Detail from the Penguin Modern Classics cover of Ulysses.
“Are we all Joyceans here, then?” the young professor asked, poking his head into the classroom doorway.
We looked back at him uncertainly. Yes, we were all here for the Ulysses seminar that met at six thirty P.M. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But to call us “Joyceans” seemed like a stretch. Today—Thursday, January 29, 2015—was only the first day. And besides, this was City College.
No article about City College is complete without the obligatory phrase “the Harvard of the proletariat,” which was supposedly both our school’s nickname and its reputation in the mid twentieth century. By 2015, however, no one could deny that our beautiful Harlem campus was in decline. Governor Cuomo had recently slashed the budget for the entire CUNY system, with City College bearing the brunt of the cuts, and the disastrousness of this decision is difficult to convey without resorting to sodomitic imagery. That year, classrooms were so overcrowded that latecomers had to sit on the floor. One of my professors entered his office on the first day to find that his entire desk had been stolen. The humanities building still used old-fashioned blackboards, but the budget didn’t provide for chalk, so professors hoarded and traded it like prison cigarettes. Most bathroom stalls didn’t lock, and for several weeks, the entire campus collectively ran out of toilet paper—I’ll never forget the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2015 and the generosity it inspired in my fellow students, who shared their own toilet paper from home and never stooped to charging for it.
It was in this context that the English department decided to offer its first-ever Ulysses seminar, though they offered it as you might offer someone a home-cooked meal that you’re secretly pretty sure contains broken glass. “NB: This is a highly demanding course with a heavy reading load,” the course catalogue warned in bold italics, “more like a graduate seminar than a 400-level college class.” I don’t think it actually said “DON’T TAKE THIS CLASS,” but that was the obvious implication. I have since learned that our idealistic young professor was met with departmental resistance when he suggested a Ulysses seminar, and I now suspect that the department was half hoping no one would register for it at all.
But the department hadn’t counted on the sheer belligerence of City College students. I took one look at that warning and immediately decided, thanks to the same knee-jerk rebelliousness that had led me to avoid college until the age of twenty-seven, that I had to take this class. I wasn’t the only one: there were thirty students in the Ulysses seminar. (This is what passes for a small discussion class at City College.)
Were we all Joyceans here, then? Taking our silence as a yes, our professor stepped into the crowded classroom.
“Why read Ulysses?” he began. “Well, not a lot of people have read it, even among those who study literature for a living. It’s quite long and extremely difficult. To have read Ulysses imparts a certain cachet. It will open doors for you.”
We gazed upon him in awe. Not so much because of his words—City College students are long inured to all forms of door-opening rhetoric—but because he uttered them in an English accent. According to our school website, City College students hail from more than a hundred fifty nations, but England, as far as I could ever tell, is not one of them. An English accent was a true novelty around these parts. And let’s be real here: America has such unresolved daddy issues about England, it’s embarrassing to behold. You could feel the air change in our windowless little classroom with the sudden collective snap to attention, the straightening of spines, the performative scribbling of notes, the solemn vow in every heart: I will be his favorite.
Once we actually began to read Ulysses, a novel that is largely about the need to break free of the British empire and everything it stands for, the irony of all this was not lost on us. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in the second chapter—the second episode, as we learned to call them—and we were chastened to realize that we were still happily dreaming away. But by then it was too late. You cannot traverse Ulysses without an experienced guide, and if we met ours with a level of mind-body-soul eros that is rarely experienced outside of the mother-infant bond and hardcore BDSM scenes … well, you weren’t there. This was a matter of survival.
Our professor had not been kidding about the length and the difficulty: it took hours to read a single episode, and we had to read an entire episode in advance of every class, which essentially meant that we were reading Ulysses every moment of our lives that we weren’t in class discussing it. We couldn’t skim it or CliffsNotes it because our professor opened each class with a fiendishly tricky little quiz that you could pass only if you’d done your own close reading. What does Bloom read on the toilet? (A newspaper called Titbits, and he wipes his ass with it too.) What does Bloom order for lunch? (A gorgonzola-and-mustard sandwich and a glass of burgundy because he wants something vegetarian and the culinary landscape of Dublin in 1904 is bleak beyond belief.) What does Bloom do during the final lines of “Sirens”? (He farts.) Never knowing what would appear on the next quiz, we studied the text with a maniacal attention to crammable detail: Number 7 Eccles Street. Storm petrels. Banbury cakes. Garryowen the dog. Bella the whoremistress. Metempsychosis. Pflaap. Sometimes, as a surprise, our professor would divide us into teams and host a game of Ulysses Jeopardy, with a Toblerone bar as the prize for the winning team, and we all hurled ourselves over our desks screaming, “Where is Dlugacz! Who is Mina Purefoy! What is a sexologist!” in mad pursuit of chocolate and professorial approval.
