Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bloomsday: A Very Brief History

Every year, we encourage our listeners to host their own Bloomsday listening party, at home, in a bar or wherever they like to celebrate. Tips and menu suggestions available here. One of our advisors here at Radio Bloomsday is Professor Michael Groden, the esteemed Joyce scholar. He is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Ulysses in Progress, general editor of the manuscript facsimile series The James Joyce Archive, and author, most recently, of Ulysses in Focus: Genetic, Textual, and Personal Views. Below, Professor Groden explains the history of the world's most famous literary holiday.

Bloomsday: A Very Brief History
June 16, 1904 – Bloomsday – is surely the most famous single day in literature, a day celebrated all over the world. As its 2004 centenary approached, a newspaper headline shouted, One Day Turns 100. Why the day is famous is clear: James Joyce set the events of Ulysses on that day. Why Joyce chose this particular day is less certain. He never said why, and we can only speculate. Not much happened in the world on that day – at least in the Western world – but newspapers did report big events from the days before, including a Russian retreat in the Russo-Japanese War and the sinking of the General Slocum excursion boat in New York’s East River, with the loss of over a thousand lives. According to Richard Ellmann’s biography, Joyce chose this date for a more personal reason, as a gift to his partner and eventual wife Nora to commemorate the day on which she first went out walking with him and changed his life.

Joyce’s first biographer, Herbert Gorman, who wrote with the novelist’s cooperation, claims that nothing unusual happened to Joyce on June 16th. Several scholars have pointed to the absence of letters or any other evidence to show that Joyce and Nora met on that specific day. Joyce might simply have settled on a day in mid-June around the time of his walk with Nora that met his main requirements: no major world events, no Saint’s Day in the Catholic Church. We can’t know. But Ulysses is a novel that tempers its sadness, satire, and irony with a hearty dose of sentiment, occasionally even with sentimentality. Ellmann’s sentimental explanation for the date remains powerful, the kind of story about a particular day that we’d like to believe is true.

Not long after Ulysses was published in 1922, June 16th began to be called Bloomsday. The Oxford English Dictionary added an entry on Bloomsday in 2005 and cites the word’s first appearance in a letter Joyce wrote in June 1924. The practice of gathering together on the day to celebrate started early on as well, in 1929, when Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier invited Joyce and thirty other guests to a luncheon at the LĂ©opold restaurant near Versailles to honor both the publication of the French translation of Ulysses and Bloomsday’s 25th anniversary. The lunch took place on June 27, eleven days after Bloomsday, but no one seemed to mind.

For many years Dublin had a vexed relationship with Joyce, but the first celebration of Bloomsday there took place 57 years ago, on June 16, 1954. Irish writers Flann O’Brien and John Ryan brought a small group together at the Martello Tower, the setting of Ulysses’ first episode, and from there they took a Hades-like carriage ride through Dublin. One of the men, Anthony Cronin, noted with fascination that in the 1954 Gold Cup race, a horse with the Homeric name of Elpenor won at 50 to 1 odds, even more an outsider than Throwaway was in 1904. Leopold Bloom faces problems when several Dubliners mistakenly think that he has inside knowledge about the Gold Cup and has won a huge pile of money when the 20-to-1 long shot Throwaway wins the race. Especially intriguing to Cronin was the fact that Joyce’s equivalent of Elpenor in The Odyssey is Paddy Dignam, the man whose funeral Bloom attends in the Hades episode.

On June 16, 1967 the first gathering of Joyce scholars took place in Dublin, with academic conferences continuing as annual Bloomsday events in various European and North American cities. Popular celebrations have sprung up not only in Dublin (which started embracing Joyce in 1982, the centenary of his birth) but also in such diverse cities as New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Beijing. Many Dubliners now consider Bloomsday to be Ireland’s second most important holiday, and some even rank it above St. Patrick’s Day.

New York can lay claim to the longest continuous association of any city with Bloomsday. The James Joyce Society was founded at the late, lamented Gotham Book Mart in 1947. One of the Society’s meetings each year has usually been on Bloomsday. The annual readings at Symphony Space, broadcast on WBAI, began in 1981. This is Radio Bloomsday’s fourth annual reading devoted exclusively to radio performance and broadcast on the Pacifica Radio Network. So join us in celebrating Bloomsday’s 107th anniversary in the best way we can think of: listening to the people and the city of Dublin, and the day come alive in the words James Joyce gave us on the pages of Ulysses.

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