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  • Discipline, Sentiment, and the Irish-American Public:Mary Ann Sadlier's Popular Fiction
  • Marjorie Howes (bio)


This essay examines Mary Ann Sadlier, the most popular and influential Irish-American writer (or, perhaps more accurately, Irish-North American, as she is sometimes claimed as part of Canadian literature1 ) of the famine generation. Sadlier wrote a number of novels that are set in Ireland; she also wrote a number of novels about Irish migration to the New World. Among the few scholars who discuss her, the consensus is that these novels are, to use Charles Fanning's phrase, "practical fiction for immigrants."2 Such scholars assume or claim that her novels offer practical advice to famine-era immigrants about how to negotiate between assimilation and ethnic and religious particularism in the New World; that they convey the "functional ideology" of how such immigrants actually [End Page 140] pursued this negotiation; and that, despite their unfortunate didactic moralizing, they have sociological value because they give us information about the everyday lives of Irish immigrants in mid and late nineteenth-century America. None of these propositions is exactly wrong, but I think they are all flawed or misleading to some extent. In this essay I suggest some alternative frameworks that better illuminate what kind of didactic fiction these novels represent (or what it means to call them didactic fiction), what relation they bear to the popular literatures and the political ideologies of the period, and how they engage with the history of Irish migration to the New World.

Sadlier was born Mary Ann Madden in County Cavan in 1820 and raised by her father, who was a fairly comfortable merchant. She began publishing poetry in a London magazine at age eighteen. Her father died in 1844, and Mary Ann migrated to Montreal, where she met and married James Sadlier, who was managing the Canadian office of the Catholic publishing company that he and his brother had founded in New York in 1837. When D. and J. Sadlier Company bought out the list of the pioneering Irish-American publisher John Doyle in 1853, the company became the largest Catholic publishing house in North America. Sadlier and her family lived in Montreal until 1860, when they moved to New York. Between the time of her marriage and that move, Sadlier produced six children and began her prolific career as a novelist, essayist, and translator. Most of her novels were serialized in Irish-American periodicals like Thomas D'Arcy McGee's American Celt, the Boston Pilot, or the New York Tablet (which succeeded the American Celt and was bought by the Sadlier Company in 1857) before being published in book form. By the time the Sadliers moved to New York, she was, according to Fanning, "established as the best known Irish Catholic voice in American letters"3 and was a leading light of the Catholic social and intellectual circle that included McGee, the influential Catholic editor Orestes Brownson, and New York's outspoken and combative Archbishop John Hughes. Her husband died in 1869, and she ran the New York branch of the Sadlier company for a time, but [End Page 141] was apparently forced out of the business by a nephew at some point, and during the 1880s she moved back to Canada. She died in 1903.

Sadlier's circum-Atlantic life and publishing career, her fairly privileged connections with the Catholic publishing and church establishments, and her commitment to the creation of new forms of popular literature indicate some important features of the particular historical moment to which her novels responded. Her works do not merely reflect transatlantic experience or culture; they seek to theorize it, to intervene in it, to constitute it. This project is best analyzed in relation to two sets of historical developments. The first is the expansion and institutionalization of Irish America, and the establishment of the transatlantic equation between Irishness and Catholicism, a set of developments that began about 1830 and accelerated its pace during the 1840s and 1850s. The second set of developments involves instabilities and conflicts that threatened to impede the first set: the influx of potentially uncooperative famine immigrants on the one hand and the political...


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