As a commuter school, City College is not designed to foster intimate friendships among its students, most of whom have jobs and families and homes in the outer boroughs. But gradually, through Jeopardy games and shared notes and heated debates on the bangability of Stephen Dedalus, we in the Ulysses seminar got to know each other. There was the star student who wept with rage whenever she lost at Jeopardy; she’d been in college for ten years and still hadn’t declared a major. There was the guy who liked to show up to class drunk and the one in recovery who always sat near him. There was the young single mother who sometimes showed up to class with her toddler daughter, a remarkably well-behaved child whom we affectionately dubbed “the littlest Joycean.” There were sex workers and social activists and this one girl who went by the nickname “Dragon Killer”—and there was me, initially embarrassed to be a twenty-eight-year-old college student but quickly coming to understand that no one ends up at City College without a backstory to rival Ulysses itself.
Week after week, we trudged up six flights of broken escalators (I have never once witnessed City College’s escalators in motion) to the windowless little room on the sixth floor. We wrote our midterm papers and tormented our automatic spellcheckers with words like bullockbefriending, strongmembered, elbowdeep, and Mrkrgnao. Winter turned to spring; the windowless classroom went from uncomfortably cold to unbearably hot. One sweltering day, we asked our professor if we could have class outside instead; he agreed, and we discussed the “Ithaca” episode on the graveled roof of the building, shouting over the wind as it fluttered our books and shuffled our notes and the sun set violently pink over the Hudson. What a wreck the campus was; how happy we all were. Every evening, after class, I speed walked downhill toward the 137th Street 1 train, wired and vibrating with a distinct kind of joy that I’d never felt before and have never felt since. It was the joy of knowing—knowing with bone-deep certainty—that everything I’d ever heard about college was a lie, that the Ivy League was a scam, that nothing at Harvard could ever hold a candle to what was happening here in the Ulysses seminar at the crumbling City College of New York.
On the final day of class, our professor took us out to a local pizza restaurant and awarded each of us a Ulysses completion certificate. “Congratulations!” it read. “You have hereby completed a thorough and noteworthy reading of Ulysses by James Joyce. This certificate entitles you to bragging rights as well as the ability to lead discussions, stimulating or otherwise, on this great novel.” We hugged; some of us cried. And then, just like that, it was all over. We had read Ulysses. For the rest of our lives, we would be people who had read Ulysses.
As a person who has read Ulysses (and who takes full advantage of said bragging rights), I am occasionally asked, “Frankie, should I read Ulysses?” I don’t know how to answer the question. First of all, Ulysses is not really a novel that one reads. It sounds pompous to say that it’s a novel that one experiences; I will say instead that it’s a novel to be wrestled with as the biblical Jacob wrestled with that mysterious angel, except that wrestling match took up only one night of Jacob’s life whereas Ulysses will take you multiple months at the very least, and I cannot in good conscience endorse that as a productive use of your precious free time.
But I can tell you this: we in the Ulysses seminar are still in touch. Some of us have become very dear friends. Recently, I ran into one of my classmates in a Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side; though we’d never talked much to each other, we recognized each other instantly and embraced like long-lost sisters. An astonishing number of us have gone on to study literature in graduate school—including that hypercompetitive woman who took a decade to declare a major. Others have become psychologists, teachers, novelists; still, every year on Bloomsday, we remember with pride that we’re all Joyceans here.
As for me, I still display my certificate on my refrigerator—and I just found out that my final paper for the seminar, “Unspeakable ‘Circe’: Sexual Perversion and the Lacanian Detour in Ulysses,” is forthcoming in James Joyce Quarterly. I’m not a career academic, so when I received this news, the first thing I did was laugh. The second thing I did was email my former professor—perhaps now I’d be his favorite! And the third thing I did was send the journal my contributor bio, which says simply, “She received her undergraduate degree from the City College of New York.”
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She received her undergraduate degree from the City College of New York.
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