How James Joyce Revolutionized English Literature

James Joyce was the quintessential modernist and though nowadays few writers read, Ulysses and virtually no one reads, Finnegans Wake, the publication of, Ulysses in The Little Review starting in March, 1918 forever revolutionized literature, both in terms of prose and poetry.                                                                                                                                                   It’s also interesting to note that although serial publication of, Ulysses began in March, 1918 (and final publication was on his birthday February, 2nd 1922), Joyce actually started writing his novel in the year that the Great War (aka World War I) began, 1914. In my writings, I’ve argued that 1914 and the Great War mark the beginning of the Modern Era (1914-1945).

Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922) is (arguably) the modernist poem of the 20th Century and Eliot himself was tremendously indebted to Ulysses. He said,

“I hold this book (Ulysses) to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

So, what did Joyce accomplish in, Ulysses? Most famously he shifts us from the internal monologue of soliloquy to stream of consciousness. The distinction is the “disjointed” modernist structure where Joyce jumps from one voice or image to another without clearly delineating these shifts for the reader. This was later described by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs as the literary equivalent to collage. They renamed Joyce’s modernist technique, “cut-ups” and took it a step further by literally taking strips of text and physically cutting and pasting them into each other generating a new and different text. This was done “theoretically” in, Naked Lunch (1959) and later literally in, The Soft Machine (1961) and, The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

Eventually this path leads to, “experimental writing” or total “deconstruction” of literature, in which writing devolves from words into “sounds”. Tzara, Stein, Eliot, Dos Passos and even Joyce himself played around with this deconstruction in the Circe episode and more extensively throughout, Finnegans Wake (1939). My joke regarding, Finnegans Wake was that it drove Samuel Beckett to minimalism and Sylvia Plath to madness.
Once writing devolves from word to sound, communication and storytelling are sacrificed on the altars of artistic innovation and there is nowhere for the writer to go except into more of the same or pulling back from it to greater or lesser extents as David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, Denis Johnson and others have done.

I personally went as far down the experimental road as I could in 1994 with, Silent Echo and found there was nowhere to go but to pull back a bit (as I’ve done ever since).