By Ellen Girardeau Kempler

First edition cover of Ulysses

Measured in pages, June 16 marks what may be the longest day in literature: 24 hours in the life of Leopold Bloom, a central character in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. In 18 episodes and approximately 265,000 words (including everything from bathroom breaks to errands), the novel charts Bloom’s meandering odyssey through Dublin on June 16, 1904.

The unofficial Bloomsday observances started shortly after Ulysses’ controversial publication in 1922. (Deemed pornographic by censors, the book was banned in Britain and the U.S. for more than a decade.) Joyce made the first reference to “what they call Bloom's day” in a 1924 letter. In 1929, publisher Sylvia Beach organized the Dejeuner Ulysse at the Hotel Leopold near Versailles for 30 guests, including Joyce himself, to celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary and its translation into French.

Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Firstbloom

The first official Bloomsday in Dublin, known as “Firstbloom," occurred 50 years later, when Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh joined a group of local literati (including one of Joyce’s cousins) to retrace Leopold’s steps in two horse-drawn carriages. Instead of ending in “Nightown,” like the novel, Firstbloom finished with the pilgrims abandoning their buggies at the drunken end of a pub crawl.

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses

Today, Dublin celebrates the Bloomsday Festival with a week of observances from readings to plays, walks, a bus tour, scholarly talks and a rally of cyclists dressed in Edwardian costumes. The James Joyce Centre serves as the clearinghouse for Bloomsday events worldwide  from the Bloomsday Bathe in Malaga, Spain, to readings and performances in Australia, Brazil, Croatia, New Zealand, Norway and Szombathely, Hungary, the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father.

In the United States, New York City has the longest Joycean tradition. Poet T. S. Eliot was the first member of The James Joyce Society, founded in 1947 at the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart, and New York’s Symphony Space has presented Bloomsday on Broadway since 1981. This year’s performance, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners, features readings by Colum McCann, Malachy McCourt and Cynthia Nixon, among others.  

Can’t make the New York show? Here are four notable U.S. celebrations:

1. Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, June 13-18, 2014

Home to the original Ulysses manuscript, the Rosenbach organizes an annual Bloomsday Festival. The centerpiece of 2014’s festivities is the exhibit, I’ll Make a Ghost of Him: James Joyce Haunted by Shakespeare, which juxtaposes pages of Joyce’s text with the plays and poems that inspired them.  

2. Georgetown Library, Washington, D.C., June 9-16, 2014

Thirty actors and scholars will read all of Ulysses aloud in a series of public performances.

3. Anna Murdoc’s Café, Wichita, Kansas, June 16, 2014

Bloomsday goes variety show at this lively celebration featuring readings and Best Limerick and 1904 Costume contests, followed by live Irish music.

4. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 16, 2014

Guinness, Irish fare and music by the Celtic band Rattle the Knee kick off a reading from Ulysses by actors at the museum’s fifth annual Bloomsday celebration, with uncensored excerpts from Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy as the finale.

Having read Ulysses isn’t a prerequisite for getting into the Bloomsday spirit. Celebrating what the Rosenbach Museum calls “the only international holiday in recognition of a work of art” is a way to say “yes I will yes” to freedom of expression in all its forms.

Ellen Girardeau Kempler finds inspiration in green places and witty words. An Iron Age boat she discovered on a solo writing trip to Ireland inspired her travel company, Gold Boat Journeys. Her articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and many other publications.

(Image Credits, from top: Run Junkie, Flickr, Retronaut)

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