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The Lightning and the Thunder

Philip Coleman

American literature and Irish culture, 1910-55: The politics of enchantment, by Tara Stubbs, Manchester University Press, 240 pp, £60, 978-0719084331

The opening scene of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints (2012) provides a brilliant comic image of the complicated combination of respect and irreverence that informs contemporary Irish attitudes towards the United States. Perched at the bar, one character observes to his drinking companion that Barack Obama – during his visit to Ireland in 2011 – “must’ve kissed every fuckin’ baby in Offaly”. The conversation continues with one of the most succinct appraisals of Ireland’s love-hate relationship with US America to have been written by an Irish writer:

An’ did yeh see the way he skulled tha’ pint?
No doubtin’ his fuckin’ roots, an’ anyway.
An’ the speech.
Brilliant.
“Yes we can” – whatever it is in Irish. He made the effort.
What is it again?
Haven’t a clue. But it’s funny, isn’t it? Such a simple thing – a few speeches and smilin’ faces. A bit of hope. An’ it feels like we’re over the worst, we’ve turned a corner.
Exactly. It’s great.
We’re still fucked but, aren’t we?
Bollixed.

Drawing attention to the glorification of alcohol consumption that has always played such a troubling role in each nation’s self-representations, on the one hand, but also to the ways in which cliches about hope are perennially trotted out to salve if not solve the latest crisis, the opening vignette to Two Pints reveals all that is simultaneously enchanting and disenchanting about Irish-US and US-Irish self-perceptions and inter-relations.

It is precisely in the interstice between these two things – between “enchantment” and its opposite – that Tara Stubbs analyses American literature and culture in the volume under review. While the main focus of the book is on American literary responses to and representations of Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century, the relevance of Stubbs’s book extends to the present moment, when the nature and function of Ireland’s relationship with the United States – and the US’s relationship with Ireland, which has its own dynamic and terms of engagement – is arguably coming under greater scrutiny than ever before, in political, economic, and cultural terms. While her book is concerned chiefly with examining the ways in which American writers – and especially the key figures of Marianne Moore, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Wallace Stevens, as well as less well-known authors like Babette Deutsch and Lola Ridge – engaged with Ireland and Irishness in different ways,

Stubbs’s interrogations of transatlantic literary and cultural transference and exchange make this a study that has relevance beyond the immediate fields of inquiry suggested by its central authors and chronology. In a sense, indeed, the timeframe indicated in the title is a little misleading. It is true that the book does focus on literary and cultural production in the stated decades, but it has important sections on works published long after the project’s stated endpoint, such as analyses of Seamus Heaney in chapter 4 and John Berryman in chapter 5. This is not a fault or a failing so much as an indication both of the range and reach of Stubbs’s meticulously researched and intellectually expansive study.

The reader of American literature and Irish culture, 1910-55 gets a good sense of Stubbs’s critical method in the book’s opening paragraph, where a piece of Marianne Moore’s journalism – an excerpt from a “Comment” on Æ’s visit to New York in 1928 – is subjected to a finely tuned close textual reading that is also alert to contextual details. Throughout the book, Stubbs pays great attention to the ways in which texts are imbricated in the contexts of their composition – and especially modernist texts composed by authors who sought and often found “new experiences and inspirations” in Ireland. Moore is a central figure here and she features at several points in the study, but Stubbs is less interested in what she calls the “ethnic lines” of influence by which US American authors’ affiliations with Ireland are often mapped. Rather, she is concerned with exploring what she calls “the processes by which American writers gather their influences” and, as a consequence, she provides an alternative route through the spaces of Irish-American and American-Irish literary history to those that have come before. Certainly, in Stubbs’s study we find an alternative understanding of American literary engagement with Ireland to the critical narratives offered by writers such as Charles Fanning and Daniel Tobin. Fanning and Tobin’s contributions to the field of US American-Irish literary studies have been hugely valuable, but Stubbs shows that many areas remain either under- or unexplored. One of the merits of this book, in fact, is its movement between and among several genres and forms of writing, from Marianne Moore’s journalism to Wallace Stevens’s letters, and from F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels to the plays of Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck. The willingness to take seriously an unsuccessful work like Steinbeck’s “play-novelette” Burning Bright (1950), indeed, is a mark of the critical open-mindedness of Stubbs’s work, for which American literature and Irish culture, 1910-55 should be widely recommended.

Because of this willingness to read across a range of genres and modes – balancing close reading with deep historical and cultural understanding – Stubbs’s book is full of fascinating insights and, at times, amusing details. Consider, for example, the following quote from John P Harrington’s account of HL Mencken, in response to Mencken’s review of Ernest Boyd’s Ireland’s Literary Renaissance in 1917: “Thus does the idea of ‘Ireland’ transform capable, ambitious and activist thinkers into sentimental fools.”

The transformation happened on both sides, of course, and “the politics of enchantment” was, and is, a phenomenon that pervades literary and cultural discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. In the private and public productions of the authors explored in American literature and Irish culture, 1910-55, Stubbs reveals this not just in relation to American authors but also in the work of their Irish promoters and advocates, often to the point where they are shown to be positively drunk on the thought of the New World. Here is Thomas McGreevy in a letter to Wallace Stevens written in 1948: “I was quite by myself when, as was of course bound to happen, I thought of Swatara and Schuylkill, and the sense of inner content, of something indistinguishable from absolute peace, came naturally and sweetly.” One can only imagine how Roddy Doyle’s drinkers might respond to this, and it is a pity that Stubbs did not go further in her book to expose the deeply troubling mimicry of American attitudes that have influenced the development of Irish culture in recent decades. That, however, is perhaps the work of another book, and it is one that Tara Stubbs might be the best person to write – a detailed study of American-Irish literary and political connections and affiliations between 1960 and 2010.

Such a study could not be undertaken, however, without considering the ways in which an earlier generation of writers was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by its transatlantic other. As the contemporary Irish-American poet Michael Ryan puts it in a villanelle published in Poetry in 2013:

What kind of delusion are you under?

The kind that causes blunder after blunder.
Is there any other kind than that?
You see the lightning but not the thunder,

and for one second the world’s a wonder.
Just keep it thrilling under your hat.
What kind of delusion are you under?
You see the lightning but not the thunder.

Stubbs helps us to “see the lightning” in her brilliant analyses of some truly remarkable works of poetry and fiction written by US authors in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, she allows us to understand its source in new ways and to hear inflections of voice that owe much to an enchantment with Ireland – that “Celtic parcel of irresistible allure” – that still needs unpacking.

3/11/2014

Philip Coleman is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas. His recent books include John Berryman’s Public Vision: relocating ‘the scene of disorder’ (UCD Press), and Berryman’s Fate: A Centenary Celebration in Verse (Arlen House).

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