Critical Essays James Joyce and Popular Culture


Few books of the twentieth century are held in higher esteem by critics and academics than those of James Joyce. From the writer's early stories collected in Dubliners, to the almost impenetrable multilingual wordplay of his final book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce's writing is all but universally revered as the embodiment of the Modern in literature. These books, as well as A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and especially Ulysses, never fail to show up near or at the top of lists of great books written during the twentieth century. Without them, any version of the Modern literary canon would be incomplete. The writer himself has long since joined the pantheon of English-language storytellers, alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and Conrad.

It is perhaps surprising, therefore, to discover the extent to which Joyce's passions by no means excluded the commonplace. The evidence lies in his books, though many readers miss it, distracted by his highbrow reputation. Logically enough, practitioners of popular art forms, like movies and rock-and-roll, have mimicked James Joyce's work.

Throughout his lifetime, Joyce maintained an abiding interest in what we today call popular culture. This might in part be explained by his humble beginnings. Though eventually Joyce held an undergraduate degree in modern languages (rather than some more arcane subject), he was born into an enormous lower-middle class family whose fortunes declined as he aged. Joyce's father John was a well-liked salt-of-the-earth type, a habitue of pubs and a talented singer of both light opera and parlor-songs (the pop tunes of the day). His influence rubbed off on Joyce, whose characters are forever buying drinks and bursting into song. Pubs are frequented in "Two Gallants," "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," and "Grace." And melodies are sung in "Two Gallants," "Clay," "A Mother," and especially "The Dead." In fact, "Sunny Jim" Joyce grew into an inveterate bargoer himself, one known for his beautiful tenor voice and his tendency to dance home at closing time in the manner of Isadora Duncan. His favorite song was called "Oh, the Brown and Yellow Ale."

Joyce's characters read pulp fiction (the cowboys-and-Indians stories of "An Encounter") and true-crime books (The Memoirs of Vidocq, mentioned in "Araby"). They participate in auto racing and card playing ("After the Race"). They go shopping ("Araby"), dance ("A Little Cloud" and "The Dead"), and celebrate Halloween ("Clay"). Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, is famously obsessed by a newspaper advertisement (for Plumtree's Potted Meat), while his wife Molly (a professional singer) enjoys reading risque novels with titles like Sweets of Sin. In short, these folks do most of the things done by ordinary people of Joyce's day — and today. If he were writing during the twenty-first century, James Joyce's characters would undoubtedly be surfing the Net when not busy wandering the local mall.

Significantly, the inhabitants of Dubliners visit real pubs (Davey Byrne's, for instance) and stores (Fogarty's). They sing real songs ("I Dreamt That I Dwelt"), the music and lyrics to many of which can be located to this day. This melding of the imaginative and the actual was so unusual — so radical — that it resulted in the delay of Dubliners' publication for years, as publishers and printers worried about lawsuits by the owners of the establishments mentioned. In the meantime, Joyce had opened a movie theater during one of his rare return visits to Dublin; later, he would collaborate with the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein in an attempt to bring Ulysses to the screen.

It is no surprise that work so brimming with the pleasures of pop art and entertainment would inspire pop artists and entertainers in its wake. The crowd-pleasing novels of Stephen King and Danielle Steele, replete with Slurpees and Rolex watches, respectively, would be unimaginable without Dubliners' product placement. Films have been made of Ulysses and A Portrait, and not just a film but a Broadway musical adapted "The Dead." Movies structured according to associations made by their characters between memories and fantasies — words spoken and music heard — owe Joyce and his stream-of-consciousness technique a debt of gratitude, if not actual royalties. (An excellent example of this is Woody Allen's Annie Hall.)

In fact, royalties were very much at issue when the Irish art-rocker Kate Bush set Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy to music. Failing to receive permission from Joyce's estate, Bush wrote her own lyrics in the spirit of Molly and released the results in the song "The Sensual World" on her 1989 album of the same name. Another Irish performer, Van Morrison, mentions Joyce in not one but two of his songs. And many have theorized that John Lennon's free-associative lyrics in the Beatles' songs "I Am the Walrus" and "Come Together" were at least inspired by Joyce, though evidence of an explicit connection is so far lacking.

Mistaken for a highbrow by many who do not know his work and some who do, and considered by many acquaintances to have been a snob in real life, James Joyce remained in his literature fiercely egalitarian. Anyone genuinely shocked by this fact need only revisit the bawdy bits and topical references to be found throughout Shakespeare, another low-born writer whose characters frequent pubs and regularly burst into song — some of them the popular tunes of the Elizabethan era before the Bard adapted them. If Shakespeare's own favorite song wasn't "Oh, the Brown and Yellow Ale," it might have been something close. The obsessive references to Hamlet throughout Ulysses show that Shakespeare influenced James Joyce's fiction, written three centuries later. Similarly, Joyce's own approach inspires artists and entertainers today.