Why does Eve Arnold’s photo of Marilyn reading Ulysses hold such perennial fascination? In an article for literary journal Kill Your Darlings, Siobhan Lyons explores this image’s iconic power. (There is one minor error in this insightful piece: Lyons claims that Marilyn was married to Arthur Miller at the time, but she wasn’t. Their romance actually began a few weeks after this photo was taken…)
“These images fascinate us because they are so out of alignment with the pervasive understanding of celebrity culture as a vapid, visually-oriented industry, working against the ‘highbrow’ terrain of capital-L Literature. But if the iconic image of Monroe reading Ulysses tells us anything, it is more about challenging our own assumptions regarding literature, and who we believe to be the ‘right’ kind of reader.
The famous Monroe photograph was featured on the cover of a 2008 issue of Poets and Writers magazine, as well as the front cover of Declan Kiberd’s 2009 Ulysses And Us: The Art of Everyday Living. In his 2008 book Women Who Read are Dangerous, Stefan Bollman notes: ‘The question, Did she or didn’t she? is almost unavoidable. Did Marilyn Monroe, the blonde sex symbol of the twentieth century, read James Joyce’s Ulysses, a twentieth-century icon of highbrow culture and the book many consider to be the greatest modern novel – or was she only pretending?’
Monroe’s love of reading is well-known – the 1999 Christie’s auction of her personal belongings included almost 400 books, and she was regularly photographed reading. Despite this, Monroe is evidently not the first person one would consider the typical ‘Ulysses reader’. And this, perhaps, is part of the problem.
The photograph, then, allows us to re-imagine the Ulysses reader – author Julie Sloan Brannon argues that the image subverts the ‘dumb-blonde’ stereotype with which Monroe is almost always associated. The image therefore works on two fronts: it forces us to abandon elitist assumptions about what kind of people read ‘difficult’ literature, while bringing Monroe to the attention of a more literary crowd.
‘Her image remains,’ [Anthony] Burgess concludes, ‘and no amount of analysis can properly explain [its] continued potency’. The continued analysis of the image, however, shows how keenly these assumptions, about who should read what kind of book, are held. While the image helps to challenge overtly sexualised readings of Monroe, it more importantly debunks myths about literature that have been based on difficulty, exclusion, and elitism.”