“Why Don’t You Write About America?”
Frank O’Connor’s Representations of Relations between Ireland and America

Victoria Kennefick

I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said: but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. (Frank O’Connor, 1952) [1]

Studies concerning Cork-born short story writer, Frank O’Connor, are experiencing somewhat of a belated revival. Appropriately, University College Cork is leading this renaissance by recently appointing Hilary Lennon, editor and contributor to Frank O’Connor: Critical Essays (2007) as the first Frank O’Connor Post-Doctoral Fellow at University College Cork. In addition, the Boole Library’s Frank O’Connor Web Pages were inaugurated on May 22, 2007 [2], and the Frank O’Connor Holdings at the Boole Library have been re-housed in Special Collections, and are newly searchable on the Library’s online catalogue. As a result of renewed international interest in O’Connor, Richard Ford gave the Inaugural Frank O’Connor Lecture at UCC in November 2007 and the Society for the Study of the Short Story held their biennial conference in UCC in June 2008, which shared its title and its focus with one of O’Connor’s most famous critical works on the short story, The Lonely Voice (1962). [3]

Though UCC is fast emerging as an international centre for Frank O’Connor studies, however, with the exception of Hilary Lennon and Michael Steinman’s contributions scholarship on Frank O’Connor has been largely inadequate. Steinman is the author and editor of a number of books relating to O’Connor, including Frank O’Connor at Work (1994), A Frank O’Connor Reader (1994) and The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell, 1945-1966 (1996). While Hilary Lennon’s volume investigates unexplored areas of Frank O’Connor’s work, his accomplishments as a translator of poetry in the Irish language, his position in discussions regarding Irish literary modernism, his reception in America, his associations with contemporary writers and intellectuals, his autobiographical writings, his fictional depictions of the Irish Civil War, and Denis Johnston’s film adaptation of Guests of the Nation (1935), it is undeniably clear that Frank O’Connor studies, more generally, are much underdeveloped and require a considerable innovatory impetus.

It is my intention then, in this article, to identify and develop an alternative analysis of O’Connor’s work – his literary relationship with America. In this re-reading of Frank O’Connor, in a discussion of the short story as a form of transatlantic discourse, I intend to expose his short fiction to new methods of investigation. Indeed, this article is an attempt to tackle a question Frank O’Connor endeavoured to answer himself, “Why don’t you write about America?” O’Connor was regularly interrogated regarding this topic during various visits to the United States and was hard-pressed to answer it. In fact, he admits to becoming “haunted” by it (A Frank O’Connor Reader 318). As he strives to understand his own processes, therefore, he suggests that “[o]nly language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America […] as it is for Ireland .” [4] I argue that this approach immediately creates a space for O’Connor to, in fact, write about America, by relating it particularly to Ireland and vice versa.

Indeed much of O’Connor’s fiction was based on actual, real life stories told him by American friends, about American people, but that he transposed to Ireland. Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, Frank O’Connor’s widow, gives examples of this. “Man of the World” was based on a story about two girls who were friends of an American cousin of hers and praised by William Maxwell as “one of the most moving and beautiful stories of modern times,” while “Impossible Marriage” was a tale O’Donovan Sheehy’s American mother once told O’Connor. One of the reasons she believes O’Connor didn’t “write about America,” which she insightfully suggests means rather why he did not write specifically about American characters, was because “he could not hear their voices in his head.” [5] Frank O’Connor’s own thoughts on the matter bear this out. In “Interior Voices” Frank O’Connor says: “My memory is still the same, empty of physical details…but extremely tenacious of voices. Most of these I can’t really identify, which may be as well, because when a voice starts talking in my head I can make it say almost anything I please….”

In 1961, O’Connor wrote an essay entitled “Why Don’t You Write About America?” which addresses the issue of these voices from the perspective of inspiration and authenticity. He begins by attempting to justify why he has not written about his adopted country, making the very humorous comparison between Americans, whom he says “welcome people’s writing of them” and the Irish, who conversely, proclaim “What does that one know about it?”(A Frank O’Connor Reader 318). The act of “knowing” is evidently very important to the Irish as O’Connor identifies them. To “not know” a place or person, or worse still let on that you “don’t know” same would have devastating social consequences in small town Ireland. This, I think O’Connor is suggesting, could denote a certain suspicion for all things “foreign” along with an element of insecurity, perhaps something that American visitors access unwittingly by their very presence. However, O’Connor goes on to say that knowledge is not necessarily a prerequisite for writing a story or novel “I too have said that I didn’t know enough about America, but the answer satisfied nobody. Lots of American writers know less. Look at the sorts of novels they write!”(318)

Salman Rushdie negotiates this same paradigm in these terms:

[s]ometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in the part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with angles (Imaginary Homelands 15).

O’Connor too grapples with these “angles” in both his short stories and genre-specific critical work, exploring and expanding differing levels of exile – from being a rebel in his conflicted native land (itself struggling for identity during the Irish Civil War), an immigrant outsider in the United States and then a “returned Yank” later in Ireland. These crossings and re-crossings, I will argue, do provide O’Connor with a unique perspective on the Irish-American experience and indeed have a significant impact on his development as a short story writer. As Shailja Sharma outlines, migration refers not only to “the displacements of people in history but to a state of displacement that befalls humankind in general,” (1) and similarly in his essay on Günter Grass, Rushdie proclaims, “we all cross frontiers; in that sense, we are all migrant peoples” (279). This is also keenly and personally felt by O’Connor when he examines America both from across the Atlantic in Ireland and from the classrooms of Harvard; participation in the First World War had made Americans conscious for the first time since the Civil War that they were isolated, unique and complacent; and the dissatisfaction it roused in them turned them into a generation of displaced persons at home neither in America nor on the Continent (LV 20).

It is very significant that O’Connor unusually refers to Americans here as “displaced persons” – this allows O’Connor access to a history of displacement in America, particularly in an Irish context, and the freedom to explore his own feelings of displacement among those who feel remarkably similar. Yet, one of the major reasons O’Connor gives for not composing a story unequivocally relating to America concerns the nature of his inspiration. There is, he says, always the “defense of language,” that can be used when one finds oneself on trial for not composing a truly American story. He claims that while he has a very weak visual imagination and “difficulty in keeping [his] characters within a consistent scenic background,” he has instead a “strong auditory imagination” (Reader 318) and it is primarily this dynamic which is of pivotal importance when analysing, as this article attempts to, O’Connor’s and, in turn, Ireland’s America.

O’Connor’s “strong auditory imagination” is perhaps his greatest strength as a writer and indeed orator of his own work. To hear a recording of O’Connor reading a story is to hear all the characters emerge, real and full-bodied, from their creator. Indeed, O’Connor’s voice is much commented on in a variety of texts among them an article by Eric Solomon, “Frank O’Connor as Teacher.” Solomon, who was a student of Frank O’Connor’s at Harvard University, comments that “when he commenced to speak in his rich brogue, the music started, and he was downright mesmerizing” (239). He refers to the entire experience as “Frank O’Connor’s classroom concert” and O’Connor’s voice as “seductive” (241). This not only proves that O’Connor was a very gifted and inspirational teacher, but also that his “voice,” both literary and physical, was among his most powerful, immediate and memorable qualities. In his Foreword to The Lonely Voice, Thomas McCarthy describes the “very personal voice, oracular, Byronic, passionate” (xi).

When it comes to interpreting the reasons why he neglected to write about his American experience directly, his “voice” is, by his own admission, undoubtedly a factor. “My casual recollection of how Americans speak – stage Yankee mixed up with Virginia – fills even myself with gloom.”(Reader 318). It would seem then that it is his inability to recreate an authentic, real and human American accent that inhibits him from writing in that particular “voice.” O’Donovan Sheehy notes that even when he tried to read an American story in what we would consider an American accent it was so inauthentic that it embarrassed him. Indeed, anything he would attempt, on this level, he fears, would be “stage” (Reader 318). O’Connor then was highly sensitive to inauthentic or insincere attempts at recreating reality. It is significant to note at this juncture, that O’Connor gave his attention to a great deal of radio work which included talks, dramatic productions, and broadcasts of his short stories, as Lennon notes in her Introduction to Frank O’Connor: Critical Essays. In 1937, O’Connor gave his first broadcast on Radio Éireann and in 1962, O’Connor read and commented on his stories, basing the content on The Lonely Voice – “Interior Voices” was one of Irish Television’s first programmes.

This aptitude for voices, for recreating accents and dialogue, lends itself well to O’Connor’s transatlantic dimension. Using the voice in this way, externalising the interior, allows O’Connor to break down time and space allowing his words to travel, invisibly, over the airwaves. Just as crossing the Atlantic Ocean physically permits O’Connor to mutate and immerse himself “elsewhere,” the radio provides a flexible locus for his restlessness, transcending boundaries of place, and like America itself, providing him with a vantage point to explore ideas of the self and homeland. By being national, in one sense, and also transnational in that he and his work are open and inclusive, O’Connor succeeds in engaging with inveterate plurality and unifies both aspects in his own Irish voice – thus by being himself, and being human, he is thusly a transnational figure. Indeed, his own views on the short story genre echo this, “the short story remains by its very nature remote from community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent” (Lonely Voice 6) so the short story is the ideal means for O’Connor to expand on concepts and experiences of exile – internal or external, American or Irish as the genre itself is one of in-betweenness.

For O’Connor however, travel both aggravates and illuminates this paradigm. Later in his essay, he continues to maintain that in answering the question “Why don’t you write about America?” the best form of defense is attack. “Why do you want me to write about America?” stops the questioner dead” (Reader 319) he says. It is at this point in the piece that O’Connor genuinely aims to engage with the enquiry. He says “to neither of us [questioner and questioned] is the subject of literature merely a country, merely a different set of facts, words and manners” rather it is much more than this as it concerns the experiences of exceptional, talented people. Their journey, according to O’Connor, “consists of two ordeals, ordeal by family and ordeal by community” (Reader 319)

For O’Connor then, the impetus to create, or to be created as exceptional, comes from ones own family first and then the wider community. It is the ordeals one faces when dealing with these matters; when experiencing the duality of craving to belong, while at the same time desiring to be emancipated from this state that ultimately creates the exceptional person. Thus, it is from these binary experiences that it is possible for art to emerge. “The dream of an artist’s homeland” O’Connor goes on to suggest, does not, in all actuality, exist and “parents are not the ogres they seemed to be” (Reader 320), it is instead the possibility of these situations, or the imagined reality, that makes them relevant to the exceptional person’s development. The revolt against family and community he says “was innocent and funny, but it had a tragic side…it was not only the artist who suffered from the pettiness of the community, but the exceptional person generally” (Reader 320).

Exceptional people then begin to congregate in the “Metropolis,” a general term O’Connor uses to denote all big cities. Here, in these sanctuaries they make “artists’ colonies” and thus endeavour to detach themselves from the world while most “real writers lived in little villages” (Reader 320). America however offers something more for O’Connor’s exceptional people, a possibility of a real “refuge.” He says “America alone still has a refuge for its talented young people where they can live cheaply, dress informally, and discuss the universe late in to the night. Europe has no such refuges” (Reader 321). Therefore, it is not necessarily just America itself that represents sanctuary for O’Connor, but the space and freedom it symbolises for artistic refugees, the Irish among them. It is probable that Frank O’Connor is writing particularly of American universities, specifically Harvard, as this is where he finds, in part, his own intellectual “colony.” In his Introduction to The Lonely Voice O’Connor outlines the reasons for the superiority of the American short story – that they host “submerged populations” (LV 4) which are, for O’Connor, integral components of a successful short story,

…America is largely populated by submerged population groups. That peculiar sweetness toward the stranger – which exists side by side with American brutality toward everyone – is the sweetness of people whose own ancestors have been astray in an unfamiliar society and understand that a familiar society is the exception rather than the rule… (21).

Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy has suggested that “Why Don’t You Write About America?” is uncharacteristically disparate in theme and unity when compared to O’Connor’s other work. O’Connor was, Michael Steinman proposes, writing about a topic that was not terribly appealing to him and as a result “goes off into gentle theorising with his own experiences as basis.” [6] It could be argued then that O’Connor was explaining why he did not write about America, while experiencing the same difficulties writing the justification for this, as he would composing an American story in the first place. A bind indeed! “Why don’t you write about why you don’t write about not writing about America?” could equally suffice!

