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The Bloom of Advertising: Joyce’s ‘Notes on Business and Commerce’ and Ulysses

From: Dublin James Joyce Journal
Number 5, 2012
pp. 49-65 | 10.1353/djj.2012.0004

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Towards the end of ‘Ithaca’, we are told that Bloom’s habitual ‘final meditations’ are on the future of advertising, with his farfetched hope being to design ‘one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder’ (U 17.1769–70). In contrast with this ambitious fantasy, Bloom’s own involvement with Dublin’s advertising industry is extremely limited. There has been some critical confusion over Bloom’s precise role: he is described as an ‘advertising agent’ in one popular guide; a more specialist study figures him as a ‘free-lance liaison between the newspaper and the company or manufacturer.’ 1 These are independent positions, reliant upon the newspapers and the advertisers between which they mediate, but bound to none in particular. Bloom has no such autonomy.

His proper position is an advertisement canvasser employed solely by Freeman’s Journal Ltd in order to solicit advertisements for The Evening Telegraph, one of the company’s titles. This is a limited role indeed. He has little or no part in the design of the advertisement for Alexander Keyes, the only client for whom we see him actively engaged within the novel. The copy and the image are adapted from earlier advertisements, leaving Bloom only to gather the elements together (U 7.121–2, 155–6, and 188). He has no decisive control over the advertisement’s puff (‘par’) or its positioning, both of which are to be managed by other newspaper staff (U 7.157 and 188–9). Since he is tied to the publications of Freeman’s Journal Ltd, Bloom has no say in the placement of the ads he collects; neither is he free to engage in space brokering or ‘farming’, by which method independent agents bought newspaper space wholesale before selling it on to individual advertisers at a profit. Bloom has very little negotiating power, either with his client or his employer, which is why he is forced to run back and forth between Nannetti, Keyes, and Crawford quibbling terms (U 7.160, 430–1, and 971–9). As a newspaper advertisement canvasser, Bloom would have little security, and few prospects for advancement. Hugh Oram reports the comparable case of a real-life canvasser for the Dublin Evening Mail, who remained tied to that newspaper from the 1890s through to the 1940s, and who ‘received no salary, selling advertisements on a commission rate of six per cent’.2 In the fictional advertising industry depicted in Ulysses, Bloom holds the lowliest of positions.

It is typical of Joyce’s characterization of Bloom that the external impotence of his role in advertising belies an outlook both progressive and prescient. While he has little opportunity to put his ideas into practice, Bloom has a theoretical understanding of advertising that would have been ahead of its time in 1904. His ‘one sole unique advertisement’ is envisaged as ‘a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life’ (U 17.1770–3). The wording of this description — while itself presented in neither the simplest terms, nor, with its tautological ‘one sole unique,’ the most efficient — recalls the newly scientific register of the advertising guides that began to proliferate in the first decade of the twentieth century. The similarity is not accidental: we know that Joyce took notes on the subject, under the heading ‘Advertising’, in his so-called ‘Notes on Business and Commerce’ (Cornell MS 38 and 63.1–13, reproduced in JJA 3.474–617).

These notes have before now been explained away as part of Joyce’s preparation for his employment at a private bank in Rome between 1906 and 1907, and it has naturally followed that the unidentified sources for his notes would have been older still: as Elisabetta d’Erme put it in 2006, ‘we must presume that, at that time, his sources must still have been Victorian ones’.3 However, the recent identification of the sources for the ‘Notes on Business and Commerce’ — a series of business guides published in London in 1909–10 — allows us not only to correct the misdating of Joyce’s notes...

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