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Zoom Bloom: Bloomsday in a Time of Coronavirus

James Joyce

It was exactly 50 years ago that I attended my first Bloomsday. At age 22 I had a strong sense of priorities, so I skipped my college graduation in order to wake up early in Dublin on June 16th, ready to trace the routes followed on that day in 1904 by the two protagonists created by James Joyce for his masterpiece, Ulysses.

The year was 1970, but the crowds of scholars I anticipated joining at various Joycean landmarks did not materialize. I wondered if I were the only Joyce enthusiast in Dublin who was celebrating Bloomsday, named in honor of the book’s main character, Leopold Bloom, whose peregrinations, along with those of Stephen Dedalus, are described in the 1922 novel.

Looking back, I would have been safe on that deserted Dublin day from coronavirus, had it then existed. The empty streets of 1970 will be replicated for this year’s Bloomsday, but this time out of necessity rather than neglect. Although there undoubtedly will be more Bloomsday celebrants than in 1970, they will not be strolling, but confined to the Hollywood-Squares-style boxes of Zoom meetings.

According to what I have read, Dublin didn’t officially start honoring Joyce and his literary achievements until the centennial of his birth, in 1982. Resentments lingered over Joyce’s sometimes uncharitable depiction of Dublin and Dubliners, not to mention embarrassment from 1930s obscenity trials in both the US and UK over the novel’s content.

In 1982, however, a slew of international Joyce scholars picked Bloomsday in Dublin for

James Joyce Statue

the date and site of their symposium.  The city, at last deciding to let bygones be bygones, rolled out the red carpet. Dublin never looked back. In 1990 the city even erected a bronze statue of the author holding his walking stick. Ever irreverent, Dubliners dubbed the statue “the prick with a stick.”

In 1996, the James Joyce Centre was established in a 1784 townhouse just down the street from Joyce’s alma mater, Belvedere College. On Bloomsdays past the center has offered Joyceans a number of Ulysses-themed walking tours of Dublin. It also houses exhibits and artifacts, including the actual front door of No. 7 Eccles Street, the address Joyce chose for the fictional home of Leopold Bloom. In 1970 I viewed that exact same door in a pub, The Bailey, where it had been on display since 1967.

A more recent local tribute was in 2003 when the James Joyce Bridge was built across the River Liffey and dedicated on Bloomsday. Better a bridge than a “disappointed bridge,” the term Stephen Dedalus uses in the second chapter of Ulysses to describe a pier.

The first Bloomsday is thought to have occurred in 1924, the 20th anniversary of the day recounted in the novel. In a June 27 letter that year to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce makes mention of “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June.”

Thirty years later, on the 50th anniversary, a small group of Dublin authors famously attempted to visit all the landmarks mentioned in Ulysses by horse-drawn carriage, the same transportation used by Leopold Bloom on his way to a funeral. Once the group of literati hit the aforementioned Bailey, however, the drinks flowed freely and the tour came to a sudden and sodden halt.

Reading Ulysses at the Rosenbach

Meanwhile, Bloomsday came to be an annual event in locations around the world. In 1992, for example, the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia held its first Bloomsday event. The next year, the street on which it’s located was closed to vehicles for what became a tradition of beginning-to-end outdoor readings of Ulysses by local notables. The Rosenbach bears the distinction of housing the original hand-written manuscript of Ulysses.

Since 1994 there has even been a Bloomsday celebration in the Hungarian town of Szombathely. Why? Joyce described Leopold Bloom as the son of Rudolf Virag (which means bloom in Hungarian), a native of Szombathely. The town repaid the compliment by erecting a bronze statue of Joyce in time for the Bloomsday centennial, 2004.

But this year the celebrations will either take a year off or will bloom in a vast bouquet of Zoom meetings around the globe. In New York City, Symphony Space’s annual staged readings of Ulysses, Bloomsday on Broadway, will go on. Since the event’s beginnings in 1981, this will be the first Virtual Bloomsday on Broadway, and will be shown on YouTube.  Stephen Colbert kicks off the event at 8 a.m. (the time at which events of Ulysses are launched) with a reading of Telemachus, or Chapter One.

Similarly, there will be (mostly free) online events at Dublin’s James Joyce Centre, at the Rosenbach Museum, at the University of Buffalo (which boasts the largest Joyce collection in the world), at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute and in many locations around the world.

My dream for Bloomsday 2020 was to recreate my visit to Dublin of 50 years ago and then

Joyce with Sylvia Beach in Paris, Shakespeare & Co.

to embark on a true Joyce journey across Europe, visiting again the places where Joyce lived and wrote: Trieste, Paris and Zurich. Obviously, I’m now prevented by a pandemic from carrying out my plan.

