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In Bloom

Celebrating the life and work of James Joyce

James Joyce Quarterly (Vol. 39.1) features cover art by Heather Ryan Kelley that alludes to “a chattering dialogue across the [Liffey] river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone” from “Finnegans Wake.”

Courtesy The University of Tulsa

Every year, on June 16th, cities across the world honor Bloomsday, a celebration of the Irish writer James Joyce and his magnum opus, “Ulysses.” Tulsa, being something of a center for those who revere the 20th century modernist, hosts a bar crawl. 

To understand the Bloomsday bar crawl, head first to the University of Tulsa. In TU’s McFarlin library, on the fifth floor, there’s a quiet mahogany room guarded by stern librarians. This room houses the Paul and Lucie Léon collection—the fifth largest collection of papers on James Joyce in the world. 

If this fact surprises you, you’re not alone. One woman I spoke with on Bloomsday said she wasn’t even a fan of the author, but was more interested that Tulsa has such a place in his history. 

“He’s divisive,” said Dr. Sean Latham, professor of English at TU and editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, an academic journal that publishes works on the stream-of-consciousness pioneer. “He didn’t write very much, as famous as he is, and some of his work is bad.”

“Joyce left Dublin in the early 1900s and never went back, but he only wrote books about Dublin,” Latham said. “He really wanted to construct Dublin as an imaginative place that he loved, and I think Tulsa is a lot like that.

“Joyce understood how weird it is to live in a city, with people who are themselves weird and diverse and interesting. The reason he took Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ as his starting point is that he sees every day as an adventure. You’re always approaching an adventure in a city.” 

The collection itself, housed in a series of folders, is full of memorabilia about the famous author: playbills, letters, facsimiles of drafts, business cards, and postcards. There’s a blue tie that Joyce once wore with a small gravy stain on the chest. Elsewhere in the building is a bronze lion that a friend gave as a gift. Joyce’s handwriting, it should be noted, is near illegible to the point that TU includes transcriptions with many of Joyce’s letters; otherwise, they couldn’t be read at all. 

Joyce believed that, if his Dublin were bombed into dust, his books could be used as the blueprint to rebuild it. 

“This is going to be an adventure all its own,” Latham said before the Bloomsday event began.

And so it was. Hired buskers dotted the streets playing fiddles and bagpipes. Actors read from “Telemachus” and “Calypso,” different sections of “Ulysses.”

“Death is a beastly thing,” one actor said into a microphone, “and nothing else.” 

The crowd stood, sometimes rapt, other times appalled, and every so often they broke out into laughter. 

A man dressed exactly like James Joyce stumbled around with a cane and an eyepatch, conversing with an Irish lilt and drinking straight bourbon from a lowball glass. 

The crowd was good-natured, singing and raising their glasses to the actors and musicians. At the end of the night, we convened at Guthrie Green to watch The Band with No Name, a U2 cover band, blast the Irish high-school-band-turned-stadium-rocker-philanthropist’s hits. 

The James Joyce impersonator ran out into the center of the Green, alone, leaving his cane behind. He began to dance. 

“Sunday, bloody Sunday,” the rockers crooned. A crowd joined us pub-crawlers, bringing children and blankets and coolers and lawn chairs. James Joyce raised his hands as he screamed.

The little kids on the lawn loved James Joyce. They took his hands and danced with him. They copied his moves, and he copied theirs. It’s hard to say who was smiling and laughing more. 

“Every day is a sort of odyssey,” Latham said, “where we try to make it back home in one piece. It’s not just Greek heroes.” 

The crowd sang along. Maybe this is what we’ll leave behind: moments of quick bliss, music as the scaffolding. All of us sailing out and trying to come back home.

For more from Zack, read his article on the 50th anniversary of S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”