James Longenbach at The Nation:
In 1946, a precocious student at the University of Toronto wanted to read the library’s copy of James Joyce’sUlysses. He was informed that he needed first to submit two letters, one from a clergyman and the other from a doctor. The Canadian ban on Ulysses would not be lifted until 1949, so the young man headed south, to Yale University, where after some wrangling he was permitted to write his PhD dissertation on Joyce, and in 1956 it was published as Dublin’s Joyce, one of the first large-scale examinations of Joyce’s career. Even then, twenty-three years after the US ban against Ulysses had been lifted, Joyce’s book was more often talked about than read—it was dirty, immoral, impossible. Today, Ulysses is still more often talked about than read. What’s the most overrated book you’ve never finished? “Joyce’s Ulysses,” says the novelist Richard Ford in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. “Hands down.”
The author of Dublin’s Joyce was the inimitable Hugh Kenner, who had no patience for such literary chatter. When I heard him lecture on Joyce in the mid-1980s, he spoke without a prepared text, producing sentences that were small syntactical dramas, as suspenseful as they were incisive. Every century produces its signature epic, Kenner began. The seventeenth century had Milton’s Paradise Lost, the eighteenth century had Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the nineteenth century had—dramatic pause—theOxford English Dictionary. The OED’s entry on the word “and” is longer than Paradise Lost, said Kenner. Who would read it?