Missing the boat

My heading for our McKay session was “Mistranslation.” Edwards draws our attention to the way that Francophone black internationalists were inspired by what we might call a mistranslated version of Banjo—not only because the French version literally diverged from the English but because those readers needed to quite selective in their reading of the novel in order to find it an inspiring statement of racial vitalty. At least, this is the implication of Edwards’ claim that Banjo is “is paradoxically also a radical critique of black internationalism” (210). It didn’t look that way to Léopold Sédar Senghor or the editors of the journal Légitime défense. When we looked at English-language reviews and publicity for Banjo, we also found ourselves dwelling on the reductions of the novel and its author, which seemed to us to leave out an extraordinary amount of what is palpably available in the text. But I am quite skeptical about the reliability of our judgments of what is “really” in the novel. Our own interpretations, no less than earlier readers’, are shaped by our circumstances and our training. That doesn’t mean our readings might not be more valid as literary interpretations, but it does mean that the things we see “in” the text may not go very far to explaining the historical trajectory of the novel.1

In a sociological perspective, the inquiry would turn from the seeming errors of past readers to asking what shapes those mistranslations and misreadings (if that is what they are), what ends they serve, what resources they use and what resources they seek to appropriate.2 And that might tell us a bit more about why Banjo is the way it is: not pure naturalistic reportage though it seems like it is at points, not a novel of pan-Africanist ideas though it seems like it might be… not a “jazz” novel either. Rather than saying that the text is uncategorizable, we might see that the unavoidable force of categorization provokes McKay’s resistance in advance. At the same time the novel predicts its own misappropriation in its representations of audience—most obviously the patronizing whites who are interested in Ray, but also the scenes of clogged print circulation at the Café Africain, the perpetual disruptions to Banjo’s orchestra, and the distrust of Ray as “book fella” (326) who is ultimately on the beach to collect material. And the novel also predicts McKay’s own subsequent trajectory: though it is not identical to Ray’s, he does become more and more removed from any international cultural circuit.3

Speaking of categories, is The Practice of Diaspora a sociology of literature? It’s not a label the book uses, but Edwards is concerned with the relationship between the social formation of black diaspora and black diasporic literary expression. Edwards’s key intervention is to show that diasporic texts, and diaspora as a formation, are not expressions of shared roots by a scattered yet integrated “community.” Both the social formation and its expressive products are instead characterized by décalage or mismatch; they might even be said to be produced through mismatch. This can be compared with Benedict Anderson’s much-cited idea of the nation as an “imagined community” held together by a print culture which allows very different people to imagine themselves as members of a group having shared experience in time. But Edwards, and McKay in Banjo are less concerned with print culture as a “glue” than with its ungluing potential.

Around the world with G.V. Desani

All About H. Hatterr is a fairly challenging novel. There’s no Hatterr Annotated for me to tell you to ignore: readers just have to muddle through layers of reference and linguistic mixture without annotation. As I always do, I’ll suggest that this dimension of reading is what you should reflect on: and in particular how Desani’s refraction of modernist difficulty might work differently from the other versions we have encountered so far.

As for Desani himself: “Arriving in London in 1926, Desani spoke only Sindhi and some Swahili,” says his short DNB entry. In one sense he’s an Indian Ocean writer, which is very on-trend just now, though these statements of origins are meaningless in isolation, as Desani’s novel will teach you. On desani.org—so far as I can tell, an anonymous and impressively extensive fansite—you can find quite a bit more in the way of Desani lore and media. The section on memorials points you to comments on Desani from a whole range of leading Indian writers in English. I find there a document I missed when I was working on Desani, a 2000 Tehelka interview with Khushwant Singh relaying the following anecdote:

Sometime in the mid 70s, a charming man in a zari kurta stood up at a small gathering of book lovers…and declared that there were “only two people in the English world who had been able to write a novel. The first one,” said he, “is James Joyce with his Ulysses. And the second one, if I may [say] so, is your humble self.” This was G V Desani.

“Faithfully,” he signs the preface to Hatterr


  1. This is the point of my article on Desani—there, now you don’t have to read it.↩︎

  2. Paul Gilroy speaks in a not unrelated context of the study of “agno-politics,” the political production of patterned ignorance.↩︎

  3. Astonishingly all of McKay’s 1937 memoir A Long Way from Home is accessible on HathiTrust.↩︎

Gendered Autonomy in Banjo

In Edwards’ chapter from The Practice of Diaspora, he touches just briefly on the gender politics of the novel and the ways in which women figure in the Marseilles economy. Edwards largely takes Ray’s articulation of women’s position as that of the novel. Edwards, quoting from McKay explains that “for Ray ‘woman is woman all over the world,’ and that her identity is defined by two characteristics: ‘she is cast in a passive role and she worships the active success of man and rewards it with her body’” (Edwards 209). Edwards then figures Latnah as largely representative of this “uneven” approach of “cogent feminist critique” and “problematic insistance about the ‘nature’ of woman” (209). While Edwards mostly draws on the boys speech about Latnah (and women in general) to come to his conclusions in this section (not unreasonably, as they of course take up most of the space of the novel and Ray especially often seems a stand-in for McKay), women’s role in the marketplace of Marseilles becomes more complicated when we zero in on Latnah herself, the things we hear her saying and see her doing that go unremarked upon or dismissed by the men around her. 

In particular, we may give attention to the ways in which Latnah complicates the novel’s representation of Banjo’s distaste for capitalist exchange for his music. On the one hand, Banjo seems to give voice to a kind of insistence of artistic autonomy. Throughout the novel he often refuses to take up a collection for his playing, and figures his imagined orchestra as part of his vagabondism— not as a way to make money, but part of an “itch to make some romantic thing” (47). However, the novel notes out quite pointedly that “perhaps [Banjo] could afford to forget [to collect sous], however, with Latnah looking out for him and always ready with a ten-franc note whenever his palm was itching for small change” (40). How might Latnah’s intervention in Banjo’s anti-material tendencies complicate our understanding of economic and artistic exchange in the novel?

Dockers Without Borders

In Banjo, Claude McKay attempts some geographical and literary triangulations between centers of interwar culture: Paris, home to Anglo-American modernist expatriates, and New York, hub of the Harlem Renaissance. In Casanova’s frame, Paris remains the capital of world cultural consecration, though New York by this time has become the legitimating center of African American letters. McKay’s Marseilles lies on the fringe of both centers, a doubly alienated position in which literary-geographical distance is dramatized by struggles for autonomy.

The novel’s representations of attempted participation in the cultural field—Banjo’s dreams of an “orchestra,” Ray’s musings on prose unwritten—are situated within a frame of dockside begging and irregular work that contrasts sharply with the more economically autonomous exile of canonical figures of Parisian Anglophone modernism. Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Joyce all feel very far afield from this vision of Black Marseilles; the Banjo set aren’t invited to that feast, moveable or not. Two competing versions of literary anti-nationality register the gap between these positions in the field: modernist cosmopolitanism internationalism against McKay’s diasporic statelessness, or “bad nationalism” (Edwards 239).

