In “Are you a god or a doggone clod” Joyce refers to the traditional contrast between God and clod, in the context of early twentieth-century American religious fanaticism characterised by John Alexander Dowie/Elijah III (see Writing Elijah). The adjective doggone adds further colour from American English: the term in first recorded there, in the mid nineteenth century.
But the contrast between God and clod (Man as a clod of clay or earth; a poor mortal being) dates back centuries. Though the contrast is not used in the King James Bible (where clod appears six times), it is common in Early Modern poetry. A typical use occurs in Thomas Tusser’s Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry (1573) f. 94v:
When all is donne, learne this my sonne,
Not frend nor skyll, nor wyt at wyll,
Nor shyp nor clod, but onely God,
Doth all in all.
It was a staple of poetic rhyme, and it is not surprising to find Edward Bysshe listing the rhyme-words in his Dictionary of Rhymes (1702) p. 26:
OD. Clod God Nod Plod Odd Rod Shod Sod Trod
William Hazlitt was widely cited in 1828 for his contrastive use of God and clod in describing a tyrant:
Who but the tyrant does not hate the tyrant? Who but the slave does not despise the slave? The first of these looks upon himself as a God, upon his vassal as a clod of the earth, and forces him to be of the same opinion; the philosopher looks upon them both as men, and instructs the world to do so.
Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1828) vol. 1 ch. 3 p. 84
That human nature can move from being clod-like to becoming god-like was not infrequently encountered in late nineteenth-century religious discussion. George Hughes Hepworth, sometime preacher, lecturer, and journalist, was encouraged by James Gordon Bennett to write popular sermons for God-fearing Americans who never went to church. He wrote his Herald Sermons (1894) for Bennett’s paper the New York Herald. He introduces the general contrast between God and clod in one sermon:
As a practical question for practical men to consider we assert that the difference between low and high ideas of duty is the difference between a clod and a god.
George Hughes Hepworth Herald Sermons (1894), "The best kind of religion" p. 116
and then follows this up in a later lecture, with an invocation to the average listener (perhaps distantly related to Leopold Bloom):
The possibility of greatness is hidden somewhere in every man’s nature. He is an unconscious giant, but will never do a giant’s work until the emergency forces him to. Give him an ordinary road to travel, and he shambles along like a peasant; give him a hill to climb, then thunder in his ear, “You must!” and he becomes transformed from a clod to a god.
George Hughes Hepworth Herald Sermons (1894), "You shall have strength" p. 160
This latter passage was widely cited in contemporary American newspapers, as Hepworth’s words were syndicated from the Herald across America.
Literary discussion of God and clod received a boost with the publication in 1908 of Jack London’s Martin Eden. London was by now extremely popular in America, and widely read in Britain and Ireland too. Martin Eden is a novel about the struggles of a writer to rise above his working-class background, particularly motivated by love. Interested in types of fiction, Martin Eden, had “in the course of his reading” discovered two kinds:
One treated of man as a god, ignoring his earthly origin; the other treated of man as a clod, ignoring his heaven-sent dreams and divine possibilities. Both the god and clod schools erred, in Martin’s estimation, and erred through too great singleness of sight and purpose. There was a compromise that approximated the truth, though it flattered not the school of god, while it challenged the brute-savageness of the school of clod. It was his story, "Adventure", which had dragged with Ruth, that Martin believed had achieved his ideal of the true in fiction; and it was in an essay, "God and Clod", that he had expressed his views on the whole general subject.
Jack London Martin Eden (1908), ch. 27 p. 232
When “Elijah” (Dowie) enquires of his audience in Nighttown “Are you a god or a doggone clod?” he was drawing on a contrast that had received a considerable airing in contemporary religious and literary circles, especially in America.
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