Monday, July 20, 2009

The Fallacy of the Irish-American Experience

A Southern, Episcopalian, on-again, off-again girlfriend of mine gave me Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes once as a kind of peace-offering.  She assumed that it would speak to my ethnic experience as an Irish-American Roman Catholic.  I took it on vacation with me to Ocracoke Island as beach reading, dutifully opened it and made my way through more or less the first fifty pages.  I don't remember any distractions--an alliance of dolphins on a fishing run, even a flight of pelicans--drawing me away from the book.  I simply remember feeling disgusted by McCourt's shameless exploitation of ethnic stereotypes of his neighborhood and tenement in the South Bronx, particularly his comments on a Jewish neighbor clearly intended to express sympathy and fondness but which to me had the opposite effect.  His descriptions of Irish-Americans, including his family and especially his alcoholic father, struck me as no less reliant on stereotype. 

This reaction has troubled me over the years, and comes back to me with the news of McCourt's death.  McCourt wrote from searing and often bitter personal experience, though leavened with humor, the classic Irish survival mechanism, as for may peoples.  One cannot gainsay the veracity of his tale, or its horridness.  I read no further than his family's return to Limerick, so I have no right to speak to the tragedy they lived there.  I can, however, speak to the effect of my sometime-lover's operating assumption, one shared by the literary community in general and presumably by the enormous readership:  that McCourt's book spoke accurately to the Irish-American experience.

I remember as a child that my parents occasionally hired, largely out of pity, a colorful man-of-all-work named Jim Kelly we always called simply "Kelly."  Like McCourt's father, he had a drinking problem.  He also had a colorful way with words, and I found him and his wild tales of leprechauns and faeries captivating.  I have never really understood why Kelly stopped coming around, but have a vague sense that my mother had lost her patience with his drinking and the example he set.  On a fairly profound level, I think our experience with Kelly--my feeling charmed by him, my parents' charitable tolerance giving way to disapproval--acts as a precursor to my response to McCourt's writing.

In a course on the Progressive Era I took as an undergraduate, one set of statistics Prof. Harbaugh cited stood out to me above all others.  Of all the ethnic groups participating in the massive wave of immigration in the late nineteenth century, three emerged thereafter as the most successful economically:  Jews, Irish, and Italians.  One might want to argue that my inability to identify with McCourt's experience derives from my growing up in the era in which the Irish-Americans had joined the middle-class, even the upper-middle-class.  I saw John Fitzgerald Kennedy elected the first Irish-American and first Roman Catholic President of the United States as a first-grader.  McCourt's experience had little relevance to us as we spent Christmas Day at lavish parties over the years at the house of my uncle.  He ran a company bought during the depression by his Irish-Catholic father-in-law.  The poverty of the McCourt's rarely crossed our radar screens as Irish-Catholic poverty, even at my maternal grandfather's far more modest house.  My working-class Irish-Catholic friend's family, far closer in experience to that of the McCourt's, my parents simply dismissed as not "our sort" of people.

Unattractive snobbery aside--or not--here lay the point in a nutshell.  My mother's cousin had visited poor cousins in Galway living in cottages through which their chickens regularly ran.  My father's family, however, had worked as middle-class professionals at least as early as the period when McCourt's father drank them out of the Bronx and back across the Atlantic.  My paternal grandfather worked as a civil engineer in Boston, and a photograph of my great-grandfather I remember from childhood shows a well-dressed man in a suit with a large moustache.  The Lynches and my grandmother's family, the O'Briens, struggled early after their arrival, but I do not have the sense that they struggled for terribly long.  A photograph taken in my father's house in the 1930's shows the classic "lace-curtain" scene--striped wallpaper,  lathe-turned woodwork, lace curtains, a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo, a baby-grand piano with a songbook open on it (my grandfather sang beautifully, though I do not know whether he or anyone else played), and my grandmother presiding over all in an empire-waisted lace-adorned dress, the picture of middle-class self-satisfaction.  And that says nothing of the modest beach house in the Irish-American enclave of Hull at Nantasket Beach, near Quincy.

A well-to-do Irish-Catholic resident of a retirement community in Maine where my mother lived for a year joined us for dinner one evening about a year after the release of Angela's Ashes.  The book came up, and she and I voiced agreement that the book did not speak to the Irish-American experience as we knew it.  It makes me uncomfortable to say this, but I have been protected from the ghastly struggle McCourt and his brothers describe.  I do not mean that simply in the sense that I grew up in the era when the Irish-American middle class had established itself.  A working-class Irish-American experience remains, perhaps best personified by the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck film Good Will Hunting, set between the worlds of South Boston and Cambridge.  My father grew up in more affluent--then, anyway--Dorchester, and my uncle graduated from Harvard.  Southie to me stands for recalcitrant racism and willful provincial ignorance.  I have never identified with it, never even set foot there.

I mean something more elemental.  The centuries-long British misrule of Ireland left in its wake horrific poverty in the Irish countryside, and horrible social injustice throughout.  One cannot overlook the fact, however, that under the British an urban middle-class had arisen by the nineteenth century.  I do not know why my father's side of the family same, or exactly where from.  Lynch (Liaosingh in Irish) has a ubiquity in Ireland not quite on the level of Smith.  I feel rage at the facts of the McCourt's life, but at the same time I feel deeply patronized by those who assume McCourt speaks for the Irish-American experience in general, the experience of the second-most affluent of the late-nineteenth century immigrant groups.  It is not that more affluent Irish-Americans have not long felt left out at the table of American mainstream acceptance.  But in the particularity of the story he tells, McCourt speaks for himself, and those who lived a poverty like his.  He does not speak for a more general Irish-American experience in which his family sadly did not participate until he reaped the profits of the success of Angela's Ashes and lived, until his death in the last few days, a life very different from the one on which he originally embarked.


1 comment:

  1. Your post is timely given the national focus on Skip Gate's arrest in Cambridge after being accused of breaking into his own home after returning from China. Later this week, President Obama said he would probably be shot if he tried to break into the White House.

    What's at play here is the question of whether or not class can prevail over race. Clearly, for Irish Americans, class can prevail over ethnicity. White people tend not to be arrested for breaking into their own homes. I think an Irish Guy, Frank McCourt or Peter Lynch, could break into their own homes and not get arrested.

    I do believe this post is about more than class. It is a plea for an end to stereotypes and universalization of experiences that are unique. I could not agree more. There remains a strong romance to the traditional Irish American experience. I found that out when I took my husband's name, O'Grady. I got topped to my morning more than I ever imagined.

    People are unique and we are all connected. I learned to appreciate that reality even more in reading your post and in thinking about the Gates case.