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“WHITE,” IF “NOT QUITE”: IRISH WHITENESS IN THE NINETEENTHCENTURY IRISH-AMERICAN NOVEL1 CATHERINE M. EAGAN over the past ten years, an increasing number of Americanist historians have suggested that Irish and other European immigrants, in an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, lobbied for white racial status in America. The success of this effort was by no means assured. While American laws concerning who could immigrate, be naturalized, and be enslaved accepted Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots as evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that Irish immigrants experienced on the job, and the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, suggested that they were “racially” inferior to white AngloAmericans and thus somehow nonwhite, perhaps even “black.”2 Many historians , focusing their attention on the Irish-American working class, have argued that Irish immigrants worked to counter suggestions of their racial affinity with African Americans and thus ensure the recognition of their whiteness through their participation in labor agitation and in popIRISH WHITENESS IN THE 19TH-CENTURY IRISH-AMERICAN NOVEL 66 1 My article title is an adaptation of Homi Bhabha’s well-known description of the “ironic compromise” of the mimicry that happens under colonial systems. Bhabha defines “colonial mimicry” as the “desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (emphasis in original). Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 86. 2 For examples of English and Anglo-American comparisons of Irish and African racial inferiority, see Dale Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1986). Whatever the rhetorical strength of Americans’ assertions of Irish and African racial similarities, it should be emphasized that the Irish retained their hold on white entitlement so as not to equate the oppression that they and African Americans experienced. ular cultural forms like blackface minstrelsy.3 Some historians of Irish America, by contrast, have questioned whether Irish Americans actively pursued white racial status, citing desperation for jobs as the chief source of conflict with African Americans and pointing to examples of Irish opposition to antiblack racism.4 Be that as it may, the Irish-American novel, particularly as written by the embattled famine generation of immigrants, makes it clear that “whiteness ” was an identity to which Irish Americans not only felt entitled but actively pursued. Although these novels should not be taken as exact IRISH WHITENESS IN THE 19TH-CENTURY IRISH-AMERICAN NOVEL 67 3 See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991) and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics , and Working-Class History (London: Verso, 1994). 4 See, for example, David Brundage, “‘Green Over Black’ Revisited: Ireland and IrishAmericans in the New Histories of American Working-Class ‘Whiteness,’” a paper delivered at the conference on “Racializing Class, Classifying Race: Labour and Difference in Africa, the USA, and Britain,” St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, 11–13 July 1997; Graham Hodges, “‘Desirable Companions and Lovers’: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830–1870,” in Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, eds., The New York Irish (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Lauren Onkey provides a nice summary of Irish Studies scholars’ reception of Noel Ignatiev’s ideas in particular in her “‘A Melee and a Curtain’: Black-Irish Relations in Ned Harrigan’s The Mulligan Guard Ball,” Jouvert 4 (1999), 31 March 2000, . “Contrasted Faces.” The juxtaposition of these two images starkly illustrates how the Irish were racialized in the mid-nineteenth century. Source: Samuel R. Wells, New Physiognomy: Or Signs of Character, as Manifested Through Temperament and External Forms and Especially in “The Human Face Devine” (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1866). Widener Library, Harvard University. reflections of Irish-American realities or sensibilities, they do reveal some of the modes through which Irish people argued for a white racial identity that they regarded...


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