Every June 16th, hundreds gather at the Rosenbach Museum to celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses. Why here?
In a brick rowhome on a street full of such homes, in a part of Philadelphia full of such streets, an unassuming man spends his days shuffling among dusty books and curiosities.
There’s nothing outwardly strange or peculiar about No. 2010 Delancey Place, or about the keeper of its treasure. There’s no bright shingle hanging over the door, and no one walking past to see it anyway. Few people, then, find the place or the man without a search.
“Welcome!” Michael Barsanti greets me, at the front door. The home’s former residents — the dashing Rosenbach brothers — are long dead and gone, and now their house is called the Rosenbach Museum & Library. I am the only visitor.
Barsanti starts a tour of the home on its first floor. The initial clue to the home’s unusual nature comes in the very first room, with a photograph of the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Abraham Rosenbach bought the original manuscript that became Alice in Wonderland, and later — why not? — invited the real Alice to his home in Philadelphia for tea.
Abraham and Philip Rosenbach were a pair of rakish millionaire bachelors who traveled the world acquiring unusual objects for their clients. Philip focused on paintings and antiques, and the younger brother, Abraham, specialized in books and manuscripts. By the time he died, in 1952, he was the most influential bookman in the world.
These days, the museum serves as a monument to the brothers’ eccentric tastes. Barsanti shows me a photo of Albert Einstein, whose letters to Abraham Rosenbach are kept upstairs. There are notes and outlines by Bram Stoker, who wrote part of Dracula in Philly. A lock of Charles Dickens’s hair. This plain rowhome, it turns out, is the modern equivalent of an unplundered Egyptian pyramid. And Barsanti, the keeper, guards its artifacts.
On the first floor, there’s a parchment decree by England’s Charles II, authorizing women to appear onstage in plays. And on the second, a literary double shot: an edition of Moby Dick inscribed by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am disappointed, for reasons I refuse to confront, to hear that No. 2010 Delancey no longer houses its weirdest prize: Napoleon’s penis.
We climb carpeted stairs to Abraham Rosenbach’s third-floor personal library, to the top of the pyramid, to see its greatest jewel: one of the finest works of art in Philadelphia, and one of the most valuable. It’s the reason Barsanti first came to this city, the object to which he has devoted his life.
Barsanti brings it from a glassed-in bookcase to a table in the center of the room. “Here it is,” he says, laying out a sheaf of papers. On the first page, in what looks like a schoolchild’s No. 2 pencil, it calls itself:
It’s the handwritten manuscript of the novel often regarded as the most important piece of literature in the past century. The novel is enigmatic, almost impossible to read without the proper key; then it rises up, clear and beautiful. Relatively few people know this manuscript’s history, or its location. Those who do know, I would learn, form a sort of parareligion, with this as their sacred text.
The reaction to seeing — touching, even — the manuscript is wonderment: to wonder why such a thing calls Philadelphia its home. To wonder how it came here. And to wonder why it inspires such passion in its adherents.
The answers to all those things, in time, would also rise up, clear and beautiful.
DUBLIN PUNISHED A YOUNG MAN like James Joyce. He was a forward-looking sort, and Dublin seemed to forever gaze into its past.
For a glorious while at the end of the 18th century, both Dublin and Philadelphia served as the capitals of their countries. Neither lasted. Shortly after the Americans launched their Revolution from Philadelphia, the British Empire, annoyed by the loss of its colony, reached over and took away Ireland’s self-rule. The two former capitals — Dublin and Philadelphia — became linked in that moment; the depth of the relationship, as we’ll see, would only reveal itself years later. In the meantime, London — Dublin’s civic nemesis — became the preeminent metropolis in the Irish world, and Dublin faded. It’s a city that knows — feels — loss intimately, in its soul. A very familiar sensation for Philadelphians.
Joyce called one of his early books Dubliners. “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country,” he said, “and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis.”
Dublin seemed stuck, like an aging debutante who never took off her debut dress. Its Georgian architecture — the red brick with white window trim, symmetrical chimneys and columns — harked back to its moment of political, financial and social importance: It’s no wonder that as waves of Irishmen emigrated, they felt at home in Philadelphia. Even the shutters matched.
In 1904, when he was 22, Joyce fled Dublin’s stagnation and moved to Trieste, then Zurich, then Paris, but all the while, he wrote about his home city. His masterwork, Ulysses, follows a middle-aged Jewish resident of Dublin, Leopold Bloom, on a stroll around the city.
The book took its title from the greatest hero in literature, Homer’s Ulysses from The Odyssey, who makes an epic journey home after the fall of Troy. Joyce felt that the average man lives his own epic each day, even in a gray town, striving to return home each evening. In Ulysses, Joyce crafted a monument to the ordinary man, striving in the second city.
To fund the writing of the book, Joyce sold the handwritten manuscript of each episode as he completed it, sending them off to a New York book collector named John Quinn. Once he received the whole work, Quinn sold it to Philadelphia’s Abraham Rosenbach for $1,975. The price infuriated Joyce, who wanted to buy the manuscript back from Rosenbach. But the mighty Rosenbach held onto his prize. Later, in a cabled message, he offered to buy Ulysses’s typed page proofs.
Apparently he misspelled “Ulysses.” Joyce, in his signature style, wrote a curt poem about the Philadelphia tycoon, including a pun on the German meaning of Rosenbach’s name:
Rosy Brook he bought a book
Though he didn’t know how to spell it.
Such is the lure of literature
To the lad who can buy it and sell it.
Rosenbach didn’t see himself as a mere buyer and seller. He had studied literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and his fixation never ended. And although he was unimposing in body — five feet, five inches of paste — he earned a reputation around the world as a book-devouring lion.
“I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships,” he said, “even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.”
Rosenbach saw books as something more than mere business. They were his means to change the world. For instance. In 1937, just before the Second World War, Rosenbach and a book-collecting friend, Lessing Rosenwald, heard news of a rare manuscript coming up for auction. It was listed, mildly, as Lot 553.
But the two Philadelphians knew the true significance of the document, a horrific and false account of 15th-century Jews using human blood in Passover rituals. They agreed that Lessing Rosenwald should buy the document at any cost, with Rosenbach as his agent. During the auction, a woman bid against Rosenbach, and afterward loudly protested that she had won the book. The auctioneer turned her away, and according to Lessing Rosenwald, “Later investigation established the lady underbidder as a German agent who had been sent for the sole purpose of obtaining Lot 553.”
It’s unsurprising, in this light, that Rosenbach held the Ulysses manuscript so tight. Held it even when he sold his original Shakespeare folios. Even when he sold a Gutenberg Bible. Held it even when Joyce despised him. Held onto Ulysses.
Ulysses: the heroic story of a middle-aged, assimilated Jew in a city full of Irishmen. A story Rosenbach, in Philadelphia, might view as his own.
MICHAEL BARSANTI REMEMBERS his first encounter with Ulysses, as a child outside of Boston. His father is Italian and British, and his mother was Irish.
James Joyce, a famous Irish character who raised his children in Trieste, appealed to him. Ulysses loomed like a challenge, a test of Irishness. “And,” Barsanti says, putting on a sharp Boston accent, “it was hard. Wicked hard.”
His parents sent him to Andover, a prestigious boarding school where Barsanti felt intimidated. So he held up Ulysses as a literary shield: See what I read? I’m smart, too.
The book wove itself into his dreams, and he continued to study it, eventually earning his doctorate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where some of the world’s finest Joyce scholars taught. Then he took a job at the Rosenbach Museum, knowing that somewhere in the three-story rowhome, the original manuscript awaited.
When he saw it, though, he felt disappointed. He’d expected something ornate and grand. But Joyce wrote his book on hundreds of slips of paper, and in grammar-school composition notebooks. It felt small, in a way. Common.
There’s something funny about a book, though. Each printing ripples like rings from the author’s hand; each edition is identical, but not the same. A first edition tells the same story as a 20th, but seems closer somehow to its source: Perhaps William Faulkner held this first edition himself. Maybe Charles Dickens touched that one. So in beholding the Ulysses manuscript, there is a sense of closeness to the great writer: This ink flowed from his pen; his hand shaped this peculiar capital S. Here, he hesitated; and here, he crossed out “hair uncombed” and replaced it with “Her wavyavyeavyheavyeavyevyevy hair uncombed.” Not a typesetter’s accident, but a purposeful attempt to capture a woman’s cascading hair with cascading letters. The painstaking revisions, crossed-out passages, insertions within insertions, tell us Joyce didn’t dash his masterwork off, but shaped it with care. He —
“Be mindful of that pen,” Barsanti says, his voice rising. I look up from the manuscript, in a fog. “Your pen!” he says. I yank my pen — a Sharpie, no less — and its poisonous ink away from the pages, and we search for any of my blue scribbles among Joyce’s gray scribbles.
As relief washes over Barsanti’s face, I realize that Joyce has gotten his wish.
He once said the only thing he hoped for as a writer — his small request — was that the world’s scholars would devote their entire lives to his work.
NOT LONG AGO, A PHILADELPHIA SOCIALITE named Lenni Steiner held her wedding on the second floor of No. 2010 Delancey Place.
The setting offered everything a bride could hope for, in some ways. A perfectly proportioned room, sunlight pouring through enormous windows, soft white walls that seemed to glow from within. But then again, there were other things. A menu of hors d’oeuvres quoting Ulysses, for instance. The lunch menu quoted Ulysses as well. And brown, brittle pages from the manuscript sat out on display.
“This book,” Steiner says, “this book changed my life. It’s ultimately a story about affirmation, and we wanted that in our wedding.”
There’s a whole culture of people like Steiner, who seek out Ulysses, study it, read it aloud, even act it out. One Philadelphia performance artist wrote and produced a play about it: not the story of Leopold Bloom’s fictional day in Dublin, but the story of the manuscript. And each June 16th — the day of Bloom’s stroll — hundreds, even thousands of people gather outside No. 2010 Delancey Place for public readings of the book Joyce himself called, in his playful way, “usylessly unreadable.”
“Ach, Joyce, he wrote about my hometown,” says John Timoney, the former Philly police commissioner who was born in Dublin. For several years, Timoney read at the Bloomsday event, with his worn Irish accent, and even donned a period straw hat. “Ulysses is one of those novels that lots of people talk about but very few people have finished. Including me. But that’s all right — the reading is the fun.”
Barsanti invited me to read at a recent Bloomsday. I was shocked, when I arrived, to see the crowd outside No. 2010. They all wore fancy dress, for starters. And they all gripped copies of a broadsheet newspaper that announced itself as the Bloomsday Herald in old-fashioned type. It looked like a paper delivered a hundred years too late. The day’s largest headline read FICTIONAL MAN DRAWS REAL CROWD, and below that, “Low Prose For High Minds.” It featured a black-and-white photo of 2010 Delancey Place, and at the bottom a quaint advertisement reading, “Congratulations Lenni and Perry.”
People spoke more politely than they might, on another day or another street, and an air of gentleness filled the block, a bittersweet echo of a different place — a different Dublin, a different Philadelphia — and time. I saw Fergie Carey, proprietor of Fergie’s Pub and general Irishman-about-town, holding forth while a pair of young women listened, enraptured by the lilt of his voice. He would read to the crowd from the book’s “Eumaeus” section with no sign of hesitation, as though coasting on the memory of peat fires and gray skies from the greener side of the sea.
I read from the “Ithaca” episode, toward the end of the book, and tried my stuttering best with this ruthless sentence:
He weighed the possible evidences for and against ritual murder: the incitation of the hierarchy, the superstition of the populace, the propagation of rumour in continued fraction of veridicity, the envy of opulence, the influence of retaliation, the sporadic reappearance of atavistic delinquency, the mitigating circumstances of fanaticism, hypnotic suggestion and somnambulism.
I looked out at the crowd, kind faces all nodding, all whispering encouragement. All holding up Ulysses like a literary shield: See what we read? We’re smart, too. All fanning themselves with copies of the Bloomsday Herald, and shaded by the red brick Georgian architecture of Delancey Place, with its symmetrical chimneys and window trim. I realized with a start that the black-and-white photo on the front of the Herald didn’t show Delancey at all, but its identical Irish twin: Eccles Street in Dublin, where fictional Leopold Bloom himself lived.
Dublin and Philadelphia wear the same aging debut dress, dating to the turn of the 19th century. Dating to a day when Dublin stood as capital of the Irish kingdom, and Philadelphia stood as capital of America. Before Dublin descended, and London ascended. Before Philadelphia descended, and New York became America’s leading city.
I realized there’s no wonder, after all, that Philadelphia possesses the Ulysses manuscript. What other city could? It’s the story of the triumph of a common man making a journey through his beat-down city. It’s the first and finest incarnation of Rocky.
Recently, I proposed that theory to Barsanti, and horror flashed across his face. “Please, no,” he said.
Too late. I’ve been to Dublin, where residents give irreverent names to the statues scattered around their city. There’s Oscar Wilde, the Fag on the Crag. Molly Malone, the Tart with a Cart. And James Joyce himself, with a walking cane: the Prick with a Stick.
And here we have our own statue of Rocky at the Art Museum, captured in victory, well after his run through the Italian Market, holding up his gloved hands forever, a bronze figure on a marble cube. He is, I say, the Jock on the Block.
Later I wrote to Fergie Carey, our Bloomsday’s most natural and authoritative Ulysses reader, to ask whether I assumed too much about the book’s celebration of the ordinary man. No erudite scholar, he dashed off a confirming note:
Call me, though I am know Joycean scholar. In fact I am reading Ulysses at the rate of one page a year and usually out loud in front of a few hundred people.
And so: The first inclination, when beholding the Ulysses manuscript, may be to wonder why it’s here. To wonder whether we deserve it. But it turns out there’s no better place for it in the world.
In the book, Joyce described the desire for literary immortality: “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”
Sometimes, though, the complex and lofty epic isn’t remembered on green oval leaves, but in grammar-school notebooks. And it’s not consecrated in almighty Alexandria, but at a simple brick rowhome in Philadelphia.
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