Academic journal article MELUS

Assimilation Blues: Maureen Howard's 'Facts of Life.' (Irish-American Literature)

Academic journal article MELUS

Assimilation Blues: Maureen Howard's 'Facts of Life.' (Irish-American Literature)

Article excerpt

Narratives of exile and immigration arguably bring into sharper focus than other autobiographical modes the concept identified by Philippe Lejuene as "the autobiographical pact."(1) One reason why this may be the case is that there is an implicit struggle in autobiography, an application to the self of the sense of confrontation and critique that is applied to the objective world in Realist fiction. The experience typified and challenged in both Realist fiction and autobiography can, very generally, be called change. And in the age of capitalism, which also happens to be the age when change has become the structural principle of both social reality and the models of identity to which that reality gives rise, no change is more comprehensive than that articulated by the immigrant experience. Its comprehensiveness may be appreciated not only with regard to the actual immigrant generation itself, but also in view of its lingering effects on subsequent generations.

Quite apart, therefore, from its numerous artistic excellences and from the fact that its combination of detail and insight make it a unique record of the Irish-American experience of embourgeoisement,(2) Maureen Howard's Facts of Life(3) functions as a meditation on the mercuriality of an identity trained in, but not conditioned by, a strong awareness of ethnicity. The roots of the tension between training and self-awareness that pervades Howard's novels are explored in a way that reveals the limitations of identity conceived of solely in terms of its ethnic origins and the problematic shapelessness of identity conceived of without an adequate negotiation of those origins.

The vehement panache of Maureen Howard's Facts of Life is not just a matter of style, a matter of applying the cosmetics purchased through a Smith education and life in academia (if "life" is what institutions offer academic wives). The ability to put on the makeup is certainly there:

I wish someone had noted for art's sake - it is pure Chekhov - my

grandfather's feelings when he bought the property on which he was to

build his grandiose house from Mr. and Mrs. William Abbott Parrott,

the faded Yankee gentility for whom his mother had served as the Irish

maid. (97)

More often than not, though, "art's sake" is beside the point. A sardonic, satirical, self-mocking tone announces its impatience with high gloss and finishing school and the assumption that one of the objects of experience is syntactical etiquette.

Time and again the social surface doesn't hold good.

My lace mantilla lay gently folded in a puff of tissue paper: it was finer

than the veils the parish girls would wear (always, always finer, the

single tedious note of our supposed distinction). My white gloves

buttoned at the wrists with pearls. These clothes would never be worn.

I picked up a grapefruit knife and tried to commit suicide. (34)

This, from later life, of a literary luncheon: "There was something pure in the utter filth of the experience" (117). Writing, here, is not an apology for order. Its force and conviction derive from its resistance to conferred codes, a resistance an the more winning for the attempts to identify with those codes - whether they are the attitudes (posture, deportment and declamation as the budding daughters of middle-class Bridgeport should embody them) or as a faculty spouse: "My education and career were sham intentions, smart mid-century substitutes for the embroidery work and social graces of an earlier time" (73).

Is there an alternative to belonging? Not on your life. But it seems that there is also no alternative to the pressures that ostensibly belonging brings. The question forever naggingly remains, belonging to what?

Maureen Howard organizes her "life" and its "facts" in three categories - culture, money and sex - one of the effects of which is to remind the reader of race, class and gender. …

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