Before I moved to the USA, I had only hazy notions about Irish Americans. I knew that Admiral Brown, supreme hero of the Argentine navy, was an Irishman, and so was Bernardo O'Higgins, military father of the Chilean nation. And that was about it, despite my early acquaintance with "Bringing Up Father," which appeared every Sunday in the Buenos Aires daily La Nación, under the title "Pequeñas delicias de la vida conyugal" (Small delights of married life). I had no idea that Jiggs and Maggie were supposed to be Irish North Americans. Nowhere, but nowhere, could you find more perverse translators than in Hearst's King Features Syndicate: they had managed to erase all traces of Irishness in the Argentine version of McManus' comic strip. Jiggs and Maggie became Trifón and Sisebuta, names never given before to any real or fictitious Argentine person; corned beef and cabbage was turned into some vague "guiso de repollo" (cabbage stew), and so dismally on. Sisebuta, a Visigothic name, was soon taken up by Argentines as a synonym of a pin-wielding shrew. As for Trifón, it is the name of a sainted early Christian martyr born in Phrygia, in Asia Minor. Although I began peeking at the life of Sisebuta and Don Trifón when I was five, it wasn't the earliest comic strip in my life. My mother, a voracious consumer of women magazines, used to read to me a comic strip, "Calixto Campolargo", that appeared in the weekly Maribel, before I was able to read. In retrospect, it is quite clear that Calixto Campolargo was but a local avatar of Trifón, and Urbana, his wife, a replica of McManus' Sisebuta, rolling pin and all. In deference to local custom, Calixto did not wear top hat and spats like Jiggs; instead, he and his wife had a house servant girl named Pampita with obvious aboriginal features, and a parrot named Corneta, which always parroted in the last panel, "Estás listo, Calixto" (You're done for, Calixto, you're toast). Those were the very earliest fictional characters I met with. Less than mediocre and, yes, plagiarized, yet, to my mind, unforgettable.
Later, after having lived in the US for a while, I became friends with a real Irish-American, Bill Magee, a colleague, whose idiosyncrasies were a puzzle to me. He was older than I by seven years, brought up in Catholic piety, an altar boy. At some point in his twenties, however, he lost his faith: when he told his immigrant parents, they worried how their son would be able to live without divine support. What had happened, and how did Bill happen to lose his faith? After all, a faith is not like a wallet or a pair of reading glasses; one does not just misplace one's religious practices and prayers; it must take some active demonic force or catastrophic event to stop believing in their value. It was some time till I perceived that therein lay a question, some more till I formulated that question clearly in my own mind, and still more time until I came upon an answer that I believe to be close enough to the truth.
The obvious way to answer the question, that is by asking Bill directly how he lost his Catholic faith, was useless. All I got from him was, "Oh, I guess I had outgrown it," or, "As one gets more educated, it becomes harder to believe in fairy tales, doesn't it?" I don't think he was evading the issue or trying to hide anything from me; no, that wouldn't have been Bill; more likely, he was hiding the real causes from himself. The only way to find out was by stocking patiently in my memory the various anecdotes he kept telling from his earlier years, and wait till, in my own mind, the pattern became clear and the forces explicit, like the lines of a magnetic field when one has strewn enough iron filings around.
To begin with, Bill did not share my nostalgia for Jiggs and Maggie. In his opinion, most of what popular culture had done with the American experience of Irish immigrants were smears. Bill used that word, "smear," censoriously and with meanings that I found dark, something neighboring "stereotype" yet not quite it. I have always enjoyed a good Jewish joke, and also jokes about Argentines, like "Why do Argentines look up and smile when there's lightning? – Because they think God is taking their photo." But Bill felt that it was evil of the entertainment industry to cast cops, especially bad ones, always as Irish American. In the same vein, the Godfather movies, or the TV series "The Sopranos," were for him examples of the "mafia smear," whose victims were Italian Americans. He had never watched any of those movies or episodes, and seemed disgruntled by my supposition that he might have. It was apparently morally wrong to watch that sort of stuff. I took it, foolishly, as yet another example of puritanism, which, in my naïve and uninformed view, had sorely infected North Americans Catholics, and which remains so alien to Latin-American ones. To said puritanism I attributed capitalism, because Max Weber had said so, and also the fact, astonishing to me, that Americans didn't find farts funny, and, more generally, were not fond of stercoraceous jokes. I should have noticed, though, that Bill did not consider it morally wrong to watch pornography; when another colleague spoke about the porno films he was addicted to, Bill didn't say much, but looked benevolently on him. That didn't look like puritanism, but what did I know.
