Bloomsday rivals Halloween as my favorite day of the year; I love them both with a fervor but for very different reasons. Every year on June 16, James Joyce fans celebrate his masterwork of modern literature, Ulysses, as the action in the sizeable tome take place during the course of one day, June 16, 1904, which was also the first date of James Joyce and his soon-to-be wife Nora Barnacle. They would go on to swap some of the best dirty letters in history.
I fell in love with Joyce thanks to the Rosenbach Museum & Library, a Philadelphia institution that is also a great love of my life. I was intrigued by the idea of Bloomsday, as there are not many days devoted solely to literary works, so I went to check it out one year, having only read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners previously. Ulysses’ true music bursts forth when it’s read aloud, and I was so charmed by the Rosenbach’s event, with its readers perched on the steps of the museum on the prettiest little street in historic Philadelphia… I was completely hooked. After that a group of friends and I started reading Ulysses together, meeting every week or so at Fergie’s Irish Pub over pitchers of delicious Guinness. I was delighted to find that Ulysses is a bit like a literary Rorschach test; what you get out of it is very individualized by your personal experiences and background that you bring to it. Life events eventually got in the way of some of the group members, so the group disbanded and I finished Ulysses on my own. When I read that last (and my favorite) line of Ulysses, where Molly Bloom rapturously and upliftingly proclaims “…yes I said yes I will Yes” I hugged the book to my chest, filled with a wonderful feeling I won’t attempt to translate with my clumsy words. Then I just couldn’t let Ulysses out of my life that easily. So I decided to go through the months-long training to be a docent at the Rosenbach Museum, learning even more about Ulysses and Joyce, and getting the pleasure of knowing that every day that I led tours through the beautiful historic house and library, I was in the same building as the only handwritten manuscript of my favorite book.
The Rosenbach introduced me to my favorite photo of Joyce, which is my favorite not only because of his playful, sly expression, but because it was taken at the home of his friend C.P. Curran in the year that Ulysses takes place. Coming across my last name in Ulysses delighted me to an extent that I didn’t expect. I had spent so much time reading works by French and Russians authors that I didn’t realize how a piece of literature could put me in touch with my Irish heritage, which, like many Americans, remains buried under too many American generations to feel a real connection.
When I got hired at USC, the saddest part of the prospect of leaving Philadelphia was that I’d have to stop doing tours at the Rosenbach. I made an appointment with the wonderful librarian there, Elizabeth Fuller, to see as many of the glorious collection items as I could before I left. The only extant original 1733 Poor Richard’s Almanack by Ben Franklin. The controversial photography of Lewis Carroll. The manuscript Bram Stoker used to write Dracula. And, of course, the manuscript of Ulysses. It was absolutely awing to be holding in my hands literally the same page as my favorite author, my eyes poring over line after crooked line of his handwriting. The margins were slanted so far to the edge in some cases that only a third of the page was written on; his eyesight was very poor and he eventually took to wearing an eyepatch. I scarcely let a breath escape the whole time. The experience reminds me of a quote I read this week:
Fan: Mr Joyce, may I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?
Joyce: No, it did lots of other things too.
I still very much covet two Rosenbachian experiences with the work… one to return to Philadelphia one Bloomsday and read a portion myself, the other to own their facsimile of the Ulysses manuscript that only they have for sale.
I went home to Philadelphia last year expressly to experience Bloomsday at the Rosenbach again, but I realize that I am, in fact, an Angeleno now and I should make my Bloomsday where I find it. Luckily there is a Joycean conference going on at The Huntington this week (by way of connection, Mr. Huntington was the most loyal customer to Dr. Rosenbach’s rare book business). This appropriately June Gloomy morning in Los Angeles, I pinned my Bloomsday Herald pin from the Rosenbach upon a green dress in the best attempt at Gertie MacDowell winsome Irishness I could muster as a woman approaching 30. I’ll spend my workday listening to the livestream of the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday festivities, and leaving work a little early to head to the Huntington to see Nicholson Baker speak about Joyce and other “dirty books.” I will likely then attempt to seek out a decent pint of Guinness in this town with my 1934 copy of Ulysses in tow, to give the day its proper Irish wake. On my way home I’ll stop by Machine Project where friend Colin Dickey is hosting a silent readalong of Ulysses.
But next year, friends, mark my words: there will be a Ulysses odyssey of a pub crawl through Echo Park, Los Angeles. yes I said yes I will Yes.
Your Bloomsday homework, if you choose to accept it: