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  • American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910–55: The Politics of Enchantment by Tara Stubbs
  • Richard E. Hart (bio)
American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910–55: The Politics of Enchantment by Tara Stubbs Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2013. 236 pp. Cloth £65.00.

This book is a wide-sweeping, detailed, and perhaps provocative literary study, the overall objective of which is to is to explore how and why American modernist writers in the period 1910–55 (figures including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marianne Moore, Eugene O’Neill, Wallace Stevens, and John Steinbeck) turned to Ireland in a variety of ways and at various stages during their writing careers. It seeks to demonstrate how Irishness became what Stubbs terms a “cultural determinant” in the work of such writers, thus moving beyond the obvious racial, ethnic, or national frameworks that other studies have adopted. Cultural influence, as treated in this study, is revealed to be complex, involving such factors as family connections, sentimentality toward the rural, reaction to political events in Ireland, and more. In effect, Stubbs contends that American modernist writers’ responses to Ireland were both varied and complicated, as amply demonstrated by the case of Steinbeck, which is the portion of her book considered here.

As a concentrated frame for her study, Stubbs develops a lexicon of enchantment and disenchantment as a way of characterizing the American modernists’ responses to Irish literature, its traditions, and its magic. As a force for reanimating American letters, some writers believed that Irish poetry and fiction may have provided a sort of cure for the restiveness of American cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century, while others were intrigued by Ireland and its literature’s power to enchant. Stubbs examines several plausible reasons why American writers actively engaged with Ireland—its culture and history, natural landscape, and politics—yielding a balanced picture of such writers both accepting and questioning their enchantment. She poses the basic question—what is to be made of this transatlantic dialogue? What is authentic and inauthentic about the enchantment and disenchantment?

Stubbs’s account of Steinbeck points out the two sides of his Irishness (the good and perhaps not so good) in both his writing and personal life. She highlights Irish dimensions of his self-identity as a person (for example, family relations) and as a writer (for example, themes of truthfulness and exaggeration). As she sees it, these two sides (personal and artistic) often tend to merge and overlap with Steinbeck to the extent that they at times seem inseparable. [End Page 96]

In discussing the strong autobiographical strain of Steinbeck’s writings that engage with his Irish heritage or his abiding interest with Irish culture, Stubbs draws on Ron Ebest’s 2005 book Private Histories: The Writing of Irish Americans, 1910–1935. Most prominent among such works is East of Eden along with the lesser-known Burning Bright, both constituting what biographer Jackson J. Benson terms Steinbeck’s “extensive personal allegory” that actually dated back to his very earliest writings. The “personal allegory” that emerges from his relationship with Ireland, Stubbs believes, “mediates between his rational and Romantic—and factual and fictional—selves, so that the idea of autobiography functions literally and metaphorically within these texts.” While Steinbeck may well have realized that overreliance on all things Irish could potentially hinder his own cultural and creative production, Stubbs claims “that he just cannot leave Ireland alone” (37).

In East of Eden Steinbeck stressed his paternal German heritage in addition to his maternal Irish side. As related to his Irish ethnicity, his exercise of personal and social imagination thereby yields an admixture of autobiography and literary creativity. Indeed, the complicated nature of his Irishness is reflected in a November 1935 letter to Elizabeth Otis in which he stressed his “pure Ulster” heritage while condemning southern Irish people as “dirty rednecks” of the Irish Free State, which had placed him on a censored list. Yet, as dismissive as he was about the southern Irish, he also wrote warmly about his love of the Irish countryside. Further, in the 1952 travelogue essay “I Go Back to Ireland,” he sought to fuse “nostalgia with dashed romantic hopes...