Average People and Deep Books

Reading through this issue of The Little Review makes me keenly aware of the literary culture which flourished in publications at this time and to which I am not sure we have any clear modern equivalent. Probably we do, to some extent, and it is merely not fully visible to me. But perhaps, at the same time, the consumption and discussion of what Ford Madox Hueffer describes as “thoughtful literature” – particularly newly published literature – really has become much more limited than it was in the early 20th century (57). The pieces in this publication are certainly consciously directed toward a uniquely “highbrow” readership, assumed to be distinct from Hueffer’s chimeric “average people.” The journal is, proudly, a source for “Art in which the mind of the artist has moved more rapidly than my mind habitually moves, Art uttered by persons who see a bit more than I do, who feel more deeply than I do” (62). One of course feels this, and is meant to feel this, in reading Joyce, and particularly in reading the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses. Stephen, like Hamlet, thinks too quickly and too well for even he himself to keep up with, let alone the rest of us. His thoughts are forever contorting into something rich and strange. Reading The Little Review provides ample evidence of the literary culture in which Joyce and Stephen were steeped. “The Reader Critic” shows us the level of engagement which readers of this publication had with contemporary literature. Stephen’s intelligence and mode of thinking emerge partly from nature, partly from will, and partly from this environment, one in which readers excitedly and continually wrestled with the metamorphoses of contemporary literature. Were I at all studied in 21st century literature and criticism, I would undoubtedly recoil from my own simplifications here, but it does appear to me that ours is a more ossified canon – a Proteus asleep among his seals, so to speak. There is little in the world of literary academia that I’ve seen to support the ambitions of a young artist like Stephen, intending to write “deep” books. It is perhaps easy to imagine the Stephen Dedalus of 1904 existing somewhere in our day, but more difficult to envision an equivalent to the James Joyce of 1922 and later, a cause of comparable frenzy, praise, and excitement within the intellectual establishment. I am suggesting, tentatively, that The Little Review demonstrates a comparatively popular acceptance and circulation of contemporary literature which is challenging and experimental as the foremost cultural currency and matter of its age – something which I do not see anywhere today, and which powerfully informs Stephen’s/Joyce’s way of thinking about art and language.

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One thought on “Average People and Deep Books

  1. amybunselmeyer

    I think you’ve made a good point here, and I think it is really interesting to consider where something like this would be published today. It was clear to me in reading through The Little Review that most of the writers were interested in many of the same things (particularly art and literature and other “high” culture things). I am always curious about the kind of reception something like Ulysses would have had to its intended audience, as well as how they would have affected its creation, and reading this magazine sort of gave me a sense of that. I agree though that there does not seem to be an equivalent of this kind of publication today.

    Reply

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