Alice McDermott: Of Saints and Scholars
The writings of Alice McDermott uniquely express a particular form of Irish-American identity.
Alice McDermott is an award-winning novelist known for her moving stories about ordinary Irish Catholic families. Her accolades include three Pulitzer Prize nominations and a National Book Award.
McDermott was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, where most of her novels are set. She attended the State University of New York at Oswego and the University of New Hampshire. She published her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), before she turned 30. Her second book, That Night (1987), about teenagers in Long Island, was a Pulitzer finalist and adapted into a 1992 film starring Juliette Lewis. Charming Billy (1998), about alcoholism in an Irish American community in New York, won the National Book Book. Her eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, set in a convent in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, was a finalist for the 2017 Kirkus Prize for Fiction.
She is a professor of the humanities at Johns Hopkins University, where she has taught since 1996.
For Alice McDermott, there’s no greater pleasure than spinning a good yarn.
Alice McDermott: I’m never more delighted than when I’m sunk deep into someone else’s voice and someone else’s experience. Even if that voice could be mine, it’s not.
Indeed, the characters in McDermott’s fiction do, at least on the face of it, tend to resemble her. Irish-American Catholics dominate her narratives. But, she says, she has no agenda.
McDermott: Going into this, it was not, oh, I have to stand up for my people or I have to explore my heritage, or I have to dispel the stereotypes. It was just, I’m writing about human beings.
AJC: And these are the human beings I know.
McDermott: And these are the human beings who I have readily at hand.
McDermott: The other advantage is, also, that they are not just Irish-American, but they’re Catholic, and that gives me language for what they would not otherwise have language for. Because I focus on characters who are not particularly emotionally articulate, they have their ritual, they have the language of the Church. That helps me as their creator get at who they are as individuals.
(Excerpt from Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy)
He sat for a few minutes in the dark hallway, a cold draft blowing across his bare feet. He wondered if Maeve would be calling in another hour or two. If he went back to bed would he go back to sleep. He thought of his father, the first and foremost (in those days) of the people he loved who had died. The very thought itself a prayer to the man in heaven, which he’d surely earned, if only by dint of flattery he had poured on God and every detail of His creation for the sixty-odd years he had lived. Or, if God required such things, by dint of the terrible pain he’d endured at the end.
After years as a very public Catholic, Alice McDermott says that these days, she’s going to Mass less frequently, this despite being raised in a devout household. McDermott grew up in 1950s Long Island, in a family with some clearly stated values. Among them, an understanding that words have currency.
McDermott: I heard that all the time in my home, that it was language, being able to speak well, being eloquent, read everything, listen to people who are good at language. My father was a very conservative Republican. I don’t mean Irish Republican, I mean American Republican. And when we were kids he would, if William F. Buckley was on television, as he was a lot when he ran for mayor of New York, he would call us in and sit down and listen to this man speak.
Recording of William F. Buckley: Anything that liberates the human spirit or causes people to believe that hope is worth cherishing, is in itself a very significant human contribution.
McDermott: “This is what gets you,” he would say, “invited to the White House in your future.” So, I think it was another version of the value of eloquence, the value of vocabulary, the beauty of our language. And I think maybe it’s in some way tied to the fact that this is not our heritage, this language, this is not the first language of our great-great-grandparents.
AJC: Well, it’s the first language of our oppressors, right?
McDermott: Yes, exactly, exactly, yeah.
The English invasion of Ireland began in the mid-16th century, but the English language didn’t achieve dominance over the native tongue, Gaelic, until a couple of hundred years later. In the 1830s, the British set up a school system where Gaelic was banned. Not 15 years later, multi-year potato blights left the Irish starving. Access to food was controlled by the ruling British, and suddenly a command of the English language became a matter of life or death. Necessity bred excellence, and today, Irish writers, including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney are regarded as among the finest in English literature. But McDermott says that for her, this storytelling tradition comes with a certain mistrust of words.
McDermott: You never approach anything directly. The Irish don’t talk about emotions directly, they don’t talk about troubles directly. And they don’t go through the front door in their stories. What is only hinted at, what is not said, is as substantial, and perhaps more substantial, than what we try to say about it. That there is value, it’s not all repressed and hidden and secretive, and if only you would just pour it all out, you’ll be a much happier person. It’s more a respect, an appreciation, for what can’t be said, or what can’t be said sufficiently. So, let’s not bother with that, let’s talk about this, which is to the side of it, and maybe 45 minutes later, we’ll get around and have said something about the thing we can’t really define, in a different way.
(Excerpt from Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy)
Both men sat silently for a moment, cautious, it seemed, weighing words. Neither one of them wanted to appear to be trying to say something profound. That was for the priest, of course not. Both equally feared growing sentimental. And yet something needed to be said, on a night like this.
And so, Alice McDermott continues to say, plainly and unsentimentally, that which must be said.