Burke, Mary. Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. ISBN 9780192859730. $36.95. 272pp.

Burke’s latest monograph, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History, is, in the author’s own words, a “cultural history of race and American representations of Irishness” (1). Yet such a description fails to capture the scope of this ambitious project, which is one of the field’s most important in recent years. As the subtitle suggests, the study is framed by Burke’s declaration that Ireland’s traumatic past replays within Irish American literature in a decidedly Gothic fashion. Within this frame, Burke seeks to expand our understanding of the term “Irish American” by analyzing it across generational and political divides, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as rereading well-known works within a lesser-known or ignored Irish context so as to “yield richer readings” (1), goals she indubitably achieves.

A major strength of this work is the new ground it covers by paying fastidious attention to historical and biographical acumen to add to, and in some cases revise, existing Irish American literary discourse while also offering a number of fresh insights. Working across primary texts from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, Burke introduces us to the subgenre “Scots-Irish Gothic” as a means of more accurately categorizing works in which “Irish trauma” recurs in texts that are “neither fully Anglo-Irish Gothic nor fully American Gothic,” creating fresh avenues for reading authors less commonly associated with their Irish and Gaelic heritage, such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner (5). Likewise, Burke also introduces the term “Gaelo-American,” which she applies to readings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner, to give due weight to the “political significance and Irish links of Scottish Gaelic/Highland ancestry” (3) that are lost when broad monikers – something Burke expresses aversion to throughout – such as “Scottish” are used. Burke’s rejection of generalization can equally be seen in her analysis of “racialized Irishness,” in which she interrogates the narrative of Irish American “whitening” through analysis of racial terms historically applied to the Irish in the Americas across different waves of emigration and geographical contexts, such as “Redleg,” “Scots/Scotch-Irish” (another term Burke contends is overly broad), and “black/Black Irish” (3). These examples are reflective of one of the monograph’s major achievements: expanding the notion of what can be considered “Irish-American,” which makes the text a harbinger of exciting new directions in Irish American research.

Burke’s work finds itself neatly situated in an area of Irish American scholarship where, in recent years, there appears to be a renewed sense of activity. Perhaps this comes as a result of the approach to and recent passing of the centenaries of the Easter Rising and establishment of the Irish Free State, and it is set to continue with, in particular, President Biden’s evocation of his Irish roots. Regardless, Burke’s work bridges gaps between and expands upon recent titles such as Dowd’s The Irish and the Origins of American Popular Culture (2018) and O’Leary Anish’s Irish American Fiction from World War II to JFK (2021). These works build upon a cluster of others concerned with Irish American literature and identity formation published during the early and mid-2010s, such as Dowd’s The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature (2011), Stubbs’s American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910–55 (2013), Sullivan’s The Shamrock and the Cross (2016), and Nugent Duffy’s Who’s Your Paddy? (2013). Burke’s impressively extensive use of secondary material engages with these texts alongside other prominent voices in the Irish American field, such as Kerby A. Miller, Charles Fanning, Kevin Kenny, Noel Ignatiev, and Sinéad Moynihan. With a spate of recent activity in Irish American Studies focused around some of the lesser-researched areas of Burke’s monograph – for example, reading Henry James and Frank Yerby as Irish American authors, and challenging singular interpretations of the Irish’s “whitening” into the American mainstream – an appetite for further work in these fields can readily be seen. Burke’s monograph can thus be viewed as a major facilitator for Irish American Studies’ move in this new direction.

The monograph comprises five chapters, as well as an introduction and epilogue. As outlined in the book’s opening pages, the study can be read, thematically, as organized around four key areas: diverse Irishness, racialized Irishness, Gothic Irishness, and unassimilated Irishness. In the monograph’s attempt to expand upon the predominantly Catholic, post-Famine associations of Irish America to encompass “a variety of ‘Irishnesses’ that evolved within racial categories in the Americas” (1), Burke endeavors to do justice to the numerous “micro identities” (2) within the Irish diaspora, distinguishing between authors of Scots/Scotch-Irish, Norman, mixed-race, Jacobite peer, and “Gaelo-American” descent by paying “granular” (3) attention to their roots. This allows for new readings of, for example, Fitzgerald as an author embarrassed by and preoccupied with effacing the Irish on both sides of his family in Chapter Three, and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as a text strongly influenced by the author’s “purported” (106) Scottish Gaelic roots in Chapter Four. In addition, Burke looks to reject the historical exclusion of certain writers from being read as Irish American – be it on the basis of race or Ulster Presbyterian origins – allowing for sustained analysis of Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946) as an Irish American text in Chapter Four and Henry James as a prominent member of the “closeted” (7) Irish in Chapter Two.

Addressing the racial history of the Irish in America, Burke scrutinizes the racializing and whitening of the Irish across different waves of emigration, as they sought to “leave ‘flawed’ whiteness behind of Irish cohorts” (1) in pursuit of a secure, “Saxon” model of whiteness championed by the likes of Emerson’s English Traits (1865). Using those racial terms applied to the Irish in the Americas as a starting point, Burke interrogates differing “Irish aspirations to whiteness” (2). A focal point for the analysis in this area is the “defective” (64) whiteness of the Irish as represented by Celtic skin’s propensity for burning, which serves as a marker of “racial ambiguity” (69) on the Caribbean islands of Eugene O’Neill’s early dramas, namely Thirst (1913) and Moon of the Caribbees (1918), and Fitzgerald’s French Riviera, as in Tender is the Night (1934). This theme also lends itself to analysis of the Irish-as-planter in works by Yerby, Faulkner, and Margaret Mitchell, alongside the idea of the Irish being deemed “off-white,” seen in Chapter Two on James and Chapter Five on the Kelly family.

Unsurprisingly, Burke’s fascination with the Gothic in an Irish American context is palpable throughout as a central tenet of her study. References to the monograph’s Gothic frame are woven throughout the  chapters, where Burke convincingly highlights that “[u]nfinished Irish past replays within American contexts of race, slavery, settler-colonialism, and ethnic hierarchies” (1). This notion is as evident in Chapter One’s analysis of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799) as it is in the epilogue on the “cultural afterlives” (5) of the Kennedy dynasty. Burke’s “Scots-Irish Gothic” subgenre provides a lens through which she is able to elucidate the prevalent recurrence of traumas specific to Ireland – in particular, those relating to the Great Famine and British colonialism – in so many prominent works. An idea revisited throughout Burke’s monograph is the spectral presence of President Andrew Jackson, whom Burke sees as an embodiment of Irish trauma being visited upon other marginalized groups in America, in Irish American narrative, his trace variously appearing in the works of Mitchell, James, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, and Faulkner. With this notion of “Scots-Irish Gothic” as a common thread linking each chapter, Burke duly affirms her claim that “[h]istory is undead in Irish-American narrative” (1).

Moreover, Burke’s expansion of what is dubbed “the standard Irish assimilation narrative” (5) – one typically built around the contributions of straight white male Irish American authors – to include performing and famous women and queer and multiracial authors is a welcome one. Not only does this allow for the aforementioned inclusion of the likes of James and Yerby, but it also leads Burke to using critical fashion and beauty lenses to analyze the work of George Kelly alongside the public life of his niece, Grace Kelly, in Chapter Five, as well as the epilogue’s appraisal of the political and public contributions of Jackie Kennedy. Burke advocates for further critical attention towards these figures, contending that they have been overlooked in terms of their activity during a period in which “beauty norms, celebrity, social ‘whiteness,’ and Irish status” (6) were evolving.

Overall, Race, Politics, and Irish America is an essential contribution to the canon of Irish American scholarship and an overdue work that offers compelling new insights into discourse that is at once literary, historical, and racial. Its ambitious, wide-ranging analysis is a welcome foundation for further research that will enchant the casual reader just as much as those researching in the Irish American field for years to come.

Jack Heeney

 

Works Cited

 Anish, Beth O’Leary. Irish American Fiction from World War II to JFK. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Dowd, Christopher. The Irish and the Origins of American Popular Culture. 1st ed., Routledge, 2018.

—. The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature. 1st ed., Routledge, 2010.

Duffy, Jennifer Nugent. Who’s Your Paddy?. NYU, 2013.

Stubbs, Tara. American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910–55. Manchester UP, 2013.

Sullivan, Eileen P. The Shamrock and the Cross. University of Notre Dame, 2016.

 

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