Though Banjo portrays economically heteronomous cultural producers, the novel otherwise valorizes a kind of aesthetic autonomy. When Goosey charges that artistic portrayals of their experiences could be used “against the race,” Ray responds that he’s “not a reporter for the Negro press” (115-116). Through Casanova, one could read Ray’s claim as a move toward aesthetic autonomy, disentangling literature from the politics Casanova regards as naturally embedded within “small” literatures. Taken further, this could be read as McKay’s position-taking against some influential critics within the Black literary field—Du Bois perhaps foremost in this regard—who similarly objected to the grit and grime of McKay’s fiction. McKay argues that the slices of Black life depicted in his novels need not be excised from the literary record just to forestall criticism.

In class last week, we were skeptical of Casanova’s capability to account convincingly for “small” literatures within or beyond a nation-state, like African American and Diasporic literature; does reading a stateless text like Banjo through Casanova satisfy this concern, or aggravate it?

The Language of Wine

Primed by several mentions of red wine in Banjo’s opening pages, I noticed the following description of a bar in Marseilles’ Ditch:

Senegalese, Sudanese, Somali, Nigerians, West Indians, Americans, blacks from everywhere, crowded together, talking strange dialects, but, brought together, understanding one another by the language of wine. (36)

Here, inebriation produces a language of shared expressions and attitudes, though Banjo, “never sober, even when he was not drinking,” doesn’t need the wine (13). Perhaps intoxication is also a language of brotherly love: later in the chapter, Banjo and Malty start fighting over Latnah but collapse, drunk, “in a helpless embrace” (37).

Rather than being wholly “soaked in red alcohol” (Léro qtd. In Edwards 187), McKay’s novel drops the idea of wine as common tongue and focuses more on misunderstanding and mistranslation. For example, Sister Geter mistakenly believes God’s word will be universally understood (290). Thus, the early vignette about wine starts to look more and more like a “platitude” (Edwards 95).

Returning to the passage, I wonder why “the red wine of France” to which the vagabonds “took…like ducks to water” momentarily becomes their universal language (23). Larbaud says that the French see their culture as universal: would this moment stroke French egos?

I’ll speculate that wine (as French commercial production), not music (as Black cultural production), figures as a common language in this passage because some supposedly common language cannot substitute the real value of “strange dialects,” of difference. One could also say that McKay estranges them from his novel in not directly representing them.

At the end of Banjo, McKay has Ray (somewhat his analogue) reflect that he “always felt humble when he heard the Senegalese and other West African tribes speaking their own languages with native warmth and feeling” (320). Does the absence of these languages’ representation (a subset of the “strange dialects”) change the nature of such praise? What might have shaped McKay’s linguistic decisions–including but not limited to his position as a Jamaican-American? I’m hoping that these questions may invite discussion of his inventive use of English and French from a different angle.

Recognition, Resistance

Our discussion of Casanova, I think, turned on tensions between facts and values. First of all, World Republic of Letters both claims to describe the actual present and past of world literature and implies fairly strong normative judgments about that state of affairs. The judgments themselves, as we saw, are somewhat complex. On the one hand Casanova is clear that world literature is fundamentally unequal in its distribution of recognition and that there is no acceptable justification for this inequality, which is closely tied to, though not identical with, economic and political inequality. The literary world is governed by “violence” (115). On the other hand, Casanova clearly values “autonomous” literatures and autonomous writers above their heteronomous others, even though this valuation reproduces the judgment of Paris. Beckett and Joyce are “great literary revolutionaries” (110); Joyce’s move to Paris rendered him “free to carry out an enterprise of unprecedented daring and novelty” (95), an enterprise which bore fruit when he was recognized by Parisian literary critics (and subsequently by the rest of the world republic). To start with, we have to say that there is no inconsistency here, and not only because Casanova was writing in Paris. Her most celebratory language is reserved for those writers who achieve recognition in spite of the unfair world, often at great personal cost. Casanova’s attempts to secure her own autonomy from the complacencies of the world republic of letters by redescribing the “revolutionaries” as protagonists of a social struggle against unfair obstacles. (This wasn’t just a theoretical program: for a long time she conducted a literary interview series on French public radio, which is a little as if Terry Gross were a post-Marxist literary theorist.)

But if the system is consistent, we can also recognize that it is not in harmony with U.S. literary-critical values. It is easy to feel that Casanova’s attack on “internal” criticism and formalist interpretation is not aimed at us. But it is not so easy to accept her denial of the political meaning of postcolonial literatures or her insistence on the dominance of the national principle in world literature. The two are linked: for Casanova, the political is infallibly national, and both are situated at the heteronomous, dominated pole of world literary pace. What matters is that the validity of these claims not be decided purely on the basis of how we would like things to be. These are at least partly matters of fact, and for Casanova it’s simply a factual error to, for example, set up Joyce as an early figure of postcolonial resistance when his choices and his reception were shaped by world-literary institutions. Or again, it is a matter of fact how large a role national affiliations play in the fate of world-literary writers, whatever transnational or subnational affiliations they might have. As we will see when we look at literary prizes the week after next, the national frame retains enormous power. The same is true in literary studies, where the national categories of the discipline have proven extremely durable, in spite of numberless calls for transnationalism and global consciousness.

On the other hand, Casanova’s generalizations seems to me factually better-documented and more compelling when they describe the dominant pole of the world literary system than when they describe the peripheries. For Casanova, national equals political equals heteronomous equals realist: this series of equivalences is useful as a provocation, and it might describe how the periphery seems to consecrating authorities in the center at a certain late-modernist moment, from 1950 to 2000 maybe; here and elsewhere, World Republic is more like a sociology of knowledge than a sociology of institutions. But the claim is not comprehensive. I introduced Tagore to our discussion not only to “include” a non-Anglophone voice from the colonial periphery but to suggest that aesthetic position-takings on the periphery might be shaped by other forces. Writing in Bengali, Tagore puts himself in relation to English, to be sure, but also Sanskrit, the classical language (he cites the Upanishads and theorizes using terms of classical Indian philosophy and aesthetics). But Bengali is not the primary language of Indian nationalism, which is dominated instead by English and, increasingly, by Hindi. It is instead a language of exceptional cultural standing due to the Bengal Renaissance, of which Tagore is himself a standard-bearer. That is why Tagore felt that he had “sovereignty” in his own world of letters (as he says in the letter to Rothenstein I put on the handout from class). Though Tagore definitely does feel the pull of the forces described by Casanova—he did go to London, he was translated, he did win the Nobel Prize after translating his own work into English—he appears to me to be neither dominant nor dominated, neither autonomous nor national, but in a triangulated position which inflects his universalism differently.

On the other other hand, in the memorable words of a paper by the Duke cultural sociologist Kieran Healy, “Fuck Nuance”: sometimes a more reductive and abstract formulation is more revealing of underlying social and cultural dynamics than the multiplication of detailed examples and exceptions. Consider whether McKay, who appears radically unlike the figures we have so far discussed, has to be situated as an exception to the theories we have explored. (Du Bois: “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”)

Lives of Claude McKay

For authors not covered by the DNB, the first place to search for summary biographical accounts is the damnable Literature Resource Center, which gives chaotic access to large piles of reference works written for libraries. A search there surfaces a biographical article on McKay by Wayne F. Cooper for African American Writers, 2nd ed. (New York: Scribner, 2001), which has good details on McKay’s early movements and affinities. A more recent, briefer article from Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors includes a few paragraphs on McKay’s unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth, rediscovered by a grad student in 2009.

McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922) was a founding book for the Harlem Renaissance, though this was one stage on a longer itinerary. It is worth your time to read his “Author’s Word” there and to browse among the poems. Find McKay in the radical magazine The Liberator (1918–24) on marxists.org.

Reading Practice and Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic”

Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters brought up questions which have been somewhat in the background of our discussions throughout the semester. Namely: how do we take this sociologically-influenced approach as a method for reading literature? How do we practice what these methods prescribe, and what might that look like when we sit down and open a book? Casanova asserts, “a literary work can be deciphered only on the basis of the whole of the composition, for its rediscovered coherence stands revealed only in relation to the entire literary universe of which it is a part” (3). With reference to Bourdieu, I’m ready to assent to Casanova’s argument, but I must admit, how and where her hermeneutics should figure in my reading practice remains foggy. I’m reminded of the early modern reading wheel and the hyperlink–two technologies that augment the immediacy and range of a single text’s citing power. From one angle, Casanova’s emphasis on understanding a work “in relation to the entire literary universe” seems like an exhaustive citational strategy, a mode of reading that can situate any textual moment in a sprawling network of dominance and subtle power. Perhaps it is a secretly orthodox close-reader in me, the uninvited ghost of New Criticism, that reacts with some apprehension to Casanova’s proposition, preferring the apparent safety and control afforded by blinkered focus on the Text and the Text alone over a reading practice that constructs a thorough index between text and literary world.

Nonetheless, this citational reading is clearly a necessary practice, and Casanova makes clear the consequences of the failure to cite thoroughly: “The simple idea…of literature as something pure and harmonious, works to eliminate all traces of the invisible violence that reigns over it” (42-43). But even with the clarity of this justification, I’m still struggling to see exactly how the potential of what Casanova calls “internal criticism” (5) should be incorporated into this expansive indexical practice. Is there a troubling potential for lost specificity in this relational reading–troubling if we want to avoid the universalizing, incorporating impulse that makes the “violence” of the literary world “invisible”?

Ulysses as “highbrow” and “lowbrow”

     Larbaud assures us that the complex structure of Ulysses has been traced by Joyce “for himself.” This claim is justified, in part, by gesturing to Joyce’s complex notes on his seminal novel, their highly subjective, varicolored annotations arranged in a state of “mosaic” decipherable only by the author himself. Still, when taking into consideration the substantial efforts and difficulties endured by Joyce in publishing this work, a certain tension arises. Without wading into the opacity of authorial intent, I think it safe to assume that Ulysses was, from the beginning, intended to be circulated, pondered over, subjected to interpretation and interrogation-a notion that implicitly presses against a vision of Ulysses as having been constructed in a kind of Woolfian hermetic chamber. 

     Further, Larbaud insists that reading Ulysses necessarily involves playing Joyce’s game, as it were, working to untangle his “web,” and if done “with attention,” one “cannot fail to discover this plan in time.”  “With attention,” here, refers to Larbaud’s “cultivated readers,” who are separated from those “uncultivated” readers who so lack the contextual background that the novel will from, the first “three pages,” be thrown into a state of inextricable confusion as to setting, character, circumstance, etc. Still, for Laurbaud, the effect of Ulysses rests not in its complicated allusions to the Odyssey, but in its ability to manifest  a “living and moving” work out of such rigid scaffolding. The cultivated reader, then, is able to fully understand Ulysses by way of seeing through its structure in order to experience its affect. Yet if the symbol of Irish art is, as Joyce tells us in Ulysses, the cracked looking glass of a servant, how can we parse the novel as both “highbrow” and “lowbrow”? Is this a possible, efficacious, or meaningful endeavor?

500 bibliographic references a year and a library carrel of one’s own

Some footnotes to our Woolf discussion:

When we talked about the Hogarth Press, I mentioned a distinction between producing the book as material object and producing its value (or symbolic capital). The sociologist John B. Thompson distinguishes between the supply chain and the value chain in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2012), 15–16. For Thompson the value chain runs from “content creation” through to final sale; each step in book production—acquisition by a publisher, editing, design, typesetting, marketing, distribution, selling, publicizing—“adds value,” both economically and symbolically. The metaphor of the chain is less apt for the production of value than for the production of the commodity object, since there are many feedbacks in the process. Publishers (and, after 1900 or so, literary agents) actively cultivate certain kinds of books and certain writers; the final value of a book depends on forms of judgment and publicity that lie outside the publisher’s control.

Tuchman and Fortin’s other publication from Edging Women Out was in the American Sociological Review: “Fame and Misfortune: Edging Women Out of the Great Literary Tradition,” ASR 90, no. 1 (July 1984): 72–96, JSTOR. The first footnote there gives the lie to my in-class claim that the data collection was just down to the two authors: they thank six people for helping collect the data from the DNB and the British Museum Catalogue for their study of literary fame. However, the book preface’s note on the Macmillan archive records is of interest:

Visiting London during the summers of 1978 and 1982, I [Tuchman] spent a total of four months copying records at the British Library (handcopying was cheaper than ordering microfilm)…. Michèle Barrett kindly supervised a British student who copied more records while I returned to New York to teach. (Edging Women Out, xvii–xviii).

These days one could use a cell phone to photograph the records…if permitted. But it is worth considering the sheer amount of woman-hours needed to construct the data for an argument like Tuchman and Fortin’s.

In the excerpt from Tuchman and Fortin you read, they say that their work belongs to the “production of culture perspective” (11n15). This remains an important school of sociological research on culture. A 2004 overview by Peterson and Anand describes this school as focused on “how the symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved.”1 Work on the production of culture has been particularly concerned with the commercial cultural industries, paradigmatically the music industry, paying fine-grained attention to the organizational and economic structure of those industries.2

How to write

We didn’t spend much time on “The Mark on the Wall.” If our seminar had continued into a fourth hour, I would have invited you to consider the passage I put on the handout from Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” in relation to the (slightly earlier) story:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

In relation to the discussion we did have, what is striking about this famous statement is that, somewhat like the section of Room on Mary Carmichael, it simultaneously affirms artistic autonomy (“if a writer were a free man”) and prescribes to the writer what “he” ought to write about. This antinomy is very widespread in modernism and anywhere else the ideal of autonomy is important. It can be resolved by saying, with Bourdieu, that the socially significant kind of artistic autonomy is not the autonomy of the individual writer to do whatever seems best to them, but the autonomy of the literary field to prescribe norms that no other authorities prescribe. All very well when you’re doing the prescribing, perhaps not so thrilling when you’re the one being invited to freely submit. Woolf’s feminist position creates a challenge to authority which only exacerbates the contradiction.

As you’ll see, Casanova’s account of the “world republic of letters” is much concerned with the very same dilemma. This book’s wide-ranging survey again demands attention both in terms of its arguments and in terms of its methods. Consider where the emphasis falls (not here but there); consider how a large-scale model gets built. You should know that “world republic of letters” is certainly meant sarcastically, and that république is a far more sanctified term than English republic.


