AE in the US: a tale of mutual admiration

AE was welcomed as a man with something to say to Americans about their own predicament

“AE,” known otherwise as George Russell, arrives in the United States on the liner Aurania. Photograph: Getty Images

“AE,” known otherwise as George Russell, arrives in the United States on the liner Aurania. Photograph: Getty Images

 

When writing Ulysses, James Joyce was evidently aware of George Russell (AE)’s status as a “go to” person for American visitors to Dublin seeking to understand the artistic and political excitement that gripped the city during AE’s heyday as a literary figure and newspaper editor (1904-1930).

In the Scylla and Charybdis episode, Joyce included this reference to him: “All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys. A.E. has been telling some yankee interviewer. Wall, tarnation, strike me.”

The American author and clergyman, Edgar DeWitt Jones, wrote about a memorable evening he spent with the “bearded Plato” in 1923 when AE “discussed politics with a sanity and breadth of view not common in Ireland at that time”.

AE was personally unfamiliar with America until the last years of his life, except through his admiration for Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau. By contrast with the peripatetic WB Yeats, who made five lucrative American tours between 1903 and 1932, AE was a home bird whose work at the Irish Homestead and Irish Statesman kept him tied to his editorial chair at Dublin’s Merrion Square with summer holidays spent at Sheephaven in Co Donegal.

AE’s first journey across the Atlantic took place in 1928 for a lecture tour designed to raise money for a financially-ailing Irish Statesman, which eventually closed its doors in 1930. Arriving in New York harbour, he was awed by “a gigantic mass of heaven-assailing architecture” which, he said, made his heart beat quicker. AE clearly enjoyed a reputation in America, for he was invited to speak at places such as Harvard and Yale, as well as New York’s Foreign Policy Association where he shared the stage with Ireland’s head of government, WT Cosgrave.

As he left for home, he was buoyed by his encounters with presidents of steel companies and railways who were interested in poetry and romance and yet deeply efficient in business. This reflected AE’s hope that Ireland could somehow combine its ancient idealism with greater economic advancement.

On his second visit to America in 1930-31, AE covered much of the country and was especially impressed by a “marvelously beautiful” California. He judged San Francisco to be the most romantic city in the world, “with bays and a blue sea to enchant you and blossomy with flowers”. Much of his lecturing was on agricultural topics as the ideas he had set out in The Irish Homestead, in Cooperation and Nationality (1912) and in The National Being (1916) resonated in an economically-ravaged America.

He expressed amazement at the “restless, unceasing energy” of Americans. While the country could expect to endure further tribulations, he concluded that it was big enough to pull through the upheavals of the Great Depression. His tour also took in the American South where the passion for rural life and culture he encountered made him feel at home.

While in America, AE renewed his acquaintance with Henry Wallace, a farmer and newspaper editor, who went on to become Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary and vice-president (1940-44), and with Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881-1935) who was, like AE, an advocate of farming cooperatives and served in the first Roosevelt administration.

Rumsey (who died as a result of a riding accident while AE was on the high seas) invited him to return to America in 1934 as her guest to provide advice on rural reorganization and he spent much time in Washington meeting with agricultural specialists. Through the influence of Wallace, he had lunch with President Roosevelt at the White House and described him as “a creature of abundant energy of mind unoppressed by the load of responsibility, bearing it as Atlas bore the world in the myth”.

Even after a gravely-ill AE left America in February 1935, the under secretary for agriculture, M.L. Wilson, continued to hope that he could be tempted to return to speak at rural colleges about his philosophy of life and to promote agricultural cooperation and community development in New Deal America. He told AE that agriculture secretary Henry Wallace had said of him: “we need that touch of beauty and interpretation of reality that he alone can bring.” AE never saw America again. He died in Bournemouth in July 1935.

AE’s American experience was quite different from that of WB Yeats or Douglas Hyde, who paid a lengthy visit in 1905-06, in that, whereas they had mainly addressed Irish American audiences on Irish themes, AE was welcomed as someone with something to say to Americans about their own predicament. His ideas on the creation of a rural civilisation and his blend of idealism and practicality appealed to those seeking new directions for rural America in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929.

For someone who spent his life mulling over the infinite spiritual mysteries of nature, AE took surprisingly well to the extravagant, material achievements of the New World. I am not aware that he ever wrote as much as a line of verse about Dublin’s cityscape, but the sight of the New York skyline inspired him to put poetic pen to paper:

With these heaven-assailing spires

All that was clay or stone

Fabled of rich Babylon

By these children is outdone.

Praise indeed!

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to thr United States

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