What is Bloomsday?
Bloomsday is probably the best known literary “holiday” in the world. Every June 16th, in cities and towns around the globe, literature lovers celebrate the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place: June 16, 1904. The celebration takes many forms. Some are public: professional and amateur programs (on stage, on the radio, in pubs and cafes) that include readings from the book, re-enactments of famous scenes, performances of songs featured in the novel, and walking tours that follow the paths of the novel’s characters. Other celebrations are more private: people reading or listening to recordings of favorites passages, eating some of the food or drinking a glass (or pint) of one of the many alcoholic beverages mentioned in the book. Or, as in my case, writing a little about Ulysses and sharing it with the others.
It is worth pointing out that Ulysses itself is a celebration of June 16th — for it was on that date in 1904 that James Joyce met his wife, Nora Barnacle.
Why is it called Bloomsday?
Bloomsday takes its name from Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses. The term Bloomsday is never used by Joyce in Ulysses. According to yes I said yes I will Yes. A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and 100 Year of Bloomsday (2004) the word Bloomsday was coined by Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate whose bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, was an important center of Parisian literary life. Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, held gatherings every June 16th throughout the 1920s. The earliest known celebration of Bloomsday in Dublin occurred in 1954 and was attended by five Dubliners, among them the poet Patrick Kavanagh and one of Joyce’s cousins.
I’ve never read Ulysses. What is it about?
There is no simple answer to this question. As Samuel Beckett once said of Joyce: “His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.”
In broad terms, the answer is Life. To give a little more detail, Ulysses follows three Dubliners through an ordinary Thursday: Stephen Dedalus (aspiring writer and accomplished drinker), Leopold Bloom (a newspaper ad canvasser who deals in “time and space”), and Molly Bloom (Leopold’s wife, a concert singer who may be having an affair with her manager). The events in each character’s day correspond, in various ways, to episodes in The Odyssey—Homer’s epic poem about the crafty warrior Odysseus and his ten-year journey home following the Trojan War.
Ulysses explores a variety of themes and concepts: the notion of life as an odyssey, the role of mythology for individuals and cultures, feelings of alienation, mentorship, the nature of consciousness, bigotry, love, sexuality, infidelity, coincidence, and the feeling of drowning in one’s own life, to name only a few. At the same time, Ulysses is also an exploration of language and technique. It has been said that the English language, as much as Leopold Bloom, is the hero of Ulysses.
What is the Bloomsday Project?
The Bloomsday Project began on June 16, 2005. That year I decided to celebrate Bloomsday by sending an email message to friends and family. That first message included a few words about Bloomsday and an excerpt from the penultimate chapter of Ulysses (“Ithaca,” a personal favorite). In 2006 I decided to make the messages an annual tradition. That year, I focused on the first chapter of the book and have moved sequentially through the novel ever since, one chapter per year.
What do you mean “Every day is Bloomsday?”
While Ulysses is set on June 16, 1904 the novel itself makes clear that there is nothing inherently special about this date. There are no events of national or international importance and, even on the personal level, the most important events are relatively modest. Ulysses, despite its size and the grandeur of its source material, is at its core a story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. The implication, it seems to me, is that each of us lives our own Bloomsday every day. Each day, we are all the hero of our own lives. It seems odd, even perverse, to only celebrate the spirit of Bloomsday on June 16th.
Every day is Bloomsday.