Newly arrived in New York City from my native Buenos Aires in 1963, one of the first things that called my attention was the degree of self-assurance and self-assertion of American Jews. They were to be seen everywhere wearing their kippah, or with peyess, tall fedora and caftan. In Buenos Aires such sights were unusual indeed, even though there were plenty of Jews. In New York City I felt empowered, except that word was not used until twenty years later; I felt, in other words, as if I, whose English was halting and who still smelled of wet pampas grass and cow dung, already belonged to NYC upper crust. While we were having lunch at The Bagel Place, I told Bill of my experience trying to rent an apartment near Grand Army Plaza, a nice section of Brooklyn, in 1965. My kids were a year old, and my wife and I needed something a notch above a studio. So, I went door to door, ringing the bell of super after super, and invariably got a curt, "No, nothing for rent." Until at an apartment building (it was on Lincoln Place), the super, after saying the already proverbial phrase, looked at my face a bit more closely and asked, "What's your last name?" As soon as I had said it, he changed his tune: "Oh, have we a beautiful apartment for you!" I had chanced on a yiddishe kop. Bill Magee did not laugh at this, so I felt I had to explain. "You see, they all took me for Hispanic because of my accent, until this Jewish superintendent noticed that I was a Jew. The truth is, I'm both. I'm a spike." "What's that?" asked Bill. "Why, a cross between a spic and a kike." "Shh!" went Bill, red in the face and looking around: someone from another table might had overheard me. "Those are offensive words," he warned me.
In my uninformed view, Irish Americans belonged as much to the upper crust as Jewish Americans; they were long-established and powerful in politics: look at Tammany Hall in New York State, or the Kennedys in Massachusetts. Bill corrected me. His parents had arrived in the US in the 1920s, and recently, when he looked at their documents from Ellis Island, Bill discovered, to his horror, that in the category "race" the clerk had written, "Irish." "Being Irish, only fifty years ago, was considered not very different from being Hispanic, or Black," Bill concluded. "Oh, c'mon man," said I, "are you telling me that the Irish, or the Italians, had it as rough here as the Hispanics or the Blacks?" "Not exactly the same; no, not exactly," said Bill. "The Irish refugees from the potato blight were shipped to the US in the same boats which had carried slaves from Africa, and treated as badly or worse. Italians were lynched in New Orleans in 1892, though not, I will admit, in the same numbers as Africans."
Over those years during which Bill Magee and I were friends, we often held the above dialogue, in slightly varying terms, and, invariably, my feeling was that somehow, in the end, the most important things went untouched, though I didn't know precisely what they were. Bill's singling out the WASPS and the wealthy as victimizers, for instance, seemed to me an all-too-easy tilting of the scales, unfairly pretending to be in the name of justice. I have lived in Italy, and whenever Mount Aetna awoke from its lethargy in Sicily, there were graffiti all over the walls of Rome and other northern cities: "Forza, Aetna!" which may be translated as "Go get them, Aetna!" Not nice. Sicilians are considered more African than European by many Italians, which is to say inferior; it seems that Sicilian inferiority gives a cushion of comfort to people from Calabria, Puglia, and Basilicata, who are, in turn, considered inferior by those from more northern latitudes. But how about southernmost Sicilians, we may ask, do they lack a cushion of comfort? Are they the very bottom of the barrel? No: nobody is; the barrel is abyssal, and any group of people, no matter how despised, will be able to find or define another group that's barbaric, deplorable, and unquestionably inferior. When my wife and I travelled to Europe in the 1970s and 80s, we always flew Icelandic, a budget airline that landed us in Luxembourg, where we would board a train for Paris or elsewhere. On one of those occasions we had a long wait at the railroad station, and I drank a beer with two young men at the station bar. They were Sicilian, had lived in Luxembourg as guest workers for a couple of years, but remained remarkably ignorant about that country's political arrangements, and had not even heard that there was a dude called the Grand Duke. "Do you like it here?" I asked them. "Oh yes, it's nice here, no problems. Except..." "Except for what?" "Those damn Portuguese everywhere." You see how it works.
