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. [ . . . ] Continue at NY TIMES