I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
James Joyce, quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 521.
These words are alleged to be Joyce’s reply to his exasperated French translator, Jacques Benoîst-Méchin, by way of explanation as to why he would not divulge further information about the deeper structure of Ulysses. Selective secrecy was a brilliant marketing strategy: scholars still debate the mysteries of this obscure and difficult text, which is considered by many to represent the highpoint of literary modernism.
The fourteenth episode of Ulysses, known as the ‘Oxen of the Sun’, is perhaps the most enigmatic in the whole book. It is set in Dublin's Holles Street maternity hospital, where poor Mina Purefoy has been in labour for three days. The episode is of paramount interest to readers as it includes the moment when the book's protagonists—the aspiring young writer Stephen Dedalus, and the ad-man Leopold Bloom—meet and interact for the first time. Dedalus is drinking with a group of rowdy medical students who are making a nuisance of themselves in the doctors’ mess. Bloom drops into the hospital out of concern for Mrs Purefoy and is invited to join them. The scenario sounds simple, but the action of ‘Oxen’ is depicted in a continuous and mocking parody of English prose styles through the ages, culminating finally in the oral culture of Dublin circa 1904, a technique that challenges the reader at every turn.
Among the many puzzles Joyce devised to secure his immortality is the mystery of which literary sources he used to write his pageant of English prose style. These guesses may, however, be complemented by further research. We are in the happy position that Joyce’s notes for ‘Oxen of the Sun’ are still extant, together with an early and a later draft, as well as the typescripts, placards and proofs. Better still, Joyce had very particular note-taking practices that make it possible to discover his precise sources for the fragmentary words and phrases he jotted down as he prepared to write the episode, information that significantly increases our understanding of Joyce's reading habits at this crucial moment in his literary career.
As of November 2013, new sources discovered in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ notesheets include: fiction by American writers, including Joseph Crosby Lincoln's Cap'n Eri: A Story of the Coast (1904) and Bret Harte's Tales of the West; new anthologies, for instance A.T. Martin's Selections from Malory (1896), and another that showcases fine examples of eighteenth-century prose; horseracing reports from the Freeman's Journal, and Heinrich Baumann's Dictionary of Slang und Cant from 1902.
In June 2014, we discovered that Joyce also took notes from Thomas Burke's 1916 collection of short stories Limehouse Nights.
Detailed accounts of our findings have been published in Genetic Joyce Studies.