The world of American academia then – this exceptional person’s colony and O’Connor’s refuge – permitted the author to explore and investigate the Irish condition from a relatively objective, or certainly removed perspective. In Ireland it seemed he was never allowed to be truly himself but America offered him a certain sense of liberation. This unambiguous joy at being unknown (and we return to the Irish issue of “knowing”) is obvious from the introductory remarks he made to Eric Solomon’s class, “I’m three words starting with the letter A that no Irishman admits to: I’m anonymous – my name is Michael O’Donovan, not Frank O’Connor – I’m agnostic, and I’m an adulterer” (240). For me, the most interesting element of this rather inspired opening is that O’Connor says that he is “not” O’Connor. He begins using his real name.

As Lennon outlines, O’Connor began using a pseudonym, compiled of his own middle name and his mother’s maiden name early on in his writing career; his pseudonym was adopted shortly after the storm of controversy that took place over the publication of Lennox Robinson’s short story in To-Morrow, ‘The Madonna of Slieve Dun’ (August 1924). Robinson was accused of blasphemy and he was forced to resign his position as secretary and treasurer of the Advisory Committee to the Carnegie Trust in Ireland. O’Connor later claimed that as a trainee public librarian he was worried that his own job might also be at risk because of his writing. So Americans, by providing this colony, have the opportunity to see their country from a different perspective, through the eyes of the exceptional person, but also Irish people have the occasion to view their homeland from another, removed vantage point. They have perhaps, the opportunity to really be Irish.

In Virtual Americas, while Paul Giles examines the intersection between Great Britain and the United States, the possibilities offered by the Irish-American connection are equally as compelling, complex and fruitful. Indeed, Giles’ process of virtualization is helpful in this context, because, as Giles outlines,

By examining the cultural narratives of the United States from this position of reflection and estrangement, a position through which American fictions are brought into juxtaposition with those of other countries, it becomes easier to appreciate the assumptions framing these narratives and the ways they are intertwine with the construction and reproduction of national mythologies (2).

So short stories for O’Connor are symptomatic of a certain kind of national identity, or indeed they are beyond this identity, seeing as they are representative of what O’Connor calls “the submerged population” (LV 4). Using Giles’ theoretical framework and the investigation of the interaction between O’Connor’s writing and his American experience allows for the mapping of his short stories onto a kind of national web, both Irish and American, along with the transnational interferences and reversals that spring from such theoretical superimpositions (Virtual Americas 2). This allows for not only the radical re-thinking of the short story as a true means of transatlantic and transnational exchange and engagement but also permits the globalization of American Studies and the displacement of the purely American perspective. This re-interpretation of Giles’ virtualization and its application in a genre-specific context facilitates a movement away from American myths of uniqueness and, as a result, makes possible an investigation of the interchange across borders and ethnicities, exploring the spaces of in-betweenness experienced by these “submerged populations.”

This experience of displacement, this interpretation of “submerged population groups” and subsequent discussion of exile is a very personal one for Frank O’Connor, and one which is very much based in the realm of the intellectual. In his introduction to “A Walk in New York,” Steinman comments:

…this 1958 essay begins with observations and reminiscences…– an Irish man viewing America so that Americans may newly see it… It is not the expected polemic against “ugly Americans”; it is fascinated and rueful, perhaps still more valid than not” (350)

One of the most interesting facets of this essay is that O’Connor says that he “feels [himself] at home” in parts of New York and particularly when looking upon St. Paul’s Church on Broadway. He even goes as far as to call it “church of exiled Irish” and marvels at the fact that it “is full of soil that belongs to Ireland” (351). It is the “Church of” the Irish and the soil “belongs to” Ireland, because great Irish men are buried there but also ostensibly because, for O’Connor, this is not America at all, but rather a part of America that has been claimed by the Irish – a very distant Parish, a far-flung town land. This, I argue, is why O’Connor says that the “church feels like home to me” (352), home it is, for it represents the crossing, the emigration, the reunion and the settling for the majority of Irish exiles. It symbolises Ireland’s spiritual home, and as a consequence, O’Connor’s home too.

In his essay “Ireland” O’Connor says of his native land,

If you could see Ireland from a height at which airplanes don’t fly and people don’t see, you would notice a shape rather like that of a fat baby sitting with its back to England and its arms outstretched in an attitude of supplication to America (376).

