'Quinn's Book:' Reconstructing Irish-American History

Article excerpt

William Kennedy's Quinn's Book, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, is an act of the historical imagination that encourages the reader to reconsider events in nineteenth-century America. Both works revive painful memories from the American past in order to provide the basis for new perspectives. Of his own Irish-American family's sense of that period, Kennedy commented in O Albany!, "if they remembered the anti-Irishness that prevailed in nineteenth-century America, they repressed it" (40). Examining how the novel resurrects that aspect of nineteenth-century Irish-American life and establishes a basis for reevaluating anti-Irishness through cultural comparisons with African American experience can enable readers to recognize how the novel reconstructs the history of the period to encourage a comparison between the experiences of two immigrant communities forced to America's shores.

The illustration entitled "Tambo and Paddy Go To Town," pictured at right, introduces the final section of Quinn's Book (237) and stands as an emblem of the novel's bridge-building dynamic.(1) This pairing of a "stage Irishman" and a black-faced minstrel visually underscores the novel's challenge for the reader to explore comparisons between the stock types. Such comparisons can lead to recognizing similarities in the complex cultural identities that lie beneath. In that way the supplementary illustrations in the novel suggest thematic issues. For example, just as the reader puzzles over the significance of the disk-like object centered on the title page illustration and the riddle of whether the minstrel in the later illustration is a white man in blackface, so, throughout the novel, Quinn puzzles over "the mystery of the disk" (74) and over the mystery of the African American Joshua, about whom Quinn claims "I have never presumed to truly understand" (250).

That final illustration reintroduces a linkage introduced early in the novel when the title Tambo and Paddy Go to Town is referred to as a music-hall "production bridging two genres: the minstrel show and the Irish frolic" (92).(1) How the text establishes such a "bridging" of the Irish-American and African American traditions is the focus of this essay. Within this historical novel that is presented as Quinn's autobiography, Quinn's reflections on Joshua's experience as an African American becomes central in widening his understanding of his own identity as an Irish American.

The fiction of Quinn writing his autobiography provides the clearest basis for comparing the novel's technique with a major genre of the African American writing tradition. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has observed, "Autobiographies of black women, each of which is necessarily personal and unique, constitute a running commentary on the collective experience of black women in the United States" (161). Moreover, previous studies of African American autobiographies have asserted the applicability of insights about the genre to fiction: "Autobiography and fiction are simply different means of arriving at, or recognizing, the same truth: the manner in which and by which the African American makes and is made by his historical, political, and social condition in the United States of America" (Cudjoe 276-277). Morrison's and Kennedy's novels each create commentary on American history, though a critical difference results from Morrison's emphasis on the pain involved in the struggle to remember.

Selwyn Cudjoe's comments on fiction and autobiography provide a partial frame for an approach to Kennedy's creation of an African American character. Other insights contained in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s collection of contemporary criticism, Reading Black, Reading Feminist, provide the means for comparing the novels under discussion. In that collection, Hazel Carby writes of Jesse Fauset's attempt to create "a new relation to history" (80) for the black middle class, while Barbara Christian presents a perspective more directly applicable to Morrison's novel: "we have moved to excavate the past and restore to ourselves the words of many of our foremothers who were buried in the rumble of distorted history" (49). …