Djuna Barnes, Joyce, 1922.
“Bloomsday,” the James Joyce scholar Robert Nicholson once quipped, “has as much to do with Joyce as Christmas has to do with Jesus.” The celebrations of Ulysses every June 16—the date on which the novel is set—attract extreme ends of the spectrum of literary enthusiasm. Academics and professionals mingle with obsessives and cranks, plus those simply along for the ride. The event can be stately and meticulous or raucous and chaotic—or, somehow, all of the above.
A telling instance came a few years ago, when the Irish Arts Center arranged a Bloomsday picnic in New York’s Bryant Park, under the rueful shadow of the Gertrude Stein statue. (Stein disliked Joyce.) Aspiring Broadway types were enlisted to circulate in period costume before bursting into popular songs from 1900-era Ireland. I spoke to one of the performers, a young Irish actor who had recently moved to New York. Had she read Ulysses? “I plan to,” she said, and in my memory, she adds, “I’m told it’s a grand book by them that knows.” The kicker was when the Irish finance minister, in town for summit meetings, got up to say that his government would take as inspiration the balanced daily budget that appears in Ulysses. The problem? Leopold Bloom’s spreadsheet in Ulysses works out only because he omits the money he’s paid to Bella Cohen’s brothel. No one pointed out the irony.
The admixture of expertise and fanboyism that marks Bloomsday, perhaps unique among literary gatherings, is remarkable—but no more so than Bloomsday’s emergence as a cultural event, one that attracts mainstream attention and participants from well outside the readership of Ulysses, by which I mean to include all those who profess to have read it. A novel written in 1922 and legally unavailable in the U.S. until 1934, a novel hailed to this day as the pinnacle of modernist obscurity and density, one that, as novelist Jacob M. Appel recently put it, “isn’t exactly hopping off the shelves in airports,” has earned an international holiday. Of all the literary celebrations that might blow up, why Joyce, why Ulysses, and why Bloomsday? Read More