Leopold Bloom

Leopold Bloom

In Brief

Joyce continued the story of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, but his persona had exhausted its potential. He needed a more adult protagonist, someone open to registers of experience that Stephen could not accommodate. The Homeric design of his new novel encouraged him to create such a person, "manyminded," practical, tested by adversity. He found his Ulysses in the man he called "Mr Leopold Bloom." Bloom too is autobiographical in many ways, the self-expression of an older James Joyce. But in many other ways he represents a leap outside of the artist's personality, an effort to sympathetically inhabit different registers of human existence. Several Jewish men appear to have contributed details to the portrait.

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Bloom, born in 1866, is 38 years old in the novel. Joyce began writing Ulysses at age 32 and published it on his 40th birthday. By this time in his life he had metamorphosed considerably from the brilliant student and rebellious poet imaged in Stephen Dedalus. He was supporting a common-law wife and two children with an assortment of low-paying jobs, struggling desperately to publish his works in the face of brutal censorship forces, and beginning to suffer the serious health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. His "epic of the body," as he once called Ulysses, reflects his maturation from a young man of great intellectual promise into a middle-aged man defined by major life experiences.

Countless details tie Bloom to the man who conceived him. The name on his birth certificate, "Leopold Paula Bloom" (Ithaca) jokingly reproduces the mistake that caused the future novelist to be officially registered as "James Augusta Joyce" (Ellmann, 21). It also suggests an androgynous interest in female experience that Joyce shared. Bloom's unprepossessing physicality, his lack of male bluster and dominance, his pacifism, his social marginality, his markedly anal sexuality, his voyeurism, his passion for female undergarments, his less than brilliant employment history, his religious apostasy, all encourage readers to identify him with the author.

So too do Joyce's frequent indications that Bloom would love to be a writer. The story he reads in Calypso makes him think of writing something similar that might earn him a bit of money, and his experience in the cabman's shelter in Eumaeus renews this aspiration to "pen something out of the common groove." Ithaca recalls snatches of verse and acrostics that he composed as a young man. Lenehan says in Wandering Rocks, "There's a touch of the artist about old Bloom." In context, all of these implications of equivalence between the uneducated and clownish Bloom and the sophisticated Joyce seem equivocal, wry, mocking. But there is more to it than that. Bloom thinks constantly, sensitively, and creatively about his world, in patterns that make his interior monologue, if not the equal of Stephen's self-consciously brilliant thoughts, at least a worthy counterpart to them. Ellmann remarks justly that Bloom's "monologue is a continuous poetry, full of phrases of extraordinary intensity" (362).

But Bloom encompasses many other features that were not part of Joyce's life, beginning with the fact that he is descended from Hungarian Jews. Ellmann argues that Joyce's chief model in this regard was his close friend in Trieste, the writer named Ettore Schmitz but known by the pen name Italo Svevo, "whose grandfather came from Hungary, and who wore the mustache that Joyce gave to Bloom, and like Bloom had a wife and daughter.... Schmitz was in many ways quite different from Bloom; but he had married a Gentile, he had changed his name (though only for literary purposes), he knew something of Jewish customs, and he shared Bloom's amiably ironic view of life. Joyce could not abide the inner organs of animals and fowl, while Schmitz, like Bloom, loved them. Some of these are small similarities, but Joyce had a spider's eye" (374).

Born in 1861, five years before Bloom and 21 years before Joyce, Schmitz was a prosperous businessman who met Joyce through the Berlitz school in Trieste. The young, impoverished teacher and his older, richer student became fast friends who took long walks through the city streets together, as Bloom and Stephen do at the end of June 16. Their families became close (Schmitz's wife Livia was one inspiration for the Wake's Anna Livia Plurabelle), as Bloom hopes may happen with Stephen. And Schmitz gave Joyce abundant information about Jewish traditions and the Jews living in Trieste. [2022: As David Collard notes in Multiple Joyce: 100 short essays about James Joyce's cultural legacy, "Joyce also had an acquaintance in Trieste named Leopoldo Popper, a Jew of Bohemian descent who had employed Joyce as an English tutor for his daughter Amalia. Popper managed the company of Popper and Blum, and it's possible that 'Leopold Bloom' combines Popper's first name and an anglicised version of Blum" (185).]

Another purported model for Bloom was the otherwise little-known Dubliner Alfred H. Hunter. Hunter reportedly played the Good Samaritan to Joyce in 1904, when the writer accosted an attractive young woman in St. Stephen's Green, not realizing that she had a boyfriend nearby. Abandoned by his friend Vincent Cosgrave, Joyce ended up, as he observed in a notebook, with a "black eye, sprained wrist, sprained ankle, cut chin, cut hand." Hunter, whom Joyce had met briefly once or twice, is said to have come upon the scene, helped the writer up, and taken him home. Ellmann says that Hunter was "rumored to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife" (162). In fact he was not Jewish, as Louis Hyman notes (The Jews of Ireland, 169), but Ellmann got his information from Stanislaus Joyce, so James may very well have supposed him to be so. And Bloom, for that matter, is only ambiguously Jewish himself.

Within a few years Joyce was thinking of putting Hunter in a Dubliners story to be called "Ulysses," which would follow the man as he wandered about Dublin. When Ulysses turned into a novel Joyce asked Stanislaus and his Aunt Josephine for more details about Hunter (Ellmann, 375). Several of these made it into the book, as Vivien Igoe observes in The Real People of Joyce's Ulysses. Hunter was born in the same year as Bloom. His wife was named Marion (though they married considerably later than the Blooms, in 1899), and the couple lived at a succession of different addresses. She was the daughter of a professor of music who served as grand organist of the Dublin Freemasons. Hunter worked as an advertising canvasser for the Freeman's Journal from 1902 onwards.

Inspired perhaps by Hunter's "corporal work of mercy" (Cyclops, Ithaca), Joyce conceived Bloom as a man of kindness, compassion, and familial warmth. To some extent, he associated these ethical dispositions with Jews in general. Frank Budgen recorded that Joyce said to him of Jews, "Look at them. They are better husbands than we are, better fathers and better sons," and Ellmann observes that he quietly valued two characteristics of Jews: "their chosen isolation, and the close family ties which were perhaps the result of it" (373). Bloom is not only a devoted husband and father. He extends his kindness to a young man whom he has briefly met only twice. He attends the funeral of an acquaintance with whom he was not close, and generously contributes money to his impoverished family. He visits a hospital to inquire about a distant acquaintance who is in her third day of labor. He gives food to gulls and to a stray dog. He thinks often of the condition of being cast out and in need.

Recently, yet another Jewish model for Bloom has been proposed: "Altman the Saltman," a nickname applied collectively to Albert Liebes Lascar Altman, his brother Mendal, Mendal's son Emanuel, and perhaps others in the family. The Altmans were prosperous Dublin merchants known for their salt business near the family home at 11 Usher's Island. In his Ulysses, published in the 1980s, Hugh Kenner recorded a Dublin rumor that he thought might explain the outlandish assertion in Cyclops that Bloom gave "the ideas for Sinn Fein to Griffith to put in his paper." Kenner noted that the Dublin writer Anthony Cronin told him that "Griffith was persistently rumoured to have a Jewish adviser-ghostwriter" (133). In the last few years it has been suggested that this nationalist Jew was Albert Altman. Neil R. Davison, Vincent Altman O'Connor, and Yvonne Altman O'Connor have argued for this view in "'Altman the Saltman’ and Joyce’s Dublin: New Research on Irish-Jewish influences in Ulysses," Dublin James Joyce Journal 6/7 (2013-2014): 44-72.

[2020: A later article by Davison, "'Ivy Day': Dublin Municipal Politics and Joyce's Race-Society Colonial Irish Jew," Journal of Modern Literature 42.4 (2019): 20-38, explores Albert Altman's complex nationalist political convictions in the context of "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," suggesting that the short story's engagement with this capitalist but left-leaning Irish Jew laid the groundwork for the characterization of Bloom in Ulysses.]

If the Altman hypothesis becomes widely accepted, it seems likely to force a substantial rethinking of Bloom's relation to the cause of Irish independence. Unusually for Dublin Jews, the Altman brothers were advanced nationalists who supported Parnell, Home Rule, and the Land League. They were peripherally associated with the Invincibles who carried out the Phoenix Park murders and also with the escape of the Fenian James Stephens. But many other, more personal details link Bloom to "Altman the Saltman."

Although Albert (born in the early 1850s) and Mendal (b. 1860) were older, wealthier, and more politically important than Bloom, the circumstances of their lives coincide in seemingly countless ways. Like Bloom's father in the 1860s, the Altman family emigrated to Ireland (from Prussian Poland rather than Hungary) in the 1850s. Albert Altman was Jewish but was expelled from Mary's Abbey synagogue in Dublin for marrying a Catholic, Susan O'Reilly from Cork, and after the death of Susan he married a Protestant woman, Victoria Olive Corbett, in Belfast—echoing Bloom's Jewish-Catholic-Protestant allegiances. His father Moritz Altman (né Shraga Moshe ben Aharon) died after ingesting poison, like Rudolph Bloom (né Rudolf Virag). His son Albert Denis (called Bertie, somewhat like Bloom's Rudy) died shortly after birth. And according to family lore his daughter Mary (known variously as Mim, Mimi, Maimie, or Maimy—her name resembles Milly) spurned the advances of James Joyce.

The connections continue. Mimi was a singer. Mendal Altman had daughters named Cissy and Edy, like the girls on the beach in Nausicaa. His son Emanuel worked as a health inspector in Dublin's Cattle Market where his great adversary was the cattle dealer Joe Cuffe, Bloom's erstwhile employer. Albert Altman was a freethinker influenced by the atheist writer Charles Bradlaugh. He was a teetotaler who espoused the cause of Temperance, but he drank liturgical wine. He suffered the anti-Semitic slurs of sundry Dubliners as Bloom does, and he stood up to them to defend his people and their cultural traditions. Neither assimilationist nor exclusionary, he wished to be known as an Irishman who happened to be Jewish. Like Bloom, he advocated for various kinds of civic improvement: modernization of city fire brigades, establishment of a municipal manure-treatment facility, construction of the Main Drainage sewer lines, bringing the tramway system owned by William Martin Murphy under municipal control.

Albert Altman was elected as a Councillor for the Usher's Quay ward in 1901 and he was succeeded by Mendal in 1907. He died in a blaze of publicity in 1903 shortly after exposing a scandal when he claimed that leading Councillors were dilatory in paying their rates to the disadvantage of the less well-off. (Thanks to Vincent Altman O'Connor for supplying many of the details in this summary of the life of Altman the Saltman.)

At least four other men figured in Joyce's imagination of Bloom, none of them Jewish to my knowledge. One was his close friend John Francis Byrne (the Cranly of the novels). On a September evening in 1909 the two men had supper at Byrne's house, walked around Dublin, and returned. While walking "They stopped at a penny scale and weighed themselves, then went back to 7 Eccles Street, where Byrne discovered he had forgotten his key. Undismayed, he agilely let himself down to the front area and entered the house by the unlocked side door; then he went round to the front and admitted his companion. In Ulysses Bloom, returning to the same address at about the same hour with Stephen Dedalus, finds himself in a similar predicament and solves it in the same way. Bloom's height, five feet nine and a half inches, is Byrne's height, and his weight, eleven stone and four pounds, was the very weight which Byrne had registered on the scale" (Ellmann, 290). 

Several men's faces entered Joyce's imagination as he wrote. In her book Shakespeare and Company (1960), Sylvia Beach recalls Joyce having told her that Bloom resembled George Holbrook Jackson, a British writer born in 1874 whom Joyce probably met in London. At Joyce's request she wrote to Jackson requesting that he send her a photograph of himself, but when she showed Joyce the photo of Jackson smoking a pipe, he remarked that it was "not a good likeness. He doesn't look as much like Bloom in it" (97). In Nausicaa Gerty MacDowell provides another visual image: she says that, except for the mustache, Bloom looks just like John Martin-Harvey, the dreamily handsome stage and screen idol. And in Penelope Molly recalls that, when he was courting her, she thought Bloom looked like the dashing Lord Byron, "though he was too beautiful for a man." It seems clear that, although Bloom is frequently the object of derision or contempt in Ulysses, Joyce did not intend for him to lack sex appeal.

A brief note such as this one, keyed to a few (well, quite a few) actual people who may have contributed to Joyce's protagonist, can only begin to delineate his protean qualities. Many more discoveries await the attentive reader of the novel. Indeed, it has been said more than once that by reading Ulysses we come to know Bloom in more depth and detail than we know our closest friends and family.

JH 2018
Joyce's quick pencil sketch of Leopold Bloom, executed in 1926, with the first line of Homer's Odyssey: "Tell me, Muse, of that manyminded man, who wandered far and wide." Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Novelist and businessman Ettore Schmitz, a.k.a. Italo Svevo, in a portrait of unknown date. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ettore Schmitz in his later years. Source: Source: pushkinpress.com.
Photographic portrait, date unknown, of a man who may be either Albert or Mendal Altman (family opinion is divided). Source: jamesjoyce.ie.
1913 photograph of George Holbrook Jackson taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn, first published in Coburn's More Men of Mark (Knopf, 1922). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The photographic portrait of Jackson smoking a pipe that Sylvia Beach showed to Joyce and published in her book. Source: Vincent Altman O'Connor.
John Martin-Harvey in a photographic portrait from the early 1900s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.