Alice McDermott: ‘The green breast of the old country’

Irish-American women writers: exploring links to F Scott Fitzgerald and 1960s as a watershed for Irish-American Catholics

Alice McDermott: recognises in The Great Gatsby the possibility of confronting some of the mythologies and shibboleths of Irish America. Photograph: Getty

Alice McDermott: recognises in The Great Gatsby the possibility of confronting some of the mythologies and shibboleths of Irish America. Photograph: Getty

 

For a number of years beginning in late 1960, Maeve Brennan lived around the Amagansett/ East Hampton area of Long Island. Some of her stories, those featuring Mary Ann Whitty, are set there. Long Island is also a distinctly evocative site in the work of Alice McDermott (b. 1953); it features prominently in At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998) and Child of My Heart (2002), often in contrast with Brooklyn, where McDermott herself was born and raised.

One of the most distinguished and lauded writers working in the United States today, McDermott is the author of seven novels to date, all published between 1982 and 2013. Her work could be read in a variety of contexts but, for the sake of brevity, I will elaborate on only two of these here: its connections to F Scott Fitzgerald’s oeuvre and its treatment of the 1960s as a watershed moment for Irish-American Catholics.

McDermott is clearly conversant with the work of a range of Irish-American women writers – most especially, perhaps, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). But it is also difficult to miss the echoes of another Irish-American writer, albeit one less frequently categorised as such, in McDermott’s work. Despite the fact that F Scott Fitzgerald famously signed off some of his letters “Celtically yours” or “Gaelically yours,” there is, as Joe Cleary notes, little direct evidence in his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), of “the concatenation of Irish, Catholic, Celticist, and American forces that shaped Fitzgerald’s imagination”. If Gatsby is preoccupied with migration at all, it is with the (then) recent waves of migration to the US from eastern and southern Europe: Tom Buchanan is deeply suspicious of Gatsby’s lower-class background and of his (implied) Jewish ancestry. Hibernicising the ethnic elements of Gatsby, McDermott recognises in Fitzgerald’s novel the possibility of confronting some of the mythologies and shibboleths of Irish America.

Charming Billy (1998), for example, a novel that won McDermott the prestigious National Book Award, opens among an Irish-American community in the Bronx, circa 1983, who have just attended the funeral of the eponymous Billy, who has “drunk himself to death”. Recounted in fragments pieced together by the narrator, the story revolves around Billy’s infatuation with a visiting Irish nursemaid, Eva, whom he met in the summer of 1945 on Long Island. Eva goes back to Clonmel to see her parents, having accepted Billy’s engagement ring and promised to marry him. In September 1946, after Billy has sent a cheque (money he has had to borrow from his employer) to finance Eva’s return to New York, his cousin, Dennis, discovers that Eva has married a local man and used Billy’s money as a deposit on a petrol station. Rather than break the news to Billy, who he knows will be devastated by Eva’s betrayal, Dennis tells him that Eva died of pneumonia in Ireland, only for Billy to discover the truth when he visits Ireland himself in 1975: Eva is married with four grown children, and still living in Clonmel.

The novel is remarkable for the way in which it seamlessly weaves together a concern that is ethnically specific (the idealisation of the imagined homeland) and the contours of Fitzgerald’s all-American tale. Both novels are narrated by individuals who are outsiders to, but intimately connected with, the worlds they describe (Nick Carraway is Daisy’s cousin; McDermott’s unnamed narrator is Dennis’s daughter); both Gatsby and Billy are hostages to their respective dreams, embodied by the unattainable women they love (Daisy and Eva) and they are loyal to these dreams until the end; Long Island is the site in which both the fantasies and the disappointments of both men play out. Gatsby believes that the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolises “the orgastic future”; Billy’s summer romance in Long Island is repeatedly referred to as an “idyll”.

But what is the nature of Billy’s dream? He falls prey, the novel suggests, not to the machinations of a flesh-and-blood woman but to an abstract ideal of Ireland: the ancestral homeland, itself. In The Quiet Man (directed by John Ford in 1952), after Sean Thornton is captivated by the sight of Mary Kate Danaher herding sheep, he asks Michaleen Oge Flynn, “Is that real? She couldn’t be.”

