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Cowboys and Indians: Joyce’s “An Encounter” and the Failed Heroics of Young Ireland

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 174-207

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Alas! it is a bitter thought with me, whilst I write these lines—more bitter far, a thousand times, than the worst privations of prison life—that, unlike those gallant Wexfordmen of ’98, we have left behind us no famous field, within the length and breadth of our old country, which men could point to with proud sensation, and fair hands strew with garlands.

—Thomas Francis Meagher, 1849, letter addressed to Gavan Duffy, who published it in The Nation

Here in Texas, we identify with cowboys, despite the troubled legacies associated with the term. I find it instructive to walk with my students in the local Palo Duro Canyon, where (together with Kiowa and Cheyenne) the Comanche fought against Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie during the 1874 Red River War. Here, when U.S. soldiers discovered natives encamped in the canyon, they slaughtered over 1,400 horses left behind after skirmishing to deprive the Comanche of the means to gather food for themselves during the winter. So successfully was war waged by hunger that by 1875 even the Comanche holdouts had turned themselves in to the authorities at nearby Fort Sill. But the impact of historical realism on my students is dubious at best. Though they come from families who are as likely to have connections to the Pantex nuclear (dis)armament facility, meat processing plants, or local prison establishments as they are to ranching proper, ’round here we perform the cowboy with the serious dedication of zealots. We believe we have earned a once pristine expanse of Western wilderness; we believe in the very “American” dreams that elsewhere disenfranchise us, that keep us, well … working class. Such is the power of our belief in a romantic heritage.

For better or worse, playing cowboys and Indians reenacts part of our history, and it is clear why such stories must be of interest to Texans. It is less clear what such stories are doing in the writings of James Joyce. As R. B. Kershner has demonstrated, Joyce’s predilection for popular culture included cowboy stories. Westerns are among the many mythical male romances that inspire and delimit the boys of Joyce’s Ireland, just as they are here in the Texas plains. Developing Kershner’s claim, I will argue that Joyce uses the Wild West stories in “An Encounter” as a parallel for the history of the Young Irelanders, who sought Ireland’s independence through Charles Gavan Duffy’s newspaper, The Nation. The failure of Young Ireland was due at least partly to their underestimation of the impact of the Famine. Ironically, some of the documentation of the Famine came from Young Ireland’s own writer, John Mitchel, whose saber-rattling against the government eventually compelled him to leave The Nation to begin his own newspaper, The United Irishman. Joyce’s “An Encounter” parodies the rise and fragmentation of Young Ireland, a group Joyce depicts as “Indians,” and the story serves as Joyce’s explanation for the Irish inability to learn from its Famine history.

“An Encounter,” the second Dubliners story, is about young boys who read cowboy stories and plan to play hooky. Their search for adventure becomes weirdly inconclusive when the boys meet a strange, apparently depraved, old man. Joyce’s narrator’s “epiphany” at the end of the story, in which he feels “penitent” because he had always “despised” his friend Mahony (D 20), seems an odd conclusion following the narrator’s conversation with this pervert. What is the connection, and how does the narrator arrive at this epiphany? Greg Winston’s remarkable reading of Joyce’s “An Encounter,” “Britain’s Wild West: Joyce’s Encounter with the ‘Apache Chief,’” which I hope my own reading amplifies, reminds us of two important points. First, Joyce intends a critique of modes of reading and writing, a critique that demonstrates how young Irish boys reading pulp fiction are reinscribed within the dominant ideology; second, as a result of this conditioning, the boys internalize a system that perpetuates the racism—against Indians, Mexicans, even U.S. Americans by the British—that also disenfranchises them as young Irelanders.

One of the many clichéd battles in Paul Herring’s story “Cochise the Apache...

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