Beyond the Waterfront
Looking for Jimmy
A Search for Irish America
The Overlook Press, $26.95, 320 pp.
You don’t have to be Irish or Irish-American to love this book,” promises Frank McCourt in his above-the-title dust-jacket blurb for Peter Quinn’s Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. More than a decade has passed since the publication of McCourt’s lugubriously enchanted memoir Angela’s Ashes, whose astonishing popularity—think Irish near-equivalent of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon—remains a specter haunting the genre of Irish-American autobiography. There is a hint of self-effacing mischief in McCourt’s paraphrase of the punch line (“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”) from a ubiquitous 1960s ad campaign that punctured ethnic determinism while touting a Brooklyn bakery’s legendary rye bread. The habit of non-Irish critics to “canonize” the famous opening lament from Angela’s Ashes (“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood”) remains a subject of both mirth and some agitation among Irish-American writers.
As Peter Quinn assures readers of Looking for Jimmy: “contra the assertion” of his “good friend” McCourt, he was “blessed as well as burdened, graced more than cursed” by a decidedly nonmiserable upbringing in the comforting if “prosaic” postwar Bronx of “ethnic middle-class aspirants and arrivees,” far from the poverty and perpetual damp of Limerick where Brooklyn-born McCourt spent his childhood. The son of college-educated, devoutly yet unfanatically Catholic parents who met at the 1928 St. Patrick’s Day dance at Our Lady of Solace parish, Quinn, like his father—a former one-term Democratic congressman turned highly respected jurist—attended Manhattan College and Fordham University; stories he published in a well-known Jesuit weekly led to a successful career as a speechwriter “mining words for mouths not my own,” including the mouths of politicians (New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo) and of CEOs at Time Warner, from which Quinn recently retired as editorial director.
Like those of his Irish-American contemporaries Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, who also enjoyed early stints working for Irish-American politicians (Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill respectively), Quinn’s labors in service of a global media empire only heightened his passion for the localism of Irish political lore and legend. Unlike his celebrity counterparts, however, Quinn has a devotion to Irish and Irish-American history and literature that is rooted in a genuine calling: he surely reads more Irish history than most professional scholars and cares passionately about the fate of Irish America. This care is evident in his two historical novels, in his engaging on-camera presence in historical documentaries, and in the feisty, lively Looking for Jimmy, a thoughtfully arranged collection of new and reconfigured essays. A great champion of the distinctively Irish ingredient in the “Catholic imagination,” Quinn blends a lyrically spiritual sensibility with the realism of an Irish politician.
For all Quinn’s buoyant charm, a somber theme—the debilitating effects of silence in the Irish-American experience—winds through Looking for Jimmy. An Irish-American tendency toward self-forgetting is more than matched, he argues, by the disdain often shown by outsiders: “a recent history of New York City’s intellectual life,” as he notes, “doesn’t even have a reference to Irish or Irish-American in its index.” Quinn excavates some of the stories buried under layers of such neglect until he arrives at its foundation: the Famine, whose recovery in history and memory, he notes in quoting anthropologist Joan Vincent, “has to be based on the interpretation of silences, on what did not happen, and on what one does not know, but needs to know.”
What needs to be known along with the horrible truths of the Famine, Quinn believes, is that the rural, peasant Irish of the post-Famine migration largely shaped urban America’s richly varied, culturally democratic sensibilities. His two favorite Irish-American “Jimmies”—Walker, the rakish New York City mayor of the 1920s, and Cagney, who needs no introduction—“personified Paddy’s transmogrification from mud-splattered, simple-minded, shillelagh-wielding spalpeen into skeptical, fast-talking urbanite who could never be mistaken for greenhorn or rube”—or Anglo-American. Quinn suggests that a preoccupation with the alleged racism of the urban Irish quelled discussion of the real issue: “if there is any central theme in the story of the Irish in America, it is not how they became white, but how they stayed Irish” against pressure to fully “assimilate.” The Irish, for Quinn, became a kind of in-between American people, confounding by their success the racist logic of eugenicists, maintaining their identity while freely mingling with so many others that we may well read someday about How the Irish Became Brown (as I’m reminded each time my Irish/Chinese-American son emerges from the beach with a tan, of all things).
Part of the problem with most historians is that they are not novelists or novelist/historians like Quinn or Thomas Fleming, whose portrait (in his 2005 memoir, Mysteries of My Father) of Jersey City’s Irish political machine—“a churning mix of ambition and resentments and inertia over which leaders presided only by constant effort”—is rendered in the “subtle hues” that confirm its authenticity for Quinn. Experience counts too: Fleming’s father, Teddy, ran Jersey City’s Sixth Ward during the regime of Frank Hague, and “the Democratic Party was ingrained” in Quinn as a child “in much the same way as my religious beliefs were.” His father was a prominent figure in the Bronx organization of Ed Flynn, who, notes the author, “ran a relatively ‘clean machine.’” Quinn’s romantic-realist’s take on the urban Irish machines largely overlooks their dark side: he does not offer an account of his father’s surprising defeat for re-election to Congress in 1946, an event surely linked to Flynn’s refusal to run his Bronx slate of candidates on both the Democratic and American Labor Party lines, as per New Deal-coalition custom. The left-wing ALP ran its own Irish-American candidate instead, splitting the progressive vote. The result, reported the New York Times on November 6, 1946, was that “the Republicans have captured a congressional seat in the Bronx...the first time they have had such a representative in the memory of old inhabitants.”
Quinn does report that his mother’s final visit to help close his father’s Washington office “ended up with her pregnant—with twins” (the author and his brother), a fact that surely trumps analysis of internecine machine politics. Although the organization subsequently did fine by Quinn’s dad—he retired from the New York State Supreme Court in 1974—the larger point is that for all their vaunted pragmatism the Irish machines often displayed a deeply ideological, if not vindictive, side. In New York City especially, Irish politicos ardently battled reformers and radicals of all kinds—including Communists (amply represented in the ALP), with whom they fought so viciously that they often hurt their own in the crossfire. Many of the same organizations—though not the urbane and intellectual Ed Flynn’s—often used or condoned violence. Quinn reports that election-day “sluggers” got their name from the Irish word slacaires. I confess that eight years of research and writing on Tammany-affiliated Irish gangsters who murdered dozens, possibly scores, of Irish-American longshoremen on Manhattan’s West Side in the years between the two World Wars have cured this Irish-American “Jimmy” of lingering nostalgia for the machine and its works.
Peter Quinn makes an enormous contribution in Looking for Jimmy, challenging the various codes of silence that have too often undermined Irish-American historical self-understanding. “We’re all revisers (if not revisionists) now,” he notes of ongoing interpretive controversies over the Famine and its legacy. “The debate will continue to rage” over this and other themes of great importance to the Irish-American and Catholic communities—debates that can scarcely be given too much attention, especially when the alternative has been deadening silence. To paraphrase Frank McCourt’s paraphrase: You don’t have to be Irish to identify with Peter Quinn’s passion and resolve. But it helps.