Today we celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses unfolds. In recognition of the holiday, we spoke to our colleague Nola Tully, whose eBook Ulysses Bores Me So: First Reactions to Joyce’s Masterpiece, is just out from Random House. A compilation of quotes, essays, and articles about Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, the collection follows Tully’s 2004 book yes I said yes I Will Yes (Vintage), and offers us a peek into the minds of great readers, including Joyce’s contemporaries.
TNC: What inspired you to compile these reactions to Joyce's work?
TULLY: My interest in literature. I had actually just done a writing program in fiction and was working in publishing. Dan Tucker at Sideshow Media produced yes I said yes I will Yes in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday and it was a nice opportunity to focus on Joyce. The story of the publication is so interesting, and my book is really about the history of the publication. It’s not a textual analysis of Ulysses. I had fun looking at it from that side.
TNC: Do you have any favorite pieces in the book? Did certain pieces surprise you?
TULLY: There’s a bunch! For instance, Virginia Woolf was very critical — her response was interesting and funny to read. And Edmund Wilson was amazing. And Judge Woolsey. You know, after the book was published it was banned in the United States. Random House went to court to defend it, and they did win, and Ulysses circulated in the States. But Judge Woolsey’s decision is so eloquent and his writing is really amazing.
TNC: What was your own reaction to the book?
TULLY: Admiration. Awe. Ulysses is not easy; it’s an interesting book in that way. It’s a challenge. The fact that Joyce writes it from such a realistic and day-to-day perspective makes it somehow universal.
TNC: Do you have any advice for readers who feel daunted by it?
TULLY: I think you can read a lot of the surrounding annotations or even books like this to get you interested in it. That’s really the challenge: picking an angle that makes it more fun.
TNC: How do you feel that the book is still relevant today?
TULLY: It was an incredible moment in the history of literature and the arts. So much was changing and if you want to understand where we are now, you need to go back and understand how we got there. And Ulysses is a pretty towering work. Aside from all the contextualizing and historical perspectives, it has merit as a work of art.
TNC: What did you enjoy most about the project?
TULLY: The quotes were really fun to work on: gathering them and sifting through them. Really parsing it out and seeing how monumental Ulysses was. You know, there’s a quote from Malcolm Cowley about a stone dropping in a pond — a moment of silence and then all the frogs in the pond start to talk.
And Joyce’s life was really fascinating. He chose Bloomsday because it was his first date with his future wife Nora. They went out for a walk on June 16th. At Columbia I took a class on Joyce and Yeats and we got a facsimile of that day’s newspaper. He mentions everything on the newspaper’s front page in the book.
TNC: Any major findings during the course of your research?
TULLY: The timing in the arts — there was the big Armory Show before [the book's publishing], in 1913. The Cubists broke out, so there was a lot of stuff percolating. And Virginia Woolf was also doing stream of consciousness. Maybe she found Ulysses too close for comfort.
But that time was really interesting. Things cracked apart, cracked open, and so much emerged. Diving into that subject led to many discoveries — it was very exciting and inspiring.
TNC: How will you be celebrating Bloomsday?
TULLY: Symphony Space has a radio program that does readings of Ulysses, so I'll be listening to that and drinking Irish whiskey.
A selection of Tully’s favorite reactions to Ulysses, found in Ulysses Bores Me So, available now on Amazon Kindle:
I rather agree that Joyce is underrated: but never did any book so bore me.—Virginia Woolf, December 1, 1923
As I have stated, “Ulysses” is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places, it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of a mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.—John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge, December 6, 1933
...The more we read “Ulysses,” the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional, and their emotional lives.—Edmund Wilson
Jane Balkoski also contributed.