Irish-American Autobiography: an Exploration with James Silas Rogers
Location: Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Main Public Library, 100 Larkin Street
Is there still a distinct Irish identity in America? James Rogers’ new book, Irish-American Autobiography: the Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims and More, says yes, though it’s often an indirect one. True, the age of heroic immigration is over, and today the term “Irish-American” almost always means an American of Irish descent. If the Irish long ago ceased to be America’s largest ethnic group, they’ve nonetheless stayed among the most visible (not least because St Patrick’s Day has been adopted by the nation at large). But for all the external trappings of Irishness, the terms, traditions, and nuances of that identity stay elusive.
Irish-American Autobiography opens a new window on the shifting meanings of Irishness over the twentieth century, by looking at a range of works that have never before been considered as a distinct body of literature. Opening with celebrity memoirs from athletes like boxer John L. Sullivan and ballplayer Connie Mack—written when the Irish were eager to put their raffish origins behind them—later chapters trace the many tensions, often unspoken, registered by Irish Americans who’ve told their life stories. New York saloonkeepers and South Boston step dancers set themselves against the larger culture, setting a pattern of being on the outside looking in. Even the classic 1950s TV comedy The Honeymooners speaks to the urban Irish origins, and the poignant sense of exclusion felt by its creator Jackie Gleason. Catholicism, so key to the identity of earlier generations of Irish Americans, has also evolved. One chapter looks at the painful diffidence of priest autobiographers, and others reveal how traditional Irish Catholic ideas of the guardian angel and pilgrimage have evolved and stayed potent down to our own time. Irish-American Autobiography becomes, in the end, a story of a continued search for connection—documenting an “ethnic fade” that never quite happened.
James Silas Rogers is editor of New Hibernia Review and the director of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He was president of the American Conference for Irish Studies from 2009 to 2011. Rogers’s publications focus on Irish-American literature, chiefly memoir. His Irish books are Irish-American Autobiography: The Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims, and More (Catholic University of America Press, 2017); Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from New Hibernia Review (Dufour Editions, 2013), which he edited and introduced; and After the Flood: Irish America, 1945-1960 (Irish Academic Press, 2009), which he co-edited with Matthew J. O’Brien.