Here at eNotes, we love the opportunity to celebrate literature and our favorite authors, and it just so happens that one of the most internationally recognized literary holidays is right around the corner!On June 16th, we honor the highly influential James Joyce and his most famous work Ulysses with a little celebration known as Bloomsday. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Ulysses is a 20th century take on Homer‘s Odyssey, and it follows a day in the life of character Leopold Bloom as he meanders his way around Dublin, encountering individuals with unique life stories whilst he contemplates his own. Ulysses is written in a stream of consciousness format, playing with experimental prose so as to better delve into the minds and thoughts of his characters. As Irish scholar Declan Kiberd said, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.”
In other words, James Joyce was a talented writer and Ulysses was very much a display of his literary abilities. The story, published (at first merely serialized in an American newspaper) in 1918, was already gathering a decent amount of buzz only two years later in 1920. As early as 1924, there were records of the first celebrations of Bloomsday, acknowledged by Joyce himself in a letter to Miss Weaver, his longtime patron, where he states, “There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s Day—16th of June.” Since then, the festivities have broadened significantly and are now well-known throughout the globe, with celebrations from Dublin to Australia.
These days, typical festivities involve readings of the novel, pub crawls, themed meals, dress-up, and more Guinness than you thought possible. But, to keep things PG, enjoy the following list of facts about James Joyce and his famed novel to get you in the spirit of the season.
Joyce had a couple of intense phobias, including a lifelong fear of dogs, inspired by a canine attack in his youth. His other more pressing fear was a terror of thunderstorms; also in his youth, his grandmother would tell him that thunderstorms were a sign of God’s wrath. Even after he declared his independence from the Catholic Church, it seems the fear stuck with him, and he never quite grew accustomed to the presence of thunder and lightning.
Joyce’s grandson, in addition to being named after a character in Ulysses, has done much to contribute to his late grandfather’s legacy. It is heavily speculated that Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, has destroyed a number of his grandfather’s letters to protect their contents from prying eyes. Additionally, Stephen has spoken out a number of times and prevented what he deemed “inappropriate” adaptations of Joyce’s work.
You may wonder why Joyce specifically set Ulysses on June 16th… Well, wonder no more! Joyce chose this particular date because it was the anniversary of his first date with Nora Barnacle, the woman he would eventually marry and have two children with.
The library at University College in Dublin was named after him (The James Joyce Library). As it turns out, Joyce actually attended a number of schools, including Clongowes College and Belvedere College, before finally graduating from University College in Dublin.
He didn’t originally aspire to be a writer. Though his father, John Joyce, was deeply invested in literature, the father and son didn’t get along too well and it’s likely that James Joyce went into the study of medicine to distance himself from his father’s legacy. Whilst in Paris studying science and medicine, Joyce was called back to Dublin to see his mother on her deathbed; he did not return to the medical community and instead turned to writing (though he and his wife did return to continental Europe).
He wasn’t the most sociable. Documents and personal accounts of the time period describe Joyce as “aloof” or “arrogant,” and it is likely that these descriptions assisted in the perception of artists and authors as mysterious and “avant-garde.”
He didn’t play nice with other writers either… Particularly in the case of William Butler Yeats. Yeats was desperate for the younger author to like him and offered on multiple occasions to read Joyce’s poetry. Eventually, Joyce replied with rolled eyes and the comment: “I do so since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than anybody one meets in the streets.”
Yikes! (Let us point out that Yeats is also a rather spectacular author, respected both in his time and still today).
Joyce underwent twenty-five eye surgeries in his lifetime.* Even today, with the evolution of modern medicine, we don’t often think of people “going under the knife” more than maybe a couple of times in their life —except in the case of extremely persistent conditions. Joyce was a sufferer of one of those unfortunate conditions, and it just so happened that it was his eyes that bore the brunt of the misfortune. Famous for his relative blindness, Joyce received his first pair of glasses at just six years old. Only years later did he begin what would be a lifetime of attempts to repair conditions like inflammation of the iris and spontaneous reshaping of the pupil.
*Bonus eye fact: On more than one occasion, doctors applied actual leeches to his eyeballs to reduce swelling. Think of that any time you have to go to the eye doctor, and thank your lucky stars that medicine has moved beyond leeching…
A lot of early copies of Ulysses were burned. As stated before, Ulysses was originally published as a serial in the U.S. in 1918, but it was not made into an official book until 1934. Somewhere in those sixteen years between the serial and the novel, some hooligans got it in their minds to combine and bind some illicit copies and distribute them via post. Well, when the U.S. Post Office got wind of this plan, they seized the illegal copies and had them all burned.