  1. Richard A. Peterson and N. Anand, “The Production of Culture Perspective,” Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 331–34, doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.30.012703.110557.↩︎

  2. I particularly admire Jennifer C. Lena’s Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). The Toronto sociologist Clayton Childress is a rare contemporary example of someone working on literature in this vein: see his Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).↩︎

“If One Could Only Get Hold of [It]”: Woolf, Gender, and the Novel

In a correspondence to David Garnett in 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote, “novels are frightfully clumsy and overpowering…still if one could only get hold of them it would be superb. I daresay one ought to invent a completely new form” (qtd. in Marcus 125). Given our discussion of form from a few weeks ago, particularly in the context of Bennett’s narrator’s mastering the “rules” of various literary forms as a means of advancing his career, I was wondering what we make of Woolf’s oppositional desires for the novel. On the one hand, Woolf’s comments bear somewhat of a likeness to Bennett’s narrator’s: she wants to “get hold” of the novel. However, Woolf’s words also, and I would argue, mostly, express an eagerness to expand (perhaps we could even say “to transcend”) the novel rather than “dominate” it. As our reading of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” made clear, Woolf’s criticism of certain authors and of certain styles of writing are informed by her philosophy of fiction, a philosophy that privileges fiction’s ability to amplify the voices of characters, characters like the “threadbare old lad[y]” Mrs. Brown (6). While reading A Room of One’s Own, I found myself not only thinking about Mrs. Brown, and about Woolf’s philosophy of fiction, but also about Woolf’s thoughts on gender and the novel. For instance, in the third chapter of her extended essay, Woolf discusses history’s silencing of female stories and ponders whether or not they might ever be reclaimed. She declares, “All these facts lie somewhere” and asks “could one collect it and make a book of it” (45). For Woolf, then, it seems as if “get[ting] hold” of the novel is really about getting hold of other things: lost women’s stories, an elderly lady on a train, the “frightfully clumsy and overpowering” (qtd. in Marcus 125) state of female subjectivity. I hope we can bring Tuchman and Fortin’s “empty field” into this conversation and dig deeper into some of these questions. For whom and what does the novel have room? What would moving beyond it entail?

A Voice of One’s Own

In A Room of One’s Own Woolf emphasizes the importance of women writers finding an authorial voice unburdened by the formal and structural influences of great authors of the past. Throughout the essay, Woolf suggests that all authors are both “inheritors” and “originators” of their work (108). Literary masterpieces are therefore never fully original but are rather “the outcome of many years of thinking in common” (65). Woolf is very interested in breaking out of that common thinking in her own writing and seeks to instill this same urgency in her audience. 

Breaking out of literary traditions is no easy task, however, and Woolf illustrates that even the sentence structure we use is derivative, formulaic, and built by men, “Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (76). To write original content, a woman must “[break] the sequence” and simply “[write] like a woman” (90). 

And to find that unique voice, Woolf emphasizes the importance of blocking out the voices of dead authors as well as the hordes of bishops, deans, doctors, professors, and patriarchs all with strong opinions on how a woman ought to write (or not write). But even in her imagining of Mary Carmichael overcoming the pull of these voices to write some promising original sentences, Woolf concludes with the anticlimactic assessment, “She will be a poet, I said, putting Life’s Adventure, by Mary Carmichael, at the end of the shelf, in another hundred years’ time” (93).  

It seems like a room of one’s own and an annual income aren’t enough in the end to grant women writers autonomy. To become a truly autonomous writer, a woman must find a way to ignore the constant sound of critics and dead authors and find her own voice. But does Woolf even think this is possible? If not, how does a woman author create a unique voice (assuming she doesn’t own a printing press)?

A Quibble About Genre and Gender–Do We Remember Austen or Trollope? Proust or Barnes?

While reading Tuchman and Fortin’s Edging Women Out, I was particularly struck by their claims about genre and a novel/novelist’s status as belonging within high or low culture. After identifying Realism as the genre of masculine high culture, they make a bold claim about Woolf’s non-threatening status as an outlier example of a successful woman novelist. They claim that Woolf’s success, assisted by her class and social status, was also aided by her choice to write within the Modernist genre rather than the Realist genre. As a “doubly deviant” author (woman and Modernist), Woolf is painted as an unseen interloper, one who is able to almost sneak her way into literary success and high culture because she stakes her claim in the “empty field” of Modernism (16). I had trouble fully buying this claim, perhaps mostly because my experience as a Victorianist within academia has led me to believe that Modernism is typically associated with male authorship and high culture status, whereas the Victorian Realist novel is often given a secondary status as feminine and domestic. I have always understood Modernism to be a bit of a ‘boys club,’ in part because Joyce’s hegemonic status, and because, as a lay reader of Modernist texts, the names that come to mind first are Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and William Carlos Williams (as an experiment, I wrote out a list of Modernist authors I knew without looking any up, and Woolf and Barnes were the only female authors I knew). In contrast, when I think of major Realist authors of the 19th c., a list of women authors come to the fore: Austen, Eliot, Gaskell, Bronte, Oliphant, Martineau, Stowe, etc. (same experiment done, and my list was split 50/50 by gender). So what’s the point of this quibble? It made me question the methodological approach of this book—why was so much emphasis put on gender in publication broadly, rather gender in readership—a readership that expands and changes over time and across space—and by genre?

Work in all you know

“You are the only contributor to Dana who asks for pieces of silver”

JES wondered whether our Ulysses materials gave us enough to explore the literary field the novel enters into. She pointed us to its initial serial publication in the Little Review, a magazine to which, as I said in class, we will return eventually. Suffice to say for the moment that Joyce’s appearances there are the mark of a process of translation across fields. Joyce had been formed in a field organized in terms of the opposition between London and Dublin—the one represented in some detail in Ulysses. But his expatriation eventually leads Joyce to find allies, rivals, and enemies in a different subfield of restricted production, whose distinctive feature was its dispersion across three key cities, New York, Paris, and London. One of the marks of this translation process was that Joyce’s admirers understood, reviewed, and publicized his work as a signal response to “modern” life at large, a response made possible by his physical distance from Ireland and his ideological opposition to cultural nationalism. Joyce represents the latter, somewhat unfairly, either as blockheaded provincialism (mostly in the “Cyclops” episode, which we didn’t read; but you can also see it in the casual anti-Semitism about Bloom that ordinary Dubliners evince in “Scylla” and “Wandering Rocks”) or as a kind of colonial mimicry ready for exploitation by condescending Englishmen like Haines, who talks Irish to the uncomprehending milk lady in “Telemachus” and spends the “Scylla” episode out shopping for a copy of Douglas Hyde’s important book of translations of Gaelic poems, The Long Songs of Connacht.1

So where is the literary field? Instead of presenting an Irish field to us from an objective distance, Joyce presents it through a compelling fiction of distance (or “fiction of autonomy” as some might say) which makes it seems as though artistic “exile” is the only option for a serious writer coming of age in such a milieu. In spite of the caution the Hamlet discussion ought to give us about equating characters and authors, this is the clear implication of the social isolation into which he places both protagonists, Stephen the failed artist and Bloom the day-dreamer (“there’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom,” 10.582). At another level, it is also the implication to be drawn from the autonomization of form in the novel, its progressively more flagrant independence from realistic representation. These position-takings situate Joyce at the cosmopolitan, advanced pole of an international English-language literary field. In the coming weeks our readings will suggest some of the theoretical framework needed to analyze this formation.

This argument, I should say, runs somewhat counter to the prevailing consensus, which reads Joyce as an anticolonial writer. This consensus has only really taken hold in the past twenty years; it rescued Joyce from the critical disrepute into which international modernism fell in the course of the 1980s and 1990s by placing Joyce back into the turbulent Irish historical context and linking his work to the newly prestigious framework of postcolonial studies. Most typically, scholars rewrote the earlier claim for Joyce’s exemplary modernity in new terms. On the class handout, I put a passage from an important landmark, Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland:

What had happened in Ireland was what would happen across the world in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century: traditional patterns of living had been gravely disrupted, but without the material compensations which elsewhere helped to make such losses tolerable. The people were suffering from that most modern of ailments: a homeless mind…. Against that backdrop, both the 1916 Rising and Ulysses can be interpreted in rather similar ways: as attempts to achieve, in the areas of politics and literature, the blessing of modernity and the liquidation of its costs.2

In this analysis, Ulysses remains an exemplarily modern text, but now its modernity is the violent modernity of imperialism and decolonization. I feel the pull of this reading, and I have learned an enormous amount from revisionist Irish-studies approaches to Joyce. What is worth reflecting on is the very wide conceptual gap between a reading like this and an account like Rainey’s that situates Joyce (with at least biographical accuracy) in the Paris-New York world of patronage, cafés, and limited editions.

It’s hard

In class discussion, several of you mentioned the significance of citation and reference in the novel, but we didn’t get to follow up more extensively. I drew your attention to the use to which Bloom puts an old copy of Titbits in “Calypso”; this might be compared to the extensive and somewhat less irreverent handling of Hamlet in “Scylla and Charybdis,” or, at another level, to the appeal to the Odyssey as a framework for the novel. Joyce displays the full sum of his hard-won cultural capital, and the book’s subsequent consecration—and high price!—represents among other things the successful conversion of this capital. The cultural capital of Ulysses encompasses both a very demanding practice of citation and allusion to texts across major European languages and a clear distinction between the handling of “high-cultural” material, which might be fodder for monkish humor but is basically a repository of significant meaning, and a much more irreverent attitude to the stuff of mass or popular culture (pantomime, advertisement, cheap fiction).

One simplistic reading is to say that Joyce’s allusive difficulty excludes everyone except the elect who have acquired comparable amounts of cultural capital, and the novel trades on this exclusiveness. This claim assumes that if you don’t “get it” from the first, you are excluded, but the whole reception history of the novel tends to suggest just the opposite. Ulysses and the field in which it appeared produced readers who enjoyed the experience of mystery, as well as many who wanted to work towards comprehension—in other words, those who valued the difficulty for various reasons. A more telling critique thus aims at what is entailed in valuing the work demanded by Joyce’s allusiveness. According to Leo Bersani, what is entailed is a belief that mastering culture will save you. Another of my neglected handout passages comes from his essay “Against Ulysses”:

Joyce miraculously reconciles uncompromising mimesis with a solipsistic structure. Western culture is saved, indeed glorified, through literary metempsychosis: it “dies” in the Joycean parody and pastiche, but, once removed from historical time, it is resurrected as a timeless design. Far from contesting the authority of culture, Ulysses reinvents and reanimates our relation to Western culture in terms of an exegetical devotion, that is, as the exegesis of Ulysses itself.3

My sociological remark is that what Bersani finds objectionable is not so much Ulysses as a text but Ulysses as an institution of “exegetical devotion” practiced in the academy. Only a literary critic would believe that Ulysses, the text, is the full explanation for Ulysses, the institution. It is almost the obverse of Rainey’s suggestion that the great scandal of Ulysses, the pricey object, was that it wasn’t a reading of Ulysses, the text. Nonetheless we can observe that there is a harmonious alignment between modernist difficulty and institutions of academic exegesis which needs explanation. We’ll try to get at this issue later in the semester.

Joyce to Woolf, or, From Hamnet to Judith

These questions about the uses of cultural capital and their role in social exclusion are central to Woolf’s Room of One’s Own—and to the analysis carried out by Tuchman and Fortin in Edging Women Out. It might almost be too easy to compare these two arguments, so I urge you to try to reconstruct the very different predicaments of these writers. Hopefully the other materials by and about Woolf will help in her case. I will point you again to the DNB, though I have reservations about the interpretive aspects of this long entry by the psychobiographer Lyndall Gordon. For digitized materials, the Modernist Archives Publishing Project has a variety of Hogarth Press items.

Tuchman is an eminent feminist sociologist, emerita at UConn, who has written about many topics including the news media and the corporate university. When she and her assistant Nina Fortin were working on Edging Women Out, there weren’t (and aren’t) that many sociologists writing about literary-historical topics, though it was an exciting moment for the sociology of culture more broadly. Edging Women Out occupies an interesting interdisciplinary space, as its rhetoric will quickly show you; but you might also consider the fact that one chapter appeared in a 1980 issue of the feminist journal Signs, at a time when the journal was more hospitable to quantitative social science.


  1. What is unfair is that the revivalist milieu—and Irish nationalism proper—was more contentious, more demographically diverse, and more cosmopolitan than Joyce suggests. Here’s Eglinton’s co-editor, Fred Ryan, in the June 1904 Dana: “Nationalism to the majority of people in Ireland means merely the hoisting of the Green Flag in place of the Union Jack over a society resting on a basis of competitive capitalism differing in no vital or essential particular from any other such society or from our own condition now.” “‘Young Ireland’ and Liberal Ideas,” Dana 1, no. 2 (June 1904): 64, Modernist Journals Project. The other book of that moment cited in “Scylla” is A. E.’s collection New Songs (Dublin: O’Donoghue, 1904), HathiTrust, which includes Padraic Colum’s “A Portrait” and “A Drover” (cf. 9.303–5).↩︎

  2. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 329–30. The pioneering full-length study of Ulysses in this vein is Enda Duffy, The Subaltern “Ulysses” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).↩︎

  3. Leo Bersani, “Against Ulysses,” Raritan 8, no. 2 (Fall 1988): 22–23. The essay is reprinted in The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), chap. 7.↩︎

The Joyce of (Re)Producing & (Re)Imagining the Field

Last class, we discussed the more complicated literary field Bennett describes in The Truth About an Author, but we didn’t explore how the text’s (re)production troubled the field. This week’s readings make it impossible to do that with Ulysses

Both Rainey and Hutton discuss the importance of Ulysses’ initial publication as a serial in the Little Review, but neither critic offers robust analysis of the publication itself. In 1914, The Little Review marketed itself as a periodical devoted to “Literature Drama Music Art”. According to playwright and novelist John Galsworthy, the publication could “enjoy that untrammelled liberty which is the life of Art” because it was “neither directly nor indirectly connected in any way with any organization, society, company, cult, or movement” (2). The publication carved a space for autonomous art in a medium devoted to public taste, not artistic interest. In 1917, the magazine changed its tagline to broadcast its investments⸺The Little Review: A Magazine of the Arts: Making No Compromise for Public Taste. Where does this kind of periodical fit within the literary fields Bourdieu and MacDonald describe? What does it mean for Joyce to publish Ulysses as a serial in this magazine? 

