Slightly Foxed

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“Speak to us of Emailia!”
A Reflection on the last ten years of the Bloomsday centennial

By Allen B. Ruch

We expect you are, honest Shaun, we agreed, but from franking machines, limricked, that in the end it may well turn out, we hear to be you, our belated, who will bear these open letter. Speak to us of Emailia.
Finnegans Wake, 410.20-23

I first discovered James Joyce on his hundredth birthday – February 2, 1982. I came across his name in a book I was reading, Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!, a cult classic about secret societies, global conspiracies, and the magic power of language. Joyce’s Ulysses was prominently mentioned in several places. I’d like to say I was intrigued by Wilson’s praise of its depth and complexity, but I was a teenage boy – this Ulysses book had crazy hallucinations, a black mass, and lots of dirty bits? Bring it on!
That night, I looked up “James Joyce” in an old encyclopedia, observing his birthday with a kind of spooky awe. Given the importance that Illuminatus! placed on coincidence, I knew that something interesting was afoot. I asked my English teacher about Joyce, and not surprisingly, she sent me to the library, where I found a copy of Ulysses. I sat down in the quiet reading room and started off: “Stately plump Buck Mulligan…”
I got about two pages in before recoiling in horror. Returning to school the next day, I asked her what, exactly, was the problem with this guy? She smiled and shrugged her shoulders – she was a Jane Austen fan.
Many years later, I was a young teacher myself, still blissfully ignorant of James Joyce. I had studied chemistry in college; given my interest in molecules (especially beer molecules), reading Ulysses hadn’t seemed a very high priority. But then, right in the middle of a Philip K. Dick novel, a character goes out of his way to praise James Joyce – for several straight pages.
So again I tried to read Ulysses – and again I failed miserably; this time being soundly defeated by the ineluctable modality of the visible. I asked a few of my fellow teachers for advice, but all I received were vague mumbles about how difficult Joyce was to read – why didn’t I try some Jane Austen instead? Finally, taking pity on me, one English teacher loaned me Dubliners. After that, I was on my own.
Dubliners led to Portrait, which in turn brought me back to my old friend Ulysses – brought me back three or four times, to be precise, until I stumbled across Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated in a college bookstore. Buoyed by the encouragement and assistance of the good Professor, I finally got myself off that Protean beach, and with mounting excitement and enjoyment, I made my way from “Stately plump” to “yes I will Yes.” I was delighted, I was confused, I was inspired, I was electrified – but, aside from Dr. Gifford, I was alone. Reading Ulysses was, for me, an act of solitude: at times I wondered if I was the only poor bastard actually reading it for pleasure.
Leap ahead a few years to 1995, when, like many others, I discovered the Internet. Back in those days, the Web was quite different. More than anything else, it seemed to have limits: the number of sites was actually finite, divided between scientific papers, bad pornography, and rock lyrics. And, sprinkled here and there, the “fan site,” cheerfully demented and terribly partial. Looking up “James Joyce,” I was surprised to find only one major site: Rob Callahan’s “Work in Progress,” established in 1994. (Jorn Barger’s “IQ Infinity” dates from this same period as well, but I came across it a while later.) After devouring Callahan’s site in its entirety, I realized two things. First, I was not alone after all – this guy was as crazy as I was. And second, there was nothing stopping me from opening up my own little homepage. Maybe a cozy Joycean pub…
The Brazen Head opened for business on – when else? – Bloomsday, 1995. I confess that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. I was certainly motivated by a teacher’s desire to share his enthusiasm for a beloved subject; but I also remembered my own feeling of solitude. I wanted to create the kind of resource that would have helped me back when I was first curious about Joyce. Something friendlier than an encyclopedia. Being largely unaware of the so-called “Joyce industry,” I also felt, perhaps foolishly, that I had something new to say. I remember talking to friends who were pursuing their doctorates in literature. While they agreed that another Joyce site could no harm, most believed that Joyce simply did not appeal to the average reader.
