As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.
Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.
Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.
As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.
“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.
Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.
As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)
As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.
(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)
Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.
(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)
The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”
Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.