The point is that Mary Kate Danaher isn’t real; the whimsical version of Ireland presented in the film echoes Sean’s Irish-American fantasy of Ireland, embodied by the redheaded beauty with the fiery temper. Similarly, when Billy finally travels to Clonmel in the 1970s, hoping to visit Eva’s grave, he is struck by the falsity of both his one-time fiancee and his environs. There is “a shabby sense of change, of the modern, all about the place, that had little to do with the backward, quiet little city she had once described for him”. Yet McDermott’s critique of Irish-American fantasies of the homeland is never condescending or cruel. Indeed, there is something compelling for Billy’s relatives and friends – and therefore, for the reader – about the extent of his “unwavering faith” in the dream of romance and marriage with Eva. They admire his loyalty and innocence just as Nick finds “something gorgeous” about Gatsby, “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…an extraordinary gift of hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again”.

If her interest in Fitzgerald’s work connects her to the 1920s, McDermott is perhaps most absorbing when writing about the 1960s as a watershed moment for Irish-American Catholics, a period that witnessed the enormous changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the election (1960) and assassination (1963) of President John F Kennedy and, perhaps less often discussed, the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965). This Act sought to rectify the exclusions of the National Origins Act (1924), which, through a quota system, had given strong preference to immigrants from “older” ethnic groups in the US (such as the Irish, British and Germans) and actively discriminated against “newer” ethnic groups, such as those from China, southern Asia, eastern and southern Europe. The 1965 Act certainly did redress the balance. As immigrants arrived in unprecedented numbers from the Caribbean, south and east Asia, those belonging to older (read: white) ethnic groups began to see themselves as displaced by these newer (read: non-white) arrivals.

McDermott casts a critical eye over her own Irish-American community in a series of novels dealing with white flight and urban malaise in the 1960s. One of the recurring preoccupations of McDermott’s fiction is the degree to which Irish Americans feel supplanted or jostled aside by other ethnic groups in New York City. In the opening of At Weddings and Wakes (1992), McDermott describes the biweekly journey of Lucy Dailey and her three children from their suburban home in Long Island to Lucy’s childhood home in Brooklyn. The suburbs are dazzling white: the family’s front door is white; the children wear white sandals and shirts; the mother, white gloves; there are white road signs. As the suburban trees fall away and the family approaches the city, however, “their first sight as they touched the ground was always the identical Chinese couple in the narrow Laundromat, looking up through the glass door from their eternal pile of white and pale blue laundry”.

With great subtlety, McDermott challenges her readers to consider how easily white privilege (the freedom to move to the suburbs, for example) can be recast as victimhood. In her second novel, That Night (1987), parents (less marked as “Irish” than in her other novels, though they certainly belong to older white European ethnic groups) speak to their suburban-raised children “of the city streets where they spent their childhoods as lost forever, wiped from the face of the earth by change; who said of their old neighborhoods, ‘you can’t go there anymore,’ as if change had made a place as inaccessible as time”. These children have grandparents “who remained in embattled city apartments or dilapidated houses”. Similarly, in At Weddings and Wakes, Lucy conceives of her home in suburban Long Island as being “exiled from the place she had grown up in”. In After This (2006), one character struggles to come to terms with the changing demographics of her urban environment. At Lord and Taylor department store, which, she notes, isn’t “as nice as it used to be”, she is (not coincidentally) served by “a black girl”. Pauline no longer “feels safe riding the subway at any hour . . . You could not take for granted that anyone spoke English”. For Pauline, whose mental health has always been questionable, a bus journey home precipitates a descent into hysteria.

If, for Daniel Patrick Moynihan writing in 1970, John F. Kennedy was “the last of an old [breed],” his presidency the moment during which “the era of the Irish politician culminated,” a time that “will not come again”, McDermott is also interested in the symbolic power of the 1960s as the end of an era for white Irish Americans. In her 1960s-set novels, McDermott demonstrates the degree to which her Irish American characters’ whiteness implicates them in structures of white power, even if, as Eric Lott puts it, “that privileged category [historically] oppressed the Irish themselves”.

Sinéad Moynihan is senior lecturer in twentieth-century literature at the University of Exeter, where she teaches American and Transatlantic literatures. She is the author of “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2013). She is working on a book entitled Ireland, America and Return Migration: The “Returned Yank” in the Irish Cultural Imagination, 1952 to present.
Women Writers and Irish-American Literature is a week-long series to celebrate the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birth on January 6th, 2017, comprising articles on Maeve Brennan, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon and Alice McDermott, co-ordinated by Ellen McWilliams and featuring contributions from Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan and Sinéad Moynihan

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