Charles Fanning has reclaimed the work of forgotten Irish-American writers--and the experiences of their immigrant communities--for posterity
From this rough beginning came countless success stories and one of this nation's great ethnic heritages. (More than 40 million Americans today claim some Irish ancestry.) From it also came a distinctive literary voice that tells us a great deal about our shared history.
It's thanks to Fanning--widely seen by literature and history scholars as the dean of Irish-American studies--that so much is known about this voice. Until he began his research, in the early 1970s, most Irish-American writing prior to 1900 had been forgotten, overlooked on library shelves and hidden away in dusty newspaper and periodical archives.
Focusing mostly on fiction, Fanning has excavated this literature and reintroduced it to the world. Three of his books have won national awards, and this year SIUC has recognized his achievement with the Outstanding Scholar award.
Fanning, who is half Irish, grew up in the "very Irish" small town of Norwood, Mass., now a suburb of Boston. (He remembers, as a child, hearing Irish spoken on the streets by immigrants from Galway, though he never learned the language himself.) He went to Harvard for his bachelor's degree and a master of arts in teaching, then earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on literature, history, and art.
For his dissertation he wanted to treat an Irish-American topic, in part to learn more about his own heritage. "I've always been interested in how literature helps us clarify history, and vice versa," he says. He found an ideal subject in a Chicago bar.
Mr. Dooley, a fictional Irish-American bartender with humorous opinions on politics and life, was the creation of Irish-American journalist Finley Peter Dunne. In the late 1890s Dunne gained national fame with his syndicated newspaper columns written in Dooley's persona. But Dunne's pre-syndication columns, published in the Chicago Evening Post, were the ones that intrigued Fanning.
In these earlier, grittier columns, full of social commentary and political satire, Mr. Dooley told the stories of his Irish neighbors on Chicago's near South Side. Fanning's digging uncovered 300 of these pieces that had never been collected. Together, he says, they give "as full a picture as you're ever going to get of what it was like to be a working-class Irish immigrant in an American city in the 19th century."
The columns became the focus of his doctoral dissertation and, in 1978, of his first book. Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years netted Fanning the 1979 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. In 1987, he grouped many of the columns by theme and republished them with commentary as Mr. Dooley and the Chicago Irish: The Autobiography of a Nineteenth-Century Ethnic Group.
"Dunne is the first Irish-American voice of genius," says Fanning. "He thinks enough of these people--factory workers, laborers--to dignify their lives and to turn them into real literature. And he does it in an Irish brogue."
When other 19th-century writers wrote dialogue in brogue, it was to mock the Irish. Dunne turns that notion on its head, Fanning explains: "He does for the Irish-American voice what Mark Twain does when he lets Huck Finn tell his own story [in his own dialect]: he legitimizes it. The best of Dunne's pieces are really eloquent and beautiful."
In the 1980s, Fanning broadened the scope of his research to the entirety of Irish-American literature in the 19th century. Searching out other lost and neglected writers, he combed the card catalogs and shelves of the nation's best archives, including Harvard's Widener Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Newberry Library in Chicago.
To fund his work, he won fellowships and grants from a veritable "Who's Who" of agencies and organizations that support humanities research: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Antiquarian Society, and others.
Fanning's discoveries illustrate the profound interconnectedness of history, culture, and literature. Before the 1840s, Irish immigrants came to America by choice. Although they faced prejudice, they were well educated and well adjusted to life in the States.
"That early stage of writing has lots of satire and parody," says Fanning. "The early generations of immigrants were confident enough to laugh at themselves, at the view that other Americans held of them, and at America."
But this sophisticated comic fiction did not last. As Fanning writes, "All such laughter stopped" with the Great Hunger--the years of famine in Ireland resulting from the potato blights of 1845-1848. More than a million people died; some million and a half emigrated to the United States between 1845 and 1855. These "involuntary" rural immigrants came to America's cities to escape starvation, only to suffer widespread poverty and disease.
Earlier Irish-Americans had written for the general public, but "Famine Generation" writers wrote for other immigrants. They produced "rags-to-riches" stories; romantic novels thick with nostalgia for the home country; and, above all, moralizing books showing readers how to get along in America and warning them not to be tempted away from Catholicism.
Most of this fiction had unlikely plots and sentimentalized characters, but it was realistic in one respect: setting. "This literature tells you what the inside of a tenement flat looked like and how people lived day to day," says Fanning. "Even in the didactic stuff you get a vivid depiction of daily life and working conditions. You also get plenty of illustrations of anti-Catholic prejudice" faced by Irish-Americans. Literature, he says, makes these things "concrete--not just a set of statistics."
Fanning collected many of the shorter pieces he "reclaimed" in The Exiles of Erin: Nineteenth-Century Irish-American Fiction (1987), which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for outstanding contribution to American literature.
As the 1800s came to a close, writers treating Irish-American themes, like Dunne, began to publish realistic fiction once again geared to general readers. But the Irish-American voice fell silent in the early 1900s, Fanning discovered.
Thanks to anti-immigrant sentiment and the turmoil of World War I (which put anti-British Irish nationalists in America in an awkward political position), not many writers wanted to call attention to their ethnicity. After legislation in the early 1920s that restricted immigration, there were few Irish newcomers. And as the Irish-American middle class grew, it focused on assimilation.
Fanning calls this a period of "cultural amnesia." The next great writer to treat Irish-American themes, James T. Farrell, essentially had to reinvent Irish-American literature from scratch in the 1930s, he says.
Farrell began his career with the Studs Lonigan trilogy, his most famous novels, and followed up with dozens of other books, all centered in a mostly Irish working- and middle-class enclave on Chicago's South Side in the first half of the 20th century. "Farrell does for the South Side of Chicago what William Faulkner does for that little county in Mississippi and what [James] Joyce does for Dublin," says Fanning. "He makes it universal."
Fanning collected some of Farrell's shorter pieces in Chicago Stories of James T. Farrell and is organizing a celebration of his work at the Newberry Library this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth. Since Studs Lonigan, he says, Irish-American fiction has blossomed, and it still centers on urban life. Two of Fanning's favorite contemporary writers are William Kennedy, whose best-known novel, Ironweed, is one of a cycle of Irish-themed novels set in Albany, N.Y., and Alice McDermott, whose novel Charming Billy, set in New York City, won the National Book Award in 1998.
The common thread in 20th-century Irish-American literature, he says, is "the idea of community fostered by a specific place. Irish-American writers have [their universe] in the city neighborhood--it's enough of a canvas for them to do their work."
Fanning's own masterwork is The Irish Voice in America, which covers the entire scope of Irish-American fiction. Published in 1990, with an expanded second edition in 1999, this book was lauded by all the historians and literary critics who supported Fanning's nomination for the Outstanding Scholar award. The American Conference for Irish Studies honored it in 1991 with its Prize for Literary Criticism, and historian Lawrence McCaffrey says it established Fanning as "the leading Irish-American studies scholar."
Fanning came to SIUC in 1993 to build an interdisciplinary program in Irish and Irish immigration studies drawing on strengths in several departments and on the top-notch Irish literature holdings at Morris Library's Special Collections. With the help of a $240,000 grant he received in 1995 from the U.S. Department of Education, the new program has hosted international conferences, developed new courses and online resources, and funded faculty and student exchanges with the National University of Ireland, Galway. Sixty students, 30 from each campus, have participated to date.
Fanning, who has written, co-written, or edited some dozen books, has two more irons in the fire right now. One is a wide-ranging memoir about his own upbringing and ancestors, which he is enjoying greatly.
"It's very freeing," he says of this type of writing, which will look at history through the prism of his family and home town.
He's also writing and gathering illustrations for a book on Irish-American culture during the Great Depression. "I'm discovering that there was a tremendous flowering of Irish-American art in the 1930s," he says. "I'm looking at writers, artists, radio-comedy people, comic-strip creators. It's kind of a renaissance, and no one has really put it all together."
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Irish music and dance. Now the work done by Fanning and the students following his lead is opening other new avenues to explore the vibrant Irish-American past.
--by Marilyn Davis
For more information, contact Dr. Charles Fanning, Dept. of English, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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