‘Typically British’: William Carlos Williams on Rebecca West on Joyce

J.T. Welsch (York St John University)

  • A version of this paper was delivered at the conference Joycean Literature: Fiction and Poetry 1910-2010, London, June 2011. 

In its September 1928 edition, the American journal The Bookman published a substantial excerpt from a longer essay by Rebecca West entitled ‘The Strange Case of James Joyce.’ As most Joycean scholars and scholarly admirers are well-aware, West’s essay combines personal reflections with an extensive critique of Joyce’s Ulysses. Although West concedes the ‘importance’ of the novel, her essay is better known for her censure of Joyce’s ‘extraordinary incompetence’, and her view that ‘Mr. James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without taste.’ (15) For those who may be unfamiliar with the details, or for those who prefer to forget her infamous and biting critique, I want to emphasise her condemnation of Joyce’s sentimentality, over-inclusiveness, and incoherence. Regarding the first of these, she suggests that it is Joyce’s general ‘lack of taste’ which gives rise to ‘the gross sentimentality which is his most fundamental error.’ (15) Offering the example of the Gerty MacDowell episode from Ulysses, with its punch line of Gerty’s disability, West adds: ‘Seduced by his use of a heterodox technique into believing himself to be a wholly emancipated writer, James Joyce is not at all ahead of his times in his enslavement to the sentimental.’ (20)

West (who was undergoing Freudian analysis at the time) pursues this sort of psychoanalytic reading elsewhere, dismissing his ‘infantile’ use of ‘obscene words’ (21), and adding ‘narcissism’ to her diagnosis on the grounds of Joyce’s ‘compulsion to make a self-image and to make it with an eye to the approval of others … [which] turns Stephen Dedalus into a figure oddly familiar for the protagonist of a book supposed to be revolutionary and unique.’ (21) Stephen’s uninterrupted pontifications in the library scene, for example, are more typical of a ‘Freudian wish-fulfilment dream’. (22)

Finally, regarding the ‘problems’ of Ulysses’ inclusiveness and incoherence – which is to say, its structural failures – West contends that ‘The problem of art is to communicate to the beholder an emotion encased in the artist by a certain object,’ which the artist ‘must remove [from the world] in order to treat it…’ (31) In Joyce’s case, she adds, ‘The brilliantly informative presentation of insufficiently related objects is no novelty in any of the arts. Not only is this method old: is it also logically unsound in both its foundations, since inclusiveness and incoherence can be present in works of art only as the result of interesting and rare special cases.’ (31) At the risk of making a joke out what is, after all, a familiar enough response to Joyce, I hope these few excerpts from West’s 200-page essay will suffice to show West’s focus on what she sees as a failure of form. Rather than re-consider West’s critique, which various commentators have handled much more subtly, and frequently in her defence, the focus of my paper today is the American poet William Carlos Williams’ response to an essay which he says made him feel ‘ill’. (letter to SB, 4/11/28)

‘Did you see Rebecca West on Joyce in The Bookman?’ Williams asked his friend and fellow American poet Louis Zukofsky in a letter from early October 1928. ‘Somehow it made me mad all through. I have written asking if I may answer her. More later.’ (4/10/28, Corres With LZ, 16) Williams indeed wrote to The Bookman, whose editor claimed he lacked the space for an answer to West, who was, after all, a regular contributor to the fairly conservative journal. It was serendipitous then, when Sylvia Beach contacted Williams a few weeks later to solicit a contribution to the collection of essays that would become Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), published the following year in support of Joyce’s ongoing work towards Finnagans Wake. Although Williams’ reputation was still quite meagre, his celebratory ‘Note on the Recent Work of James Joyce’ (1927) – published alongside excerpts from Work in Progress in the journal transition the previous year – made him an obvious choice for the only American-dwelling contributor to Beach and Stuart Gilbert’s project.

This earlier essay had been inspired by a critic of Joyce as well – in this case, by Williams’ and West’s (and everyone’s) mutual friend Ezra Pound, who wrote to Williams that what he has seen of Work in Progress thus far seemed mere ‘backwash’.  By some coincidence, Williams’ 1927 defence of Joyce already addresses many of the criticisms that would be brought by West. Williams puts special emphasis on Joyce being ‘never … sentimental’ (SE 76), and praises the incoherence or ‘brokenness’ of Joyce’s language, a certain truth achieved ‘through the breakup of beautiful words’, as well as Joyce’s inclusiveness or ‘his fullness … which leaves nothing out’. (SE 75-76) Having claimed these same aspects for his admiring image of Joyce, we can see why Williams might have taken West’s essay in The Bookman so personally.

For some critics, however, the bizarre central premise for Williams’ later rebuttal, published in Our Exag and transition in 1929, seems far less reasonable. Most troublingly, the main argument this second defence of Joyce, which Williams called ‘A Point for American Criticism’, is that West is wrong because, according to Williams, she speaks as a ‘spokesman’ for a ‘British critical orthodoxy,’ and therefore ‘cannot take Joyce, as a whole, into the body of English literature for fear of the destructive force of such an act.’ (SE 84) On the other hand, Williams suggests, ‘American criticism … would better fit the Irish of Joyce.’ (87) ‘It is a new literature, a new world, that he is undertaking,’ Williams explains. (90) Thus, he hopes that ‘America, offering an undeveloped but wider criticism, will take this opportunity to place an appreciation of Joyce on its proper basis.’ (90) The defensiveness and defunct ‘insularity’ of British criticism – an insularity, which, Williams adds, ‘is the exact counterpart of the physical characteristic of England’ (87) – must become ‘the opportunity of America! to see large, larger than England can.’ (65)

As noted, various critics have convincingly defended West’s Joyce essay over the years, not only against Williams, or Samuel Beckett, (who also rejected her ‘continuous process of copious intellectual salivation’ in Our Exag), but more generally, against a High Modernist canon less accommodating of her mixed views. Francesca Frigerio (2002), for instance, re-considers the critique of Ulysses within West’s broader feminist agenda, making a strong case that the essay ‘could be part of West’s strategy to withdraw the novel from the male modernist exegesis … and to reconduct it within a women’s modernity.’ (66) Likewise, Austin Briggs (1996) – taking cues from Bonnie Kime Scott’s likening of West’s essay to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in her Joyce and Feminism (1984) – defends West against Williams’ ‘hostility’ within the wider scope of their row, as it played out in the letters pages of the New English Weekly well into the ‘30s. Finally, moving beyond the defence of West against ‘James Joyce and His Followers’ (as West titled a second, distinctly conciliatory essay in 1930) to direct critique of Williams on Joyce, Stephen John Dilks, in a recent collection of essays revisiting Our Exagmination (2010), argues that Williams simply ‘misses the point’. (127) In this, he echoes Marion Cumpiano’s much earlier suggestion that ‘Williams did not really understand FW’. (1989: 98, n. 3) And for Dilks, the thing that ‘prevents [Williams] from engaging directly with Joyce’s text and that makes him distort West’s position’ is nothing besides ‘his nationalist effort to undercut “British criticism”’. (127; 119) Dilks stresses the irony in how the ‘intercultural diversity’ of Our Exagmination and Work in Progress itself ‘make[s] Williams’ “point” seem unnecessarily provincial, suggesting that he didn’t quite get the envelope-busting implications of Joyce’s text.’ (119)

Before you assume I’ll now use the second half of this paper to swing round and defend Williams against such views, I should say that I agree with Dilks. Williams’ ‘undeveloped nationalist argument,’ as Dilks puts it, most certainly ‘gets in the way’. (127) If taken literally, there is nothing in Williams’ own logic to justify or account for his obsessive attack on the straw man of ‘British critical orthodoxy’ (whatever that might mean), nor for his wrath towards ‘typically British’ (Scotch-Irish) Rebecca West. However, what critics like Dilks, Briggs, or Cumpiano seem to ignore is that Williams thought so too. Before sending his essay, Williams begged Beach for more time, complaining that he had ‘found it extremely difficult[,] so cleverly has [West] involved her hidden thesis in fine words. I can’t tell you how it infuriated me.’ (4/11/1928) A few weeks later, having sent it, Williams confided in Zukofsky, to whom he had expressed his immediate anger two months before, when he had promised ‘More later’:

The Rebecca West article [his own, ‘Point’] took too much out of me for nothing for me to go on with it properly. Either I should have worked it out minutely over fifty pages, taking three months to complete it or – She did not seem worth killing. Anyhow I grew bored. I almost threw the thing away. I got into a nervous fit over not having time to play with the points and arrange them. When Sylvia Beach wrote that she was bringing her brochure out on Joyce [Exag] I offered what I had. She cabled acceptance. I slammed my random shots together and – so it always seems to go. More mania. (2/12/1928, Corres of WCW and LZ, p. 23)

For my own interests, I take neither pleasure or pity on behalf of West’s or Joyce’s supporters in this private confession, in Williams’ shift from October to December 1928, from an indignant, confident ‘More later’ to this frustration and the self-deprecating sigh of having achieved only ‘More mania’.  Instead, I want to suggest that the whole incident, along with Williams’ general approach to Joyce, sloppy and self-contradictory as it often is, exemplifies a difficult and much more interesting negotiation of an anti-tradition anti-criticism which Williams was hardly unique in attempting around this time. Moreover, I want to think about how the exaggerated and, I’ll argue, mostly figural nationalism underpinning Williams’ attack on West and defence of Joyce represents, for Williams, one way of coping with this paradox of the anti-critical critic. In this regard, I’m happy to return to Dilks’ conclusion that Williams ‘…fails to illustrate how American Criticism is any more equipped to appreciate Joyce’s text than criticism by writers from other national cultures. He fails to acknowledge that many American critics were even more hostile to Joyce’s project than West. And he fails to see that many British publishers, readers and critics, including three who were featured in Our Exagmination, were entirely receptive to Joyce.’ (127)

However, rather than simply dismiss Williams’ unconvincing performance as a critic, I want to consider how these failures – which stared Williams in the face as well –relate to the ‘necessary presupposition of failure in any reconsideration of modernism,’ as Frederic Jameson puts it the opening essay of The Modernist Papers (2007).  Jameson himself focuses on texts of Williams and Joyce in his exploration of the ‘aesthetics of failure’, as he calls it, pointing to Williams’ Paterson as his defining example of ‘a modern epic that knows in its deepest structural impulses … that it must not succeed, that its conditions of realization depend on a fundamental success in failing, at the same time that it must not embody any kind of will to failure either, in the conventional psychology of the inferiority complex…’ (5) Likewise, Williams’ brash self-assuredness against West, contrasted with his private fears of her cleverness and later acknowledgement of his failure to produce a structurally sound critique, all belies this same paradox. As Jameson explains, ‘the imperative to fail’ must be matched with ‘the requirement that the writers in question not merely attempt to succeed, but also believe success is somehow possible.’ (4)

In the case of Williams’ image of Joyce, I would take it a step further. Where Jameson psychologises the coupled belief-in-success/imperative-of-failure in this way, and relates it to older, chiefly Barthesian and Adornian formulations of the problem of innovation, I would note that the ‘aesthetics of failure’ begins to echo, however ironically, another familiar theoretical paradigm regarding ‘the anxiety of influence’. This is not to confuse Frederic Jameson with Harold Bloom in any other respect, of course. (If nothing else, Bloom makes clear that he finds little of interest in Williams’ work, compared with, say, that of Wallace Stevens.) But by drawing a comparison between these conceptions of imperative failure and the crisis of influence, there seems to be a new way of reading Williams’ ‘Joyce’.  Rather than focusing on the quality or accuracy of Williams’ literary criticism, we might view his ‘misreading’ of Joyce as Poetic-Father (or misprision, as Bloom would have it) in the context of his dogmatic anti-traditionalism, on one hand – which expresses itself in his anti-British fixation – and, on the other hand, in relation to his Utopian dream of a ‘new’ American criticism, better aligned with Joyce’s ‘new’ language.

As a way to unpack this slightly, I’ll finish by contextualising the question or problem of Joyce’s influence on Williams in relation to a tellingly obscure volume which articulates and performs the conundrum most explicitly. In 1923, a few years prior to Williams’ involvement with transition and the clash with West, he published a prose work entitled, with no small amount of irony, The Great American Novel. Williams critics have taken to referring to this strange and not very good book as his ‘anti-novel’ (especially in comparison to the realist novels he wrote in the later 1920s). Linda Wagner, on the other hand, while helping to establish Williams scholarship in the 1960s, was happy to label The Great American Novel ‘our American Ulysses’. (1969: 136) Rather than basing this very serious epithet on an analysis of the book’s structure or style, however, Wagner seems to take Williams at his own word here, since this playful, self-reflective anti-novel pauses frequently in its anti-narrative to comment on its chief forebear: ‘It [the book says of itself] is Joyce with a difference. The difference being greater opacity, less erudition, reduced power of perception.’ (167) ‘In other words,’ the book continues, confessing its Bloomian anxiety of self-worth, ‘it comes after Joyce, therefore it is no good, of no use but a secondary local usefulness like the Madison Square Garden tower copied from Seville—It is of no absolute good. It is not NEW. It is not invention.’ (168)

In The Great American Novel, the sign of ‘Joyce’ functions as the end of tradition, which Williams, though celebrating it elsewhere, also recognises for the problems it poses for innovation and authoriality. ‘Joyce’, as such, signifies for Williams the paradox of an influence which he can neither accept nor avoid, and after which Bloom’s misreading or Jameson’s failure emerges as a defence strategy. The Great American Novel had been dashed off in knee-jerk response to the 1922 publication of Ulysses – a book which is no less a landmark of Williams’ modernism for the very literal intertextuality of have been printed on the same Dijon press and in the same year as his seminal Spring and All. Furthering this identification, the impossible anti-novel (written by the anti-poet, as Stevens called him) not only advocates, aspires to, and acknowledges this necessary misreading and failure, but projects these perverse virtues onto the icon of his Joyce, who ‘misjudged, misunderstood’… ‘His vaunted invention is a fragile fog. His method escapes him. He has not the slightest notion what he is about. He is a priest, a roysterer of the spirit. He is an epicurean of romance. His true genius flickers and fails…’ (168)

This romantic transference of Williams’ own aesthetics of failure serves to idealise and idolise the Joycean figure, raising it to be dealt with as the priestly or Fatherly symbol – a rationale, perhaps, against the reality of Joyce’s text. Along these lines, I have no desire to rationalise Williams’ flawed critical response to West on account of his perverse idolatry, or the imperative to critical failure. And I hesitate to crudely psychologise the childish anti-Britishness of a writer who eventually disowned Emerson as ‘too English’, or who only began to write seriously after burning an epic imitation of Keats, or whose dearest university mates Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle abandoned him for England, where he longed to follow, but could not overcome the influence to make an honest living in New Jersey from his actual father, William Sr., from Birmingham. As I suggested before, the doomed logic of Williams’ idealised authorial subjectivity, embodied at least by the name of Joyce, seems far more interesting than another review of either party’s critical rightness.

Works Cited 

Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford UP, 1973).

Briggs, Austin, ‘Rebecca West vs. James Joyce,Samuel Beckett, and William Carlos Williams’, Joyce in the Hibernian Metropolis, ed. Morris Beja and David Norris (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996), pp. 83-102.

Cumpiano, Marion, ‘The Impact of James Joyce on Williams Carlos Williams,’ William Carlos Williams Review, 15 (Spring 1989), pp. 48-58.

Dilks, Stephen John, ‘A Point for Intercultural Criticism’, Joyce’s Disciples Disciplined: A Re-exagmination of the “Exagmination of Work in Progress”, ed. Tim Coonley (University College Dublin, 2010), pp. 118-127.

Frigerio, Francesca, ‘Under West(ern) Eyes: Rebecca West Reads Joyce’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Autumn, 2002), pp. 66-72.

Jameson, Frederic, The Modernist Papers, (London: Verso, 2007).

Mariani, Paul L., William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: Norton, 1990).

Scott, Bonnie Kime, Joyce and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984).

Wagner, Linda Welshimer, ‘William Carlos Williams’ “The Great American Novel”’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 48-61.

West, Rebecca, Strange Necessity (London: Jonathan Cape [1928]).

Williams, William Carlos, The Great American Novel, reprinted in Imaginations: Five Experimental Texts, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970).

——, Spring and All, reprinted in Imaginations: Five Experimental Texts, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970).

——, ‘A Note on the Recent Work of James Joyce’, in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, ed. by John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1969).

——, ‘A Point for American Criticism’, in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, ed. by John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1969).

Williams, William Carlos, and Louis Zukofsky, The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, ed. Barry Ahern (Wesleyan, 2003).


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