But in a sense, the online activities I have lined up for June 16th will allow me to out-Bloom Bloom. He spent that day going from place to place, all within the confines of the city. I will spend the day traveling the world, dropping in on one Bloomsday celebration after another, soaking up the festivities, all within the confines of my computer. Who wouldn’t say “Yes” to that?

Interviewing Ursula Le Guin

The death of Ursula Le Guin on January 22 made me sad over our loss of the doyenne of Portland writers, but also put me in a nostalgic mood for the day in 1991 that I interviewed her for a People magazine profile. My story ran on November 18 of that year.

She invited me to her home on Northwest Thurman Street, where we sat outside and talked about her childhood. Raised by anthropologists who were particularly interested in nearly extinct Native American tribes, Ursula remembered a home that was full of activity from her three brothers and from a constant stream of Indians, one of whom, Ishi, was the subject of her mother’s famous book, Ishi in Two Worlds.

She showed me where she usually sat to write, on her porch overlooking the Willamette River. She wrote longhand on tablets and later entered her writing onto her computer in her office, which was on the top floor of the sprawling house.

As we parted, I asked if there was someone from whom she would like me to request a quote. She answered, “Joyce Carol Oates.” I gulped, said, “No problem,” and later panicked. I had no idea how to reach her. Fortunately, at the same time that I was a People correspondent, I was also a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts Page. I called my editor there, Ray Sokolov.

No problem, he said. He and Joyce were currently both on a Pulitzer Prize judging panel and he could give me her home number. “Don’t tell her where you got the number,” he said.

Later I called Ursula to tell her how enthusiastic Ms. Oates had been about her. She was very pleased, but confessed, “I haven’t read a single thing by her!” As an afterthought, she said, “Don’t tell anybody!”

Shortly before the article was to be published, I got a frantic call from a People magazine copy editor. The photographer hadn’t provided much information about where he had photographed Ursula, and they were wondering the name of the “huge mountain” Ursula was sitting near. I knew that she had taken the photographer to her cabin at Cannon Beach, but nobody had said anything to me about going to the mountains for photos.

That was before the Internet, however, so the editor couldn’t share the photo with me electronically. I had to wait until the magazine hit the stands. I hurried to Rich’s Cigar Store, opened a copy and saw Ursula sitting in front of . . . Haystack Rock.

As Ursula would have said, with a sad shake of her head, “Those Easterners!”

Remembering Katherine

I just realized that today, May 11, marks the one-year  anniversary of the death of Katherine Dunn. Just as that realization hit me, I looked up to see a rather robust crow land on the roof of the neighboring building. It hopped to the gutter, reached in and pulled

A Clever Corvid

A Clever Corvid

out to be what appeared to be a peanut.

“Good going, Katherine!” I cried. You see, Katherine was fascinated by birds, particularly by the highly intelligent and crafty corvids: crows and ravens. Naturally, I would recognize Katherine’s spirit in a visiting crow.

But that crow wasn’t done. With the nut clenched in its beak, it hopped a few feet over and dived in to the gutter, surfacing with a second peanut. Holding both nuts in its beak, it flew away.

Since Katherine’s death I have thought of her often, with or without crows in my proximity. We were fellow writers but we bonded over boxing. For years we had a standing

Katherine & Chuck

Katherine & Chuck

date to go to the boxing gym and meet up with other women and our coach, Chuck Lincoln. I would pull up in front of Katherine’s apartment house and a few minutes later she would emerge, gym bag over her shoulder, smiling and greeting her neighbors as she came to the car.

“Hiya, Hellcat!” she would call to me.

I had the luxury of a ring name, Hellcat Hauser, given to me by a boxing promoter who had read my 1987 article about boxing in The Wall Street Journal. At the gym Katherine was just, well, Katherine, and that could be daunting enough if you ever faced her in the ring. We sparred once, and once was enough. Man, could she hit!

But most often when I think of her, I remember how selfless she was in promoting and encouraging other writers. Having Katherine in your corner, in and outside of the ring, brought the most wonderful and warm feeling of security in a tough world.

In a conversation with my daughter today (who was also part of our boxing group), I remarked how certain deceased relatives of mine were always seeking recognition, while cutting down people they saw as competition. “But to receive recognition you have to give it,” Meriwether wisely remarked. “Your appreciation and recognition of others is what makes you stand out to other people and gain recognition for yourself.”

And with that, my mind returned again to Katherine. As the acclaimed author of Geek Love, she was justifiably recognized around the world for her great talent as a writer, but among those who knew her she was loved for her generosity of spirit. She always had an encouraging word, a supportive pat on the back, a confident “You can do it!”

Now I’m more convinced than ever that the crow I just saw was Katherine. She found one peanut for herself, but took another one to give to a friend.

Rest in peace.