- “No Place Is Home—It Is as It Should Be”:Exile in the Writing of Maeve Brennan*
In the essay “A Daydream” (1976), set during a stiflingly hot summer day in New York City, Maeve Brennan describes surfacing from a dream of East Hampton only to find herself in one of the urban rooms she then called home. She writes: “So much for my daydream of sand and sea and roses. The daydream was, after all, only a mild attack of homesickness. The reason it was a mild attack instead of a fierce one is that there are a number of places I am homesick for. East Hampton is only one of them” (Long-Winded Lady 265). Brennan evokes a similar scene in “Faraway Places Near Here” (1962), a republished sketch in The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker (1969): “When the summer weather in New York begins to reach its height, I am subject to powerful gusts of memory from other summers and other rooms in the different places in the city where I used to live” (112). In this instance the diagnosis of “homesickness” is inflected with particular meaning for the Irish writer far from home.
This essay explores the importance of Brennan’s engagement with the theme of exile in her short stories and Long-Winded Lady essays for the New Yorker. Exile carries significant ballast in writing by and about the Irish, and it particularly preoccupies the country’s writers; Brennan’s work reveals a self-reflexive engagement with such a cultural [End Page 95] inheritance as well as signs of an interest in fashioning it anew. It speaks in revealing ways to her own distinctive position as both a woman writer and a self-consciously transatlantic one: an author for whom “gusts of memory” imaginatively tether her work as much to New York as to Dublin. The essay turns to her Long-Winded Lady sketches as offering the most revealing exploration of these issues, but it will first provide an overview of Brennan’s wider engagement with exile.
Brennan’s focus on exile finds two different modes of expression. On the one hand, the writing displays a politically aware concern with the history of the Irish migrant—particularly in her short stories about Irish domestic servants in America that were published together in The Rose Garden and in her returnee narrative The Visitor. Although maintaining a clear sympathy for the suffering endured by Irish women migrants at various periods in history, Brennan also demonstrates a nuanced interest in the productive capabilities of rootlessness and separation from home, thus renegotiating the terms of the more established and publicly visible image of the modern artist, and particularly the Irish artist, as an exile. Andrew Gurr, for example, insists, “Deracination, exile and alienation in varying forms are the conditions of existence for the modern writer the world over. The basic response to such conditions is a search for identity, the quest for a home, through self-discovery or self-realisation” (14); not surprisingly, Gurr makes a special case study of Joyce as the archetypal example of such “creative exile” (7). In the Irish context this preoccupation with exile is especially pervasive: Seamus Deane describes it as a “fetish” (58) of the Irish literary tradition, whereas R. F. Foster characterizes it as a “reflex action” (288).
The experience of Irish immigration to America is marked not just by large numbers, particularly in the nineteenth century, but also by the proportion of migrants who made the active choice to remain in their new host country. Examining the case of the Irish in the United States, Foster challenges the high-profile image of the Irish migrant as a beleaguered exile: “It is tempting to ask—certainly in terms of Irish American experience—a more robust question: if the emigrant Irish were so trapped in a state of permanent yearning nostalgia, why did they do so well? Is there a case for seeing the emigrant laments as a kind of therapy, and the extremely low numbers of those who [End Page 96] returned as representing a deliberate option, not evidence of imprisonment abroad?” (288). Kerby Miller...