In my upcoming thesis, I will be examining the works of three American authors, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, and J.D. Salinger, to examine their understanding and portrayal of the way Catholicism affected a rapidly changing post-war Irish diaspora. Under a working title of “The Irish-Catholic as Other in Post-War American Literature” I want to examine the ways Irish Catholics of the mid 20th century were hindered, or helped, in assimilating into the white middle class. Conversely, I want to examine the role of Catholicism and ethnic identity in working class Irish Americans seemingly left behind by the rapidly increasing economic affluence of the period. I am using three different authors spanning a wide array of literary backgrounds because I felt like it would be more reflective of the broader American society. However, all three writers, two white males and one white female, nonetheless represent a diverse representation of ethno-religuous backgrounds, at a time that many different ethnic white and religious minorities were becoming part of the wider white middle class. I wanted to explore this area of American literature because as a kid from New York with Irish American parents who moved to Richmond, Virginia when I was young, I was very aware of how alienated I felt being one of the only Irish Catholics at my school. I think that this gave me an early sense of what Adrian Frazier calls an “ethnic identity” (Hollywood, 19). I believe that this gave me a greater awareness of white ethnic and religious identity in reading American literature. I want to use this to make sense out of the rapidly vanishing senses of identity of the post-war period, and in what ways this identity remained unassimilated. How, several generations since Post-War commentators wrote of the ‘vanishing Irish’, is there still a, “broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness” (Negra 280).
In doing research for my essay in the film module last year, I compared Caddyshack and The Quiet Man‘s depictions of the Irish American diaspora. Significantly, I looked at how The Quiet Man was portraying Sean Thornton, an Irish American nostalgically returning to Ireland at a time of unheard-of economic growth and prosperity in America, whereas Danny Noonan of Caddyshack seems unable to escape his Irishness during the economically turbulent late 1970s. Focusing on the role of class determining a sense of ethnic identity in America will be very important for me to establish early on and throughout my thesis. I’ve come across good examples of this in Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s book The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America. Though by the 1950s, the ‘vanishing Irish’ were largely moving from what McCaffrey terms ‘ghettos to suburbs’ it is important to note that not all were. He points out that from the 1950s to the 1970s, “Not all Irish-American Catholics have experienced significant economic, social, or residential mobility” (187). McCaffrey goes on to write about how this frustration and insecurity played out in resistance to racial integration of schools and support for the IRA during the Troubles. Kerouac, O’Connor, and Salinger all write about elements on the fringe of society, from the drug addicts and bums populating the works of Kerouac, to the hairy bellied pimp in Catcher in the Rye, to the Misfit of O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. This leaves me with several questions I hope to find through sources such as JSTOR or secondary texts. First, were these characters on the fringes of society perhaps reflective of those ethnic whites finding their way into the works of these writers, either explicitly, or through coded language? Were the Irish Americans being left behind coded as more Irish or Catholic because of this? And how does this compare to the affluence of Irish Americans banding together at wealthy prep schools as in Catcher in the Rye? Was this just some relic of a former time, or does it truly represent a continuing sense of Otherness among Irish Americans because of their Catholicism into the Post-War period?
All of these are questions that I will attempt to address throughout my thesis, and JSTOR has many titles I believe will prove useful. Salinger’s Jewish identity for example has many parallels with an Irish Catholic identity of the period. In Post War America, both were in a state of crisis, rapidly being assimilated into secular white society, and considering the vast improvements in quality of life and economic prosperity that they often accompanied, this was often not seen as any type of ‘crisis’ by individuals within these communities. In an essay dating from 1966, Professor Allan C. Brownfield writes of the ‘vanishing Jew’ in much the same way many commentators referred to the ‘vanishing Irish. Notably, he repeatedly divides America into 3 cultural camps, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant. And like many newly affluent Irish Americans who began to identify less as Irish or Catholic, and more as white, he writes that:
The battle-cry has been lost on deaf ears within the Jewish community. Rather than worrying about what rabbis term an alarming rate of inter-marriage, and a lack of concern about Jewish identity, most American Jews are happy in the feeling that they have never had it so good (18).
In examining Leslie Fiedler’s seminal 1964 essay, “Jewish-Americans Go Home”, Leah Garret points out that Salinger was one of many writers of the era who:
reinvented Jewish protagonists as non- Jews, or gave them “goyish” qualities in order to represent a “universal” form of American alienation. The writings of this generation, according to Fiedler, are negatively “marked by the abandonment of the Jewish character as a sufficient embodiment of the Jewish author’s aspirations and values, and by the invention, beside him or in his place, of characters who are not merely non- Jewish, but are, in fact, hyper-goyim, super-Gentiles of truly mythic proportions: specifically, sexual heroes of incredible potency (171)
I think that perhaps this is reflected in Holden Caulfield feeling alienated by the constant sectarian tribalism of the other boys at his prep school. Salinger came from a much more economically affluent background than either O’Connor or Kerouac, and perhaps this played a role in his alienation from the same sort of religiously institutionalized tribalism relied on by working class ethnic whites experiencing class mobility before and after the Post War period.
I have not found many books or essays on the role of Flannery O’Connor’s Irish ethnic identity, or lack thereof. However, I am confident that I can discover many resources using JSTOR or biographical works in Boole, as I only decided to write about her last, after coming across so much information about her in studying the role of Catholicism in Americann literature. Though she is the only of the three authors who was Irish American, she didn’t leave a large ethnic footprint, but her mark on the analysis of Catholicism in American literature is massive. In Ross Labrie’s book, The Catholic Imagination in American Literature, an entire chapter is dedicated to the ways in which O’Connor wrote about Catholicism informing the imagination of a writer. I had originally come across this in the hopes of using it for my essay in the Gothic to Modernism module, though ultimately I did not. For generations in America, constructions of Irish ethnic pride and camaraderie went hand in hand with the institutions of the Catholic Church, most heavily focused in the American Northeast and Midwest. In almost any essay or book’s introduction I have come across of her, O’Connor’s Catholicism is typically mentioned early on, and is usually only a sentence or so away from mentioning that she is also know as a Southern writer from the largely Protestant South. I’d like to explore if the detachment from Irish ethnic identity also reflects a life of appreciating Catholicism on theological, rather than social grounds.
While Salinger and O’Connor may have seemed alienated from the institutionalized sense of ethnic community fostered by the Catholic Church, trying to transcend or escape their ethnic identities, Kerouac was turning into it, all chips in and guns blazing. Having been a fan of Kerouac’s for years, I’d been familiar with his affinity for Catholic spirituality and his Mel Gibson styled, masochistic Catholic approach to earthly suffering. My first awareness of any sort of Irish connection he may have had I actually discovered on accident when searching in JSTOR for articles about the supposedly Catholic origins of the term ‘Beatnik’. “To be an Irishman Too: Jack Keouac’s Irish Connection” by Michael S. Begnal examined Kerouac’s affinity for Ireland as being linked to his own French American identity. Perhaps a perfect illustration of this is the huge Joycean influence on his work, or the encounter he had with Brendan Behan in the early 1960s. Subsequently, I came across an essay by Nancy McCampbell Grace entitled “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, “The Subterraneans, and Tristessa”. What was interesting about this essay was the inclusion of Maggie Cassidy as a working class Irish-American in an intersectional analysis of race, class and ethnicity in the works of Jack Kerouac. The romantic longing for the vanishing ethnic identity of white Catholics in communities such as Irish Americans seems perfectly encapsulated in the essay. As McCampbell Grace writes, Maggie Cassidy demonstrates that, “whiteness becomes a class charade; race is nothing more than class in fancy dress” (50).
There is no shortage of research on the role of Catholicism in the works of Kerouac or O’Connor, or the role of Judaism in the works of Salinger. There is no shortage of research in the widespread entry into the white middle class of Irish Americans in Post-War America. But I have not been able to find much research comparing the role Catholicism played in this process. Were the centuries-old prejudices against Catholicism overcome and forgotten about as so many Irish immigrants entered into the middle class in Post War years? Considering that Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power was a bestseller in America for 1949-1950, selling over 240,000 copies in its first edition (World Heritage Encyclopedia) I find this hard to believe. I don’t have the answers yet, but I hope to use all of the resources available to me in Boole, texts, peer reviewed articles on JSTOR, the City Library, and any other means possible to document the extent that Catholicism played in portraying Irish identity through the works of these three authors.
Begnal, Michael S. “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”. Studies:An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter, 2003), pp. 371-377)
Brownfield, Allan C. “The Vanishing Jew. The North American Review, Vol. 251, No. 3 (May, 1966), pp. 18-20.
Frazier, Adrian. Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood. The Lilliput Press, 2011.
Grace, Nancy McCampbell. “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, “The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.” College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, Teaching Beat Literature (Winter, 2000), pp. 39- 62
Garret, Leah. “Just One of the Goys: Salinger’s, Miller’s, and Malamud’s Hidden Jewish Heroes.” AJS Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (NOVEMBER 2010), pp. 171-194
Labrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. University of Missouri Press, 1997.
McCaffrey, Lawrence J. The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America. The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.
Negra, Diane. “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.” Barton, Ruth, pp. 279-295.
Taylor, C.J. The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element that Won’t Mix. Michigan State University Museum, Appel Collection. http://hppr.org/post/immigration-stories-caricatures-and-stereotypes-stauth-museum. Accessed 30 March 2017.
Quotefancy, Jack Kerouac. https://quotefancy.com/quote/947292/Jack-Kerouac-I-m-Catholic-and-I-can-t-commit-suicide-but-I-plan-to-drink-myself-to-death. Accessed 28 March 2017.
World Heritage Encylcopedia. American Freedom And Catholic Power, http://www.gutenberg.us/articles/eng/American_Freedom_and_Catholic_Power#cite_note-9. Accessed 30 March 2017.