Keeping James Joyce Out of Oscar Wilde’s Purple Trousers

As James Joyce observed, if Ulysses is not fit to be read, life is not fit to be lived. Yet, despite Joyce’s efforts to include heterogeneous sexual identities, and sexual desires in the individual psyche, through the 1970s-80s Ulysses was taught and read through a heteronormative lens. In 1948, Ellsworth Mason completed the first dissertation on Joyce. Thus authorized, he set about establishing ground rules for the flood of Joyceans to come. Mason prioritizes a trained cohort of Ulysseans that will stand firmly in opposition to Joyce’s “ignorant detractors,” whose unforgivable error is to have “variously garbed” Joyce “in Wilde’s purple trousers and the seven horns of the Apocalyptic beast” (196). If Mason was horrified at the thought of Joyce being put into, let alone wanting to get into Oscar Wilde’s purple trousers, through his influence, subsequent generations of Joyce scholars were not so much outraged by as de-sensitized to all the queer getting into and out of trousers across Ulysses. Paradoxically, to teach Joyce’s radical text, it was pragmatically necessary to disregard its most radical implications. In this paper, I am interested not in Ulysses’ radical potential, but in the powerful social pressures that led generations of Joyceans to deny that Joyce wrote about sex at all. I present on written and oral accounts of how Ulysses was taught, focusing on the teaching of Ulysses by instructors who were the most vulnerable, and the most impervious to institutional or social harassment and persecution.

Ethics, Representation, Authenticity

The Arts in Social, Political, and Community Life

Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

  • Margot Backus
    • Professor, English, University of Houston, United States United States