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Guided by Professor Joseph Nugent, successive classes of students are building a potentially never ending, virtual tour of Joyce’s Dublin
It’s Thursday night in professor Joseph Nugent’s undergraduate Ulysses class, the windows in Carney 206 glimmering with autumn’s first full moon. Chairs have been drawn into a horseshoe, and students bend to their books as they ponder episode three, the Proteus chapter, Stephen Dedalus musing as he wanders Sandymount Strand beside Dublin Bay. Stalking round an island of unclaimed desks at the center of the room, Nugent intones the opening lines, his eyes darting up from the page as he purrs in a soft, sure, Mullingar brogue:
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.
The challenges James Joyce’s 1922 novel sets for students are formidable: A congeries of obscure allusion and illusion, virtuoso wordplay, and shifts in point of view, the novel is a jumble of images and sensuous details, a web of voices, a map in shards and fragments. As the windows darken, Nugent, an assistant professor in the English department, and his students puzzle through the sound and sense entangled in this paragraph: Whose voice is speaking here? Is there a narrator? Is Stephen Dedalus in dialogue with himself—and if so, is that something that really happens in the brain? A student remarks on the remarkable sounds of Ulysses; Nugent gives a staccato nod. “Later, Stephen says, ‘sounds are impostures,'” he observes. “There’s Joyce at play again, changing the word, using what’s actually an older version of the word ‘impostors’ that points to changing shapes. We’re with Proteus, after all.”
Joyce believed that in Ulysses he had furnished a picture of Dublin “so complete,” as he told a friend, “that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” In recent years, Nugent and his students have, in a sense, been proving him right, using digital mapping and imaging, archival photographic research, and their own camera work to compile an electronic guide through the novel and through Dublin in 1904, the year in which the novel takes place. Nugent calls the project “Walking Ulysses.” The goal is to produce at once a map and a catalogue of Joycean detail—to make it possible for an individual to step out onto the streets of 21st-century Dublin with a laptop or smart phone and follow the skein of ways, the lattice of coincidences and synchronicities, raveled by Joyce’s characters.
Nugent and his students are hardly the first to embrace the cartographic dimension of Ulysses. Vladimir Nabokov, preparing a lecture on the novel for his Cornell University students, populated his notes with maps and diagrams. And students of Joyce regularly make use of scholarly gazetteers, such as Ian Gunn and Clive Hart’s James Joyce’s Dublin. Tourists in Joyce’s city today may choose from a tidy selection of guidebooks, folded maps, and videos (The Ulysses Tour: The Boozers, the Brothels, the Black Stuff, & Much More, for one example); the city’s building facades are festooned with plaques marking significant Joycean locales; and photo tours are available online. Walking Ulysses promises both accessibility and a commitment to academic rigor, with students as the primary producers of scholarship. It is being created on a digital platform that will support innumerable layers of detail—with sound, images, and text. And it will be shared with the world.
For Joe Nugent, who also teaches courses in the Irish language and whose scholarship has dwelled principally in the early decades of 20th-century Ireland, technology is no panacea for Ulysses‘s infamous difficulties. “I love the look on their faces,” he says, when students collide with the text on the first day of class, “the shock of it.” Sitting in his office, the sun streaming through the milky, peaked skylight at the top of Connolly House, the stately mansion that is the home of Irish studies at Boston College, he continues, “I tell them, ‘start reading.’ . . . The only way is to dive into the text.” “But it’s not a book to read quickly,” he advises. “Or to read alone.” More than 700 pages in the original edition, Ulysses famously recounts the events of a single day—June 16, 1904—in the lives of several residents of Dublin: chiefly, the lewd and sensitive, aggrieved and self-effacing Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged man of Hungarian-Jewish origin; Stephen Dedalus, a young man of literary temperament; and Leopold’s wife, the vulgar, sensuous singer Molly Bloom. Leopold Bloom spends the day wandering the streets of Dublin while contemplating Molly’s seemingly imminent infidelity.
Superficially, Ulysses is structured according to the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce overlaid Bloom’s urban peregrinations upon the wanderings of the legendary Ithacan, dividing the work into three parts: the first patterned on the search of Ulysses’s son Telemachus (in the person of Stephen Dedalus) for his father; the second, and by far longest, section devoted to the Odyssey proper, with Leopold Bloom as a sad-sack Ulysses (Odysseus, in Homer’s Greek telling); and the third section referring to the story of Ulysses’s wife and her suitors, with the contested Molly Bloom in place of fair Penelope. In boiling Ulysses’s 10 years of wandering to a single day, Joyce seems to be saying that in the odd, anonymous moments of modern urban life, we conceal whole epics and argosies of thought and feeling.
