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James Joyce, author of the novel "Ulysses," is shown in this 1931 photograph.

“Bloomsday”: A Celebration of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

June 16, 2009
by Devin Felter
Though “Ulysses” is renowned in literary circles for its groundbreaking technique and psychological exploration, these accolades do little to explain the popularity of “Bloomsday,” the annual celebration in which the entire novel is read aloud.

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed,” begins James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which traces the interweaving paths of some of Dublin’s denizens on June 16, 1904.

Using Homer’s “The Odyssey” as the framework, Joyce presents the reader with Leopold Bloom—his modern version of Odysseus (Ulysses)—an unassuming but ruminative Jewish advertising canvasser. Employing stream of consciousness, and basically every other known literary technique, Joyce brings the murky depths of the mind to the fore. The result is a novel that strikes at what it means to be human: all the ephemeral desires, truncated thoughts and spiritual inklings.

The “everyman” appeal of the text is the primary reason why “Bloomsday,” the annual June 16th celebration of “Ulysses,” has garnered much popularity over the years. Though many pubs and coffeehouses (in Dublin and around the world) host readings of the novel, the most fervent Joyceans actually tour the Dublin locations featured in the book. The James Joyce Centre Web site provides a timeline of the chapters in “Ulysses” and the corresponding sites around Dublin.
The text will not make many summer reading lists, though. “Ulysses” has left countless readers (even scholars) frustrated, bewildered or disillusioned since its publication in 1922. Lynn Neary wrote for NPR in 2004 that “the difficulty of reading ‘Ulysses’ is as legendary as the book itself.” Virginia Woolf, who placed Joyce among the great writers of her generation, nonetheless derided the book as a “memorable catastrophe.”

This leaves one wondering how such an impenetrable text could amass enough support to warrant its celebration.

“It is not unlikely,” wrote Joseph Collins for The New York Times in 1922, “that every thought that Mr. Joyce has had, every experience he has ever encountered, every person he has ever met … is to be encountered in the obscurities and in the frankness of ‘Ulysses.’” It is this “frankness” that pulls the book’s linguistic pyrotechnics down to earth, that elevates the quotidian to mythic heights.

In this way, Bloomsday could be interpreted as a celebration of the everyman. But this conclusion must also take into account Joyce’s distaste of contemporary Irish culture: the word “paralysis” appears often in his work. In “Ulysses,” Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary persona, describes Irish art as the “cracked looking-glass of a servant.” If Bloomsday is, in fact, a celebration of the everyman, it is because he has already been redeemed through “Ulysses.”

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