History: How it really was!

Was Leopold Bloom actually the Saltman?

People celebrating Bloomsday in Dublin (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
People celebrating Bloomsday in Dublin
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
YES, THERE must be something in the Irish air, or in Dublin’s Guinness that makes Dubliners – or is it all Irish people ? – unique, idiosyncratic, and proud of it, too! For example, the two iconic figures of song and literature never existed. One is Molly Malone, whose busty statue decorates a main street in Dublin, pushing her wheelbarrow full of cockles and mussels.
Sweet Molly Malone has become an anthem for Dubliners. The first stanzas will be sung to you by your driver in a guided bus tour, and in museums dedicated to Dublin's history by docents, who rattle off a memorized script. And – up the Irish – all in good voice and great humor. The words are: In Dublin's fair city,/ Where the girls are so pretty,/ I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone, /As she wheeled her wheelbarrow,/ Through streets broad and narrow,/ Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!" Her statue created the bawdy myth that she sold seafood by day and other services by night. In Dublinese, she, non-existent, is called the “the tart with the cart.”
Celebrated as sweet Molly may be, she has not merited having a day (or night) named after her. But there is the great holiday, Bloomsday, celebrated on June 16 in honor of the other, almost real icon, Leopold Bloom, the hero – or at least the subject – of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Joyce chose June 16 for the 24-hour period covered in the novel because that was the date, in 1902, whe he first “walked out” with his wife-to-be, Nora. Perhaps he recalled that day because they made a limited form of love.
His “Ulysses” was a challenge in many ways to the reader.. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, and tells us what was going through Bloom’s head in that 24-hour span of time. Published on Joyce's 40th birthday, February 2, 1922 in Paris, it had already been serialized a few years earlier. The book was greeted in horror by the bourgeoisie. Harvard Professor Louis Menand wrote in a New Yorker article two years ago on Bloomsday: “Until 1934, it was subject to burning in Britain and the United States. The most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature,” an Irish critic called it. “All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images, and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the holy name of Christ.”
Besides the challenge to the “morality” of the day, which I would define as “Oh, horrors” by day, and “Wow, horrors!” by night, reading it is a challenge to readers.
The book is long: “the text of the 1922 edition is seven hundred and thirty-two pages, or 262,869 words,” to lean on Professor Menand again. “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, three hundred and thirty-seven words and phrases made their first appearance in print including “dreck,” “bugger off,” “f**k,” “mustard” (the color), “pornosophical” (defined as “of or relating to the philosophy of the brothel”), “schlep” and so on. Critics of the Oxford Dictionary claim Joyce created thousands of words.
Do you want more challenges? Okay, here are a few questions to you, my gentle readers. Did you ever start reading “Ulysses?” Did you ever finish it? Did you read only the sexy parts, found for you by a friend? Did you try to read it because “that's what one does to be counted?” And finally – hand on heart -did you understand the book? Fair is fair, so I will answer as well. I read it first in my late teens, and understood only the detailed descriptions of bodily functions, to drinking and sex and cuckolding; and though I had studied ancient Greek, did not even think to ask why he called the book Ulysses. (He wanted to parallel the episodes of the Homeric Ulysses, aka Odysseus.) Then, over two years ago, I read almost all of the hundreds of pages over again. I skipped the bodily functions, since I am familiar with them myself, and the scenes that I recalled from my adolescence. Then I wrote a piece in my best (?) Joycean style for The Jerusalem Post (January 28, 2016) imagining Joyce visiting the Dead Sea area in our time.
Unlike the feckless “eejits” leading “fair Dublin city” today, beginning with its ignorant, publicity-hound “Lord Mayor,” Joyce was fascinated by Jews, knew and admired Jewish history, and was inspired and encouraged by Jews. In writing Ulysses, he was partially financed by “loans” from Italian author Italo Sveve (born Aron Ettore Schmitz) himself an author and lapsed Jew.
Now, with no particular embarrassment, I quote from that article I wrote two years ago. Bloom is ostensibly speaking: “Cannot believe my eyes. I knew about Kinnereth villages and orange groves north of Jaffa. But here, the Dead Sea. I beat my heart, as we say on the Holy Day – have sinned. [The following is a quotation from Ulysses:] Because here is the thought I had when I was going to the pork butcher to buy Molly some juicy kidney. “A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest the first race.” Elsewhere the great wordsmith shows his empathy with “(t)he oldest people. Wandering far away all over the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere.”
Joyce knew both the geography of the Holy Land, and the work of the fledgling Zionist movement. He mentions “Agudath Netaim,” (misprinted as Agendath Netaim by the French typesetters), a planters' group which wanted to sell land near the Sea of Galilee; and he knew many Hebrew words.
But even he, “With all his great imagination.
Even he, as I wrote two years ago, could not envision the Dead Sea coming to life.
The “old land is no longer grey. It blooms.”
And do forgive the pun! How did Altman the Saltman get into this column? Well, wondrous are the ways of the internet. A few weeks ago I received the following email: “Some time ago I came across your piece in The Jerusalem Post on Leopold Bloom (28/1/2016) which I really enjoyed. Recently the real-life model for Leopold Bloom has been discovered....He was a salt merchant....The emergence of ''Altman the Saltman' as part of the composite that is the fictional Leopold Bloom continues to pique the curiosity of the Joyce community." The writer, Vincent Altman O'Connor, was to have addressed the 26th International James Joyce Symposium in Antwerp on June 14.
His message must be seen against this background: the number of books and commentaries on “Ulysses” comes close to the number published on Homer from ancient times on, and on Dante from the late medieval era. Theories abound on which Dubliner was based on whom, and what the book means and what inspired which section.
In a further email, Altman O'Connor tells me that Bloomsday has been stretched into Bloomsweek.
Here is the Saltman's tale in short. Albert Altman was a son of the original Hungarian Jewish immigrant family that established and became rich in the – what else? – salt business.
He was a tough man, a fearless curmudgeon. He was expelled from the local synagogue for marrying a Catholic. After her death, when he was 44, he married a 17-year old Protestant.
He was an atheist and a radical Irish nationalist, he supported the Irish language revival, and even temperance! Altman fought corruption in the city government, and once elected to the municipal council, kept revealing irregularities. In 1903, Altman voted against a motion to welcome King Edward VII to the city.
That same year, 1903 at age 52 Altman died of diabetes, though there are those who believe it could have been foul play.
Since many believe that Leopold Bloom was a composite, Altman the Saltman could bery well be a newly uncovered major part of the mix. And given his colorful life, it's time for a movie or TV series to tell the saga of the Altman family.
Meanwhile for all those revelers retracing Leopold Bloom's steps and wearing the straw boaters or dresses of the period, and all their imitators across the world, don't forget that Bloom's wife was named Molly.
She was a promiscuous woman. Could that be a reference to sweet Molly Malone? Be all that it may, Happy Bloomsday and Bloomsweek to one and all. Gut Yontef!
For the uninitiated, Gut Yontef is the Yiddish for (Have a) Good Holiday! Avraham Avi-hai claims no expertise in Joyceology.