You can tell a lot about a nation by the people it puts on its money. In the United States, our legal tender celebrates our democracy and the leaders it has produced. A parade of presidents graces our dollar bills – Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50). Ben Franklin, a colonial triple-threat – diplomat, inventor, essayist – gazes at us from the $100 note. Franklin coined the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Save enough pennies and you can carry Benjamins in your wallet.
When I arrived in Ireland as a student in 1980, I was struck by the pre-euro pound notes that made up the Irish national currency. There were different colors for different denominations – green, orange, pink, blue. The notes were larger than American bills. And look who appeared on the notes – Jonathan Swift on the £10 bill and William Butler Yeats on the £20. Writers on money! As a student of literature, this was the country for me.
That semester, I fell under the spell of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. Considered by many to be the finest English-language novel published in the 20th century, Ulysses is a dazzling and difficult work, 783 pages of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, and comedic joy. It charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904. Why did Joyce choose this date? That’s when he took his “first walk” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.
Bloom is Joyce’s everyman. By paralleling the events of Bloom’s day with those of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man – you and me and the rest of us – as a modern hero. The fact that Bloom is an ad canvasser endears him to me further.
Now known as Bloomsday, June 16th is the day when the world celebrates all things Joyce. In Dublin, literary pilgrims retrace the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen. In New York, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on Broadway. In France, the Paris Bloomsday Group presents songs and readings from Ulysses. Last year, even Twitter turned Joycean when @11lysses tweeted the novel 140 characters at a time.
When Ireland issued its new series of banknotes in 1993, Joyce appeared on the £10 note. The notoriously money-challenged author would have loved the irony.