Ireland then, for O’Connor, is bloated, infantile and searching, its arms reaching toward the United States looking for comfort and validation. O’Connor’s description of the physical Ireland is of a country totally dependent on America to survive; much like how a small baby relies on its parents. Ireland, still a relatively new Republic in O’Connor’s time, needs reassurance and support from its distant Atlantic neighbour. It did receive help, in a very real way as O’Connor notes,

The Irish population of America is roughly five times that of the total population of Ireland, and you will discover that people of certain districts still continue to emigrate to the same districts of America where their great-grandfathers settled first, and that the Irish connections will be of the deepest kind (377)

Ireland’s America in the 1950s and 1960s does not only provide artistic and physical refuge for Irish emigrants, so much so that it is like another homeland or Irish province, but the act of settling in the United States becomes almost ritualistic, a rite of reclaiming the past and protecting the native Irish heritage through the acquisition of land. The more abstract, intellectual elements of Ireland’s growth and freedom are also, often misguidedly, supported by the United States also, through America’s backing of Nationalism. O’Connor comments, “Irish nationalism has moved step by step with the growing power of America” (388)

It could be said then that Frank O’Connor’s stories themselves are “like a province of Ireland,” that they are “full of soil that belongs to Ireland” and they most certainly “feel like home….” There are of course sketches of American characters in his stories, the two most notable being “The American Wife” and, one of his final stories, “Ghosts.” There are a number of tropes present in these compositions that often appear when O’Connor seeks to address the Irish-American experience. These are very illuminating when it comes to assessing O’Connor’s rendering of the United States in his work. Both of these stories feature a return or kind of homecoming of first or second generation Irish-American characters to Cork. Elsie in “The American Wife” is a first generation Irish-American who returns to Cork because “Irishmen were more manly” O’Connor quite brilliantly introduces her visit: “Elsie Colleary, who was on a visit to her cousins in Cork, was a mystery even to them.” (Collected Stories 493) In “Ghosts” the Sullivan family return to visit their ancestral home with interesting consequences. These vacationing characters are always “the American cousins” that still have blood relatives in Cork. So while these returned exiles (once or twice removed) are familiar to those that stayed, they are also different, alien somehow.

These oxymoronically non-Irish Irish people are often characterised as very good- looking and more often than not, as millionaires. Elsie’s father emigrated when he was young and “done well for himself” and O’Connor adds “Like all Americans, she [Elsie] was probably a millionaire, and the most unworldly of men can get a kick out of flirting with a real millionaire” (Collected Stories 493). The Sullivans in “Ghost” are well-off too with the protagonist noting “The American family wasn’t my class at all” (CS 697).

The character of Elsie in “The American Wife” is a particularly vivid attempt at a portrait of a modern American woman in the late 1950s, early 1960s. She appears to be an intelligent, forceful, analytical girl, in Ireland to have some real experiences and, while doing so, she meets Tom Barry. Her wooing of him is hilarious and hardly subtle; such behaviour is clearly shocking for Elsie’s Irish relations:

‘I guess I’ll have to seduce him,’ she replied airily, and her cousins, who had never known a well-bred Catholic girl to talk like that, were shocked. She shocked them even more before she was done. (CS 494)

Tom and Elsie do embark on a strange sort of love affair, the kind that often pepper O’Connor’s stories. They argue frequently about Ireland and America. She wishes to return to the United States, while Tom is very settled in Cork. She urges him to leave, if for nothing else than for the considerable financial rewards: “He says to her “Money isn’t everything” to which she replies “No, and Ireland isn’t everything” when of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In the story, Elsie often reminisces about America:

It was peculiar, but from their first evening together she had never ceased talking about America to him – the summer heat, and the crickets chattering, and the leaves alive with fireflies. During her discussions on the stairs, she had apparently discovered a great many things wrong with Ireland, and Tom, with a sort of mournful pleasure, kept adding to them. (CS 496)

In this instance O’Connor cleverly inverts the traditional motif of the Irish lamenting for the homeland and wallowing in nostalgia. Here, it is Elsie who is displaced, even though Ireland is her “real” home. O’Connor deals then with an American, experiencing loss and longing in a very stereotypically and unmistakably “Irish” manner. The effect is understated yet ingenious as the American and Irish experiences of exile combine and meld together, becoming one.

