Philadelphia’s Literary Christmas—Bloomsday!

By Julie B. Fri, May 27, 2016
Bloomsday, the annual event celebrating James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses
Bloomsday, the annual event celebrating James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses
Audience at last year's Bloomsday event
Audience at last year's Bloomsday event

Our literary Christmas is almost upon us: Philadelphia’s favorite bookish holiday—Bloomsday—arrives on Thursday, June 16, and we couldn’t be more excited! This annual event celebrates James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses with a day-long fête—reminiscent of Ulysses' hero Leopold Bloom’s day of wandering through Dublin on June 16, 1904—featuring public readings of passages from Ulysses and live musical performances.

Bloomsday is the culmination of the week-long Bloomsday Festival, which also includes Ulysses­-themed quizzo, hands-on tours at the Rosenbach, and a live performance of traditional Irish music. Nowhere in the United States is this global literary holiday marked with more excitement than here in Philadelphia, where the manuscript for Ulysses has made its home at the Rosenbach since 1924.

But how did this literary treasure make its way to Philly?

In January of 1924, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach bought James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses at auction for $1,975. It was a curious purchase—modern literature was never Dr. Rosenbach’s strongest suit. The novel must have had a special meaning for him—two years earlier he had arranged for a copy of the first edition to be smuggled from Paris by a friend. Upon buying the manuscript, he said that it was for his own collection, and it was never put up for sale by the Rosenbach Company.   

Joyce first sold the manuscript to John Quinn, a New York lawyer, book collector, political activist, and patron of the arts. Quinn actively promoted Joyce’s career and his purchase of the Ulysses manuscript was a means for providing financial support. In 1923 and 1924, however, Quinn decided to liquidate his impressive collection. Although the auction was expected to be one of the great book events of the year, if not the decade, neither Quinn nor the auction house thought the Ulysses manuscript would sell for very much. While the book had some degree of notoriety in the United States, it could not be legally printed or sold here at the time because its obscenity "might cause American readers to harbor ‘impure and lustful thoughts’".

Quinn had warned Joyce before the sale that the manuscript would not bring a very high price, but Joyce was nevertheless disappointed. Once the manuscript was acquired by Dr. Rosenbach, Joyce actually inquired about buying it back from him, only to be told that Rosenbach’s interest in Ulysses was personal, not professional, and that he was unlikely to sell it, even back to its author. 

It is now part of a priceless cultural legacy here in Philadelphia, drawing both locals and fans from around the world.

We hope you will come celebrate with us this Bloomsday!

Historical background provided by Michael Barsanti, Free Library Director of Foundation Relations and former Associate Director of the Rosenbach.


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