Celebrate the literary masterpiece ‘Ulysses’ at Bloomsday Festival

Jessica Griffin

For 100 years, Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library has been the home of the original manuscript of author James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘ — a once-banned, magnificently abstract classic purchased by Dr. ASW Rosenbach in 1924.

To celebrate, Rosenbach will host its annual Bloomsday Festival this Sunday, June 16, with a public reading of ‘Ulysses’ with Sens. Nikil Saval and Vincent Hughes, barkeep Fergus Carey, theater artists KC MacMillan, Leonard Haas, Kirsten Quinn and more reading their favorite bits of the abstruse Irish masterpiece.

“Joyce is clearly – and it sounds cliché to say this – one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and the modernist movement,” says Rosenbach’s Bloomsday Reading Coordinator Edward G. Pettit. “Joyce is the kind of artist who wrote works that are difficult to read, and yet, people not involved in academia still enjoy reading him. That’s significant. Usually when literature is complicated and dense, it tends to get filtered out of the public’s reading sphere. Not ‘Ulyesses’. Does everyone understand the book? Does anyone understand the book? No. And that’s OK because it is such as a magnificent collection of words, and a joy to read.”

Local actors Quinn and Haas adore Joyce’s free twists of language, its universality and its progressive, daring characters.

Jessica Griffin

“Like, Molly who is so forward-thinking and bold, especially for a woman of her time,” Quinn said of the wife of Ulysses’ main character, Leopold, whose singular, physicalized presence is made clear by her end-of-book soliloquy. “I want to say thanks to Ed and the Rosenbach staff for making such an intimidating book so approachable.”

Haas speaks of the “yin-and-yang” of getting to know ‘Ulysess, and is famous for taking part in playwright Tom Stoppard’s ‘Travesties’ at Philly’s Lantern Theatre — a drama that features Joyce as one of its central characters during his time writing ‘Ulysses’.

“In researching that, I got a handle on Joyce… and I jumped at the chance when Ed asked me to read for the first-time last year. It’s thrilling to see such a large crowd so into it. It’s a whole world that I didn’t realize existed.”

Pettit jumped in and exclaimed that it is not a requirement to have read any-or-all of ‘Ulysess’ to come to, and enjoy, the Bloomsday Fest, and that many of its readers that day certainly have not finished the serpentine work. It is here that Pettit explains the complicated relationship between author Joyce and the manuscript’s buyer, Philadelphia’s Dr. ASW Rosenbach. Bought during an auction, Joyce was highly displeased with Rosenbach’s purchase of his prized work.

Jessica Griffin

“We think that Joyce may have wanted more money for it,” says Pettit. “At the time, John Quinn – a literary lawyer who was helping Joyce – said that if the author had a complete manuscript to sell, that was a saleable item. Joyce made sure that the manuscript was as complete as possible. That said, there’s no true complete manuscript for ‘Ulysess’ as its many different sections are spread out all over the world. Rosenbach bought it for just under $2,000 (along with a handful of author Jospeh Conrad’s manuscripts at the same auction).”

Buying the scandalous ‘Ulysses’ – a novel renowned for its frank, vivid sexuality and considered obscene between 1918 and 1920 — was nearly equal in weight to its struggles in being published. And while Rosenbach was delighted with his purchase, Joyce wrote mean poems about the Philadelphia doctor that displayed his anger.

“We believe that Joyce thought that Rosenbach was a dilettante,” said Pettit. “But Rosenbach’s PhD was in Literature, and he even offered to sell it back to Joyce if he would pay him what he paid for the manuscript. Joyce said, ‘Nah.’”

The rest is Philadelphia history.

The Bloomsday reading event dedicated to ‘Ulysses’ has been happening for over 30 years in Philadelphia. It was once organized by author Chaim Potok, and has featured regular readings from former Gov. Ed Rendell. It has grown to the point where the museum and library must close down Delancey Place for the nearly 10-hour reading and live musical affair.

“When it comes to selecting people to read ‘Ulysses’, in shaping the program, it is best if it is as democratic as possible,” says Pettit. “There are so many different kinds of voice in this novel, that’s it’s great to have a diverse panoply of readers. I get asked if they should do an Irish accent while reading ‘Ulysess’. My answer is always to do your own accent – that’s what I like to hear the best. And I always like to have seasoned actors on board (along with the local politicians) who can read ‘Ulysses’ exceptionally well to make sure that the event truly comes to life.”

The Bloomsday Festival will take place on Sunday, June 16, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Delancey Place in Center City. The Festival will occupy Delancey Place between 20th and 21st streets. For more information and to register to attend, visit rosenbach.org.