The Irish person’s American too is always giving, always going out on a limb, always expansive, often at the expense of their inner existence. Elsie is a prime example of this as “[o]n their third outing she had proposed to him, and he was so astonished that he burst out laughing, and continued to laugh whenever he thought of it again…she felt she had been conferring an honor on him” (CS 494). She feels that, as she is the one who has “come back” so to speak, that she has the power and agency. She is pro-active and self aware. She is generous to a fault giving clothes and sundries to the less-well-off Dorgan family. This generosity culminates in the eldest of the Dorgan family getting a job in Boston, practically an Irish colony at this juncture.

One of the most illuminating scenes in this story relates to Tom’s conversation with his friend Jerry concerning his bride and her opinions of him, “‘[s]he thinks you have problems,” said Tom with a snort. Elsie’s favourite word gave him the creeps. “She wouldn’t be referring to my mother, by any chance?’”(CS 497) This not only gives us, as readers, an insight into the vast differences between America and Ireland at the time – Elsie, it could be concluded, has obviously attended a therapist, or at the very least studied psychology briefly in college (a very popular choice in the 1950s), but also the disparity between men and women, a particular gift of O’Connor’s. This is furthered when O’Connor attempts to breach the rather delicate matter of Elsie’s fertility issues. She is depressed when she thinks she cannot have a baby and then, for the characters in the book at least, is resultantly indiscreet, overly vocal, embarrassing and crass “…she saw several doctors, whose advice she repeated in mixed company, to the great embarrassment of everybody…” (CS 497) In fact the only person who is not disturbed by it is Tom’s friend Jerry had reached “the age of eighteen before learning that there was any real difference between the sexes, Jerry found all her talk fascinating…” (CS 498) Ireland’s America then, and O’Connor’s interpretation of it, sees it as a more progressive, possibly more sophisticated and well educated society when compared to Ireland.

Yet, there are unexpected and very humorous moments of recognition and often misplaced identification too. Tom’s mother’s reaction to Elsie is a fine example of this,

But Mrs. Barry didn’t seem to mind as much as her daughters. By some extraordinary process of association, she had discovered a great similarity between Elsie and herself in the fact that she had married from the south side of the city into the north and have never got used to it (CS 498).

Here, Mrs. Barry equates coming from the other side of the River Lee to coming from the other side of the Atlantic. For her, the two are interchangeable, both she and Elsie are “blow-ins” and therefore do not feel at home in the North side of Cork. Tom’s mother feels a sense of affinity with Elsie, because, regardless of where they originate from, they are both outsiders.

In “Ghosts,” O’Connor attempts to identify and survey the nostalgia felt by Americans returning to Ireland. So often in O’Connor’s stories, Irish-American characters make the pilgrimage back to “the old country” on behalf of their immigrant relatives because they need to reclaim the sense of an identity lost, “this must be the road my grandfather traveled on his way to America,” (CS 697) muses Jer Sullivan, or to receive validation and approval from the spirits of their forefathers, “so they could see him and know he had brought no disgrace on the name” (CS 699). There is an impression in this story too, that O’Connor is endeavouring to highlight the complex set of expectations for this type of Irish-American encounter. Both parties are searching for something, seeking out authenticity, looking for support. The returning “Yanks” in O’Connor’s stories seem to demand a genuine experience from Ireland and its people – hoping that their genes will recollect somehow and remember what it was to be a part of that country, “He was hoping for ghosts” (CS 699). So the American characters requirements frequently appear to be abstract and nebulous in nature. They seem to be seeking something intangible – something that may never have existed in the first place – a sense of complete belonging.

The Irish reaction to these American characters is also of interest, particularly when attempting to assess O’Connor’s attitudes to writing about America. O’Connor’s Irish are willing to play along with the clichés associated with this nation, for example when Clancy encounters Sullivan’s daughter, Rose, a young American girl, he is, in one respect, delighted by how easy it is to convince her of anything, as “[e]very damned thing you told her, she took seriously. She wanted to know had we any fairies! I told her we had no fairies since the poteen was put down but the ghosts were something shocking.” Yet, O’Connor illuminates another aspect of that encounter, the sense of insufficiency felt by the Irish when comparing their material situation to that of the Americans;

‘You mean you have ghosts in this house?’ she said.
‘Dozens of them,” said I, seeing that we were lacking in a lot of the conveniences a girl like that would be accustomed to and we might as well take credit for what she couldn’t see (CS 696)

So on one hand, while the Irish wish to impress their American visitors due to a misguided sense of inferiority and the harsh and palpable reality of poverty, at their “wits’ ends to please [them]” (CS 697) and “apologizing for the dirt of the fields” (CS 699), they are also aware that for the Americans, the past is history, while for the Irish it seems to remain almost cripplingly current. There are none of the ghosts the Americans are searching for in Ireland, because the past appears to be so utterly present and utterly real.

