The Image Of Irish American In American Literature
The image of Irish-American in American Literature
In Engle’s (2001) opinion an image of an Irish immigrant in American literature appears to be a negative one. For instance, in the nineteenth-century when Irish mass immigration to the United States began, a motive of the uneducated, ill-mannered Irish worker became extremely popular in American culture and literature. Engle refers to the research conducted by a historian Dale Knobel, in which he examines approximately 1600 references to Irish-Americans from 1820 to 1860. As a result of his thorough study of press, popular fiction and government documents, an image of the “Paddy stereotype” has been formed. Yet, it needs to be pinpointed that it was overwhelmingly negative due to the fact that it stressed violent nature as well as lacking intellect.
Picture 1 Cartoons for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly featured cartoons by Thomas Nast and depicted Irish immigrants as ape-like barbarians prone to lawlessness, laziness and drunkenness. “St. Patrick’s Day, 1867…Rum, Blood, The Day We Celebrate” shows a riot with policemen and ape-like Irishmen (from www.victoriana.com/Irish/mail6.htm)
Additionally, the physical description of Irish-Americans attributed their perceived character flaws to imputed biological deficiencies. Engle (2001: 152) states:
Pseudosciences such as physiognomy and phrenology emphasized the “dark eyes, florid complexion, red hair, robust figure, and simianized face (prominent cheekbones, upturned nose, and projecting teeth)” of Irish Americans. Cartoons in influential magazines such as Harper’s illustrated Irish-Americans with extended jaws, dark faces, and beady eyes. Other print sources, including newspapers, school books, and government documents, referred to Irish-Americans as “Low-browed and savage, grovelling and bestial, lazy and wild, simian and sensual.” That writers singled out Irish-Americans as behaviorally and physically substandard is evident from the fact that the same sources describe another prominent immigrant group, German-Americans, in generally positive terms.
She further maintains that American literary writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, Reuben Weiser, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Horatio Alger depicted Irish immigrant workers as “slovenly, dirty, and good-for nothing”(Engle, 2001:152). Thus those negative images appear not only in different genres, for instance, in Weiser’s captivity narrative Regina, Cummins’s bestseller The Lamplighter, or Thoreau’s treatise Walden, but also among writers whose political leaning was contrastive like liberal Emerson, or conservative Warner. For instance, the protagonist in Maria Cummins’s 1854 novel The Lamplighter, “would sooner admit a wild beast into her family than an Irish girl”(Engle, 2001: 153). Next, Hawthorne and Emerson suggest that Irish-Americans are not equal to other Anglo-Americans, since in the 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne contrasts the character Priscilla, “the pale Western child,” with the “innumerable progeny” of the “big, red, Irish matrons”(Engle, 2001:153). Furthermore, Emerson in his essay English Traits written in 1856, presents Irishmen as “men deteriorated in size and shape, the nose sunk, the gums … exposed, with diminished brain and brutal form”(Engle, 2001:153). What is interesting, however, is the fact that even writers oppose to ethnic discrimination criticized the Irish. For example, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s 1872 novel Work, refused to work with Irish-American servants while she displayed positive attitude towards Black ones. Moreover, Mexican-American writer Maria Ruiz de Burton, in her novel Who Would Have Thought It? stressed the racism and provincialism of Irish-Americans, who are also inferior to Spanish-Americans. According to Knobel in Engle (2001), also other literary texts present Irish-Americans as physically and racially distinct. For instance, James Fenimore Cooper, in 1823, depicts Irish immigrants as “swarthy”, and, in 1846 George Lippard portrays an Irish Philadelphian as possessing “compressed brows” and a “look of savage ferocity” (Knobel in Engle, 2001:154). Additionally, Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 Life in the Iron Mills and Stephen Crane’s 1893 Maggie, A Girl of the Streets provided detailed description of degrading conditions of Irish workers’ lives comparing them to animals and devils. Engle argues:
Davis begins her story by describing a group of “drunken Irishmen,” suggesting that this particular ethnic group is even more debased than their working-class counterparts of other ethnicities. In the first few pages of his story, Crane likens Maggie to a “tigress” and her brother Jimmie to a “demon”; at several points in the story he compares Jimmie and his cohorts to dogs.(Engle, 2001: 155)
She further maintains:
The references to Irish-Americans as physically and racially distinct from other Euro-Americans “blacken” the Irish in nineteenth-century American literature and culture. All of these descriptors operate from the illogic that blames a group’s poverty on their imputed innate difference. According to this thinking, the Irish were poor, hence they must be racially different. In fact, they must be black—or at least not entirely white. The descriptions of Irish-Americans in both literature and popular culture resemble those of African Americans in the same period, suggesting that writers attempted to lump the two groups together. The stereotype of the slatternly servant, for example, applied both to Irish and African Americans. Euro-American writers described Irish-Americans as “sensual” and characterized African Americans similarly as “passionate”. Both stereotypes contrast sharply with that of the ideal sensitive or sentimental heroine, who controls both her temper and her sexual desires . . . Hence stereotypes of Irish-Americans were a milder version of those applied to African Americans at the same time. Indeed, racist comments circulated that explicitly stated a parallel between the two groups, such as the saying that the Irish were “niggers turned inside out'” (Engle, 2001: 155).
Engle states that this allowed for the blackening of the Irish in literature and popular culture. In such way, Euro-American writers attempted to erase the citizenship of Irish Americans who, according to Ignatiev in Engle (2001), constituted serious threat to the political order. What is more, those writers attempted to unify whiteness with the propertied class. Various historians believe that since writers began to associate low class status with blackness, it, in fact, had negative implications for African Americans. Engle (2001: 157) argues: “As part of a general effort to explain inequalities in power as racial difference, the blackening of the Irish supported the phalanx of racist theories to justify the subjugation and enslavement of African Americans.” Finally novels by Webb—The Garies and Their Friends, as well as Frances E. W. Harper—Trial and Triumph, attempt to provide a picture of class stratification in America and additionally, criticize idea of transforming it into racial difference. For instance, Webb portraits Black American characters in terms typically reserved for Euro-Americans. Former slave Winston is compared to “dark-complexioned gentleman” with “polished manner and irreproachable appearance”, or mulatto slave Emily is referred to as “Southern matron” (Engle, 2001: 157). While most of his African American characters belong to middle or upper class, the working-class characters—Irish are white. Engle (2001:160) maintains:
The central event of the novel is a riot of working-class, primarily Irish, whites against African American Philadelphia neighborhoods, a riot based on actual assaults in the 1830s and 1840s. Webb emphasizes that the riot, although white on black, is motivated more by class than by race . . . the African Americans offend the white mob not merely because of their skin color but also because of their enviable class position . . . Hence Webb depicts propertied African Americans who are culturally and morally superior to their white nemeses.
She further maintains that characters who pass for white such as Clarence Garie is the weakest character, while a very dark-skinned, wealthy and committed to African American community Mr. Walters is the most positive character. One of the most significant scenes that used Irish stereotype to present the mechanics by which American culture blackens lower-class whites was when Euro American Stevens went to Irish pub in order to discover what Irishmen are planning for the upcoming riots. After leaving the pub he meets another group of working-class Euro-Americans who recognize his clothing as one of the rival fire company. They attack him and paint his face with tar. After that he encounters a group of upper-class Euro-Americans who mistake him for African American. They use lime to make his face white. Engle (2001:161) provides such interpretation:
this scene uses the racially ambiguous Irish stereotype to expose the mechanics by which Webb first suggests that Stevens, a non-Irish, middle-class, Euro-American, is transformed not simply into an unspecified member of the working class but specifically into an Irish worker. Upon entering the mostly Irish bar at the beginning of the scene, he attracts no attention in his second-hand clothes. Furthermore, the rival fire company who then attacks Stevens assaults him as an Irishman . . . In the attack on Stevens, working-class firemen express their power over him by transforming a class similarity into a racial difference, painting the supposedly working-class Stevens black. This scene illustrates and even parodies the blackening of the Irish working class occurring throughout mid-nineteenth-century American literature and culture. Not only the tar but the beating itself transforms Stevens, inflating his lips “to a size that would have been regarded as large even on the face of a Congo negro.”
The scene when Stevens face was painted with lime proved that racial identities appear to be blurred and moreover, white complexion fails to guarantee being respected as a citizen. In other words, Irish-Americans who possess white skin but low class status may be easily blackened and as a result, denied political representation. Another novel abundant in Irish images is Trial and Trumph by E.W. Harper. Similarly to the work of Webb, it presents various fortunes of Irish-Americans and African Americans in the South, which one of the characters claims is a “black Ireland”. The reason for that was the fact that political and economic situation was similar for both regions. As O’Grady in Engle (2001) explains the majority of the Irish suffered from repressive agricultural working conditions. They were forced to pay high rent, cultivate the land that they did not own and additionally, could be easily evicted from. African Americans also experienced such disadvantageous conditions. Engle maintains “She [Harpen] reminds readers that both blacks and whites can experience class oppression and thus that one cannot blame the poverty of a particular group on their race” (Engle, 2001:163). Yet, by using similar class position of African and Irish Americans, she offers hope to the formers struggling for mobility in American society. She also remarks that Irish are inverted African Americans, as the protagonist Anette states: “Grandmother says that an Irishman is only a negro turned wrong side out” (Engle, 2001: 165). In this way, she argues that both ethnic groups resemble each other, however, strictly in relation to class, not race. Finally, Pauline Hopkins also used the images of Irish and African Americans. In her novel Contending Forces from 1900, she compares the class status of Irish-Americans and African Americans arguing that Irish American people are not appreciated at the North similarly to the Blacks at the South; yet, the Irish used politics to gain power. In this way, she encourages African Americans to follow the Irish in order to improve their position in society.