Fertile Ground for James Joyce

Illustration by Stephen Crowe for the 2014 illustrated edition of 'Dubliners' from de Selby Press.


At Town Hall Seattle, a crowd of nearly 100 passed on an evening sunset to instead raise a glass of Guinness to writer James Joyce. It was Bloomsday, the June 16 annual celebration of Joyce’s epic 1922 novel, Ulysses. Many in the audience arrived with dog-eared copies and followed along as Short Stories Live actors read chapters aloud. The Irish brogues were thick and the jokes obscure, but diehard fans were all the prouder for laughing in the right places. 

“It is the novel to end all novels. The novel that has made all novelists since look over their shoulders, cursing in some instances and praising it in others,” said ACT Theatre artistic director Kurt Beattie during his introduction as curator of Short Stories Live.

Seattle is fertile ground for Joyce. The city is home to many artistic efforts in response to his work—readings, plays, art shows, scholarship and more. Some of it honors the original writings while others use Joyce to inspire new material.

“Joyce takes no prisoners. Once you commit yourself to Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, he claims a part of you,” Beattie says later. “Some people hate it and that’s okay, but you will at least feel like you’ve never experienced anything else like it.”

Ulysses, Joyce’s most renowned work, loosely parallels the Odyssey as itchronicles the Dublin wanderings of protagonist Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904. The literary behemoth clocks in at more than 700 pages. Entire companion books have been written trying to unravel its dense language and wide-ranging references.

People bond over Joyce and Ulysses for many reasons. Sometimes it’s a desire to share the reading experience or a common heritage. Maybe it’s because the Northwest and Ireland both embrace gray skies, beer and books.

“Joyce addresses concerns of young and old alike,” says Brendan Cavanagh, a 23-year-old bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company. “One reason Seattleites might have an affinity is that we’re increasingly urban and populated; it’s easy for one individual to become lost in the shuffle. In Ulysses, the novel takes the idea that one person—a passing face on the street or the person sitting next to you on the bus—has a moving story. It makes every life seem a little more meaningful.”

At Kirkland’s Parkplace Books,a bagpiper heralded Bloomsday 2015. Then a UW English professor spoke about Joyce’s literary legacy, a genealogist presented on Irish heritage and attendees competed in a soda-bread contest to win a bottle of Irish whiskey.

“It was a customer who suggested we host a Bloomsday event and said he’d even help organize it,” says Parkplace Books co-owner Rebecca Willow. “He’s a big Joyce fan and in love with Ulysses, so we were willing to put in the time to make it happen.”

While the ever-expanding Bloomsday event at Parkplace is now in its fourth year, other local groups have been celebrating the literary holiday for ages. The Wild Geese Players, a group of about 30 volunteers, launched their public Bloomsday readings in 1998 and read a few chapters every year. One complete reading of the novel took 16 years. Past participants have included notable guests such as U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott.

“The book blossoms when read aloud,” says George Reilly, a Wild Geese member since 2003. “Joyce was intensely musical with an extraordinary ear for language… It’s like reading Shakespeare versus hearing or seeing one of his plays.”

Many Wild Geese members, including Reilly, are Irish expatriates or Irish-American; the group’s founder came from a theatrical family in Belfast. For them, Joyce provides an opportunity to bridge communities stretching from the Northwest to Europe.

“Our Bloomsday posters are now displayed in Dublin,” Willow says. “They’re posted at one of the James Joyce centers.”

Another of Seattle’s dedicated Joyce fans is Stephen Crowe, the artist behind 2014’s illustrated edition of Joyce’sDubliners, a collection of short stories. The first book from a small Irish press based in Paris, the special edition celebrated the centennial of the book’s original publication. Third Place Books in Ravenna is the first U.S. retailer to carry what is otherwise only available to European readers.

“It’s interesting to see how you can approach an existing work in the same spirit, but using a different medium,” says Crowe, 33, who is British born and raised, but has lived in the Northwest intermittently for nearly seven years. He’s also illustrating Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

Close readings of the text form the foundation for his pen-and-ink drawings. On the cover of Dubliners, a dapper gentleman in a pinstriped suit, bowler hat and umbrella checks his watch as he strides across the image.

“Joyce called his style one of ‘scrupulous meanness’ and I approach the illustrations with that in mind,” Crowe says. “There are lots of straight lines and flat, forced perspectives. Also, part of reading Joyce is understanding both the superficial level and the moral allegory underneath. I want to imply those relationships in the images.”

Joyce has recently inspired entire exhibitions of artwork. In 2013, the Frye Art Museum presented 36 Chambers, an exhibition of paintings curated from the museum’s Founding Collection. Staff members were given a poem from Joyce’s 1907 collection, Chamber Music, and asked to pair it with a painting. A second exhibit, Chamber Music, showcased the original work of 36 Seattle artists in response to music based on Joyce’s poetry.

“I was totally surprised by what people were reading in certain images that I’d never seen before. It inspired new understandings and thinking,” says Scott Lawrimore, the show’s curator and the Frye’s former deputy director of collections and exhibitions.

The final poem in Chamber Music references “the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees.” It was ultimately paired with “The Burning Stable,” a dramatic and explosive equine painting by Adolf Schreyer.

Lawrimore, a longtime lover of Joyce with a Joyce-inspired tattoo on his arm, saw a historical relationship between the museum and the Irish writer: The museum’s founders, Charles and Emma Frye, were art collectors during the period when Joyce published Chamber Music. 

“Seattle is an innovative city that is constantly testing the limits and interrogating subjects in deep ways,” Lawrimore says. “Joyce taps into that same type of energy. You can’t get away from the rigor with which he approached every word on the page, its meaning and placement.”

The most current Joyce-inspired local creation is ACT Theatre’s premiere of Steven Dietz’s play, Bloomsday, opening Sept. 11. Dietz first read Ulysses during a 2013 trip to Ireland and he experience became a backdrop for the new work, which tells the story of a modern, middle-aged man time who travels to the 1980s in search of his lost love, a Bloomsday tour guide.

Dietz was invigorated by Joyce’s willingness to forge new literary ground. “I think he almost anticipated the notion that one day we’d be able to click a link that would immediately take us somewhere else, to another sentence or story,” Dietz says. “That’s essentially what he did in his writing without having modern technology to buttress that type of thinking or experience.”

Like so many readers, Dietz finds Joyce both “amazing and baffling,” which is perhaps why the author remains engaging today.

“I’m just a little piece of moss that’s on the side of the mountain that is James Joyce,” he says.