This text further complicates the field by charting new relationships between literary forms. In chapter nine, both “provincial papers” and Shakespeare’s plays influence literary discourse (165). Joyce also uses other literary forms to construct his text. As the library guests discuss Shakespeare’s plays, the dialogue takes the form of a script, complete with character names, musical notations, and asides. In transforming narrative into theatre, Joyce seems to comment not just on the educational practice (which Hutton discusses) but on the history and structure of the literary field. The chapter begs us to reevaluate the value of literary genres and their relative force in the literary field. How did Shakespeare’s plays transform from art that “reveal[s] to us ideas, formless spiritual essences” (152)? What is the artistic role of these lucrative literary forms? 

For fun, read Mary M. Colum’s 1922 review of Ulysses.

It’s Just a Formality

I want to talk about form in Ulysses, specifically in “Telemachus,” the start of Stephen’s story, and “Calypso,” the start of Leopold’s. In reading these two beginnings back-to-back, I had the uncanny sense that I was reading the same thing twice. Not that the characters or their stories were exactly the same, but that one was built out of the materials of the other, both at the level of narrative and of language. We might use a theater production as a loose metaphor, with Leopold’s Second Act as a re-staging of Stephen’s First–a different story, but one that takes place in the same theater and relies on the same elements (set-pieces, props, actors, etc.). A few concrete examples to show you what I mean:

  • The breakfast rituals, which take on a religious quality in both–pouring milk, making tea, buttering toast, etc.
  • The emphasis on Buck’s “even white teeth…with gold points” (3) and “white glittering teeth” (6) that continues with Bloom’s cat’s “milkwhite teeth” (45)
  • The “green stone” that “twinkle[s]” in Haines’s cigarette case (17) comes back as a metaphor for Bloom’s cat’s eyes (45)

It’s an odd group of things, but milk, tea, bread, teeth, green stones, mirrors, staircases, the even the colors–green, white, gold, and black–get re-appropriated between stories in ways that feel like more than just the coincidences of everyday routine.

Thinking about Bourdieu– as much as his concern seems to lie outside of and in some ways opposed to formal analysis, his reading of (and around) Sentimental Education relies on first distilling the novel to its elements/pieces/regions to construct its field of power. I suppose I’m interested, in part, in a larger methodological question–what is the relationship between reading we might ID as “formal” and the sociological, and ostensibly “non-formal,” reading that Bourdieu conducts on SE? And, as I’m still trying to work through Bourdieu, is my preliminary reading of Ulysses in conversation in some way with B’s understanding of a “realist formalism” (107)? Would love your help with these thoughts…  

“complete as written”; or, dirty parts and all

Andrew promised us a secondary reading that was uninterested in opening Joyce’s novel. Being a bit contrary, I read Rainey’s account for gestures towards textual content and places where considering textual content would open up further questions.

Rainey includes the prospectus for the “genuine deluxe edition” of Ulysses (50). Though this edition was about more than sidestepping obscenity laws, the prospectus nonetheless reads, “ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in “The Little Review” will be published by “SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY” complete as written” (53). I wonder, following Rainey’s own close reading of other press items: for whom is this proclamation of triumph over puritanical suppression? If this edition was (primarily) marketed to dealers and speculators who had little interest in opening the book, then why such rhetoric? Does it suggest that sensational media coverage bolsters economic appreciation? Is public interest or hype (without purchasing power) relevant to appreciation? (Here, you can see, I’m a newcomer to investing.)

I wonder if thinking about other responses to the “obscenity” in Joyce’s text–not just the legal attention to sexual content but the critical revulsion from sexual and scatological content–changes our understanding of this ~triumph over “suppression”~ narrative? Does the prospectus also implicitly rebuke prudish Virginias, suggesting that consummate art transfigures dirt into gold?

The prospectus, naturally, notes that the deluxe edition is “complete as written,” not a word expunged. Though for Rainey, reading became “superfluous” in a milieu of collecting and investing, paradoxically, the fidelity of Joyce’s text seems to become part of its value as object d’art (74). To be fair, the fidelity fetish associated with later Ulysses editions (salivating over the near “ideal text” of the Gabler edition, say) seems only nascent at this time. Perhaps it comes more from Joyce’s own attention to textual corrections. Anyway, I’d be curious to know how else y’all see relationships between what’s IN Ulysses and how it’s valued as an object. And someone who used a reference book while reading (not I!): what do you think such paratext says about the literary field that distributes, reads, and makes meaning out of the novel?

Crossing the threshold into the Georgian Age (j/k)

We spent a lot of time talking about McDonald’s appropriation of Bourdieu. I wanted to note a few aspects of his method that differentiate him from Bourdieu.

McDonald makes much of the archives of the authors he writes about. His book is a product of the British Library. Bourdieu mostly is at one remove from the archive (even Flaubert’s notebooks are cited from published transcriptions). McDonald shows you how you might bring sociology to the archive—but also teaches a lesson about the kind of archive that helps the research. Bennett’s career is obviously exceptionally well-documented in his papers, and the richness of information there on the business of writing is of particular use to the analysis McDonald persues.

This interest in business is also, I think, part and parcel of McDonald’s more charitable understanding of literary commerce than Bourdieu’s. Bourdieu scorns the field of large-scale production, including journalism, serial fiction, and the most profitable forms of theatre. At moments Bourdieu sounds like the highest of high modernists (in some ways he really is, but that’s another story for another time), and this distorts the effort to make an objective study of the field. McDonald, though not a pop-culture booster (he says that we should “reclaim” Bennett’s serials “not as enthusiasts of ‘popular culture’…but as readers concerned to recover the dialectical energies of the major novels” [117]), is willing to give sensitive and nuanced attention to profiteering literary activity, not only in Bennett’s case but also in the case of the more straightforwardly commercial Conan Doyle. I never did get to ask you how you felt about making money from literature, but it’s well worth trying to get some self-critical distance from whatever your instinctive feelings on this subject are. People who end up doing literary scholarship usually have been acculturated into belief in the special vocation of writing or of art, but this acculturation somehow coexists with an equally widespread admiration for cultural hustlers and go-getters (especially when they are underdogs). Bourdieu argues convincingly that neither position can found an objective analysis of culture.

Another difference in McDonald’s British Literary Culture: it is an author study, even more than Rules of Art, and it’s also rather strictly concerned with fiction. There’s a chapter on Conrad, a chapter on Bennett, and a chapter on Conan Doyle. Despite Bourdieu’s expansive account of Flaubert, his analysis ranges more widely, taking up many more individuals and ranging across fiction, poetry, and drama. At the same time, this breadth is synchronic, with history represented only by the juxtaposition of the “stages of the field.” McDonald’s focus on individuals allows him to trace developments over life courses—and his fiction-centrism may make the purist-profiteer contrast as sharp as possible. However—and in this he really does look more like a literary scholar than a sociologist—McDonald leaves implicit the method by which any other literary actor could be “placed” in the field in comparison with the three exemplary cases he examines in detail.

Still, notice that McDonald has room for some quite distinct kinds of evidence. The pages on John Lane constitute an analysis of the publisher’s position in the field, not just his relations with Bennett; other publishers get similarly detailed treatment. When periodicals come up, they are generally situated in terms of their typical stances and participants. And there is even reception history, in the compact but pointed remarks on the different periodicals’ responses to Truth about an Author. All of these pieces add up to a fuller sense of the actors in the field than the apparent author-centrism of the approach suggests.

