Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Brian Fox's "James Joyce's America"

Brian Fox is a senior assistant professor at Okayama University, Japan. His research interests are in all aspects of Anglo-American literary modernism, with a focus on Joyce. Fox was educated at Trinity College Dublin, l'Universite de Paris (7), and University of London (Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway). Before Okayama, he was a Visiting Lecturer at Kyushu University, Japan and is an active member in Japan's lively Joyce scene. He chairs the Kyushu-Chugoku Ulysses Research Seminar. In addition, he has worked as a co-translator on selected works of Kenji Miyazawa.

Fox applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, James Joyce's America, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
…[His] opening address to ‘Meesta Cheeryman’ (FW 516.03) suggests the ‘nigger dialect’ of minstrelsy that Joyce was so interested in, while also appearing to appeal to a ‘Mister Juryman’ of the court. With a reference to ‘Miles’ (FW 516.12) coming shortly after, it is possible to see an allusion to his trial in this passage. His hanging is suggested via an allusion to the notorious Major Sirr and the torture of ‘halfhanging’ used in suppress ing the rebellion of 1798: ‘half hang me, sirr’ (FW 516.15). That we are told this by a ‘Masta Bones’ (FW 515.32) who also describes HCE as ‘whiskying into a bone tolerably delicately’ (FW 516.07–8), suggests that the victims of Yawn’s ‘plantagonist’ (FW 516.24) can be found simultaneously in the plantations of Ireland and America. Hence, we see again amid the confusion a sustained interest in the question of colonial legacies as Joyce draws a connecting line between British law in Ireland and lynch law in America. In the end, Yawn so obscures his account (and identity) that his interrogator interrupts with a desperately confused attempt to recapitulate: ‘A sarsencruxer, like the Nap O’ Farrell Patter Tandy moor and burgess medley?’ (FW 516.31–2). Bringing blackface minstrelsy (Moore and Burgess Minstrels) and revolutionary minstrelsy (Napper Tandy in ‘The Wearing of the Green’) into proximity, Joyce yet again entwines two histories of subjugation through allusions to popular culture. But it is the very nature of blackface minstrelsy (fraudulent, silencing) that prompts the idea that, owing to the poisoned legacy of the ‘plantagonist’, the ‘land of the free’ shades in to its Wakean epithet as the ‘land of breach of promise’ (FW 442.13– 14).

Joyce, as I have argued, was particularly drawn to a specific kind of American popular culture, one with a strong sense of a connection to a history of empire. There is, for instance, more of black American culture (or rather its misappropriation through minstrelsy) than almost any other kind of American culture in the Wake. Moreover, he typically viewed this culture through the lens of Irish–British colonial relations. In Ulysses and the Wake, through the wide range of cultural allusions to issues of race in the United States, he took American history and focused on these colonial aspects, their future implications, historical reverberations, and contemporary legacies.

An interrogation of colonial legacies in the American republic through its culture is an especially apt pursuit for an Irish artist writing after 1922 and the founding of the Free State, whose citizens must now also negotiate the complex legacies of colonialism, revolution, and civil war. Indeed, in the passage we have just been looking at in III.3 in the Wake, we can hear in a musichall refrain (‘There’s hair like wire coming out of the Empire’) the explosive consequences of repressed emancipatory forces such as occurred in America in 1776 and the Civil War and in Ireland from 1916 to 1923: ‘like fire bursting out of the Ump pyre’ (FW 516.14–15). These dangerous sparks flying out from the funeral pyre of the British Empire connect Irish and American revolutions and civil wars. Certainly, Joyce is not prescriptive, and he raises far more questions than programmatic solutions about what America could teach Ireland through their shared histories of colonialism and revolt. But as this chapter has argued, the return of the ‘seim anew’ in America (the British imperial model being replicated by its former colony) strongly suggests a warning of sorts. The enjoining of KKK hoods and minstrels’ hats, Abraham Lincoln and lynching, Yankee Doodle and Zip Coon,…
I would say the Page 99 Test does a pretty good job of reflecting the overall argument of James Joyce’s America, helped no doubt by the fact that readers opening the book to this page would find themselves in the middle of the conclusion to a section in the second chapter on how Joyce alludes to blackface minstrelsy in his final work, Finnegans Wake (abbreviated above as FW).

Admittedly, this may also be something of a hindrance: Finnegans Wake, with its experimental hybrid language, is hardly the most accessible of texts to be quoting from by way of introduction! Nevertheless, page 99 includes a number of helpfully broad statements intended to sum up attempts to shine light into the corners of Joyce’s ‘book of the dark’ (FW 251.24).

Perhaps if I can briefly draw out just one of those statements as it applies to the book as a whole: the claim that, where America is concerned, Joyce’s work demonstrates a sustained interest in the question of colonial legacies. Joyce started writing Finnegans Wake in the immediate aftermath of revolution, civil war, and the founding of a new state in Ireland, and his allusions to America in that work often reflect a sense of a shared history of decolonization from the British Empire. But he also implicates America in the perpetuation of historical crimes by juxtaposing British colonial abuses in Ireland with historical and contemporary racial abuse in America: Finnegans Wake includes several allusions to the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, recently resurgent when Joyce began writing that work. Thus, Joyce viewed America through the lens of Irish colonial history, but it’s fair to say that he also viewed Ireland through the lens of American history: a decolonized America provided an obvious point of reference with which to interrogate the emancipatory forces and potential legacies at work in the Ireland Joyce was writing about. Finnegans Wake is often seen as an elaborate and rarefied word puzzle somewhat removed from the immediate politics of the day, but his interrogation of the legacies of colonialism in America and the ‘breach’ of its emancipatory ‘promise’ (through slavery and murderous racism) were undoubtedly connected to the recent founding of the Irish Free State, ‘whose citizens must now also negotiate the complex legacies of colonialism, revolution, and civil war’.
Learn more about James Joyce's America at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue