Literature and I.T. Review

My thesis, currently titled “Jumpin’ Jim Joyce: The Minstrel Show in the Mind of Joyce”, will attempt to locate an Irish reading of the Minstrel show as a cultural text. I will focus on references to and representations of blackface minstrelsy in “The Dead”, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, approaching these texts from a hybridized critical perspective drawing on Postcolonial and Translation theory, while also focusing on Joyce’s historical and social influences in the form of earlier authors’ influence on Joyce’s interpretation and presentation of minstrel show tropes. Ultimately, I hope to argue that, to Joyce, the minstrel show was a potentially subversive performance, a kind of cultural translation that, much like his linguistic breakdown in Finnegans Wake, reveals a hybridity and playfulness that is destructive to the hierarchies of empire.



I intend to rely on Eric Lott’s seminal study of the minstrel show, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford U.P., 1993), to establish the beginnings of the minstrel show and its role in late-19th century culture. Alongside Lott, I plan to use David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 2007), and Ignatiev Noel’s How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995) in a consideration of Irish-American involvement in the minstrel show, and the resulting Irish influence on minstrel show tropes that helped lead to their popularity in Ireland. On that note, I will be drawing on Douglas Riach’s 1973 article “Blacks and Blackface on the Irish Stage, 1830-60” (Journal of American Studies 7.3) and Margaret Greaves 2012 piece “Slave Ships and Coffin Ships: Transatlantic Exchanges in Irish-American Blackface Minstrelsy” (Comparative American Studies 10.1) to reveal how the minstrel show was perceived in Ireland.

Obviously, existing studies on Joyce will make up some of the most significant research I will be drawing on in my thesis. To root my analysis in Joyce’s historical contexts, I will use Richard Ellman’s definitive biography James Joyce (Oxford U.P., 1959), as well as Joyce’s collected letters (Faber, 1966) and his brother, Stanislaus Joyce’s, memoirs, My Brother’s Keeper (Faber, 1958). I hope to use the biographical information from these sources to establish a line of historical and artistic influences that impacted Joyce’s understanding of theatrical performance, cultural exchange, colonial relationships, and translation, arguing that Joyce’s approach to these concepts would have had a notable impact on his opinion of the minstrel show.

41b8p7wtwkl-_sx322_bo1204203200_ Furthermore, I intend to build my argument on literary studies of Joyce that approach his work through the filter of Postcolonial and Irish studies, such as Vincent Cheng’s Joyce, Race and Empire (Cambridge U.P., 1995), Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes edited collection Semicolonial Joyce (Cambridge U.P., 2000), and Emer Nolan’s Catholic Emancipation: Irish Fiction from Thomas Moore to James Joyce (Syracuse U.P., 2007). As foundational studies of Joyce’s relationship to colonialism and racism, both Joyce, Race, and Empire and Semicolonial Joyce will establish many of the founding assumptions of my interpretation of Joyce as an author intent on renegotiating the Manichean principles of the colonial and nation-building enterprises of his day. Nolan’s work, which recovers a Catholic Irish literary tradition from the largely Anglo-Irish shadow of the Irish Literary Revival will reinforce my more biographical research and help to establish Joyce’s significant Irish influences such as Thomas Moore and James Clarence Mangan.

The minstrel show’s unique location at the intersection of discussions of high and low art, dialect, transnational cultural exchange, and racial power structures makes it a useful point of entry for a consideration of Joyce that rectifies the interpretative dilemmas often brought about by the conflict between modernist theorist’s insistence on the apolitical, cosmopolitan Joyce and Irish studies scholars tendency to see Joyce as a colonial author. As such, I will also be drawing on Christine Van Boheemen’s Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History: Reading, Narrative and Postcolonialism (Cambridge U.P., 1999), and Luke Gibbon’s Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory (Chicago U.P., 2015), both works which have paved the way for viewing Joyce’s Irish context as foundational to, rather than opposed to, his Modernism.

I will also be supporting my argument with more strictly theoretical texts. Naturally, I intend to make recourse to many of the foundational Postcolonial studies such as Edward Said’s Orientalism (Penguin, 2003), and Frantz Fanon’s work in The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Weidenfeld, 1963) and Black Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press, 1967). However, I intend to rely most heavily on works that situate Postcolonial theory in an Irish context such as Clare Carroll and Patricia King’s Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (Cork University Press, 2003), as well as many of David Lloyd’s works, but particularly Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-colonial Moment and Nationalism (Duke University Press, 1993) and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (California U.P., 1987). These texts will help me establish the ways in which Joyce would perceive the relationship between African-Americans as presented on the minstrel stage and the Irish, as well as to help me explore the delicate power balances inherit in the minstrel show as an act which gives a dominant group the power to author (and alter) a subaltern perspective.

Additionally, Minor Literature, will serve as a significant text to establish Mangan’s faux-oriental translations as an influence on Joyce’s understanding of the minstrel show, and, as a result, opens the door to applying elements of translation theory to my thesis. Currently, I am hoping to use Walter Benjamin’s work in Illuminations (Fontana Press 1992), alongside the linguistic observations of George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford U.P., 1998) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in “The Politics of Translation” from her collection Outside in the Teaching Machine (Routledge, 1993) to structure an interpretation of the minstrel show as a translation that reveals the ultimate instability of colonial and racial relations.

Finally, I intend to use databases provided by the Boole Library, such as Project Muse, but I am also interested in incorporating materials from public online archives such as the University of Virginia’s online collection Blackface Minstrelsy 1830-52 ( I hope to experiment with some Digital Humanities distant reading tools such as Voyant ( in my approach to Finnegans Wake to help organize and chart common minstrel show terms and tropes as they appear in the text. voyantUltimately, most of my research materials are available at the Boole library, either physically or through its online offerings. In the event that the library does not have any necessary materials for my project, I intend to make use of the ALCID scheme to avail of other Irish libraries.

Joyce and Walcott: Colonial Modernity and the Death of Difference

I’ve always been fascinated with Literary Modernism’s seeming commitment to the idea that meaning and signification is external. This idea was pretty clearly articulated in T.S. Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in which Eliot claims that Joyce’s grand achievement in Ulysses, equivalent in importance to “a scientific discovery” was his epic and classical structure. The significance of this is clearest when one looks at how Eliot describes the novel as a medium:  “instead of being a form, [the novel] was simply the expression of an age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter.” With classic anti-modern, modernist flair, Eliot sees Joyce’s time and setting in need of the “form” of past epics in order to signify in a formless age.

I believe this search for an external scaffolding on which to erect modern art is particularly problematic as it relates to artists from colonial backgrounds. Whatever Eliot means when he refers to modernity as “formless” (a rather unspecific criticism) it is very easy to imagine, especially with a writer like Eliot, that this “formlessness” stems, at least in part, from the voices of colonial subjects chipping away at older more homogeneous world views. We must remember, this is a man with ambitions to “purify the dialect of the tribe”(“Little Gidding). In fairness to Eliot I do think that there is much more at play in his critique than a fear of new perspectives, but, for the sake of this blog post, I’m focusing on this aspect.

This leaves the colonial modernist in a bit of a bind. To signify, by Eliot’s standards, they must adopt a classically informed structure, but the structures of their own culture would hardly constitute as “classical” to a global audience. This leaves these authors at risk of analogizing themselves out of existence as they work to equate the finer points of their creative works, and, as a result, their culture, to outside models.


While I tremble at the very thought of presuming I understand even the first thing about Finnegans Wake (Except you know, that the first and last sentence is, like, the same) It seems to me that it is a prime example of the problem I am writing about. Throughout the text, the myths of the world are all drawn into and equated to a traditional Irish song.  The book’s (maybe kinda sorta) protagonist HCE appears, in one of his many coded guises, as “Here Comes Everybody.” I can’t help reading this as the end result of Modernism’s Classical structures. As x must be equated to y in order to signify, the lines between x and y blur. Art risks loosing meaningful connections to culture, as all stories, myths, and traditions simply become redrawn versions of other stories, myths, and traditions. This impulse towards analogy is clearly seen in some of the 20th century’s leading thinkers like Jung or the early Joycean James Campbell, and I wonder if some of the ideas that Jung and company forwarded were inspired by this element of colonial literature (admittedly, this is an element of modern literature as a whole, but I think its repercussions are most notable in this context).

However, I suppose referring to Finnegans Wake as colonial literature could come across as a bit of a stretch. A work like Derek Walcott’s Omeros presents this drive for cultural analogy a little more clearly I think. Walcott uses Homer’s work, along with a plethora of other cultural analogies, to articulate a West Indian experience. Walcott, I would argue, is probably more successful than Joyce at maintaining a sense of regional character, though I am not certain Joyce had any intention to do so. The problem with these analogical literary structures is that they recreate the power structures of colonialism, with a dominant perspective or myth that signifies, and a subaltern one that must be translated through a more “universal” filter. The question I am left with considering these works is how do these analogies change the perception of the subaltern culture and how do they effect the lines of difference between cultures.

This issue, the struggles of signifying through cultural analogy, is something I hope to explore in my MA dissertation (most likely with these two authors featuring to some capacity). As I carry on with my research, I am hoping to come to stronger conclusions as to the effects of these analogies and the dialogues they produce.

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.”, Accessed 11 November 2016.

–. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.”, Accessed 11 November 2016.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake., Accessed 11 November 2016.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. Faber and Faber, 1990.