But Bill did not see it that way. He was not one to let philosophers trouble his dreams, but had he been, I'm sure he would have shared the enthusiasm, so prevalent in academia those days, for the cockamamie lucubrations of John Rawls. He would have demanded veils of ignorance clean and free of charge for everyone, and would have agreed wholeheartedly with the notions of Rawls' disciple Elizabeth Anderson that the state ought to make sure that every individual has access to a space where – supply here the personal pronoun – enjoys the recognition of other people in that space. Bill's space happened to be the academic field of twentieth-century American poetry, and he believed that the state should subsidize the publication of scholarly books. No, Bill did not back up his views with schemes from philosophy – that was not his field – yet he had ready justifications for all guest workers at station bars and all hateful graffiti painters: they were the less fortunate, the least educated, and the most exploited. Their resentment and their racism, such as it is, has been instilled in them by their oppressors, the wealthy elite, who follow the old maxim, Divide to Conquer. Where did Bill, the real William Edward Magee, fit in this scheme? In the oppressing elite, or among the poor hoi polloi? Among the enslavers or the enslaved? In both, depending on the wind? Or in a third, separate group? There seemed to be conflicting signs. A circumstance that greatly puzzled me, toward the end of our friendship, was Bill's account of his anxieties when in the late 1950s he applied for the graduate program at the English department of Yale university. The way he put it, he felt he was not "sophisticated enough" for such a program at such a distinguished school. Elihu, non sum dignus. I didn't get what he meant by "sophisticated." I knew that he had graduated from Boston Latin School and then from Holy Cross. Can anyone have better credentials? "You don't understand," he replied; "you have no idea of the type of background I was coming from."
I remember quite distinctly my feelings during that discussion. It was over the phone, and I was pacing the living room, at some points doubting if I had heard correctly, or asking myself whether I was dreaming or hallucinating. What Bill referred to as his background was a blue-collar father, a homemaker mother, both Irish immigrants, and six children. His parents had no high-school diplomas, but then my parents had none either, I retorted; my father had to quit school to work as an apprentice barber, and my mother did not go beyond sixth grade; my parents never owned a home, as his parents did. But Bill was adamant: his background, his starting place, was lower than mine. I felt the stinging shame of having let myself be drawn into a ridiculous fight, and simultaneously anger at Bill's dogmatic presumption. It was then, at that point, that I could not believe my ears, when Bill clinched his argument by telling me that he had never encountered a single American academic whose family background was as deprived as his. I have known dozens of mathematicians and physicists, from Argentina, from the US, and from other countries, who came from rural or dirt-poor single parents: some of them are still my friends; some of them got their PhD from the highest-ranked US science departments, and I don't know of a single one who felt not "sophisticated enough" to aspire to such an honor. That may be the case in the sciences, Bill objected; in the humanities, however, this much was true: he didn't know of anyone, he repeated, anyone, coming from such deprivation as his. I stood before the fireplace. There were chrysanthemums on the mantelpiece. Why didn't all those florets fall? I pointed out that Harold Bloom, at Yale, came from a similar background: his father was a garment worker. Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist, lost his father, a garment worker too, in NYC Lower East Side, before he was a year old; as a child he had to scavenge for food. Norman Podhoretz' parents were from Polish Jewish Galicia; his father drove a horse-drawn milk cart. But before I had a chance to vomit off more examples, Bill dismissed them all. Luckily for them, he said, all those guys were Jews. None of them had to struggle under the terrible disadvantage of being Irish in America.
