The birth of a scandalous book, a mega-city, and a drag TV show
February 2, 1922: “Ulysses” celebrates its centenary and one year
Happy 101st Birthday Ulysses! Irish writer James Joyce’s magnum opus was first published in its entirety on this day in 1922 in a circulation of 1,000 in Paris. Spread over 18 chapters, Joyce’s Ulysses tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey, which swaps the Greek hero Odysseus’ return journey from the Trojan Wars with the Irish-Jewish Leopold’s wanderings through 20th-century Dublin.
Ulysses, named after the Latin version of Odysseus, is one of the greatest achievements of modern fiction due to the sheer obsession with which Joyce approached the structure of the novel. Each of the 18 chapters describes different literary techniques, themes and narrative goals.
It’s an enigmatic epic that most casual readers shy away from. But while most people today are aware of Ulysses’ reputation as an almost unreadably complex long novel, largely heralded as great by the most annoying of characters in an English tutorial, in 1922 it stirred a different kind of controversy.
Joyce had published chapters of Ulysses in the years prior to 1922. Chapters published in Britain in 1919 meant the full novel was completely banned in Britain by 1936. As episode 13, “Nausicaa,” in The Little Review in 1921, the themes of masturbation led to an obscenity trial.
The US obscenity trial resulted in the book being banned, and in the 1920s the US Post Office burned copies until the ban was lifted in 1934. Although Ulysses was not banned in Joyce’s native Ireland, tariff loopholes prevented it from reaching the country officially until the 1960s.
1653: New York becomes a city not named New York
Few cities are as iconic as New York City. In terms of cultural attitudes, New York has provided a chameleonic venue for endless movies, TV shows, books, theater and more. Dense, sprawling, and filled with wealth, poverty, humor, and darkness, New York City is the perfect synecdoche for modern life worldwide.
But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, New York City was just an early point on the Hudson River, an important trade route that linked the Atlantic Ocean to new European colonies in the Americas.
In 1624, to protect their riverside position from other European colonial powers, the Dutch West India Company paid 30 families to move to Manhattan Island, where a citadel called Fort Amsterdam was built.
Fort Amsterdam slowly grew in size as the Dutch viewed it as an increasingly useful tactical base until it was granted city rights on this day in 1653, establishing New Amsterdam as a city. In 1664 the British conquered New Amsterdam and the following year renamed it after the Duke of York.
2009: Premiere of Ru Paul’s drag show
It’s hard to imagine television existed before Ru Paul filled our screens for weekly sewing, strutting, and bitch-trapping contests. It was probably a far less fun place.
On February 2, 2009, Logo TV premiered the very first episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The series was won by BeBe Zahara Benet and the show has gone from strength to strength ever since.
It has spawned several spin-off shows and has been franchised in 15 other countries. While some may lament the commercialization of an important part of queer culture, the show undeniably raised the profile of the drag community to unprecedented heights.
“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you supposed to love anyone else?” Can I have an amen?”