Grandmothers and Rebel Lovers: Archetypes in Irish-American Women's Poetry

By Monaghan, Patricia | MELUS, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Grandmothers and Rebel Lovers: Archetypes in Irish-American Women's Poetry


Monaghan, Patricia, MELUS


A canon is forming in Irish-American literary studies. Who is to be taught in surveys of Irish America, who included in bibliographies? To whom are dissertations to be devoted, to whose work should journals pay mind? Like all political processes, canonization has its special procedures. Veneration must precede beatification which, in turn, precedes canonization; and the list must shorten at each stage so that the finally elect are indeed the holiest or, in this case, the most distinguished. Selected lists of the beatified who are promoted for elevation are now being published with some regularity. John Duff offers a slate of Eugene O'Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Farrell and John O'Hara (22). William Shannon can go with O'Neill and O'Hara, but argues for Finley Peter Dunne and Philip Barry (254). Andrew Greeley plumps for Farrell, O'Hara and Fitzgerald, but insists as well on Edwin O'Connor and J.F. Powers (254).

But even the Chicago machine would take note of a problem here. Where are the women? Where are Carson McCullers, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary McCarthy? Where are Mary Gordon, Helen Vendler, Tess Gallagher? What happened to Flannery O'Connor, Kate Chopin and Margaret Mitchell? How about Nelly Bly, Maeve Brennan, Margaret Culkin Banning?

As the canon has been forming, criticism of the Irish-American literary tradition has invariably focused on male writers. For instance, in the otherwise fine resource Irish American Fiction (Casey and Rhodes), only 15 percent - 8 out of 52 - of the authors listed are women. Of the male authors, one - William Alfred - is deemed worthy of inclusion solely on the basis of a single six-page article in the Atlantic Monthly, while another, Joe Flaherty, makes it on the grounds of having produced a single novel. Surely there are women too who boast such resumes.

Not only is the percentage skewed, so is the critical attention awarded each author. Only Elizabeth Cullinan merits a whole essay to herself. Most of the remaining women - Eellin MacKay Berhn, Mary Doyle Curtan, Mary Deasy, Mary McCarthy, Ruth McKenney and Betty Smith - are crammed into a single article. And Flannery Cyconnor - arguably the most important writer of the bunch? She's merely listed in the bibliography; no mention of her work illuminates the text.

Why this disproportion? Do Irish-American women not write? Do they choose novenas over novellas, the confessional booth over the confessional poem, communion over communication? Or are they all so dreadful, so devoid of literary talent, that they are fittingly cloistered from critical mention? Hardly. In fiction we can claim, in the first rank, Kate (O'Flaherty) Chopin, Mary McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O'Connor. Close behind are Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon, Maeve Brennan and Kay Boyle, as well as Maureen Howard ( Bridgeport Bus), Bernice Kelly (Sweet Beulah Land), Maureen Daly (Seventeenth Summer), Kathleen Coyle (The Widow's House), Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (The Rebel Girl).

Among nonfiction writers, there's Nelly Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane), who exposed the terror of the insane on Rikker's Island and went around the world in under 80 days; more recently there's Korean war correspondent Maggie Higgins and Vietnam correspondent Frances Fitzgerald Fire in the lake). Among playwrights, there's Ruth MacKenney (My Sister Eileen) and Megan Duffy Terry (Viet Rock). There's also Mary Coyle Chase, who wrote Harvey - no surprise to find an Irish-American woman writing about invisible creatures. There's biographer Katherine O'Keefe O'Mahony, critic Helen Hennessy Vendler, essayists Mary Logan and Mary Maguire Colum, and children's writers Martha Finley, Ann Nolan Clark, and Elizabeth Yates.

How many writers does it take to make a tradition? Is this list not substantial enough, both in length and in eminences, to be called that? But no. By the definition of Irish-American literature, these authors can't fit. …

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