June 16, 2021

Sister Cities — Celebrating Bloomsday in Princeton 

By Stuart Mitchner

Begin the day at a simple gravestone in the Princeton cemetery, SYLVIA BEACH 1887-1962. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to Sylvia Beach Way, the lane that runs behind the Sands library building, one of Princeton’s most popular dropping-off, picking-up spots. Across town is Library Place, where Sylvia and her family lived before she moved to Paris and opened Shakespeare and Company in 1920; in her eponymous memoir, she wonders if the name of the street influenced her choice of a career in the book business. Her father Sylvester Beach (Princeton Class of 1876) was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, where, according to Sylvia’s friend Annis Stockton, the horses of Washington’s staff had once munched their oats in the pews, a tidbit the author of Ulysses would have appreciated.

A Funny Little Publisher

When James Joyce despaired of ever finding a place for Ulysses, which had been preemptively banned in the English-speaking countries, Sylvia Beach asked him if he would let Shakespeare and Company “have the honor” of bringing his book out. He accepted the offer “immediately and joyfully.” Describing the moment, Beach admits thinking it “rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher.” As Joyce’s wish was to have the first copy off the press on his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, she promised to make that happen. When the printer, who was located 300-plus kilometers from Paris, said that it couldn’t be done, she insisted otherwise. Came the day, she received a telegram telling her to meet the 7 a.m. express from Dijon, which she did, her heart “going like the locomotive” as the train “came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone – me.” Soon she was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing the author “Copy No. 1 of Ulysses.”


It was falling in love that gave June 16 its talismanic importance for Joyce.

—Richard Ellman, from James Joyce

You could say that Bloomsday began on Nassau Street. Sylvia Beach must have been amused to learn that the main street of her hometown shared the name of the street Joyce was strolling down when he met Nora Barnacle, “a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride,” according to Richard Ellman’s 1959 biography. After a failed first date, the two got together for good on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce immortalized in Ulysses. The relationship lasted until his death in January 1941 (they were not legally married until 1931). Although Nora told Sylvia “she hadn’t read a page of ‘that book’ “ and “nothing would induce her to open it,” the publisher of Ulysses knew that it was “quite unnecessary” for the source of Joyce’s inspiration to read his magnum opus.


When I read “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” in the New York Times last week, I was reminded of the National Library of Ireland’s Bloomsday Centenary Exhibition, where an immersive tribute to Ulysses was created in a new gallery space with a replica of the front of Shakespeare and Company at the entrance and “Copy No. 1” of Ulysses on display in the window.

The 2004-2005 Blooms-day exhibition took visitors into the heart of the book and the domestic environment of the author through what the exhibit guide calls “a constantly evolving montage of sights and sounds related to” home life with Leopold and Molly Bloom at No. 7 Eccles Street. The articles on display ranged from Bloom’s bar of lemon soap to the wadded up papers littering the floor of a large-as-life version of the Joyces’ flat.

The Princeton Link

The sister city idea was inspired by the Arts Council of Princeton’s plan for a June 16 Bloomsday Zoomsday event in which area authors “share their favorite passages” from Ulysses. With that in mind, I began reading around in my copy of the third Random House edition, with its prefatory material: lawyer Morris Ernst’s foreword; the text of the U.S. District Court’s “Monumental Decision” by Hon. John M. Woolsey lifting the ban on Ulysses; and Joyce’s April 2, 1932 letter to the publisher detailing his history with censorship dating back to Dubliners and making special mention of Sylvia Beach, the “brave woman who risked what professional publishers did not wish to” — the brave woman buried in the cemetery across the street from the Arts Council.

In the Room

The closest I’ve ever felt to Joyce, the working, thinking, laughing, drinking writer, is in his Zurich friend Frank Budgen’s book James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Indiana Univ. Press 1960). As much as I’d like to do a Bloomsday “greatest hits”-style catalogue of favorite moments, like the one in which a Gypsy couple’s dog named Tatters steals the show in the learnedly “immersive” Proteus sequence, I’d rather eavesdrop on Budgen’s back and forth with Joyce. After asking Budgen if he saw the point of “that bit about the dog, the mummer among beasts, the Protean animal,” Joyce proceeds to read his account  aloud. Budgen, a painter, sees it in painterly terms: “I don’t know a better word-picture of a dog … English and Irish, we are all dog-lovers but when we write about dogs or paint them we sentimentalize them.”   

After Joyce admits not liking dogs (“I’m afraid of them”), he reads another passage from the Sandymount Strand musings of Stephen Dedalus. When Stephen thinks “I am almosting it,” Budgen catches the odd usage (“Almosting!”), leading Joyce to explain “the Protean character of the thing: Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change too. Adverb becomes verb.” Reading aloud a sentence about the Gypsy woman who “trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, transcines her load.” Joyce says, “I like the crescendo of verbs … the irresistible tug of the tides.”

So it goes, Budgen paraphrasing a
portion of narrative, with Joyce responding. At the end of their conversation about the Proteus chapter, Budgen observes: “At times, in reading the long monologue, he had sunk his voice to a talking-to-himself murmur so that only precise articulation and a silent room allowed it to be audible. But inside this small scale of tones and with a minimum of emphasis he expressed all the moods of reverie, mockery, perception.”

Budgen’s book, which was first published in 1934, is worth any number of critical/biographical assumptions and presumptions. He is in the room. Joyce likes him, respects his opinion, and, as Hugh Kenner points out in his introduction, Budgen “has no filing cards, he is not a specialist, he is simply the intelligent, curious, uncommitted man, that ideal reader for whom Joyce was writing.”

Being There

If you visit Dublin after your first taste of Ulysses, every day is Bloomsday. You hit the Martello Tower at the crack of dawn, then the residence at 7 Eccles Street, where Bloom begins the “gentle summer morning” of June 16 by fixing breakfast for Molly and serving it to her in bed. Then you can walk on Sandymount Strand or you can hike across Howth Head where Leopold and Molly made love. Around midnight when you head toward the Amiens Street Station on your way to the site of the wondrous, hilarious Nighttown fantasia, everything’s in a semi-intelligible mist and you can believe literature is a divinity brooding over the city you’re wandering in, just another character finding your way through the imagination of the man who wrote the book.

Bloomsday 2021

Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier presided over the first ever celebration of Bloomsday in 1929. A more elaborate event took place on the 50th anniversary, June 16, 1954, when a group of Dubliners led by novelist Flann O’Brien assumed the roles of characters in the novel and hired horse drawn cabs to take them along Bloom’s route through the city. Although nothing quite so spectacular is promised in today’s free Arts Council event, set for between 5 and 6 p.m. (Artscouncilofprinceton.org), the stellar cast of poets, novelists, and historians includes Paul Muldoon, Joyce Carol Oates, Colum McCann, Jhumpa Lahiri, Esther Schor, and Sean Wilentz.