- Irish-American Autobiography: The Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims, and More by James Silas Rogers
The first point to make about James Silas Rogers’s new book on Irish American autobiography is that it is a welcome addition to the scholarship on ethnic identity and literature. The second point is that his work only scratches the surface of the work that is left to be done on the subject of Irish-American self-reflection or even revelation. The experience of collecting oral histories suggests that the Irish can be reticent to talk about themselves, so any analysis of the written record is valuable. Each of the ten essay-like chapters raises more questions than it answers. Clearly comfortable with the ethnic print and screen (large and small) catalog of the twentieth century, Rogers selectively chooses topics and writers to address the perennial questions of what it means to be Irish in America from among obvious and not so obvious players. His book is dedicated to Charles Fanning, whose The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction set the standard for analysis in the field. Fanning’s own autobiography, Mapping Norwood: An Irish American Memoir is a meticulously detailed and provocative look at an American life that is characterized by deep ethnic as well as Yankee roots, demonstrating the richness that lies in the genre.
Rogers’s title is a bit misleading because not all of the works he analyzes are autobiographies or even memoirs, i.e., Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners or the New Yorker essays of Joseph Mitchell, although many are. Among the more obvious and well known titles are Angela’s Ashes and Tis by Frank McCourt, Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls and Easter Rising, and Pull Me Up by Dan Barry. These three represent the immigrant, urban, and suburban life experiences that characterize twentieth-century American life. In separate essays discussing the latter two he argues that Barry deftly challenges the trope that suburbia is a barren wasteland. “Aware of the conformity and superficiality of suburbs [he] demonstrates that a [End Page 86] soulless place does not inevitably create a soulless populace” (141). Barry’s immigrant parents and their multicultural neighbors bring the city with them to the burgeoning developments of Long Island to start new after WWII in houses that weren’t “used” (134). It’s not hard to imagine that Colm Tóibín’s Eilis Lacey and her Italian American-husband and his brothers in Brooklyn helped to build the communities where Barry was raised. And the harrowing life of the MacDonald family in 1970s South Boston abandoned by fathers, politicians, and law enforcement, while picaresque, is not “the best place in the world” that its inhabitants claimed it to be (127). But, as Rogers begins to address, both demand interrogation, comparison, and examination.
Perhaps the most provocative chapter, “’Tis Meaning Maybe,” focuses on the meaning of the last word in McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He explores the ambiguity of that word in the context of McCourt’s memoir and its complicated meaning in the context of the Irish vernacular, which is how McCourt, as an immigrant, would have likely used it. This essay logically segues to the concluding chapter, “Secular Pilgrimages: Recent Irish-American Memoir and Journeys of Healing.” Ireland is never very far from the imagination of the Irish-American writer, whether in non-fiction or fiction. Rogers examines the “journeys” taken by writers and/or their parents back to Ireland as journeys of discovery that lead to stronger filial relationships or personal clarity. The chapter reaches back to an earlier essay, “Flowering Absences,” that describes a kind of genealogical tracking that writers undertake to understand where they come from or crack open the silences of their parents. He employs the phrase of Michael Hartnett, “I can foretell the past,” (88) which in turn echoes Eugene O’Neill’s “The past is the present is the future,” from Long Day’s Journey into...