Months later, I got my first email. I will never forget that feeling – opening my in-box and finding an email from a stranger. From a visitor to my site. A visitor that – drum roll, please – was happy to have found it. I can still quote that first letter by heart: “Thank you for your homepage on James Joyce and Ulysses. I have been scared to read it, but your irreverent approach is just what I needed. Thanks for recommending Gifford and Blamires, too. I am now halfway through Ulysses, and love it! By the way, I think Richard Ellmann has two n’s.”
But that was not the end. The letters kept arriving, and as more people went online, the intermittent trickle turned into a steady stream. Many were similar to that first email – average readers happy to have found a Joyce site congenial to the beginner. Some contained helpful criticisms and corrections. Soon, academics started to write, a few offering to contribute papers. As the years progressed, more Joyce sites went online, each with a different viewpoint – and all happy to link to each other. Online discussion groups multiplied, free to anyone with an email address and a sense of courtesy: one group was conducting a page-by-page study of Finnegans Wake; another was hosting a group reading of Ulysses; and another was open to any discussions revolving around Joyce and his work. More reviews, essays, and articles started to arrive at The Brazen Head and various other Joyce sites as well, from a movie review of Nora submitted by an MBA student to an essay on a Joyce-inspired composer written by a jazz musician.
It is now 2004, and the Web is well established – the days of the blue and gray frontier seem like a distant dream, a memory increasingly obscured by crass commercialization and endless spam. It’s even become fashionable to decry the Web, and countless critics have characterized the Internet as something ultimately negative, a medium that isolates people from human contact while bestowing the illusion of social interaction. Other detractors see the Web as the ultimate government or corporate tool; even Thomas Pynchon has recently stated that the Internet “promises social control” on a previously inconceivable level.
Although these criticisms are unquestionably valuable, I feel they miss a larger point. As the Bloomsday Centennial approaches, it coincides with another anniversary – ten years of James Joyce on the Web, counting back from Rob Callahan and Jorn Barger. Over this last decade, Joyce readership has found a welcome home on the Internet, and through a multiplicity of sites, discussion groups, and projects, people of all backgrounds can gather to share their ideas, their questions, and their passions. A quick “fly by those nets” reveals a renowned professor creating a hypertext version of Ulysses, a self-described crone in upstate New York who pens Wake-inspired poetry; a student whose English class has designed a project on Portrait; a programmer in Australia who writes online beginner’s guides; a retired music critic who reviews Joyce-related books; and a group in Boston that conducts a yearly Joycean marathon. Of course, various subcultures and cliques certainly exist, and some resources are more accommodating to new readers than others. But for the most part, they talk to each other with great enthusiasm, whether assisting a Joyce “newbie” or offering a detailed critique of someone’s analysis of “The Dead.”
There is a word for this phenomenon, although it has become devalued through cynical overuse: community. The last ten years of Joyce on the Web has seen the birth of a Joycean community that extends well beyond the campus walls. By bringing together the curious newcomer and the lifelong enthusiast, the Web has fostered a global conversation, one that can be heard outside of ivory towers and lonely libraries. And as we near this Bloomsday Centennial – an event that has sparked its own countering reaction of cynicism, as some wonder whether “unreadable” Joyce has a future – it is not unreasonable to look to the future as well as celebrate the past. Will there be a Bloomsday Bicentennial?
That is a question I cannot answer. But I do know this – the key to a lasting Joyce readership does not lie in schools, in libraries, or in encyclopedias. It lies in a thriving community of readers, open to new ideas and maintaining a willingness to grow, change, and adapt. It depends on nurturing an evolving conversation that transcends the boundaries of nation, age, and academic background.
After all, the next generation of Joyce fans are currently kids logging on to the Web to discuss Harry Potter. It might be a few years from Quidditch to baby tuckoo, but let’s be ready to hear what they have to say.

Allen B. Ruch
3 June 2004

Slightly Foxed is a “revolving” column, intended to let Modern Word writers and readers have a soapbox from which they may speak their minds to an adoring crowd. You are adoring, right?

Allen B. Ruch is Editorial Director of the Modern Word, and tends bar over at the Brazen Head. Send comments, manifestos, love letters and hate mail to: