Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Irish Short Story Tradition

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, how could I not offer a post on the Irish short story? I have a personal connection and love for Ireland. My wife’s mother was born in Belfast and married a G.I. who brought her to California. My wife is thus an Irish citizen, although she was born in southern California. A couple of years ago, we applied for Irish citizenship for our daughter, who now has dual citizenship also.

After a visit to Ireland some thirteen years ago, I loved the country and the people so much that I applied for and received a Fulbright Senior Fellowship to teach the American short story at University College, Dublin and Trinity College. My wife, daughter, mother-in-law (whose husband died at that time), and I lived in the suburb of Blackrock, south of Dublin, for a year. Our daughter, who was 11, went to an international school. It was a great experience for all of us. I got to know Dublin quite well.

So well, in fact, that for the past two years I have taken a group of 20 American students from California State University, Long Beach to Dublin for three weeks in June to study Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses. We lived in a youth hostel near Stephen’s Green, and I held classes on the Trinity campus each morning. In the afternoons, we visited museums, including the Martello Tower at Sandycove where the first chapter of Ulysses takes place, and walked the walks described in those two great books; reading them in Dublin made for a marvelously integrated experience for the students and me. Being in Dublin on Bloomsday and having a bit of Gorgonzola cheese and a class of burgundy at Davy Byrne’s Pub, as did Leopold Bloom, was a corny, but pleasurable, treat. Although I do not plan to take a group this year, I hope to do it again in the future.

Now after that little personal introduction, here are a few comments about the Irish short story.

It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story, just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society. Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work." The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition. According to J. H. Delargy, in a frequently cited study of the Gaelic storyteller, ancient Ireland fostered an oral literature unrivalled in all of Western Europe, a tradition that has influenced the growth of the modern Irish short story.

Delargy describes Irish story telling as being centered on a gathering of people around the turf fire of a hospitable house on fall and winter nights. At these meetings, usually called a céilidhe (pronounced "kaylee"), a Gaelic story-teller, known as a seanchaí (pronounced "shanachie") if he specialized in short supernatural tales told in realistic detail, or a sgéalaí (pronounced "shagaylee") if he told longer fairy-tale stories focusing on a legendary hero, mesmerized the folk audience.

It is the shorter, realistic seanchas or eachtra (pronounced "achthrah") rather than the longer, epical fairy tales that have given rise to the Irish literary short story. This type of story, which usually featured supernatural events recounted with realistic detail suggesting an eyewitness account, has been described by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German writers as the source of the novelle form, which usually featured a story striking enough to arouse interest in and of itself, without any connection to society, the times, or culture. The German novelle then gave rise to the short story.

This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction. One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction. The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility. The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience. It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the storyteller.

Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd, in his book Inventing Ireland, has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature. William Carleton is the most important Irish mediator between the folk tale and the modern realistic story because of his attention to detail and his creation of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton, and later Poe and Hawthorne knew, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective.

Critics of Irish fiction generally agree that Carleton's story "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is his best, similar to the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne in America. "Wildgoose Lodge" recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a Catholic secret society. Although ostensibly merely an eyewitness report by a former member of the society, the structure of the story reflects a self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story. A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how romantic short-story writers developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without using allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot.

What makes "Wildgoose lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and self-consciously aware at once. Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from a mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.

The main development of the Irish short, from its roots in the rich folklore of the Irish people to its post-Joycean modernism, has been one in which the old local color conventions and stereotypes of Ireland and its people have been replaced with an image of Ireland as a modern European country. Although many tourists may bemoan the loss of the old rural images, lamenting that Ireland and its literature is losing its distinctiveness, the fact is, most of those stereotypes were due to the biting poverty of many of the people, the harshness of British rule, and the despair and hopelessness that lead to the stereotypes of Irish immigration and Irish drinking. The people of the New Ireland, until recently the shining star of economic development in the European Union, are not sorry to see those myths laid to rest. The short story will probably always be a powerful literary form for Irish writers, but it will probably never again be a form that perpetuates the old local color legends of the Emerald Isle.

The question I pose to you is: Why do you think some countries give rise to great short story writers, while other countries favor the novel? For example, it has been suggested that the French have always been much better at the short story than the Germans. Why did the short story take such strong root in America, I mean other than the publishing issue (British novels were widely available in America because of the lack of copyright protection; thus, periodical publication of short fiction became the favored outlet for American writers.)? Why do you think that the Irish have always been better at the short story than the British?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I lift high a pint of Guinness to all of you!

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