Like Joyce’s subsequent, 1939 novel, Finnegans Wake (through which Nugent has been leading an informal study group since 2006, at the rate of some 20 pages a year), Ulysses repays group reading. It’s a curious aspect of Joyce’s writing, this quality that lends itself to collective, even congregational experience. Other critics have remarked upon it; in the 2009 book Ulysses and Us, University College of Dublin scholar Declan Kiberd observes that “most people who study [this novel] tend, like reforming alcoholics, to join groups in which to share and discuss its challenges.”
As the critic Hugh Kenner, in The Mechanic Muse (1986), points out, “No other body of fiction so resembles a city in necessitating such guides and such watchmen. Nor does any other body of fiction so resemble a city in containing such holes into which the naive may fall, or such loose stones over which they may stumble.” Ironically, even Joyce needed a guidebook: Writing from self-imposed exile in Trieste, he relied on Thom’s Dublin Directory, a popular catalogue of the city’s business establishments, to augment his imperfect memory of his hometown.
Joyce’s imprint of the cacophonous Ulysses upon the map of Dublin has led many to call the novel a palimpsest—the medieval scribe’s term for a manuscript leaf with writing laid down over an earlier, imperfectly rubbed-out text. It’s the palimpsestic nature of Ulysses—and the many holes into which an unsuspecting reader might fall—that led Nugent toward Walking Ulysses, in autumn 2008. As a scholar, Nugent was interested in how the literatures of different cultures, particularly works by Irish and British authors, manifest varied responses to sensory experience. Ulysses, Nugent knew, comprises a rich palette of sensory detail—Joyce, whose eyesight was famously poor, fairly reveled in precisely modulated descriptions of sounds and smells. Dividing the 30 students in his Ulysses class into teams, Nugent set them to cataloguing foods, sounds, and aromas occurring throughout the novel. Smell by smell, sound by sound, the students began to assemble a database to help them discern themes, rhythms, and structures; they researched their entries and gathered their discoveries in wikis (collectively edited electronic texts). And they began adding their data to a Google map of Dublin.
“I think that the perception at the very beginning of the project was just that this sort of application was cool,” Andrew Donnelly ’10, recalls. “It became clear to me, though . . . that mapping any novel [requires] the reader to engage in the work critically.” Nugent’s research assistant at the beginning of the project, Donnelly spent the spring semester of his junior year in Dublin, walking the novel’s routes, taking photographs of locations, and checking the accuracy of the Walking Ulysses topography. “When I returned to BC for the following year, I worked under Professor Nugent on an undergraduate thesis on James Joyce, which is a testament to how this project got me invested in Joyce’s work,” he writes in an e-mail from southeast Arkansas. He adds, “I’m teaching ninth-grade English [with Teach for America], and my students will be reading The Odyssey in January—they will definitely be doing some mapping.”
Joyce would have loved Google Maps. Nugent’s students, however, quickly outstripped the modest possibilities of the free application. With support from the University’s Academic Technology Innovation Grant program, Nugent turned to Boston College’s Office of Instructional Design and eTeaching Services. An interactive, searchable website was developed featuring a Dublin historical map superimposed upon a Google map (users following a chapter’s route can toggle between the two). To make possible a more complex presentation, the students have moved beyond wikis to Mediakron, a web-based platform designed at Boston College to organize instructional materials and accommodate multimedia.
The crucial ingredient in Walking Ulysses remains the mapping. Ulysses, after all, abounds in streets and addresses, both public places and private quarters. By overlaying the novel’s details on Dublin’s irregular grid, Walking Ulysses projects a palpable sense of Joyce’s plan. And indeed, as Nugent’s students began locating their glosses on the map, they discovered for themselves what scholars have noted before them: In chapter five, Bloom’s seemingly aimless wandering forms an image—a question mark.
“The map definitely got into your head after a while,” recalls James Thorne ’10. Thorne became Nugent’s research assistant during the summer of 2009 and joined the Ulysses class that fall. In an e-mail sent from Turkey, where he is teaching English, he describes the intensity of the mapping experience. “If a character mentioned church bells, you had to find the church. . . . If they saw pork in a store window, you had to find out which stores sold pork.” He writes of “going off on a tangent to define whether or not Bloom would have been in shadow at a particular moment in the text . . . trying to relate it back to a line about shadows and history. Professor Nugent stopped me and asked, ‘Do you really think Joyce wrote with that degree of persnicketyness?’ At that point,” Thorne writes, “I realized that it didn’t matter what Joyce had meant, and I responded, ‘I know that I’m reading it with that degree of persnicketyness.'”
Though Nugent’s students have worked on glosses throughout the novel, the section that has received the most attention, and that stands as a prototype of what Nugent hope to achieve with his classes, is the fifth episode (the “Lotus Eaters” chapter, according to the Odyssean overlay). Not long after Leopold Bloom is introduced, he leaves his home at 7 Eccles and begins his ramble. Walking Ulysses opens its treatment of the chapter with a brief summary, then traces Bloom’s path through 26 waypoints, from Leask’s the Linseed Crusher to the church on Westland Row where Bloom observes a priest murmuring Latin phrases of the Mass into a communicant’s ear. At each waypoint, Walking Ulysses offers a snippet of the text and a brief explanation of its animating detail. Thus when Joyce describes a girl in Lower Erne Street “with scars of eczema on her forehead . . . listlessly holding her battered caskhoop,” Walking Ulysses offers, at the waypoint on Erne Street, an early 20th-century image of a child playing with a hoop, and the following explanation:
The caskhoop presumably refers to the children’s game of hoop and stick (also called, “hoop rolling”), in which a child uses a stick to roll a thin hoop. The game would still have been played by Irish children in 1904, although it can be found on Greek vases dating back to 500 B.C.E. No doubt a cask hoop from a Guinness barrel would have served nicely for this purpose.
Most entries also feature an audio file in which Nugent recites the relevant text from the novel. Glosses to the novel draw from medical journals and songs, the 1900 Black’s Guide to Ireland, cookbooks, the Oxford English Dictionary, and notes from the authoritative annotated edition of Ulysses by Don Gifford, to name a few sources. The site, a work in progress, may be visited at ulysses.bc.edu. According to Nugent, three-quarters of the “Lotus Eaters” episode is mapped and glossed with quotes, audio, and material from outside sources; all of the other chapters have been mapped, the movements of the characters traced in full. Because Walking Ulysses is web-based, it can be accessed through the browser of any smart phone. Nugent envisions development of a dedicated iPhone application, as a way to generate revenue for site maintenance and other costs of the project.
This year, Nugent is inviting his students to take part in a broader exploration of Ulysses, in which they will draw on the growing array of online historical and cultural resources to bring Leopold Bloom’s world to life in and through the text, a project described ambitiously by Andrew Kuhn, a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant, as “mapping the minds” of Dubliners. Nugent envisions an electronic edition of Ulysses (the novel is due to go out of copyright in 2012), with text and images from Ulysses-era Dublin—advertisements, magazine illustrations and articles, street signs—for the curious reader to click on and explore.
“It’s exciting to reimagine the book,” says Kuhn, sitting in a cozy library in Connolly House two floors below Nugent’s office. Kuhn’s scholarly interest is Irish print culture in the early 20th century. “The e-books that are emerging in commercial publishing . . . emulate a narrow conception of what the book can be,” he says. A committed reader of Ulysses needs a lot of tools. It’s a book that encourages “radial reading,” Kuhn observes, referring to critic Jerome McGann’s term for texts that send you not only to other texts, but to other places. That notion is the key not only to the difficulty of Ulysses, but also to its appeal.
Nugent has recently returned from Dublin, where, aided by a University Teaching and Mentoring Grant, he spent the summer researching early 20th-century photographs of the city in the National Archives and taking pictures on his own of settings noted in Ulysses. With help from his students, he’s superimposing the images of latter-day Dublin onto black-and-whites of Leopold Bloom’s city. The resulting montages, some of which will be available through Walking Ulysses, furnish another perspective on the Joycean palimpsest through which, in the depiction of a single day, the history of the city and its denizens billows up from the text. By asking his students to work with images, search audio files, and plumb texts from a variety of secondary sources, Nugent says he is immersing his students not in rote learning, but in the production of knowledge, the heart of scholarly enterprise.
They’re also learning to cherish a novel that Nugent avers has a profound understanding to impart. “Joyce’s niece told him that her mother said his book was too dirty to read,” Nugent relates. “And Joyce said to her, if my book is too dirty to read, then life is too dirty to live.”
Nugent points to a stack of copies of Ulysses in his office with green oval “used” stickers on their spines. “This is what we’re used to seeing in the classroom,” he says. “But I checked at the bookstore after last term, and learned that only one of the 31 copies my students bought had been returned.”
Formerly a rare books librarian at Harvard University, Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History (2003).