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Declan Kiberd, ‘A Commentator of Class’, review of Thomas Flanagan, There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History, in The Irish Times (21 May 2005), Weekend.

Work reviewed: Thomas Flanagan, There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History ed. & intro., Christopher Cahill, preface by Seamus Heaney (New York Review Books/Granta 2005), 488pp.

Even if he had never written The Year of The French, Thomas Flanagan would have been assured a place in critical histories of Irish literature. He had written such a history himself, a path-breaking study of 19th-century novelists from Maria Edgeworth to William Carleton which helped (as Seamus Heaney says in his affectionate preface) to invent the modern discipline of Irish Studies, and that in the year of 1959 when most scholars were still “basically wired up to Eng. Lit. terminals”. Along with such great critics as Richard Ellmann, Ann Saddlemyer and Hugh Kenner, Flanagan treated Irish writers with the sort of rigour which suggested that their work was no mere adjunct to English literature but a national literature in its own right.

There were, however, problems with the very success of this project, especially as prosecuted by Irish-Americans. Ireland in their scheme of things was invariably the colourful, hopeless, passionate object of their study, and they were the objective, impartial students who came in summer months and on sabbatical years with their file-index cards and searching questions. The notion that Irish-Americans had their own unresolved conflicts (symbolised by the hyphen in their very name), and also a growing literature of their own worthy of separate study, did not exercise many of them; and the idea that an Irish-American might, for instance, have personal reasons for studying another hyphenated people, the Anglo-Irish, was seldom if ever mentioned. The possibility that the very relationship between Irish America and Ireland was unstable and ever-changing was not much canvassed, even after the JFK years: the Americans were the surveyors, the Irish the surveyed.

In the years before his death in 2002, Thomas Flanagan began to write extended essays which sought to recognise the complications of his own position within both Irish and American culture. They are reproduced here as analyses which are always brilliant, often bracing, and will provide the basis for work that must now be taken forward by others.

Hollywood director John Ford is seen as a movie pioneer who “took for subject the pioneer experience”, using the form of “Western” to explore a private vision in films such as The Iron Horse, Stagecoach or The Searchers. Even when the subject was the dispossessed Okies en route to California in The Grapes of Wrath, the folk memory of coffin ship and famine resonated, so that “the ravaged landscape of Oklahoma bears uncanny echoes of the abandoned Famine villages of Connaught and Munster”. Ford in his “cavalry trilogy” evinced some sympathy for Native Americans, observing that his Irish background meant that “we were on both sides of the epic”.

On playwright Eugene O’Neill, Flanagan is piercing, noting how he became one of the world’s most respected dramatists “although no one seems to have known quite why”. He suggests a sense of homelessness of the displaced Irish, leading to an obsession with social masks, as well as a fierce ambition to show Yankee puritans (the new form taken by the “old enemy”) that the Paddies could not be kept down. O’Neill’s attendance at performances by the Abbey Theatre in New York of works by Yeats, Gregory, Synge and T. C. Murray is seen as crucial to his emergence as a poet of the modern stage.

So also with Scott Fitzgerald, whose Gatsby embodies the poor boy’s dream of scaling the social heights. “The rich are different from you and me,” he told Ernest Hemingway, only to hear the famous put-down: “Yes, they have more money.” The tragedy of both men’s careers, in Flanagan’s analysis, is that they were victims of early success, which meant that they felt compelled to horse out trash for magazines in order to maintain a high standard of living.

At the time of his death, Flanagan was thinking of embarking on a study of the relationship between “celebrity culture” and “modernism”, a relation which led many more than these men to live well beyond their intellectual means. No wonder the mature Fitzgerald said that the best thing that could befall an author was a little early misfortune.

At the root of all these commentaries is a sense of the hidden injuries of class. John O’Hara provides the telltale instance: he once asked Fitzgerald in a letter, “Must the Irish always have a lot of the climber in them?” The answer he got was illuminating: “I spent my youth in alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.”

Such oscillations between servility and insolence can create the kind of tension which makes for great writing, and they made O’Hara, also, a keen anatomist of the US class system.

But they disfigured him too: he could never reconcile himself to the fact that he hadn’t made it to the Ivy League. Eventually Hemingway snorted in derision: “Let’s set up a fund to send John O’Hara to Yale.” In a poignant coda to this psychodrama, Flanagan notes that Yale never gave O’Hara the honorary degree he craved because, in the words of the college’s genteel president, “he asked for it”.

Through all these luminous pages, Flanagan casts new light on Mary McCarthy and William Kennedy. He writes with deep feeling of the work of such friends as Frank O’Connor and Seamus Heaney, such predecessors as Yeats and Joyce, such contemporaries as Maeve Brennan and Brian Moore. He is unfailingly generous about the work of younger scholars, such as Roy Foster and the present writer. He is challenging on 1798, Wolfe Tone and the fictions of history. And he is most powerful of all in evoking the spirit of dead friends.

For all his gentlemanly style, Flanagan was something of a radical, a critic of the ways in which class tensions have stung writers into greatness even as they have corrupted social relations. Much art, in his view, is an attempt to compensate for political defeat or social failure. It seems fitting that he will be remembered also for his bleak tripartite witticism to the effect that the English have a class system and make it the obsessive subject of much of their comedy and art; that the Americans have a class system, but being pseudo-democrats, pretend that it doesn’t exist; and that the Irish, being the worst of all, have a class system but will not tell anybody what exactly it is. Flanagan went closer to cracking these baffling codes than most.

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