Two decades ago, a renowned professor promised to produce a flawless version of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated novels: “Ulysses.” Then he disappeared.
John Kidd.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
By Jack HittJune 12, 2018
Some 16 years ago, The Boston Globe published an article about a jobless man who haunted Marsh Plaza, at the center of Boston University. The picture showed a curious figure in a long overcoat, hunched beneath a black fedora near the central sculpture. He spent his days talking with pigeons to whom he had given names: Checkers and Wingtip and Speckles. The article could have been just another human-interest story about our society’s failing commitment to mental health, except that the man crouched in conversation with the birds was John Kidd, once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.
Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text. I saved the Boston Globe story on my computer and would occasionally open it and just stare. Long ago, I contacted Kidd about working on an article together, because I was fascinated by one of his other projects — he had produced a digital edition, one that used embedded hyperlinks to make the novel’s vast thicket of references and allusions, patterns and connections all available to the reader at a click.
Joyce once said about “Ulysses” — and it’s practically a requirement of any article about the novel to use this quote — “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 has always been part of how the novel works. For most of the book, what you are reading are the fractured bits of memory and observation kicking around in the head of a single schlub named Leopold Bloom as he wanders about Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904. It’s the sensation of putting these bits together and the pleasure, when it happens, of suddenly getting it — the joke, the story, the book — that compels you throughout.
This is why “Ulysses,” through most of the 20th century and into this one, still catches up all kinds of nonacademic readers who form clubs or stage readings on June 16. I remember wandering into an all-night read-a-thon on the Upper West Side, at Shakespeare & Co. on 81st Street, when I moved to New York in the 1980s. I arrived at the beginning, in the late afternoon, with good intentions, but staggered home and then returned the next day for the final chapter and suddenly realized that, read aloud, the 24 hours of the book’s action take 24 hours to read. The running time in your head is the same as the running time in the book. For a few minutes, I thought I was onto something brilliant, until another yawning fan in the bookstore mentioned a set of connections she had found and I realized, Oh, right, we’re all doing this.
So was Kidd one of Joyce’s prophesied professors, made so busy by the puzzles and enigmas that he was driven to literal madness? It seemed impossible to say, because not long after that newspaper article was published, Kidd simply vanished. Over the last 10 years, I would occasionally pick up the telephone, trying to scratch out some other ending to the story. I harbored this idea, a fantasy really, that John Kidd had abandoned the perfect “Ulysses” to become the perfect Joycean — so consumed by the infinite interpretations of the book that he departed this grid of understanding.
I started by contacting all the homeless shelters in Brookline. Then I wrote all of Kidd’s old colleagues on the faculty at Boston University, working my way through the directory. “I’d heard that he died,” wrote John Matthews, a Faulkner scholar, “and I suspect that actually is true. … Kidd was a public eccentric in town — the whole ‘talking to the squirrels’ deal. A sad ending.” James Winn, a Dryden man, now retired, wrote that he had “heard rumor of his death, but nothing substantive.” And, if you scour the very bottom of the internet, the last tiny mentions in stray comment sections all speak of a miserable death.
Not long ago, I came upon a Romanian scholar, Mircea Mihaies, who confirmed it. In fact, Mihaies wrote about the calamity in his history of “Ulysses.” In an interview for the release of the book, Mihaies explained: John Kidd “died under sordid circumstances in 2010, buried in debt, detested, insulted, alone, abandoned by everyone, communicating only with pigeons on a Boston campus.”
That sounded like a complete story, except for one thing. I couldn’t find an obituary.
John Kidd’s early life is like a Wes Anderson newsreel of an American upbringing — extraordinary and crackpot, bending toward fabulism. He grew up with a brother of the same name, just without the ‘h.’ John and Jon were the sons of Capt. John William Kidd, a naval officer known to the sailors on board as Starbuck.
As a young scholar, Kidd gained notice from professors, won prizes and quickly ascended the graduate-studies ladder. His love, though, was the big book, the grand epic — thinking through the theories and details of wide-ranging and all-encompassing narratives. He was drawn to Jungian theory, the one school of 20th-century psychoanalysis that theorized about the spiritual quest for completedness. The self, Jung wrote, “expresses the unity of the personality as a whole.” Then, in graduate school, Kidd proposed a project on Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which he had read in three days as a teenager.
But Kidd didn’t just study the novel; he went to Joyce’s tomb in Zurich and started to buy and collect every possible known, and many not-so-known, editions of the book. He compared every draft and every page. He became, in short, a kind of uber-Joycean. But he didn’t take the normal graduate route, luring someone famous to be his mentor (like the critic Hugh Kenner or the biographer Richard Ellmann). Instead, he became a self-directed scholar, holed up in his garret with scores of different versions of “Ulysses.”
“I never studied Joyce with anyone, and I’ve never taught him,” Kidd said during his rising fame. “Isn’t that frightening?”
Kidd had his work cut out for him. Joyce wrote “Ulysses” over a period of seven years, amid world war and personal chaos. Not long after it appeared, poverty and disease quickly wasted Joyce. The walking stick “that he used for swagger as a young bachelor,” Kevin Birmingham writes in “The Most Dangerous Book,” “became a blind man’s cane in Paris.” If you harbor in your mind, somewhere, the stereotype of a writer as a perfectionist in exile (usually in Paris), working in cold-water poverty on his masterpiece, that cliché owes much to the lived reality of James Joyce as a young man.
By nature, he was a scattershot writer, scribbling on scraps of paper, composing in notebooks and revising excerpts after they appeared in magazines — and in 1922, when “Ulysses” first appeared, all that chaos was botched into print by French typesetters, most of whom spoke no English. That flawed version was banned in America, so a notorious pornographer, Sam Roth, rushed into print a pirated and even more corrupt edition. What had riled the censors (and attracted the vanguard readers) were a few scenes in “Ulysses” where women indulge sexual fantasies. What we nowadays like to call “female agency” was — back then — elevated to a matter of national security. Customs agents scoured incoming ships to ensure that no American ever saw these pages. It’s not a coincidence that so many women of that time championed the book, including the two famously gay editors of Little Review in Greenwich Village, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. In England, Harriet Weaver, and in Paris, Sylvia Beach. Finally, in 1933, a federal judge in the United States ruled in favor of publishing the novel, and Random House accidentally relied on the wildly corrupt Roth text to produce the official “Ulysses,” which would go on to occupy American bookshelves for much of the 20th century.
Among scholars and Joyce freaks, everyone knew “Ulysses” was an odyssey of errors. Over the decades, there were rumors that some great textual fanatic was about to take on the brute task of cleaning it up. In the 1960s, excitement centered on Jack Dalton’s work, but the task seemed to overwhelm him, and he died in 1981 without producing his edition. By the mid-1980s, European scholars took up the charge, culminating in the announcement of a coming version — “Ulysses: The Corrected Text” — that would set straight 5,000 mistakes and give the world “ ‘Ulysses’ as Joyce wrote it.”
This updated edition was the product of years of fine-tooth-combing through manuscripts and copy-sheets, one letter at a time, all done according to a dense new textual theory that almost no one could understand. The entire project felt authoritative and dour, very German and all consuming, right down to the chief editor’s name, Hans Walter Gabler. Right away, Gabler was challenged by a New World scholar no one had ever heard of, his name right out of some early American morality play — John Kidd. It seemed as if the great watchmaker of the universe had handled the casting: German versus American, Old World versus New, credentialed versus self-taught. The face-off managed to draw an audience far outside academe. Try to imagine this today: For almost a year, textual criticism was happening, and red-hot copies of The New York Review of Books flew off the newsstands.
In the June 30, 1988, issue of The New York Review of Books, Kidd opened his essay on a tiny mistake made by Gabler — the air of absurdity catching the reader at once, because all the hype until this point had been celebrating this new error-free version. About a third of the way through “Ulysses,” Joyce lists a roster of bicycle racers, among them “H. Thrift.”
Harry Thrift, it turns out, was a real person who did enter a race back then. But now, Gabler had mistakenly corrected him to “H. Shrift.” For any devotee of the novel, this was mildly concerning. Of all the sets of references and allusions in a book built out of them, Joyce seemed particularly obsessed with his detailed invocation of 1904 Dublin. Or, as Joyce himself said (and every Joyce freak can quote), if Dublin “one day disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
Kidd wrote: “Harry Thrift’s good works, sturdy frame, and jolly demeanor may fade to a misremembered blur, because he is deposed in Ulysses: The Corrected Text.” And he added: “Did it occur to anyone to check whether Thrift was a real person before changing him to Shrift? Apparently not.”
I remember getting up from my desk where I worked, pouring a fresh cup of coffee and then closing my office door so I wouldn’t be disturbed. This was going to be good.
Not a few paragraphs later, Kidd called out a slew of new mistakes and then guffawed, “Is no one awake at the wheel?” The piece carried on like this, as the tone gathered more of this vernacular force. After another volley of attacks about a misspelling here, a single dropped letter there, it read: “The Corrected Text is marbled with the fat of such pseudo-restorations from shoulder to shank.”
Who wrote like this in the literary world? Seducing us into textual minutiae with the prim tone of the academic before pieing us with vulgar prose? A vicious snap of proto-snark seemed to end every paragraph as Kidd resumed his formal stance, all textual scholar, only to be preparing for the next parry.
Responding in a subsequent issue, Gabler maintained a stiff, dismissive stance. “The scanty array of examples,” he wrote, “provides not even the flimsiest of foundations for a critique, let alone a condemnation.” Kidd was permitted to reply in the same issue, and his rebuttal preened with unforgiving attitude. After challenging Gabler on substance, he slipped into mischievous singsong: “Irony abounds. What redounds to Dr. Kidd rebounds. On several grounds, it sounds, he’s out of bounds.”
Even though all the contested changes Kidd and others found might appear inconsequential, a few fundamentally affected the novel. In the book, Stephen Dedalus muses several times about the “word known to all men.” Was it death? Love? Some obscure Greek term (a Joyce specialty)? It’s another tiny enigma that readers and professors have argued over for almost a century. Gabler found a passage in a manuscript where Joyce did reveal it, but it disappeared in the next version. Gabler deduced that to be a typist’s error. And so, in a novel most famous for its elliptical style, the reader now comes across a passage containing this thunder of nuance: “Love, yes. Word known to all men.”
To get a sense of just how huffy Joyce readers might react to this, imagine an editor saying he found new parts of “Hamlet,” and you picked up the new edition to read the words “To be or not to be, that is the question” now followed by “and the answer is definitely ‘be.’ ”
Just as egregious to many was the sacrilege concerning a single dot of ink. At the end of the last chapter featuring the protagonist Leopold Bloom, you find literature’s largest period — a giant black dot on the page — the size of which Joyce worried over, instructing his French printers to make the first edition’s big dot even “more visible.”
The big dot ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse. The Q. and A. format is precise to the point of exasperation. By the end of the chapter and hundreds of questions — “In what directions did listener and narrator lie?” “In what posture?” — the pesky interrogator finally asks, “Where?” To which Joyce drops his big fat dot, as if to say: Just shut up.
But of course, that’s just one interpretation. Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions. (Anthony Burgess thought that when reading the chapter aloud, the dot should be pronounced as a big snore.) Others think it’s a portal, or an egg, or Molly Bloom’s anus. There are lots of lively interpretations. In the most common Random House edition, it’s there, it’s final and it’s huge — an inky one-eighth of an inch in diameter, the head of a twopenny nail stabbed into the book. But for some reason, Gabler’s dot is barely larger than the period at the end of this sentence. When I reached him in his office in Germany, Gabler assured me that even though “it is not a large one, it is a very black one.”
Kidd first took on Gabler at various Joyce symposiums. But the fuming struggle broke into the popular press when a Washington Post reporter named David Remnick got wind of a “brash, young scholar” with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who would soon be damning the greatest reworking of modern literature as a “mess.” By the time the asymmetrical warfare went supernova in The New York Review of Books, the fight was really no match. Kidd shredded Gabler in one allez after another, revealing that this edition seemed riddled with errors. Eminent academics and writers leapt into the fray, most of them on Kidd’s side. For this brief moment, every point of argument mattered, and no detail was too small for concern or lamentation. John Updike wrote to The New York Review of Books to complain bitterly about — I am not making this up — Gabler’s blasphemous choices regarding paragraph indentations.
As Kidd’s challenge gained a wider audience, another academic named Charles Rossman wrote in with some big news. He had discovered that the Joyce Estate, run by Stephen Joyce, the author’s notoriously prickly grandson, had authorized the Gabler edition for the reason of creating enough “new” content to extend the copyright, which in Europe was expiring in 1992. This was not an inconsequential claim. At the time, “Ulysses” sold an estimated 100,000 copies a year. A renewal of the copyright would protect revenues for decades to come, for both the publisher and Stephen Joyce, who had to legally authorize this new edition.
Once Rossman’s piece went public, the entire Gabler enterprise was cast into the sordid shadow of greed. Outrage mounted, and in the end, Random House announced it would bring back its old edition, however corrupt it might be. The smoke cleared to reveal that a vagabond scholar had waged a transoceanic battle and won.
In those days, a superstar ethos was emerging among elite universities, and Boston University jumped at the chance to snatch up Kidd, giving him an entire institute. Its mission was epic — not merely a perfect text, “as Joyce wrote it,” but also a marriage of modern technology and literary genius. The manifold connections and allusions would now be instantly visible via hyperlinks, and the common reader would be able to appreciate the infinite recesses of Joyce’s brilliance. W.W. Norton promised the kind of advance for the book that, back then, went only to best-selling writers — $350,000.
The world waited for it. And then forgot.
When I started contacting Boston University to find out what happened to Kidd, I was stunned to discover that the old jealousies and resentments had survived the years intact. “A never-proven scholar.” “A neglectful, abusive teacher.” One or two who had been told Kidd was dead had also heard other, even wilder rumors. Prof. Michael Prince wrote back to say, “I lost track of John after he left, but heard he had transplanted to South America.” He mentioned Keith Botsford, a critic and writer who had reportedly relocated to Costa Rica.
It was not easy to make contact with Botsford. I tried to get a hold of some of his relatives, but while I was doing that, a strange clue turned up. Sifting through some obscure Joyce-related hits on Google, I came upon an internet figure in Central America named Miguel, who burned off a lot of blog space expressing his love of naturism. Miguel liked to spend a lot of time naked. One of those posts noted that during a brief sojourn, back among the attired, Miguel attended a fiesta with a famous Joyce scholar.
Miguel was based in Rio de Janeiro, a fact that suddenly reminded me of a brief exchange I had with a scholar in Bucharest named Lidia Vianu. When she herself tried to find Kidd a few years ago — she and a colleague were dedicating a book to him, a 31,802-page tome called “The Manual for the Advanced Study of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ ” — someone had given her an email address in Brazil. But, she said, “I didn’t get very far.” The email address was dead.
Still, on a Sunday afternoon, I typed out a simple note to the address she passed on to me. I wrote about when we first corresponded, back in the days of textual triumphalism, and I casually mentioned a possible trip to Rio. I hit send.
First thing, Monday morning: “I remember you very well. … When do you plan to be in Rio?” Carnival was coming soon, so I jumped on a plane.
John Kidd, who is 65, is well above 6 feet tall and comfortably carries the emerging evidence of many a fine dinner. He no longer has the tidy short blond hair of 30 years ago. It’s now grown out snowy white and halfway down his back, deep into Gandalf territory. He’s a devoted fan of loosefitting Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops and shorts. He has a high-water booty and takes rapid tiny steps, making every excursion feel as if we’re running late.
Right off, he wants to talk about that Boston Globe article with the pigeons. His outrage is still raw. He’s particularly miffed that he was called “broke.” He wants me to know he’s flush and always has been. He has, at the ready, a notarized letter from Fleet Bank in Brookline dated 14 years ago, stating: “six months avg balance in this checking account has been $15,618.00.”
I want to talk about how he left Boston University, but when the bitter memories of departmental fights at B.U. or old quarrels with students over grades come up, it’s as if he’s bitten a lemon and his entire face focuses darkly on a point just beyond his nose. Kidd told me he quit. And he did, but only after there were stories in The Boston Globe noting his temper, his treatment of students and his clashes with campus security over birds. He lingered on campus for a while, haunting Marsh Plaza, and then he disappeared.
He told me he set off to Beijing. He had read “Dream of the Red Chamber,” China’s great epic novel, and become a “redologist,” an actual term for those who submerge themselves in the study of this one book. He later moved to Brazil and became fluent in Portuguese before plunging, as seemed inevitable, into that language’s own works of heroic fiction. He is obsessed now with a 19th-century book about a helpless young girl, “The Slave Isaura,” a popular work that in its early days helped end slavery (essentially, Brazil’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Kidd’s compulsion to understand any culture’s big book is still what gets him out of bed in the morning.
As we settle down to breakfast at a swanky hotel, it’s clear that the controversies of 1988 are all still very much alive for him. Of the 5,000 or so corrections Gabler claimed to have made to “Ulysses,” there is not one of them Kidd cannot discuss, in rich detail, 30 years later. In particular, he is still steamed up about the Penelope chapter. He flipped open the book and stabbed his finger at the dead center of the famous 42-page interior monologue of Molly Bloom. Joyce originally punctuated the chapter with two periods, one at the end and one at the center, appropriately after Molly muses over the word “ashpit.”
Gabler’s edition eliminated the ashpit period — then replaced it not long after Kidd made a ruckus. But when asked by a journalist once about how he came to correct this mistake, Gabler said he heard about it from a stranger who showed him a newspaper article. (More recently, Gabler assured me that he’d heard it from a “number” of sources.)
“Of course, the article was Remnick’s Washington Post piece,” Kidd said, highly agitated. “There were three different portraits of me in that one article,” he went on, “huge pictures of John Kidd, one of which is like seven inches tall or something, a picture of me!” Kidd didn’t merely remember every textual change in the Gabler edition, but every minor grudge match attending each change. The old fight, it seemed, had moldered into a snit about credit.
And indeed, it’s possible to dismiss Kidd as a man who found a handful of serious errors and then used his fussy mastery of minutiae to inflate a few hundred other flecks into a raging scandal. But it’s also true “Ulysses” is a book whose every detail matters. Joyce himself was consumed by his own compulsion for details, his love of coincidence and his obsession for superstition — he built the novel out of them. He once wrote to Harriet Weaver worrying about the year 1921, whose digits total 13. One outlying theory connects this arithmetic fear to Joyce’s decision to publish Ulysses on his birthday the following year, which had a sublime smoothness when written down on paper: 2/2/22.
It’s also fair to wonder about Kidd’s sanity. He is fairly manic when discussing these preciously irrelevant textual changes. They all get explained in the rushed, self-interrupting fervor of the zealot. But in his encyclopedic way of talking, of thinking, of seeing, an undeniable brilliance comes through. This quality was on vivid display the afternoon he welcomed me into his apartment, a unit in a high rise with a nice view of Rio. The place is neat and walled with books on shelves. There are lots of bureaus and built-in dressers, and at one point, when he went to retrieve a book, every drawer he opened was packed top to bottom, side to side, with even more books.
“You really have to read Fernando Pessoa,” he said, handing me a collection of poems, in Portuguese, by this early-20th-century Lisbon writer, titled “A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe.” I cracked open Kidd’s copy to find a swarm of marginal notes on nearly every page, cataloging textual alternatives in the many other Portuguese editions he owns. This is how John Kidd reads everything — as a search for the perfected text.
It’s not just an aesthetic choice for Kidd but a kind of compulsion toward completedness, suffusing not just how he reads literature but also how he talks about it. We discussed “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy.” He considers them all to be “antic” works, his coinage for books that are marked by a “comic take on the encyclopedic narrative just as the ‘Iliad’ is a tragic take on an encyclopedic narrative.” Those novels are playful, like “Ulysses,” but they mean to embrace and comprehend a sense of everything, and it’s this sense of totality and the longing for it that drives Kidd, too.
Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s “Paradise Garden” or Grandma Moses’ “Country Fair,” not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.
When critics talk about Joyce’s mind, they typically resort to comparable terms, referring to Joyce’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, myth and language. “Ulysses,” as every beginning reader quickly picks up, contains a schematic view of downtown Dublin, and “Finnegans Wake” can be understood as all of history and literature written in a mash-up of every language.
Joyce was well aware of his compendious cast of mind and proud to find it manifest among his children. When it became clear that his daughter Lucia was suffering a profound kind of schizophrenia, he came to see her difference as an improvement on himself. He cared for her, sometimes shelving his own ambitions to convince the world that the true genius in the family was his incoherent, troubled daughter. “Foolish fond like Lear” is how his biographer would later describe Joyce’s paternal affection.
Joyce declared that Lucia’s jarring language and bizarre portmanteau words were evidence that she was an innovator of language, like him, just in ways not yet understood. He insisted that she would be ushering in a new kind of literature. The monumental incoherence and inaccessibility of “Finnegans Wake,” it’s easy to argue, is the best evidence of Joyce’s horror vacui and an epic paean to a father’s conviction of his daughter’s genius. Lucia would eventually be institutionalized in Geneva, but Joyce was the last to let go. At one point, Joyce enlisted the help of Carl Jung, who like Joyce explored the deep channels of consciousness. Jung summed up their father-daughter relationship as “two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”
One day, Kidd and I got up early to make our way to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, where he works. Crossing a vacant square beneath an aqueduct, we suddenly realized that five men with knives were tailing us; soon, they were chasing us. Kidd, a former high school sprinter, grunted a suggestion — run! — and we poured out our best 100-yard dash to a nearby food cart. Street vendors, Kidd explained later, collect money all day and are typically armed and tough. As we sailed under the cart’s umbrella, our churrasquinho-monger stepped up beside us and glared. The thugs melted away.
Inside the refuge of the academy, Kidd keeps a permanent cubicle occupied by a big old PC and a few books. For years he has been working on the first English edition of the novel “The Slave Isaura.” Kidd is translating the 19th-century book with a few rules he felt compelled to devise. The work will be in two parts, and every word in Part 1 will have its lexicographic partner in Part 2. If “cat feet” appears in Part 1, expect “cattail” in Part 2. His sense of what pairs up can get quite intricate, but that’s part of the fun, he told me. So he maintains lists of all the possible pairings and where and whether he has used one: six foot, six foot under, footing, foothills, footloose, footprint. There is a logic to the work, and the part I read resounded with the baroque tone you might expect of a translation that will obey his other rule: It will use every word exactly once.
Already, the work is nearly twice as plump as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Kidd was particularly excited to show me his key apparatus — the homemade thesaurus where he keeps a running crosscheck on the entirety of the English language. So far, it runs to some 3,000 pages.
“As much as humanly possible, the 19th-century dictionary of English is in here,” he told me. His translation is titled “Isaura Unbound,” and he wanted me to understand its ambition: When the book is finished, it will be a complete reordering of one entire English dictionary into a single work of art. Take that, void.
I asked him that afternoon, one more time, about the perfect “Ulysses.” It always seems so close. Back in the 1960s, again in 1980s. What happened to his work in Boston? Why can’t we just publish the thing? A few errors — how hard can it be?
He told me a story, a parable, really. “There are the gauchos and the gauleiters,” he explained. It’s a mixed metaphor, but one that nicely captures his view of the world and of Joyce scholars too. Gauchos, I knew, were Argentine cowboys, but gauleiters (pronounced gow-lieders), I learned, were municipal bureaucrats in the early Nazi government; in other words, menacing apparatchiks.
Across the great landscape of understanding are the gauchos, at once both rugged and audacious. “They roam the pampas,” he told me, taking care of the vast terrain by knowing its vastness intimately. Meanwhile back at the edge of the pampas, in civilization, are the gauleiters. They are everywhere, they are busy, they are overwhelming. The gauchos are few — iconoclasts like himself, or the occasional Joyce fanatic like Jorn Barger, a polymath who in the earliest days of the internet wrote a lot of brilliant Joyce analysis on his weblog (a word he also coined). But, Kidd said, it doesn’t matter. In the end, the victory always goes to the gauleiters because of their peevish concern for “administrative efficiency.”
When I pressed him on real-world specifics, the manuscripts, the work that must have been on disks somewhere, he recalled that, yes, he had assembled a draft of an edition with a complete introduction. One of Kidd’s editors at Norton, Julia Reidhead, confirmed that both existed but said that one delay after another — “an infinite loop of revision” — ran into the legal wall of new copyright extensions, and so Norton “stopped the project.” One Joyce scholar remembers reading the introduction but no longer has a copy, and Kidd doesn’t have one either. Instead, we are left with bizarre relics of what could have been. Early on in the Joyce wars, in fact, Arion Press issued a new edition of “Ulysses” that included some of the preliminary Kidd edits. The book was luxurious, with prints by Robert Motherwell, and only 175 of them were printed. I found one for sale on Amazon. The seller wanted $25,678.75.
In the years after Kidd’s disappearance, an uncanny thing happened. The very book Kidd had tried to shame into disrepute was embraced by the world of scholarship. In 1993, the “Gabler Edition” of “Ulysses,” a bright red tome, appeared on the bookshelves. There are various printings of this book now, and many have no dot at all at the end of the Bloom chapter. No period of any size, which Gabler has said is a printing error — making this nondot an error miscorrected so many times that it is now perfectly invisible.
Gabler’s book thrives because it now has its own captive audience: academics. “Scholars have quietly gone back to Gabler,” said Robert Spoo, a former editor of The James Joyce Quarterly. “By not publishing his own edition, Kidd never completed the argument against Gabler,” he said, adding that the Gabler edition “has one great advantage, you can cite it by line numbers; that is very handy for scholars.” That whole “ ’80s and ’90s thing,” as Spoo called it, receded long ago. “Scholars have made peace with the Gabler.”
In that stretch when the original edition fell out of copyright in the mid-1990s, a lot of editors rushed to publish their own editions. Some have dots, some don’t. Some with “love,” some not. Some editors reversed a selection of Gabler’s changes, some didn’t. Other editions have gone off the rails, as the Joyce scholar Sam Slote told me: One “Ulysses,” currently available online, has a long, weird riff inserted on Page 160, announcing that you will now be reading “The Secret Confessions of a Conservative,” where the anonymous writer explains that his pro-life, pro-death-penalty positions are so consistent that “if an embryo or fetus commits murder, then he should be aborted.”
Out in the distant pampas, meanwhile, the perfect edition remains always close at hand and just out of reach. “I am almosting it,” Stephen Dedalus muttered early on in the novel. The thing is, on Amazon alone, there are nearly a dozen slightly different versions of the novel “as James Joyce wrote it.” None of them are absolutely perfect, but each of them, nevertheless, is “Ulysses.” It’s almost too pat an ending for an author who was asked about all those errors nearly a century ago. “These are not misprints,” he said, “but beauties of my style hitherto undreamt of.”
Jack Hitt is the creator and a co-host of the 2018 Peabody Award-winning podcast “Uncivil.” His last feature for the magazine was about the battle over the Sea-Monkey fortune.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 26 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: In Search of the Perfect ‘Ulysses’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe