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Ironically for an academic who perceptively analyzes the peasant in Irish literature, it is a peasant genre, the proverb, that pinpoints the source of John Wilson Foster's success in Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: "Níor chaill fear an mhisnigh riamh é" ("The man of courage has never lost yet"). For Foster's is above all an ambitious, even an audacious, book, a book that, however, makes good on most of its gambles. First of all, Foster has managed to discover a striking degree of coherence behind what he himself acknowledges to be "a highly diverse and uncooperative body of work," the prose fiction produced during the Irish literary revival from the 1880s to the late 1920s. And it should be noted that one reason why some of his authors and works have failed to cooperate fully is no doubt their extended isolation from critical attention. Foster has a great deal to say about the giants, Yeats, Synge, and Joyce, but he also listens to voices long undervalued, [End Page 286] like those of George Russell (AE) in The Interpreters or George Moore in A Drama in Muslin, The Lake, and A Story-Teller's Holiday, or unjustly ignored, like those of Daniel Corkery, Padraic Colum, Darrell Figgis, or Eimar O'Duffy. Moreover Foster's working definition of "fiction," or better here "fictions," is comprehensive, embracing not merely the novel and short story but also the autobiographical writing that has been a hallmark of twentieth-century Irish literature, as well as travel books, translations of ancient epics, folktales, and children's stories. The result of this diversity is neither superficiality nor confusion, but an enlightening disjunction of established perspectives, a freeing of critical faculty and imagination to, as Foster says, "approach more closely to the revival itself . . . my real subject."
Obviously such an approach assumes that readers bring such perspectives to the material, that they have indeed already to some extent made their own approach to the revival. Thus this is by no means an objective introductory guide to the prose literature of the Irish renaissance, a fact underscored by the author's not infrequent omission of reference to previous work and by his curious view, twice expressed in the text, that the existence of a range of contrasting scholarly theories is "bizarre." Nor does Foster assume a stance of passive distance. No small share of his misneach (courage) consists in his personal "grappling" with his texts, what he describes as "this author's Irishness in dialogue with the Irishness of those who made the Irish Renaissance." Of course not all of those dialogues are marked by an equal sympathy and engagement. Foster has the honesty to allow his subjects a hearing on their own terms, but he clearly enjoys the company of some of them more than that of others. Thus despite his frequent original and provocative insights into Yeats's "apocalyptic stories," Synge's The Aran Islands, and perhaps most notably AE's The Interpreters, one at times feels his discussions of these writers is a bit of a duty, an act of pietas toward the founding fathers of the revival, the performance of which frees him for a more vibrant interaction with kindred spirits, those Irish realists who have "collectively suffered critical neglect and disarray."
Some of Foster's realists are, however, as likely to have been obscured as to be obscure. James Joyce has hardly been a victim of critical neglect, but Foster does feel his relationship to the Irish revival has been commonly misunderstood by being stripped of its ambivalence. As a corrective he offers a challenging and convincing reading of "The Dead" as a work only adequately comprehensible in terms of the Weltanschauung of the revival, an ideology and ambience whose influence in the...