Image credit: Eve Arnold

In 1955, photographer Eve Arnold snapped a now-iconic image of American actress Marilyn Monroe, in her bathers on a Long Island playground. It is notable not only for her beauty, but for the fact that she is pictured reading what is considered to be one of the most impenetrable books of modernist literature: James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the sixty years since the photograph was taken, it has prompted continual speculation as to whether it was staged.

In a 2014 Time article, Richard Conway writes: ‘In light of this, and perhaps unfairly, many who see the Ulysses picture seem to ask – was she actually reading it? The answer is likely straightforward: of course she was.’ Monroe, who at the time was married to playwright Arthur Miller, admitted to Arnold that she’d found the book difficult, and only dipped into it occasionally. Yet the picture still arouses suspicion in those who see literature and celebrity as mutually exclusive cultural spheres.

In the same year Marilyn was photographed in Long Island, James Dean was snapped in Fairmont, Indiana reading The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley. In the early 2000s, a photograph was taken of Sarah Michelle Gellar reading Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More recently, boxer Mike Tyson has professed a love of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, while a photo that surfaced online around 2006 shows Paris Hilton reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Most of these photos have been met with an air of open scepticism, with viewers doubting the celebrity’s interest in reading, or even their ability to read at all.

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.

British writer Anthony Burgess examined the famous Ulysses photograph at the 1982 Joyce centenary in Dublin. In his 1992 essay ‘Marilyn’, Burgess noted: ‘She died in the flush of her youth and beauty, which is highly convenient for her myth, though hardly for herself’. Her status as beauty idol took precedence over her mind, but Burgess argued that her intellect and comedic skills ‘ought to detract from her divine glamour’. The Ulysses image adds greater dimension and depth to the ‘Marilyn mythology’ that permeates popular culture, rounding out an identity so often seen as one-dimensional.

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.

Arnold’s photograph defies expectations and undermines the persistent assumptions about celebrity culture. In bringing together the worlds of literature and celebrity, this vital image prompts everyday readers and consumers of culture to examine and possibly dip into the book themselves, with Monroe’s fame bringing Joyce’s novel, and the joy of reading, to a new audience. In the photograph, Ulysses is not ‘the impenetrable object people expect’, writes critic Jonathan Goldman, nor is Monroe ‘the dumb blonde people expect’. Yet while the image helps Monroe shed the dumb-blonde stereotype, it finds its true power in challenging the snobbery that is so often attached to highbrow reading.

‘Her image remains,’ 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.

The photograph of Monroe reading Ulysses has most recently appeared in Sydney University’s 2016 student guide for the Department of English, showing, among other things, that attitudes towards literature are changing and becoming more inclusive and experimental, and that Ulysses belongs to anyone and everyone. In this instance Monroe’s presence is used to promote Joyce’s book, with the photograph now acting as a symbolic code that works to bridge literature and celebrity. It’s reflective of a broader awareness that literature doesn’t belong to a minor elite, that celebrities are not always illiterate, one-dimensional caricatures, and that there is no such thing as an ideal reader. In a broader cultural context, the democratisation of literature doesn’t necessarily indicate the collapse of a pop culture–literature hierarchy, but that reading habits and the general love of books may reach a wider audience, allowing for more diverse perspectives and a more open-minded society.