyce fandom has animated several press features.

On the surface, it is easy to read what is going on. Our current president is almost certainly our least literate in history, known for his reluctance to read at all, much less read a famously difficult novel. O’Rourke and Buttigieg are signaling their polar opposition to this un-literariness by referencing a work whose stylistic impenetrability is part of its cachet: Ulysses is thought of as “the book everyone claims to have read but no one actually has,” writes Jennifer Wicke (who of course has read it).[2] This only slightly tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the novel as so obscurantist that it is unreadable tells us how Ulysses has accrued its elite status. The 1920s modernist writing of which Joyce was reluctant paragon insisted on itself as high art. Its stylistic eccentricities, density of allusion, etc. made it a marker of cultural capital: a non-economic basis of distinction and power. Thus Sean Latham writes of the book’s “deep entanglement in the interlinked economies of symbolic and cultural capital, rendering its identity as an aesthetic object indistinguishable from its iconic status.”[3] Indeed, Ulysses has long been used to signal an affinity with high culture, as encapsulated by Eve Arnold’s famous 1956 photo of Marilyn Monroe reading the novel. O’Rourke and Buttigieg follow in this tradition. Like Monroe, they brandish Ulysses to partake of its elite aura. They are claiming: not only am I a legit electoral option but I also align with the intelligentsia. All this (looks, charisma, mainstream press attention) and cultural capital too. Sexy!

Perhaps counter-productive to the Dems’ gestures, to cite Ulysses is to imply a deferential attitude toward the authority of expertise, though not the authority of political power. Ulysses is a text that smuggles with it the ghostly omnipresence of its writer: via paratexts that inevitably impose authorial intention; via the novel’s teasing trappings of autobiography; via Joyce’s much publicized authorial odyssey of composing, revising, and struggling to publish the novel; and via the legal wrangles over suppression and piracy that served as de facto marketing campaigns. The specter of Joyce inflects readers’ responses. Thus Ulysses may be perceived as tacitly endorsing submission to cultural authority—its rejection of the omniscient narrative voice notwithstanding. Where and how do people read Ulysses? Often in university courses with a professor, or with a stack of guides and annotations at one’s elbow and on line, or while listening to exegetical podcasts from a professional “Joycean”—that is, with expert voices in one’s ear.Ulysses Book Spines

By contrast, the President and his appointees, however authoritarian their politics, devalue scholarly authority, strategically ignoring evidence-based research regarding education, foreign policy, the environment, etc. When O’Rourke celebrates the college professor who ushered him through Ulysses, it is a risky gesture for a Dem in an era when much of US culture treats expertise with mistrust and universities with disdain. Aside from our particular political climate that has empowered the anti-scholarly, cultural capital rooted in literariness has declined in purchase over several neoliberal decades. Scholarly strategizing about whether and how to reverse the drift have been vexed, partly, by vestigial veneration for white male authority, likely exemplified by, let’s face it, the voices in those Ulysses commentaries. Attempts to re-centralize the literary, literacy itself, have too often failed to reflect the gender, racial, cultural breadth of population that should be the constituency for a politics that includes aesthetic expression, narrative, empathy. Buttigieg fell right into this trap when he named Ulysses his favorite novel; he might have dodged it, as Vulture points out, by choosing a book—sure, a hard one, if that was his point—by a non-(dead)-white-male. (O’Rourke too. I mean: the Odyssey?) Or do as Elizabeth Warren just did, and celebrate Game of Thrones for being “about the women.” Oh, Joyce was Irish? Good for him, but the days of that signaling cultural cred with marginalized peoples are gone. If O’Rourke and Buttigieg are trying to Make Books Great Again, or Make America Read Again, in an anti-Trumpian way, they are battling against multiple currents.

The rationale of mobilizing Joyce in this effort is that despite its difficulty and corresponding stature as high art, despite its entrenchment in white, western culture, Ulysses has long been hailed for having humanistic, little-d democratic qualities. Buttigieg upholds that tradition, telling Vulture that the book is “about what it is to be human,” and saying in Esquire:

People believe Ulysses is this complex, difficult, inscrutable text full of references. And it is a difficult text, but its subject matter couldn’t be more democratic. It’s about a guy going about his day for one day. That’s the plot of Ulysses. And, to me, that’s what makes it very touching. You’re in this guy’s head, and you’re kind of seeing life through his eyes, and at the end through his wife’s eyes. . . . That’s how politics ought to be, too.

Of course, when one uses a middle-class Dubliner to understand “what it is to be human” and a canonical novel in English to define “democratic” subject matter, one undervalues how different it would be to understand these things through texts from drastically different cultures. Digging down into their Ulysses invocations, Buttigieg and O’Rourke, signaling literacy, are in fact signaling power, the power of whiteness to establish itself as the expected, center, the norm. That quality of being a legit electoral option, those looks, that charism, that mainstream press attention? All this, and whiteness too!

Still, the Dems’ intention of using Joyce in opposition to the authoritarian right builds on precedent. The challenges of reading Ulysses, the very difficulty that makes it elitist, are sometimes read as a consciousness-raising method of political and class subversion. Declan Kiberd writes that the “more snobbish modernists . . . sought difficult techniques in order to protect their ideas against appropriation by the newly literate masses” but that “Joyce foresaw that the real struggle would be to defend his book and those masses against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites.”

Kiberd, though thinking of Ireland, where politics and allusions to Ulysses are no strangers, evokes today’s United States by pairing illiteracy and elitism. Our anti-literate chief executive bristles at the mention of “the elites” only to claim the term for himself. His rationale is that he has been a greater beneficiary of privilege (economic, racial, masculine) than his detractors, and definitely not that he bothers with elite culture like those poindexters. One imagines him hearing the name Joyce and sneering, à la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, or befuddling at the reference as Joseph Cotton does in The Third Man.

He would be missing an opportunity. Imagine Trump claiming to have read Ulysses; the lie would unfaze a general public accustomed to his prevarications but drive Buttigieg and O’Rourke and the rest of the literati nuts. It would also successfully, ironically, signal recognition of the novel’s legacy as encapsulated in Wicke’s phrase. As Ulysses increasingly circulates throughout US media, we may decide that trading on the cultural capital of an unreadable novel does not mean one has read it, does not require one to have read it. As Joyce becomes our contemporary, we may see that literary power is exposed when those in political power absorb it, and that as narratives are co-opted, new ones take their place.


[1]Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1959; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 3.

[2]Jennifer Wicke, “Joyce and Consumer Culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, ed. Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 234–53, 234.

[3] Sean Latham, Am I a Snob? Modernism and the Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 119.