June 16, 1904, Bloomsday, is surely the most famous single day in literature, a day celebrated all over the world. As its two thousand four centenary approached, a newspaper headline shouted, One Day Turns One Hundred.
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 excursion boat, General Slocum, in New York’s East River – with the loss of over a thousand lives.
According to Richard Ellmann’s biography, Joyce chose June 16th for a more personal reason – as a gift to his partner and eventual wife, Nora – to commemorate the day on which she first went 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, even, on occasion, 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 for Bloomsday in 2005, and cites the word’s first appearance — in a letter Joyce wrote in June of 1924.
The practice of gathering together on Bloomsday to celebrate, started early on, in 1929. Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier invited Joyce and thirty other guests to a luncheon at the Léopold 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 27th, eleven days after Bloomsday, but no one seemed to mind.
For many years Dublin had a vexed relationship with James Joyce. The first celebration of Bloomsday took place there 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. 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 of 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 that he 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. Academic conferences continue 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 yearly meetings has usually been held on Bloomsday. The annual staged readings at Symphony Space, co-founded by Isaiah Sheffer and Larry Josephson, and broadcast on WBAI, began in 1981, continuing through 2007. Since 2008 Josephson has produced Radio Bloomsday as a radio-only event on WBAI.
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 hearing the day come alive in the words that James Joyce gave us on the pages of Ulysses.
Michael Groden is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. His publications include: “Ulysses” in Progress (Princeton University Press, 1977) and “Ulysses” in Focus: Genetic, Textual, and Personal Views (Florida James Joyce Series, University Press of Florida, 2010). He is the general editor of The James Joyce Archive, co-editor of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism and compiler of James Joyce’s Manuscripts: An Index. On June 16, 2004 he was awarded an Honorary degree of Doctor of Literature by University College Dublin, Joyce’s alma mater.