Reading Joyce, Joyce’s predicaments

I really think it’s worth the effort to read Ulysses without annotations, but you’re probably going to go looking things up anyway. The standard reference, apotropaically mentioned on the syllabus, is Don Gifford’s “Ulysses” Annotated. But this is only available in print, and if any text ever needed a digital annotated edition, it must be this one. John Hunt’s Joyce Project gives you an online text of the novel with links to fairly extensive notes (typically derived from Gifford and other glossators). I find the interpretive remarks in the notes distracting. The site may be more usable in the mobile version. The site can show you the pagination in the 1986 Gabler edition of the novel I assigned to you, which is handy for going back and forth between print and digital. However you decide to navigate these options—reflect on the social significance of annotation and more importantly of the capacity of Joyce’s novel to be annotated.

The novel opens with Stephen Dedalus as protagonist. Stephen, as Joyce’s few fans knew, was the hero of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), an artistic Bildungsroman that traces Stephen from early childhood to university-student rebellion. Early readers largely assumed that, as the title implied, the earlier novel was autobiographical. This assumption was mistaken in some ways, but it meant that for them, the first chapters of Ulysses picked up the story of Joyce’s authorial stand-in a little after where he had left off. The first three chapters of Ulysses are centered on Stephen. Consider what happens when this narrative set-up is disrupted by the introduction of Leopold Bloom in “Calypso.”

“To grasp history and biography”: Take your choice of the DNB entry on Joyce or the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry to get some landmarks in the life. As for history, which one? For Woolf, remember, Joyce was a “Georgian”; you’ll only need to read about five pages of Ulysses to see why George V, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, might not furnish the best label for Joyce’s historical context. Putting Hutton and Rainey together will help indicate the scope of this problem. But if you are eager for more Facts, the Rutgers library provides online access to the Cambridge History of Ireland; see especially Roy Foster’s chapter on the Revival, but then consider where and when the relevant history stops. Why only Ireland after all? Joyce left for good, as the biographies tell you, in 1904, the year the novel is set. Is that the terminus ad quem for a historical context too? Perhaps for our seminar the years around 1919, when “Wandering Rocks” first appeared in the Little Review, matter most? (Hutton recently published an entire monograph, Serial Encounters: “Ulysses” and the “Little Review” [OUP, 2019]). Is 1922, when the book is first published, enough? But then Ulysses has been accumulating editions, annotations, and interpretations ever since. The history of what you are reading extends, of course, right up to the present. That might give you some more food for thought on the question of textual predicaments and textual interpretations we discussed last time.

“Trembling on the verge”

Throughout Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf characterizes her present historical moment as a point of literary transition. She concludes the piece with the “surpassingly rash prediction” that “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature” (24). And of course, much of her argument centers on how this “great age” must be brought on by drawing a distinction both historical (Edwardian vs Georgian writers, split by the year 1910) and literary (those who “lay an enormous stress upon that fabric of things” and those who dispose of convention to get at Mrs. Brown as “the spirit we live by, life itself”)(18, 24). However, while Woolf marks this transition quite specifically at the historical moment of 1910, it is less clear to me how one might read this moment of transition sociologically. By this I mean, while Woolf makes clear the literary imperative for this shift towards a new way of making characters “real,” it is not entirely evident right away what social forces, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, what configurations of different kinds of capital in a field of power, might have bearing on what Woolf posits as such a seismic shift in literary representation and production. I would like to propose, in the context of Woolf’s essay and Bennett’s work, that we continue our discussion from last week concerning the difference between what it takes for a field of cultural production to be maintained vs what it takes for it to be radically altered. My main question, then, is how might or might not this transformation in the literary field that Woolf describes also constitute a change in other social fields? 

Reimagining the Field

     In Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, Woolf opens her argument concerning the crisis of character in the novel with Arnold Bennet’s claim that “we have no young novelists of first-rate importance at the present moment, because they are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing.” For Woolf, the formation of “convincing” and “real” characters, ironically, unlike those offered up by Bennet, is the chief endeavor of novel writing. Yet, in closing her piece, Woolf also calls upon readers to insist that authors “truthfully” render Mrs. Brown. In cleaving a space for the audience, she invokes the irony of using Bennet to couch her argument against Edwardian materialism by offering that readers reject their distance from authors. Authors, she insists, know no more about Mrs. Brown than they do, no more about the machinations and exigencies of “real” life as it is lived than they do. 

     I am reminded of the authorial duplicity to which Bennet constantly refers in his “Truth About an Author,” a piece that humorously gestures towards Bourdieu’s rather seriously rendered theory of the field. Bourdieu offers the social space as operating within but distinctly separate from the field of power, which exerts itself onto all planes of cultural production, no matter how obscure. Bennet is exhaustive in his address to the field of power (in that he addresses the transactional realities of literary production), but unlike Woolf, he fails to acknowledge the exertions of the social space aside from his circle of “literary friends.” Woolf seems to suggest that the public-not necessarily readers-are both that which constitutes characterization-Mrs. Brown-and that which complicates the truthful execution of these characterizations, leading to “sleek novels,” “milk and watery criticism,” etc. If, as Woolf suggests, the public at large is equally acquainted with the ingredients for truthful characterization,  how then might the critics’ role be morphed, diminished or elevated? Further, does her perspective of “truthful” characterization signal absolutism, and if so, how might the formal critic be repositioned within the field?

Toward a Sociology of Literary Politics; or: Buzzwords, Buzzwords!

I follow AG’s most recent post in appreciating the distinction that Bourdieu’s method offers from a disappointingly non-evidential political literary criticism, but I nonetheless suspect that a sociology of literature could offer a more textured account of the political as another dimension of position-takings. For example, Bourdieu certainly offers a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between Flaubert’s class (dis)position and literary position-takings, as AG points out; however, the relationship between an agent’s politics and a comprehensive description of their view from the field seems more troubled in some of the other examples we’ve seen. McDonald reads Gosse’s disdain for an emergent mass readership as the literary anxiety of “an established man of letters” rather than the expression of a “political reactionary” (4). Surely, one can’t so easily overlook the class and gender politics of this opposition to the literary encroachment of workers and women, when the very categories of scarcity and masculinity seem to structure Gosse’s conception of literariness (6). But what can a literary sociologist do with that? 

My question, then, remains something like this: to what degree is it possible to incorporate, in this method, a discussion of an agent’s political interventions (like Zola’s) without flattening the contours of the specific political positions taken? Does McDonald not commit the same oversight he (rightly) criticizes in the limited horizontality of Darnton’s “communications circuit” by levelling a terrain of political difference into “politically committed” and “not”? One of the most compelling objectives of Bourdieu’s analysis, in my view, is to model an evaluation of the literary field that is not just original and clever but “more true” (xx, emphasis mine). Is it “more true” to record only the fact of Zola’s political intervention as a position-taking that co-opts politics toward a new position in the field, or might such a model be made “more true” by accounting for the particulars of that intervention, the concrete politics advanced? In other words, would a Bourdieusian analysis of Zola’s position in the field be changed at all if Zola had instead J’accused Dreyfus? If not, should it be?