For several days I mulled over that conversation, and tried to see more clearly into the mind of my soon-to-be former friend. To start with, I had to discount the reality of Bill's notions about the disadvantage of being of Irish stock in America, for I had met personally a number of very Irish and very successful Americans of Bill's generation; to mention only a couple in my town and in the literary field, William J. Kennedy, the Pulitzer prize novelist, and Harry C. Staley, the poet, did not appear to look upon their Irishness as an obstacle. Often, as in this case, dense, hovering nausea and an unbearable stink of rot make it hard to see clearly and in detail into another person's mind. Bill's academic standing, on which he based his self-worth, was not above mediocre, and I could not escape the conclusion that his self-styled deprived background was only a mental construct to prop up his self-esteem. An elaborate attempt at self-justification. Bill's mind was a bunker. Then I began to understand how, when, and why Bill had, in his words, lost his faith, the Catholic faith of his childhood and early youth.
At Yale he had met another graduate student, Norah Birnbaum, the daughter of an eminent scholar, and before two years had passed they were married. Norah's parents were agnostic Jews, her father a learned epikoros. The Torah, in the old man's view, was no more than a third-rate piece of literature when compared to other myths of the ancient Near East. But disciplined agnosticism and the pleasures of literature and contemplation were not for Norah. She had a volcanic temperament, her outer crust barely containing the molten guilt underneath, and part of that guilt was not having come from a deprived background. Thus, the joining of Bill and Norah was brought about by Leibniz's pre-established harmony, or, in more vulgar terms, it was a marriage made in heaven. Norah got the chance to atone for her guilt by dedicating her life to the noble purpose of supporting and nursing a husband from a disadvantaged family, and Bill got his shaky self-worth backed by the gold standard of his wife's reassurances. Norah soon abandoned her graduate studies, but made sure that Bill got his PhD, and that he joined her in her passion for equity and in her hopes for a redeeming class war. It was about that time Bill told his parents that he had lost his faith. Their pathetic reaction, how would their son be able to live without divine support, he considered to be in accord with their narrow provincialism. Catholic faith, the faith that seeks to persuade the faithful that what looks like a wafer and tastes like a wafer becomes, by the hocus-pocus of a priest, the flesh of a prophet who died two thousand years ago, is completely useless to the happy man who, like Ulysses, has full-fleshed, living Athena by his side.
By the time I made their acquaintance, in the mid-1970s, Bill was a professor of English, and Norah had an office job; his academic books acknowledged an unpayable debt, a debt "literally beyond the reach of words" to his wife & muse, and were dedicated to her. Norah's father had read Bill's first book, and had raised some objections; this created a touchy situation, for Bill was insecure about criticism of his work. With infinite tact, Norah convinced her husband that her father, in this case, didn't know what he was talking about, that he was out of his depth, and was moved, most likely, by jealousy. But she could not totally erase in Bill a touch of rancor toward Professor Birnbaum which I thought I could detect every now and then.
I remember most of those details from early conversations with Bill and, to a lesser extent, with Norah; I was soon to have a more direct experience concerning Bill's thin intellectual skin. He wrote poems, which he never sent out but showed to me; I found them full of enchanting and original expressions, such as, "May the road rise to meet you," or, "One starry evening, four sheets to the wind..." I would get back to him and say how much I had enjoyed those moments. I should have left it at that, but didn't. One evening at the poet Jerry Rothenberg's, who was my neighbor at the time, I met Clayton Eshleman, and we talked about César Vallejo, the Peruvian poet, his prophecy that he would die in Paris on a rainy day, and about the bright, nostalgic ears of his donkey. When I heard that Eshleman was the editor of the literary journal Sulfur, I conceived the idea of submitting Bill's poems to it. He agreed, and asked me to choose, from a score or so of his poems, a sample that might be appropriate. The result was a selection of five poems, accompanied by a detailed account of what I found attractive in each of them, and what I thought might be improved by minor revision, which I submitted to Bill. He told me to go ahead and send the five poems to Sulfur as they were; he didn't seem in the mood for revisions. A week later, at a dinner party, I was sitting next to Norah and she commented on my "rough treatment" of Bill's poems. "Yes, I know that he asked you to do it," she said; "but there are ways and there are ways to criticize, don't you think?" As for Sulfur, they never replied.
Years later and long after Bill Magee and I had gone our separate ways, while reading George Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets, the idea dawned on me that there was one prominent aspect Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe had in common with each other and, incidentally, with Bill, which Santayana, unless I missed it, had not remarked upon: woman as the uplifter.
