The Very First Reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A Work of High Genius” (1922)


We’ve recent­ly dis­cussed the reac­tions of James Joyce’s lit­er­ary con­tem­po­raries to the 1922 pub­li­ca­tion of Ulysses. T.S. Eliot was floored, and told all of his friends, includ­ing Vir­ginia Woolf. Woolf wres­tled with the book and either found it too dull or too over­whelm­ing to fin­ish. What­ev­er the reac­tion, Joyce’s peers took notice. But what did peo­ple who weren’t soon to be the sub­ject of thou­sands of dis­ser­ta­tions think? Of the few non-mod­ernist mas­ters who read Joyce, his first pro­fes­sion­al crit­ics offer evi­dence. Take the review of Dr. Joseph Collins in The New York Times (above—see the full text here). Collins begins with a very pre­scient state­ment, one most read­ers of Joyce will like­ly agree with in some part:

Few intu­itive, sen­si­tive vision­ar­ies may under­stand and com­pre­hend “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s new and mam­moth vol­ume, with­out going through a course of train­ing or instruc­tion, but the aver­age intel­li­gent read­er will glean lit­tle or noth­ing from it- even from care­ful perusal, one might prop­er­ly say study, of it- save bewil­der­ment and a sense of dis­gust. It should be com­pan­ioned with a key and a glos­sary like the Berlitz books. Then the atten­tive and dili­gent read­er would even­tu­al­ly get some com­pre­hen­sion of Mr. Joyce’s mes­sage.

Collins then goes on to praise Joyce’s great­ness in no uncer­tain terms:

Before pro­ceed­ing with a brief analy­sis of “Ulysses,” and a com­ment on its con­struc­tion and con­tent, I wish to char­ac­ter­ize it. “Ulysses” is the most impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion that has been made to fic­tion­al lit­er­a­ture in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It will immor­tal­ize its author with the same cer­tain­ty that Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el immor­tal­ized Rabelais, and “The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zof” Dos­toyevsky. It is like­ly that there is no one writ­ing Eng­lish today that could par­al­lel Joyce’s feat.

Such incred­i­bly high praise it sounds like flat­tery, espe­cial­ly since Joyce’s book had not even weath­ered a few weeks among the read­ing pub­lic. For a more sober and care­ful assess­ment, see the great lit­er­ary crit­ic Edmund Wilson’s July, 1922 review in the New Repub­lic. In Wilson’s ambiva­lent assess­ment: “The thing that makes Ulysses impos­ing is, in fact, not the theme but the scale upon which it is devel­oped. It has tak­en Mr. Joyce sev­en years to write Ulysses and he has done it in sev­en hun­dred and thir­ty pages which are prob­a­bly the most com­plete­ly “writ­ten” pages to be seen in any nov­el since Flaubert.” If this seems like faint praise, it sets up some of Wilson’s “com­plaints” to come. And yet, “for all its appalling longueurs,” he writes, “Ulysses is a work of high genius. [It] has the effect at once of mak­ing every­thing else look brassy.”

Of course there were those who hat­ed the book, like Harvard’s Irv­ing Bab­bitt, who said it could only have been writ­ten “in an advanced stage of psy­chic dis­in­te­gra­tion.” And there were the puri­tans and philistines who found the novel’s scat­o­log­i­cal  humor, frank depic­tions of sex, and near con­stant erot­ic charge a scan­dal. Yet it was the opin­ions, how­ev­er qual­i­fied, of Joyce’s peers and most of his crit­ics that moved U.S. Judge John Mon­ro Woolsey eleven years lat­er to rule that the book was not obscene and could be legal­ly sold in Amer­i­ca. Wrote Woolsey in his deci­sion, “The rep­u­ta­tion of ‘Ulysses’ in the lit­er­ary world… war­rant­ed my tak­ing such time as was nec­es­sary… In ‘Ulysses,’ in spite of its unusu­al frank­ness, I do not detect any­where the leer of the sen­su­al­ist.” Good thing Woolsey did­n’t read Joyce’s let­ters to his wife.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

James Joyce Read From his Epic Ulysses, 1924

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Vir­ginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

James Joyce’s “Dirty Let­ters” to His Wife (1909)

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load the Free Audio Book

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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