Bourdieu: more questions of method

We hesitated over how to describe Bourdieu’s own methods in Rules. Though sociology is characteristically concerned with the present, sociology has its own tradition of historical inquiry, going back right to the founding figures, especially Weber and Marx. The sociology-history overlap is particularly significant in France in the 1960s and 1970s when the school of the Annales (emphasizing social history and the history of the longue durée) is of major importance. In a way my choice of excerpt gives a somewhat distorted picture of Bourdieu’s array of methods, since as Rules proceeds into the present it also makes use of data from interviews, and his most influential book, Distinction, is primarily an analysis of survey data.1 The first part of Rules is as close to an ethnography of nineteenth-century French literature as the available sources permit. It is worth reflecting on the differences and similarities between this approach and more familiar forms of literary history and criticism.

An apparent similarity: Rules develops an extended reading of a single novel. To what extent is Bourdieu a historicist literary critic? I own a theory reader in which Bourdieu in fact appears, alongside American New Historicists, under “historicism.” But historicism has typically operated by bringing literary texts and particularized non-literary contexts together in order to show that the literary text is deeply involved with the context. Bourdieu’s field is distinct from context as ordinarily conceived. In the first place, the literary field is literary: the context for interpreting Flaubert consists largely of the activities of other writers, and the stakes of Flaubert’s choices (or any other writers’) are, in the first instance, his position with respect to field.

The analysis of Zola shows the difference clearly: Zola’s political intervention in the Dreyfus Affair is analyzed in terms of Zola’s stance in the literary field, rather than, as literary criticism might do, locating Zola’s “politics” in his novels. And we noted in seminar the passage in which Bourdieu rejects “direct determination by economic and political conditions” in the emergence of art for art’s sake in the Second Empire; instead, “it is from the very particular position that they occupy in the literary microcosm that writers such as Flaubert, Baudelaire, Renan, Leconte de Lisle or Goncourt become aware of a political conjuncture which, grasped through the categories of perception inherent in their dispositions, allows and encourages their inclination to independence” (60). Put more generally, the field is the medium through which all kinds of social forces are felt, and, conversely, it is also the medium through which literary activity exerts its force on society—in the first instance, on that part of society which is literary activity.

This proposition cuts two ways. On the one hand, it is supposed to help us guard against the most reductionist approach, which might say that, for example, defending art for art’s sake is just an expression of class privilege. Flaubert’s class position gave him the resources he needed, and the dispositions that suited him, to effectively champion art for art’s sake, but his intervention reconfigures the literary field. In his earlier work, Distinction, Bourdieu shows the close association between class positions and certain kinds of aesthetic attitudes in cultural consumption. In particular, the “disinterested” appreciation of cultural objects is, he found, most typical of “the dominated fraction of the dominant class.” Many of his readers took him to be saying that there was no difference between aesthetic distance and snobbery. This was always a misreading, but you can see why it might make Bourdieu eager to underline what is not merely the expression or reflection of class in his account of writers like Flaubert.

On the other hand, Bourdieu’s theory also sets some limits on the degree to which “politics” can be extracted from texts. Consider: is Sentimental Education, a novel about an era of failed revolution, a progressive or a reactionary text according to Bourdieu? Answer: the question is wrong. The relation between literature and power is the relation between two fields, for Bourdieu; it is this relation that shapes Sentimental Education and is reshaped by it. The novel’s studied indifference (realized at the level of Flaubert’s distinctive style) to political developments is a necessary condition for its capacity to intervene in the literary field.

To be blunt about it, I think Bourdieu offers a way to study what writing does in the actual world that is far superior to the fantasies most of literary studies traffics in. It might have seemed to you that Bourdieu’s preface attacks a kind of literary criticism—appreciative, philosophico-aesthetic, anti-historicist—that is way out of date on our shores. But in another way our own disciplinary climate remains extremely favorable to the “exclusively literary” reading of literature (xvi), through the general agreement that the most subtle and consequential moral, political, and philosophical meanings can be teased out through acts of textual interpretation focused on literary texts. Such interpretations, whatever their power to convince other professional literary interpreters, almost never provide any evidence of the relations between the literary field and any other social field and thus remain at the level of wishful thinking about the powers of the literary.

The second and third parts of Rules, which I did not assign—though I hope you will get to them eventually—mounts a sustained attack on the assumptions that undergird literary criticism, in the name of proposing the “science of the work of art” as a superior way to understand literature and the arts. Paradoxically, the same developments which Bourdieu described in heroic terms in the parts we read lie behind the intellectual failures of later decades. For in establishing a relatively autonomous literary field and defining the position of the “pure” artist as a social type, those developments made possible the routine “misrecognition” (Rules, 172) of literary texts as meaningful and valuable in themselves. The institutions and practices that establish meaning and value fade into the background and become habitually unspoken, taken for granted—at least by those who operate most successfully within them. Bourdieu’s insight is that this background assumption can be shared by people who take sharply different views of what literature is and does. What we call “close reading” can be understood as an exercise of misrecognition in Bourdieu’s sense, unless it can provide an account of the field or fields in which the text is produced and received. And doing so, says Bourdieu, will “break the spell” (32). In return for suspending the belief in the singular power of the work of art, however, you might recover a much fuller sense of what is necessary for any work—which is really to say, any field—to cast a spell in the first place.

One of the big challenges for anyone persuaded by these arguments is to figure out how to lay hands on the kind of information needed to “objectify” a literary field. Or even if you don’t do the full Bourdieu, a sociology of literature has to concern itself with actual people in actual societies. Biography is an important starting point for getting a handle on those. For British literature, we benefit from the extraordinary Dictionary of National Biography (first edition edited by Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen). For work on any writer with a DNB entry, it is always worth consulting. Naturally one has to read it critically, bearing in mind the limitations of biography as a frame for interpretation. The DNB does not forswear literary judgment when it treats literary writers, and many of those judgments reflect very particular (often highbrow, sometimes shockingly retrograde) assumptions. The entry on Arnold Bennett is concise and quite informative, however, read alongside The Truth about an Author.

One of Bennett’s very first literary publications, mentioned in Truth, is instructive to contemplate in its original publication context: this is the story “A Letter Home,” Yellow Book 6 (July 1895): 93–102. The Yellow Book, published by the avant-garde firm of John Lane, is a byword for aestheticism and decadence. This periodical has been digitized and elaborately edited as part of the Yellow Nineties 2.0 project; cf. the editors’ introduction to vol. 6. Bennett’s identification with this position in the field was, as your other readings reveal to you, short-lived.

At the level of sociological method, then, our readings in and around Bennett pose the question of trajectory through the field. How do authors move from one possible position to another? What enables or disables mobility, and what effects does mobility have, on career, on reception?

But Bennett’s mobility also has another significance. In some ways, his versatility makes him comparable to Bourdieu’s Flaubert; McDonald makes Bennett an exemplary “player” in the field. But whereas Flaubert is one of the great novelists, and thus entirely plausible as a “founder” of a new social configuration of literature, Bennett rapidly became a minor figure. He is no “nomothete,” and very few later scholars have seen him as a hero. What kind of analysis of the “author’s point of view” is possible with a non-heroic model? As you’ll see, such a model is entirely appropriate to Bennett’s own extremely antiheroic sensibility.


  1. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).↩︎