This is brilliantly played out in the climax of the story. Nan, Clancy’s wife wishes to introduce the Sullivans to the Hopkins family, former landlords of the area because “you could see the Americans were a bit disappointed because there wasn’t a garden” (CS 699). Clancy perceptively realises that Nan is embarrassed by Mary’s hovel, “I knew well the game she was up to. She wanted to show the Sullivans that we had good society, and herself and myself were the hub of it” (CS 700). The Sullivans are delighted by Major Hopkins and his wife and the grandeur of their period residence, “[t]hey all came back for a drink and Sullivan was talking to Mrs. Hopkins about the backwardness of “the peasants” and she was telling him about her club for peasant reform” (CS 701). This intensely patronising and rather insulting exchange incenses Clancy, “And, God forgive me… [I was] calculating how many gallons of petrol it would talk to send [t]his historic old house blazing to Heaven” (CS 701). Later, when Clancy and the Sullivans are in the car, Sullivan cannot help but reveal that it was the Hopkins who were the landlords that evicted the Irish Sullivans in the first instance, “I knew ‘twas wicked of me, but the man had roused something in me,” says Clancy in his defence (CS 701).

Mrs. Sullivan and her children Bob and Rose are “delighted, delighted!” by this revelation, intrigued by the coincidence (CS 702). Sullivan himself though experiences a much different, much more potent, reaction as Clancy outlines. The other Sullivans are “outside of it” according to Clancy, they are reading the history book as it were, staring at the pictures, laughing at the quaintness. For Sullivan, as for Clancy, history is an internal country, a never-ending story. Sullivan feels he has betrayed his grandfather’s story by consorting with the “enemy,” and so too does Clancy, by enabling this exchange. As Clancy looks at Sullivan he truly understands his interior processes and rationale, and the Atlantic is no longer between them;

The rest [Mrs. Sullivan, Bob, Rose, Nan] were nice, but they were outside of it. They could go looking for ghosts, but he [Sullivan] had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my hear that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them (CS 702).

“Ghosts” is a remarkably complex story regarding the expectations of both the Irish and the American characters of the transatlantic experience, with both sides searching for recognition, appreciation, understanding and validation. It is an inter and co-dependent relationship, a difficult father-son experience – America a grown up child, constantly seeking approval, Ireland the old parent, proud but also suspicious of the child’s intentions. There is, as a result, an intense sense of isolation and loneliness, “[a]lways in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo – Christ, Socrates, Moses” (Lonely Voice 19).

What is evident in this characterisation is that synthesis of the insignificant and the substantial is indispensable, for O’Connor, in the short story. What he refers to as the “little man” (16) is habitually encircled by a larger, often transatlantic, historical and mythical experience. O’Connor employs this dichotomy to accentuate the collision between the small, interior world of the self and the vastness of the outside world. He shows, furthermore, not only the conflict linking the worlds but the delicate complicity between them, as characters apparently looking outward are actually looking inward as epitomised by Clancy and Sullivan. As Neary points out in his essay “The inside-out world in Frank O’Connor’s stories”;

“aloneness” in O’Connor is a slippery term, a word that can indicate connection as well as – and even at the same time as – separation. When characters find togetherness in O’Connor they often do it through the mutual explorations of their own psyches, plunging into their own lonelinesses that turn up common desires, common terrain (1).

This loneliness, this discord between the inner and outer worlds of the self, is very much an attempt by O’Connor to explore the complexities of belonging. Therefore, it can be concluded that the “inside-out world” of the individual, is similar to the “inside-out world” of nationhood, and consequently relationships in and out of that location.

