Every June, the press runs a version of the same human interest story as it reports on festivities in honor of Bloomsday: June 16, 1904, the day on which James Joyce's dense, comic urban epic Ulysses takes place. In "Travel" or "The Arts," papers describe with perplexed awe the Joyce devotees who reenact the book down to its smallest details: Gorgonzola sandwiches, lemon soap, a walk down Dublin's Eccles Street at 9 a.m. The tone is one of wary condescension: Don't these people have a life? Aren't they quaint?

Such an approach is in keeping with the general angle of media coverage of English departments, which seems to buy into the image of academic high jinks, petty departmental rivalries, and sexual escapades by flamboyant faculty found in the novels of David Lodge, formerly of the University of Birmingham. Small-minded, large-libidoed, and pedantic -- that's how the press likes its literati. No surprise, then, when the scant American coverage of this June's release of a controversial new edition of Ulysses played out in much this way.

On Bloomsday 1997, Dublin Joyce scholar Danis Rose released a "reader's edition" of Ulysses. It differs from the numerous earlier editions in part because it has none of the usual extensive critical apparatus. Further, and more controversially, Rose made 10,000 "corrections," ranging from the normalization of spelling to the insertion of punctuation not found in earlier editions, from a hyphen in the famous "snotgreen" to apostrophes in Molly Bloom's final stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.

Within the Joyce world, the reaction was immediate and fierce: Rose had lobotomized a classic and assumed insight into Joyce's intentions (a big no-no). Early supporters of the edition issued retractions, the Joyce estate launched a lawsuit, and debates over the virtues of prior editions reignited. American academics took sides in British and Irish outlets; Yale professor Lawrence Rainey's early review in the London Review of Books attacked the "self-aggrandizing fantasy" of Rose's work; debate raged in the letters section of the Irish Independent; and all major English and Scottish papers eagerly picked up the story and voiced opinions.

American coverage was muffled, perhaps due to the escalation of marching-season violence in Northern Ireland around that time. In a New York Times op-ed, Seamus Deane, éminence grise in Irish studies, critiqued opposition to Rose by suggesting Bloomsday seemed "culpably infantile" in the face of the IRA's murder of two Protestant policemen. Still, non-academic coverage in the United States tended to mock the seemingly overscrupulous outrage of stuffy professors. The New York Times characterized Joyce scholars as "consumed by such issues as whether Joyce ever used a semicolon after 1919," while U.S. News and World Report referred to "Ulysses freaks." Rose's publisher, Picador, had portrayed him as liberating the text from its ivory-tower captors, an image agreeably picked up by mainstream press.

Indeed, the question of scholarly credentials did come up; as in last summer's controversy over whether certain Van Goghs were forgeries, the press took sides with the undegreed Davids as they took firebrand stances in the face of university Goliaths, an image Rose himself propagated in interviews. Further, journalistic opinion could be said to side with Rose insofar as it neglected to mention that this is his second editorial battle of the decade. In 1993 Rose worked with Viking to publish what he considered -- contrary to wide academic opinion -- a fourth Joyce novel, Finn's Hotel. The contract was dropped, but not before Rose's actions were labeled a publicity stunt, a possibility not considered in reports since his newest release.

Rather, most reporters turned for comment to John Kidd of Boston University, who previously made a name for himself through vituperative condemnations of the last major edition released, the Gabler synoptic in 1984. Kidd's charge of textual "mutilation" received more attention than the fact that his own version of Ulysses is forthcoming, which lends his public crusade its own market angle. "I do find it interesting that so many have come to discredit [Rose's edition] so quickly, especially those whose own versions promise so much and remain promises," says Professor Tom Staley, director of the University of Texas at Austin's James Joyce Trieste Library Collection.

The competitive angle was unexplored by news stories: "Really, this whole business is about the scramble to scoop up a few more dollars because publication rights will have elapsed on Ulysses," remarks Professor Michael Seidel, the Joyce expert in Columbia's English and comparative literature department. Indeed, the media's urge to conform the story to academic stereotypes meant the big news went unreported: Widely taught books like Ulysses mean major sales to publishers, so this controversy becomes one of the first sites for the market-vs.-scholarly-integrity battle to make inroads into the humanities.

Ultimately, then, press coverage of the new edition confirmed Seidel's predictions: The media are uninterested in academic stories unless there's gossip value, and this contretemps-seeking view skewed the story away from the real questions of copyrights and competing editions. These subjects will see full treatment in Lingua Franca's upcoming issue, which will play up scholarly rivalry from a respectful but unapologetically pro-Kidd angle.

Joyce himself, always at war with press and academics alike, has the last laugh: A number of papers, including the Times, had to issue corrections after mistranscribing quotations from various editions of Ulysses. And Kidd's widely reprinted response to Rose ("What's next? A Reader's Digest condensed version of Finnegans Wake?") erroneously gave Joyce's title an apostrophe in exactly half the places it was cited. Kidd could not be reached for comment as to whether he intended the apostrophe as part of the joke. --Mary McGlynn

Related links...

  • James Joyce Research Center, Ohio State University

  • Donald Theall's gopher site for Joyce materials, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario

  • Dyoublong: A Celebration of Dublin, Joyce, and Bloomsday, Irish Times site on Ulysses and other Joyceana; includes "Bluffer's Guide to Ulysses"

  • Joyce Studies Annual, University of Texas at Austin

    MARY McGLYNN teaches literature and composition and is at work on a Joyce dissertation for Columbia's Department of English and Comparative Literature.

    Illustration Special Effects : Howard R. Roberts