Read The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women Online

Authors: Sally Barr Ebest

Tags: #Social Science, #Literary Criticism, #English; Irish; Scottish; Welsh, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #European

The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women (9 page)

BOOK: The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women

(Getz 1980, 19).

Irish American women maintained professional lives long before it

became common or necessary. Louise Bogan, granddaughter of an immi-

grant from Derry (Frank 1995), began judging applications for Guggenheim

Fellowships in 1944, a job she held into the 1960s. She later served as Fel-

low in American Letters of the Library of Congress, Consultant in Poetry

to the Library of Congress, and consultant on belles lettres to Doubleday.

Bogan also taught at the universities of Washington and Chicago, New York

University, and Brandeis while continuing to publish prodigiously and win

awards (Bogan and Limmer 1980, xxxi–xxxiii). Mary Cantwell worked as

a copyeditor at
in the late 1950s, rising to features

4. Despite her surname, O’Connor’s works have not been previously viewed

as Irish American, but she possesses the requisite bona fi des. A descendant of the

Treanor-Cline family on her mother’s side and the O’Connors on her father’s, Mary

Flannery O’Connor was Irish Catholic (Getz 1980, 121).

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editor and eventually managing editor (Barron 2000). Mary Doyle Cur-

ran, whose mother was from Kerry, wrote novels praising housewifery while

teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Queens College, and

Wellesley (Halley 2002). Elizabeth Cullinan worked for William Maxwell at

The New Yorker
from 1950–59 before becoming an author in her own right.

In the same years, the Irish-born Maeve Brennan wrote for
Harper’s Bazaar

and later became a staff writer for
The New Yorker
(Bourke 1992).

Later authors have written memoirs in which they too attribute their

careers to the role models provided by Irish American mothers who worked

outside the home after marriage. The parents of the novelist-journalist-mem-

oirist Caryl Rivers met in law school in the 1930s. Although her mother

took what would now be considered maternity leave when Rivers was born

in 1937, she soon resumed practicing law in Washington, DC (Rivers 1973,

10). The memoirist Maureen Waters’s mother worked at Macy’s (Waters

2001). The novelist Mary Gordon recalls watching enviously as her mother

carefully dressed and applied makeup for her job as a legal secretary. “Early

on,” she writes, “the word ‘work’ took on for me a gravity, a luster, like the

stone in a monarch’s signet ring. ‘Work’ was a word I savored on my tongue

like a cool stone’” (2007, 18).

Even though they refused to rejoin the ranks of housewives, literature

by Irish American women of this era is unique for its inclusion of “Catholic

themes, Catholic language” (McDermott 2000). In this regard, they refute

historians who claim that “the absence of Irish Catholic intellectuals meant

that perspectives born out of Catholic thought or Irish American experi-

ences would have little effect on American thinking in this era” (Meagher

2005, 136). Depending on the authors’ backgrounds and place of birth,

these themes run the gamut.

Mary McCarthy rejected her faith at age eleven; nevertheless, her early

Catholic training is evident throughout her oeuvre. Although McCarthy

grew further and further from the mores of her Catholic girlhood, she could

not escape herself. An infamously autobiographical writer, her heroines

refl ect her childhood beliefs, for “all of McCarthy’s characters are unable

to mediate between the traditional defi nitions of femininity embraced by

the church, and the modern revisioning, an Irish Catholic fatalism and a

belief in free will” (Donoghue 1996, 91). Her heroines believe in—and

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practice—sexual freedom, demonstrate intellectual independence, and work

after marriage, yet all fall prey to Catholic guilt. Worse, without the church

as a model, they lack a clear moral compass (Donoghue 1996, 93).

Catholicism is a strong undercurrent in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

In her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, there were no Catholic churches;

consequently, in 1847 the fi rst Catholic mass was said in the apartment of

O’Connor’s great-grandfather. Three decades later, still lacking a church,

her great-grandmother, Mrs. Hugh Treanor, donated land to construct one.

Despite the scarcity of Catholics in the deep South at the time (the religion

was not recognized in Georgia’s charter), O’Connor, like her Irish American

peers in other parts of the country, attended parochial schools—St. Vin-

cent Grade School and Sacred Heart High School. Nevertheless, her preoc-

cupation with Catholicism amazed even her teachers. In the third grade,

for example, when assigned a sentence reading, “Throw the ball to ___,”

O’Connor substituted “St. Cecilia” for the expected “Rover” (Getz 1980,


O’Connor was fascinated with life and death as viewed through her role

as a Catholic woman living in the midst of Protestant fundamentalists (Getz

1980, 24). Juxtapose these worldviews and you get Hazel Motes, the main

character in
Wise Blood
(1952), a young man who has lost his faith and sets

out to create his own religion, “the Church without Christ.” In the intro-

duction to its tenth anniversary reissue, O’Connor described it as “a comic

novel about a Christian
malgre lui
, and as such, very serious, for all comic

novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death” (quoted

in Daniel 1962, C2).

Similar themes are evident in the works of O’Connor’s friend and patron,

Caroline Gordon, an Irish American Southern Agrarian whose religious

faith rivaled O’Connor’s. Gordon was something of a holdover from the

Irish American school of didacticism. As she wrote in one letter, she believed

“there was only plot, the ‘scheme of Redemption.’” Thus it should come

as no surprise that her novels
The Strange Children
(1951) and
The Male-

(1956), both roman à clefs, are rife with Catholic themes. Loosely

autobiographical, the characters of
The Malefactors
are based on Gordon’s

main religious infl uences: Claiborne is Gordon’s husband Allen Tate, Horne

Watts is Hart Crane, Catherine Pollard is Dorothy Day, and Joseph Tardieu

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38 | T H E B A N S H E E S

is Peter Maurin in what Flannery O’Connor described as “a fi ctional study

of religious conversion” (Labrie 1997, 16).

Despite the prevalence of Catholic themes, thanks to the enormous

“pressure to conform” (Meagher 2005, 130) immigrants and second-gener-

ation Irish preferred to ignore their cultural heritage. McCarthy, O’Connor,

Elizabeth Cullinan, and Maureen Howard distanced themselves from the

Irish. McCarthy associated the Irish with the abusive relatives who took her

and her brothers in after their parents’ death, whereas Howard picked up

on her mother’s disdain. “Oh, the Irish,” her mother would say. “We were

taught to take the Irish lightly” (Howard 1975, 11). Elizabeth Cullinan’s

family was even more vehement: “Mother hated the Irish,” she recalls. “We

were supposed to be above all of that” (quoted in McInerney 2008, 99). The

Scots-Irish were even further removed. O’Connor preferred to be known

simply as a Southern writer, whereas Carson McCullers’s association with

the Irish was limited to a visit to Ireland when John Huston was fi lming

Refl ections in a Golden Eye
(Savigneau 1995, 318).

Ambivalence runs throughout Maureen Howard’s memoir of her 1950s

Facts of Life
. Her parents were devout Catholics, but they tended

to mock “the world we came from . . . the
Catholic Messenger
with its simper-

ing parables of sacrifi ce, its weekly photos of saintly missionaries and their

fl ock of mocha children with souls like ours, rescued for eternity.” Still, for

her parents’ generation, “Religion was a serious business” (Howard 1975,

12–13). Perhaps as a result, she found that her “religious periods have been

genuine only as dramatic exercises” (35). Her fi rst novel,
Not a Word about

(1960), displays this pattern. Although the Irish Catholic cul-

ture is central, religion is used “more for mood and dramatic effect than

anything else” (Durso 2008, 57).

Given her background it is not surprising that religion played only a

minor role in the work of Carson McCullers. Irish Protestants differed sig-

nifi cantly from their Irish Catholic counterparts. Because they were non-

Catholics, they were able to assimilate into WASP society and to a certain

extent become “indistinguishable” from any other American (Cochrane

2010, 2). So although Lulu Carson Smith McCullers was half Irish (on her

mother’s side) (Savigneau 1995, 11), she was also a Southern Baptist. Music

was her religion until it was replaced to a certain extent with Marxism, and

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then again by feminism when she began developing the character of Mick

Kelly. McCullers rejected Marxism because it considers men bourgeois and

women the proletariat (Call 2009). She wanted more for her persona, and

Mick Kelly goes far beyond the role of women proscribed by Marx and

Engel: she wants to compose music and be a world-famous conductor who

wears “either a real man’s evening suit or else a red dress spangled with

rhinestones” (McCullers 1983, 241).

Maeve Brennan’s ambivalence is more refl ective of her place of birth: her

earliest stories take place in the Dublin suburbs where she grew up, while

the later stories are set in New York, where she lived as an adult. Chapters 1

through 7 in
The Springs of Affection
(published in
The New Yorker

1953 and 1955) are fi rst-person narratives featuring each member of her

family, accurate in age, appearance, and name. At age twelve Brennan and

her sister Derry began attending the Cross and Passion boarding school.

Brennan’s stories “The Devil in Us” and “The Barrel of Rumors” detail

the meager food served at the school as well as familiar themes of guilt and

apprehension. At the end of her second year, Maeve left school with the

public denunciation by the nuns—“‘damned, damned, damned’”—ring-

ing in her ears, about which she said she “had never felt so holy” (Bourke

2004, 102).

Ethnic communities began to disappear by the end of the 1940s. By

the 1950s, Irish Americans were moving into the middle class and out of

the city, both of which threatened to weaken their religious and ethnic ties

(Takaki 1993, 163). Nevertheless, parochial schools were instrumental in

distinguishing between Catholics and Protestants. Drawing on her satiric

heritage, Caryl Rivers writes: “The nuns made it clear that prolonged expo-

sure to non-Catholics was not healthy. They gave off a subversive perfume;

unseen, like radiation, but deadly. . . . We were urged to have Catholic

friends, to attend none other than Catholic schools, to date Catholic boys,

and if we married one, to live in Catholic neighborhoods. . . . Our minds

were kept innocent of anything but praise for the Church” (1973, 129–54).

Likewise, Maureen Waters writes of growing up at midcentury knowing

“our souls were in mint condition, bright and glittering although vague in

detail. . . . We kept them that way by a continual round of devotions: Mass

on Sundays and holy days, rosaries, novenas, stations of the cross, little acts

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of self-denial . . . in a curious, paradoxical way [the nuns] encouraged inde-

pendence.” They demanded hard work and concentration, which in turn

fostered autonomy (Waters 2001, 69).

Like other baby boomer Irish Americans, Alice McDermott, born in

suburban Long Island (an Irish American enclave) in 1953, was raised in a

family bent on assimilation. Nonetheless, McDermott attended parochial

schools and religious icons dotted the house; she even slept with a rosary

beneath her pillow until she was a teen (McDermott 2000, 13). Conversely,

Madeleine Blais, born in 1947, identifi ed strongly with her ethnic and reli-

gious background. When her widowed mother needed a job the Blais girls

wondered “if we should say a novena. . . . We believed that good things

happened not so much because you lifted yourself up by your bootstraps,

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