This essay uses “self-help” guides to James Joyce as an occasion to illuminate the buried history of modernism’s engagement with popular morality. It suggests that the birth of Joyce’s aesthetic—and, by extension, of modernism more broadly—is attributable to early twentieth-century debates over literature’s social use, debates that had far-reaching political and national implications. As a corollary, the essay undermines idealized portraits of “oracular” Joyce by showing Ulysses to be firmly a product of the contentions of its day. Far from a source of alienation, didacticism offers a means of reclaiming literature for popular readers.

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