The Latin poet begins, as Bill always did, by invoking the divine uplifter:
"Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
alma Venus..." (Mother of Rome, delight of gods and men, bountiful Venus), and then, "quae quoniam rerum naturam sola gubernas..." (since you alone govern the All).
Beatrice Portinari, daughter and wife of Florentine bankers, is the Tuscan poet's guide to the beatific vision and to eternal bliss. As soon as he first saw her, he said in Latin to himself, or so he claimed in La vita nuova: "Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi." (A god has arrived, stronger than I, who from now on will dominate me).
And Goethe brings his Faust to a close thus:
"Das ewige Weibliche zieht uns hinan" (The eternal feminine pulls us upward).
True, none of the three poets linked by Santayana shared Bill's insecurity; still, the idea of a common feminine uplifter intrigued me and made me search for other examples. There are many others, needless to say, but none, I thought at first, so close to my own heart as that of George MacManus' Jiggs and Maggie, for it was the one I had encountered earliest. "But that is a counter-example!" do I hear you objecting? No, loafing reader, no. Take the case of Socrates: we must certainly read Plato and Xenophon to get an idea of the man; but we must also read Aristophanes' Clouds. The comic side of a human being is as vital, as important, as the serious, noble-minded, higher-aspiring side. I submit that Jiggs and Maggie, the comic strip where the shrewish wife wielding a rolling pin wants to lift her husband to the niceties and sophistication of high society, but the husband resists and, yearning for corned beef and cabbage, sticks to his background, is the comic side of Goethe's uplifting ewige Weibliche.
But there's no helping it. All roads in my mind, no matter where they start, lead to the three faded-maroon volumes my maternal grandfather once purchased in Buenos Aires. The Brodeskys were living in the desertic Territory of La Pampa, about 400 miles from Buenos Aires, and one day, perhaps in 1920, when don Gregorio had to travel by train to the capital, his sons asked him to bring back some book they could enjoy. My zeide walked into a bookstore (so the story goes) and asked for a book. "What book would you like?" asked the salesman. "A good book, it's got to be a good book," said my zeide in his Yiddish-accented Spanish. The salesman must have been an honest one, since he sold my grandfather Cervantes' masterpiece; but when he went back home and gave the book to his sons (my mother was seven at the time), they made cruel fun of their father, and said the salesman had noticed he was a sucker who knew nothing about books and sold him their most unsaleable piece of junk. The three volumes devolved to my mother, who never read them but kept them together with other odd things that had to do with her dear dad. I found them, read them assiduously, committed many pages to prepubescent memory, and so they became mine. My Don Quixote in three volumes may appear disconnected from the Jiggs and Maggie comic strip, yet they are strongly connected. Indeed, the publisher of this particular edition of 1908 was the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación, the same paper which, starting in the 1920s, would carry McManus' masterpiece on its Sunday supplement. And beside this connection, which might be dismissed as purely circumstantial, there's the undisputable fact that if Jiggs and Maggie, as I said before, is the comic side of Goethe's ewige Weibliche, Don Quixote is both aspects wrapped in one. We could invoke the Hegelian dialectic and claim for Don Quixote, which someone called the saddest and the most comical book, the status of synthesis of Goethe and McManus, of the high and the low, if it were not for Cervantes' precedence in time. Dulcinea, don Quixote's beloved, is and is not a figment of an unbridled imagination; in a way, she is the all-too-real Aldonza Lorenzo, a good-looking farmhand whose vivid breasts and lubricious hips had attracted Alonso Quijano's erotic attention, and in another way, she is the fabulous Oriana, the queen of Amadís de Gaula. She is the uplifter into heroic autonomy, but she is also the down-puller into the mud we automatically are.
The author being uplifted by Lidia Luquet. Mt. Holyoke College, 1964. Photo by Horacio Porta.
Not long ago I heard that Bill had died. One of the last things he said, I was told, is how lucky he had been in having met and married his beloved Norah. His heart's Yiddishe meidelech, I thought: is that what they call the luck of the Irish?
R.L. Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse