A Plummet from Grace

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/09/2002

A stately man in a black fedora and charcoal overcoat solemnly steps off a trolley, thrusts his hands to the sky, and squawks to a swarm of pigeons swooping down from nearby rooftops: "Come'ere Wingtip . . . come'ere Speckles . . . come'ere Checkers."

On cue, scores of plump birds surround the gray-haired former professor, hunting for the scattered presents of cracked corn he's tossing along a corner of Boston University's windswept Marsh Plaza.

"When they're in flight," he says as pigeons hover over his head, "there's no more beautiful bird in the world."

This is a good day for John Kidd. The 49-year-old made it out of bed.

A decade ago, scholars around the world lauded Kidd as a brash, young intellectual who - like a "scholarly version of General Norman Schwarzkopf," as one writer called him after the Gulf War - was destined for academic glory.

At 32, as a lanky postdoctoral student at the University of Virginia,
he exposed a raft of errors in what many established scholars accepted as the definitive edition of one of the most renowned and controversial novels of all time, James Joyce's "Ulysses." Ultimately, his critique won over literary critics, and Kidd quickly earned a name as a leading authority on Ireland's literary giant. The academic triumph also earned Kidd a six-figure advance from W. W. Norton & Co. for his own edition of "Ulysses," as well as a job directing a new research center on Joyce at Boston University.

Two years ago, however, the quirky son of a Navy captain quit academia amid allegations that he sexually harassed and unfairly failed some of his students and concerns about his propensity for befriending a range of creatures, from worms to rats to pigeons.

Now, Kidd is broke, jobless, and in such poor health, he says he has trouble writing more than a few sentences. At times it's a struggle just to read the newspaper, he says.

After delays in delivering his manuscript and a host of copyright problems, W. W. Norton indefinitely delayed the publication of his edition of "Ulysses." Once the subject of flattering profiles and a contributor to prestigious literary magazines, he hasn't published a paper in years.

And with a worsening "neurological disorder" that causes him tremors, seizures, and chronic fatigue, Kidd lives mainly off disability checks, spending his days either in bed, watching movies, or, whenever he can, trekking a few blocks from his Brookline apartment to feed the pigeons.

Although he no longer teaches at BU and the school closed down the James Joyce Research Center in 1999, Kidd hasn't really left the campus along Commonwealth Avenue - and his lingering presence from the student union to outside his old office occasionally causes a stir.

For one thing, campus officials say the former professor owes the university about $25,000 for storing thousands of his books, a personal library of Joyce's work that Kidd says is the largest individual collection of one author anywhere. The debt, which he disputes, is on top of more than a half-million dollar investment BU lost in the professor's failed project developing a CD-ROM on the Irish author.

Administrators say school staff members have complained that Kidd follows them around campus, harangues them, and, as recently as a few weeks ago, "verbally abused" one university employee.

"John is a very savvy, literate, and courageous guy who goes off half-cocked sometimes, talks too much, and rubs a lot of people the wrong way," says Roger Shattuck, a retired BU university professor who persuaded school officials to hire Kidd after the two met at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s. "I think a lot of people felt that his style was too excessive and too aggressive."

Kidd's 'Joyce Wars' cement his reputation

Kidd earned his reputation quickly. In 1985, while still in Virginia, he delivered a scathing paper in New York, repudiating at least half of the 5,000 "corrections" made by the acclaimed German scholar Hans Walter Gabler in his 1984 Random House edition of "Ulysses." The 240,000-word novel, riddled with errors, was published in 1922 by French printers who didn't speak English.

Three years after Kidd's paper, and not long after he wrote an essay titled "The Scandal of Ulysses" in the New York Review of Books, Random House acknowledged Gabler's edition appeared "seriously flawed" and the publisher reissued an earlier edition of Joyce's novel.

To this day, Kidd's victory in what became known as the "Joyce Wars" has Gabler bristling. He contends that Kidd's attacks "put Joyce scholarship back by 10 years" and that "his criticism was valid in a half-dozen minor points, but they were not at all valid at-large."

But the German scholar says he takes no pleasure from the failings of his former adversary. "I'm just sorry to see that he won't be able to put those criticisms to the test by an edition of his own," says Gabler, reached at his home in Munich. "I find it very sad, a very tragic development, but I do not find it very surprising. I think it's a symptom of having got himself into the trouble of the expectations he raised."

Unfortunately for Kidd, W. W. Norton's president, Drake McFeely, says it's unlikely the publisher will release Kidd's "Ulysses" anytime soon. Because of extentions to the copyright in the early 1990s, he says, Kidd's edition can't be published for two decades.

"It's not out of the question we won't publish it then. But that's a long time from now, and we have a lot of other projects," says McFeely. He said his company paid Kidd only a portion of the $350,000 advance it reportedly gave him in 1988.

The option of returning to a career teaching at a major university doesn't look promising either.

Toward the end of his time at BU, colleagues say Kidd became "estranged from the community of academics" and obsessive about Joyce, even affecting the novelist's appearance.

Administrators also say they were frustrated by the professor's failure to deliver.

"John's early work, his command of such a complicated writer as Joyce, seemed to promise great scholarly work," says Dennis Berkey, dean of arts and sciences and provost of BU. "It may have been the case of a relatively young scholar taking up an overwhelmingly large project. But some people have the ability to conceive work and bring it to conclusion. John didn't."

Former educator's vow of comeback in doubt

Spreading the remains of a bag of corn along the stones outside Marsh chapel, and pointing out which birds are a couple and which he has brought home on occasion, Kidd promises a comeback. He contends that the publishing companies have conspired against him to block the release of his manuscript, which he vows will be printed sometime soon.

First, he has to fight an illness, which he kept secret throughout his career, though it steadily eroded his strength. He won't say exactly what it is he's suffering from, but he shows prescriptions for drugs to treat seizures, narcolepsy, and Parkinson's.

"I'm not a basket case," he says. "I'm planning to get well and to retire in my 70s."

At least one of his old friends, a benefactor who continues to help Kidd amass a collection of some 10,000 Joyce books, is not as optimistic about the professor's prospects.

"I'm very concerned about him," says Decherd Turner, a retired director of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. "He's so valuable as a scholar, but he's paying the price now for rocking the boat. John Kidd never had any use for the establishment."

So, for now, the unmarried professor spends his good days reading a few newspaper articles, warding off the hawks that prey on his pigeons, and plotting his next moves.

As the sun sets and the birds fly back to their perches from the windy plaza, he describes a bad day like this: "I'm just like a brain in a jar . . . I can't do anything."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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