I will argue then that Frank O’Connor does indeed “write about America,” but in an unexpected and subtle way. O’Connor was certainly posed the question “Why don’t you write about America?” a number of times, but I also think he asked the question of himself. I believe that O’Connor realised, perhaps when writing the essay, that he was actually writing about America somewhat unconsciously in his short stories, an America that was distinctly his. His writing, both short stories and non-fiction essays, accent his propensity for writing about America in a manifestly Irish context. He writes on the subject of America through Ireland, with Ireland acting as filter, a lens through which he can look across the Atlantic to the United States, and then right back again. This method directly generates a space for O’Connor to explore the nature of his inspiration. His imagining of the United States therefore is patently an Irish one informed by his locality, and specifically by his auditory perception – yet he is aware of the possible shortcomings of this approach and endeavours to explore this too in his short stories – namely the difficulty in communicating through exile; hearing but not necessarily seeing, listening but not looking.

Michael Neary considers this in his very illuminating article, “The inside-out world in Frank O’Connor’s stories,” in it he quotes Kavanagh’s criticism on the elusiveness of Frank O’Connor’s writing. “He seems to me,” writes Kavanagh, “to fall between two stools. He is neither on the safe earth nor among the stars. What makes his work deceptive is the fact that he is very nearly on the earth. He is – as it were – about one inch from the grass” (14-15). This analysis further supports the transatlantic paradigm in O’Connor’s criticism and stories, “the in-between, limbo-like horror” as Neary describes it (1).

O’Connor recognises America as a “ghost,” constantly haunting his portrayal of Ireland. Often his discussion of America is cloaked in the familial experiences of emigration and thus the country is portrayed as lonely and distant. Though O’Connor viewed America, and particularly New York, as the epicentre of loneliness, it is clear that in this setting he creatively and personally flourished. O’Connor’s exceptionally strong auditory imagination is useful here because it establishes him as a natural story teller. His gift for capturing the nature and depth of orality, the very nature and history of the story, ensure that his accents, voices and dialogue, depict accuracy and genuinely the specificities and, yet fluidity, of place. Thus, like so many Irish and Irish-Americans he succeeded in creating a unique, personal example of the transatlantic experience, which while flawed, opened the route for others, Joseph O’Connor among them, to set sail in an attempt to further map the land of in-betweenness and begin to make connections though stories of exile. In many ways, Frank O’Connor preempts comparative inter-American literary scholarship, Earl B. Fitz for example notes, “‘American’ literature is not the exclusive province of one nation” (xiii) while Paul Jay, in 1998, maintains that we can revitalise American Studies if we focus on sites “between or which transgress conventional borders – liminal margins or border zones in which individual and national identities migrate, merge, and hybridize” (167). Frank O’Connor, years before, articulates this beautifully when he states at the end of “Why don’t you write about America?”:

…in talking to myself about the question I began with, I find I have answered it, for the loyalties of the exceptional person are not so much to any country, but to the place or places where he endured the two ordeals and to whatever ideal homeland gave them birth (Reader 321).


1.From the Introduction to A Frank O’Connor Reader, ed. Michael Steinman.
2.Can be accessed at http://frankoconnor.ucc.ie/.
3.First published in the U.S.A. by World Publishing Company, 1962 and in the U.K. by Macmillan and Company Limited, 1963.
4.O’Connor, Frank, October 1952 as quoted in Steinman, Michael, A Frank O’Connor Reader.
5.Email to the author, March 2007.
6.Email to the author, March 2007.

Works Cited

Fitz, Earl B. Rediscovering the New World: Inter-American Literature in a Comparative Context. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Giles, Paul. Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Jay, Paul. “The Myth of ‘America’ and the Politics of Location: Modernity Border Studies, and the Literature of the Americas.” Arizona Quarterly 54.2, 1998.

Lennon, Hilary, Ed. Frank O’Connor: Critical Essays. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007.

Neary, Michael. “The inside-out world in Frank O’Connor’s stories” Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1993.

O’Connor, Frank. Collected Stories. New York: Vintage, 1982.

—-. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. London: Macmillan and Company, 1963.

—-. The Mirror in the Roadway: A Study of the Modern Novel. New York: Knopf, 1956.

O’Donovan Sheehy, Harriet. Email Correspondence. February/March, 2006.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Sharma, Shailja. “Salman Rushdie: the ambivalence of migrancy – Critical Essay.” Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2001.

Solomon, Eric. “Frank O’Connor as Teacher.” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Frank O’Connor Issue (Autumn, 1990), pp. 239-241.

Steinman, Michael, Ed. A Frank O’Connor Reader. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989.