The Festival of St. James

ago I came across this charming drawing by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which was included in the biography of the bookseller and bibliophile Sylvia Beach.

From Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach owned and operated Shakespeare & Company, an English-language bookstore in Paris which played a critical role in the development of many key literary figures in the early twentieth century. Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses in novel form in 1922, despite the obscenity charges its earlier serialized publications had incurred. Beach befriended a young Ernest Hemingway and lent him books as he wrote his first novel. And she and her partner (depicted in Fitzgerald’s drawing as mermaids on either end of the table) occasionally invited their literary and artistic friends to dinner. On this fateful night in 1928, a young Fitzgerald was starstruck by his idol James Joyce (depicted here as a floating head with a halo as well as his signature glasses and moustache). Like many of his Modernist peers, Fitzgerald considered the older authors’ novels truly ground-breaking and original; Fitzgerald has depicted himself kneeling humbly next to Joyce in this sketch. This may just be artistic license, but it may well have been true to life: Joyce’s biographer Herbert Gorman reports that Fitzgerald did indeed drop theatrically to his knees and said to Joyce, “How does it feel to be a great genius, Sir? I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep.”

I’ve been thinking about this story today, the anniversary of James Joyce’s death. For Joycean scholars or celebrants like ourselves, there are many important dates close together: the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on December 29, Joyce’s death date today, and his birthday February 2. But today happened to coincide with one of our early meetings to plan this year’s Bloomday event–a real-life Festival of St. James, if there ever was one. But while Fitzgerald pictured Joyce as a bodiless angel, our own discussions of how to celebrate Joyce on June 16 reveal many different perspectives on the man and his work. For some, Bloomsday is an all-day immersion into the love of language; for others, a convivial gathering of neighbors on a beautiful street. For scholars, the work might be a rich mystery (in the religious sense) to ponder and exegete; for Philadelphians with strong Irish roots, perhaps an opportunity for national pride and history.

When I wrote about Fitzgerald’s hero worship for the Free Library blog, I admired his multimedia enthusiasm for the established writers of his era (he also danced for Joseph Conrad). I added, “Some books are too good to only be read.” For me, that’s the point of Bloomsday: some books should not just be read but shared, maybe even performed, and toasted to.

Whether you celebrate the Festival of St. James today or with us on June 16, or even if you just find yourself some time alone with a book this weekend, may you read something you admire as much as Fitzgerald admired Joyce!