Bloomsday in Williamstown keeps 'The Dead' alive

WILLIAMSTOWN — Given the haunting final lines of James Joyce's "The Dead," some readers may forget the story's festive start.

"It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan's annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it. ....Never once had it fallen flat," Joyce writes early in the narrative.

The last of the Irish author's short stories in "Dubliners" has also prompted more than a few gatherings outside of the imagined realm, including in the Berkshires. Bloomsday in Williamstown, a group started in 2011 to celebrate Joyce's "Ulysses" on a regular basis, has twice held nighttime readings of "The Dead," and it will do so again on Saturday night at The Williams Bookstore. The event is free and open to the public; a West's Wine & Spirits-supplied wine tasting will precede the reading, which begins at 7. According to one of the group's founders, another sampling of Joyce's work isn't going to smack of staleness.

"You could read it every week," said Karl Mullen, a Dublin native who moved to the U.S. several decades ago, of "The Dead."

In the story, Gabriel Bishop and his wife, Gretta, arrive at an annual winter dinner and dance hosted by his aunts Kate and Julia Morkan. When Gabriel, an intellectual, privately ponders a speech he is to give later in the evening, his haughtiness presides.

"He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers," Gabriel thinks as looks over his address' headings.

At Saturday night's reading, attendees need not mimic this condescension (or even read). Bloomsday in Williamstown's events aren't intended to be performances. People usually read a couple of pages before turning it over to someone else; this loose format hasn't caused a flow problem yet, according to Mullen.

"Everybody seems to know when to stop reading," Mullen said.

Their influences on the reading, however, don't necessarily end there. Mullen has observed that readers often acquire their peers' sounds, an interesting phenomenon when different accents fill the room.

"Everybody's voice gives a different cadence," Mullen said.

The Williamstown music scene fixture (among other occupations, he curates tunes for Hancock Shaker Village) compares reading aloud to singing.

"You hear the language come alive," he said.

And he feels Joyce's work is particularly stirring.

"There's a musicality to Joyce's writing," he said.

With his Irish background, Mullen could be forgiven for being protective of some of his homeland's most celebrated prose.

"He's part of the backdrop of being Irish," Mullen said of Joyce.

Yet, after moving to the U.S., Mullen enjoyed participating in Bloomsday (June 16, the date on which "Ulysses" is set) readings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. These experiences helped inform his decision to start Bloomsday in Williamstown with John Strachan in 2011. Since that time, the loose-knit group has held a handful of Bloomsday events along with other assorted readings in various Williamstown locales. While Joyce's work is often read aloud by celebrities, that is not the ultimate goal of this particular gathering.

"Up here, anybody can come read," Mullen said, noting that one of the standout readers of a past event had never read Joyce.

Sam Crane, a professor of political science at Williams College who has attended the group's past two readings of "The Dead" and many of its other gatherings, echoed that sentiment in a separate telephone interview.

"No judgment," Crane said of the group's prevailing attitude.

Despite his academic pedigree, Crane isn't a Joyce scholar by any means.

"I'm not, like, a literature person," he said.

But the encouragement of friends motivated him to join the "pretty active" group.

"It's a little more relaxed and contemplative," Crane said of reading aloud.

He said he never would've read "Ulysses," with its lengthy experimental writing, aloud on his own. And he relishes the more consistently beautiful prose in "The Dead." Still, the work concludes on a dark note.

"It has a sad turn at the end, which is kind of bracing," he said.

More specifically, after the party at the Morkans and a conversation with his wife, Gabriel has an epiphany about his own affections and mortality. (Many believe that the story occurs on or around Jan. 6, or the Epiphany in Christianity. All of Bloomsday in Williamstown's readings of the story have been on that day.) His pride quickly diminishes.

"His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead," one of the narrative's closing sentences reads.

Mullen knows some attendees will be more comfortable with reading than others, but he doesn't want the prospect of reading to produce a Gabriel-like dread among any attendees.

"There's no grading on this," he said. "It's OK to mispronounce a word."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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