Are we not all immigrants from our pasts?
April 16, 1987
Written when I was beginning to spend time in Chicago and the prospect loomed of a move from my boyhood home in Springfield. I was preoccupied with questions about who I had been and who and where I wanted to be. Asking such questions is a big part of what being American is about, perhaps more than finding the answers.
There are famines, and there are famines. With the official jobless rate at 18 percent and the unofficial one much higher, young people in Ireland are emigrating to the U.S., to “America,” as of old. Analysts deduce from applications for the few special visas offered to hopeful Irish emigres by the U.S. government each year that an astounding one-quarter of the island’s population wants to leave.
Many already have. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Irish are living in the U.S. illegally; whatever other bit of green they may show on their persons on St. Pat’s Day, it is not the official registration card of the resident alien. As so often in the past, the new arrivers are young and single. Unlike their predecessors, they are also very well educated. Hunger is not driving these Paddies west. They are lawyers and architects, not navvies and nursemaids; asked why they abandoned home, they mention money and income taxes and an Ireland that is mediocre and boring.
I have been fascinated for a long time by voluntary emigrants, people who (in the phrase of essayist Guy Davenport) came here “uncompeled, and had other choices.” Part of that fascination lies in my family’s history. My father’s ancestors nursed their share of political grievances against the Saxon duchy in the 1830s (then under the sway of militarist Prussia) the biggest being the natural resistance of parents to seeing sons blown up in other people’s wars. But it wasn’t principle which spurred them abroad, just the desire to be left alone, to grow old and fat on beer in the company of attentive grandchildren. Like today’s Irish, they were neither illiterate nor destitute when they left Germany for Cass County, neither oppressed nor persecuted. They were just unhappy, and vaguely uncertain about their futures where they were.
In a recent book review about a similar party of Swiss colonists in Illinois, I noted how such immigrants confound the rags-to-Rotary Club sagas which constitute our national mythology of improvement. They sought freedom, certainly, but what Davenport describes as “freedom from constraint and sanctions” of an ordinary sort. It is a point he makes in his consideration (first published in the Hudson Review, later in his new essay collection, Every Force Evolves a Form) of generations of English emigrants to the U.S. They came looking variously for “Utopia, themselves, the confirmation of their worst suspicions, Paradise, or the spearhead of technological advance,” even (as he surmises about the poet Auden) to be lonely.
Or to be respectable. Davenport’s reminder that “strange things happen to uprooted people"—a phrase that makes a more apt national motto than E pluribus Unum—is confirmed in an interesting new book from the University of Illinois Press. The authors of The Irish in Chicago (there are four of them, writing in separate essays) credit their relentless striving for middle-class respectability for blunting their creativity, which seems always to have sprung from whiskey, song, and revolution, in roughly equal parts. Respectability was the Chicago Irish’s retort to the anti-Irish stereotypes of the WASP establishment; basically, the Irish quieted anti-Irish feeling by ceasing to be Irish.
The process by which newcomers end up exiles from their own ethnicity is by now a familiar one. (Calvin Trillin, who is one, spoke in Chicago last week on the topic, “The Midwestern Jew, or How to Make Chopped Liver with Miracle Whip.”) One of the contributors to Irish, Charles Fanning, says that the leitmotif of the Irish experience in Chicago has been silence, what he calls “the struggle for significant speech”—a struggle which makes their failure to produce a major writer after Farrell the more pointed. That silence should be the curse of a people for whom talk comes as naturally as breath, that the people who gave the world Yeats (or was it Yeats who gave the world the Irish?) should have no songs of their own is tragic. After several generations the Chicago Irish have shed much of their religion and their city neighborhoods, if not their prejudices. The younger ones still eat soda bread, which they buy at the supermarket along with their tofu and pasta; they listen to traditional Irish music as played by groups such as the Chieftains, which they probably heard for the first time on WXRT. If they persist in calling themselves Irish Americans, it’s because being just Americans means being nothing at all.
It is said that we are a nation of immigrants, by which it is meant that we are a nation of ex-immigrants. I find that assumption false. Lawrence McCaffrey, another contributor to Irish, describes that experience as an Irish diaspora, a restless roaming, a succession of exoduses over generations either from something (WASP prejudice, poor black newcomers) or toward something (better housing in the suburbs) but always away from the settled and the familiar. In his reflections on the careers in the U.S. of expatriate British writers Isherwood, Huxley, and Auden, Davenport notes that they had been outsiders in their country, stateless even before they left the docks of Liverpool or Southhampton. Change is just another kind of distance. Does not our rootlessness, our dislocation, make most Americans outsiders in their own country?
I was raised in a lower middle-class household of the sort whose children, like Ireland’s, were raised to leave—not the country, but the streets, the towns, the classes, and the customs of our upbringing. It was assumed that I would not live like my parents, or where my parents lived. The language with which the new Irish emigrants describe their dissatisfaction—the lack of economic opportunity, the frail prospects of amusement—precisely matches that used by me and my age-mates to describe our reasons for leaving Springfield and the Midwest. I pass along the remark of an incredulous, grateful former town-mate who, after settling in the Boston area, exclaimed, “Intelligence has value here!”
For the outsider in his own country, emigration is not a matter of leaving home but of finding one. A few weeks ago, in Chicago, I walked past a boarded window which had been appropriated as a community bulletin board. A crudely printed flyer tacked there caught my eye—mugged it, more like. It bore the name “Krohe,” and advertised a performance of Shaw’s St. Joan starring one Charly Krohe; the photo showed a bare-chested young man of ambiguous sexuality wearing earrings, a crucifix, and strips of duct tape across his nipples.
I do not know this young man. However, our last name is rare, and I have yet to hear of a Krohe living anywhere in the U.S. who is not related to me. My guess is that if Charly did not start his journey toward the avant-garde from a place like Jacksonville or Beardstown or Virginia, his parents did. In any event his roots are in a place where duct tape is not a part of one’s costume, even on Saturday nights, and men do not pretend to be women, at least not in public. How much farther a journey was his odyssey to Chicago than the trans-Atlantic trek of our presumed common ancestors? They after all ended up living the same life they’d led in the old country, only in a new place. Which was the braver voyager? Who had the more difficult crossing? ●