On this day…18 July

On 18 July 1912 Harry Levin was born.

Born in Minneapolis, Levin studied at Harvard where he started teaching in 1939. He was the author of a critical introduction to Joyce published in 1941, and he edited the Portable James Joyce, published in 1947.

Levin’s book about Joyce is credited with making Joyce an acceptable subject for academic study. According to Joseph Brooker, Levin’s book was “the book that most clearly signals Joyce’s entrance into the American academy.” Richard Ellmann, in acknowledging the assistance that he received from Levin, credits him with laying the foundation for Joyce scholarship with his 1941 book.

It is worth bearing in mind just how unconventional the study of twentieth-century literature was at the time. Joyce scholar Ellsworth Mason has pointed out that at Yale University Richard Ellmann’s dissertation on Yeats in 1947 was the first one on a twentieth-century topic ever to be accepted, and Mason’s 1948 dissertation on Joyce was the second.

Levin had written a review of Finnegans Wake that Joyce said was the best he had read, and Joyce also read Levin’s ‘On First Looking into Finnegans Wake,’ and told the publisher James Laughlin that everyone he had shown it to thought it the most striking article on the Wake that had so far appeared.

Levin’s James Joyce – A Critical Introduction was published by New Directions in 1941, and was the first book-length study of Joyce’s work by an American academic. The war being waged across Europe at the time seemed to constitute a clear break with the modernist period, and Joyce’s death made it possible to start considering his oeuvre as complete and thus to begin to assess its significance. So Levin’s book had the advantage of perspective, looking back over Joyce’s works and over the period and the context in which he had written them.

Given that Joyce’s Ulysses had been banned for obscenity in the US until the end of 1933, Joyce was still not considered ‘respectable’ by many. In addition, critical reaction to Joyce’s work during his lifetime had often been extreme and sharply divided. However, Levin was able to rise above these extremes and provide a detached and academic tone, thereby making it clear that Joyce’s work was suitable for the academy.

Levin also made use of his skills in comparative literature to locate Joyce’s works in a literary and cultural context and tradition, for instance by tracing the connections between Joyce’s work and French Symbolism and the works of Flaubert. This contextualising also helped ease Joyce into academic study alongside older and more established works.

Levin remained a Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard until his retirement in 1983. He died in 1994.


Sources & Further Reading:

Booker, Joseph: Joyce’s Critics – Transitions in Reading and Culture, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fargnoli, A Nicholas & Michael Patrick Gillespie: James Joyce A to Z: An Encyclopedic Guide to his Life and Work, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995.