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Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down (1936)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 8, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2004
pp. 86-99 | 10.1353/nhr.2004.0057

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New Hibernia Review 8.3 (2004) 86-99

John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down (1936)

Ron Ebest

St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley

One of America's most talked about literary figures in 1936 was a sixty-five-year-old Irish American named John T. McIntyre, who had just published the novel Steps Going Down, an idiosyncrastic amalgam of H. P. Lovecraft-style supernaturalism, Thomist theology, mysticism, and realism in the tradition of James M. Cain. Steps Going Down crowned John T. McIntyre's career and earned the obscure novelist and playwright his first national acclaim. He was celebrated in Time, the Nation, and the New Yorker; newspapers across the eastern seaboard reprinted dramatic publicity portraits; prize money and royalties made him financially secure for the only time in his life. His success, however, was ephemeral, and the brilliance of his brief celebrity made his subsequent fall into poverty and anonymity all the more poignant. Indeed, Steps Going Down might well have served as the title of its author's biography; as mesmerizing as the novel is, John T. McIntyre's life probably makes a better story.

He was born in 1871 to Patrick and Sara Walker McIntyre of Philadelphia. He grew up in the city's Northern Liberties district and attended St. Michael's School, and then the Harrison Grammar School. Years later, he would recall that his mother had withdrawn him from the parochial school because of the cruelty of the Christian Brothers who taught there. This is certainly plausible, although the only one of McIntyre's novels to use autobiographical materials, the unpublished and undated "Some Days in the World," portrays the Christian Brothers affectionately. It seems equally plausible that some misfortune had put parochial school tuition beyond the family's reach. McIntyre appears to have lost his father, either by death or desertion, at a very early age. In any case, his exertions in public school were no more successful than those with the Christian Brothers. It is not clear exactly how many years of formal education McIntyre mastered, but by the novelist's own account he was already employed fulltime at age eleven.

Details of his early years are sketchy. McIntyre never talked about his father. Of his mother—almost a child herself at the time of her early death—he retained only a few vivid images: once he had seen her weep; once he had watched her jump rope. He was raised by an aunt, and earned a living through brute labor. One job, for example, had him hauling buckets of cow's blood from an abattoir across a lot to a tannery, which used the offal to process hides. He would tell friends that he acquired his encyclopedic knowledge of Philadelphia's geography one summer, by playing a sprawling citywide game of tag called "tarnkappe." The name appears to be a rather obscure reference to the Wagnerian source theNibelungenlied, and the story may be a fiction; like many autodidacts, the adult McIntyre was anxious to impress the world with his learning. In fact, the scantiness of his formal education would have profound consequences. He never mastered arithmetic, for example, and thus never fully grasped his own finances. More significant, he taught himself to read in the pages of nineteenth-century popular pulp magazines like Black Cat and Wide Awake. Adventure stories awakened his literary ambition, but a lifelong affection for melodrama and improbabilities of plot proved his creative undoing.

McIntyre began to publish stories in the Sunday editions of the Philadelphia Times and the Philadelphia Press at the age of twenty, but his real interest was the stage. To the end of his life he would consider himself primarily a playwright, despite his unimpressive history in that medium. By the middle 1890s, he was composing a play a week for the stock company of the South Street Standard Theatre. McIntyre would later recall the theater as the literary equivalent of a machine shop. Each week, an artist would produce three posters depicting an attractive young man and woman in various states of peril. McIntyre's task was to concoct a story that accounted for the three images. The system was creatively...