February 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America by Peter Quinn

Peter Quinn’s Looking for Jimmy: In Search of Irish American is a collection of essays compiled and segmented in to five broadly inclusive chapters: Family and Memory, Politics and Place, Faith and Imagination, Silence and History, and Conclusion. The author is a third generation Irish American, lapsed historian, and former speech writer. His writing is deeply personal -- infused with family vignettes, reflections on religion, reviews of influential writers and thinkers and through out -- and historical overview of Irish migration and assimilation into the cultural economy of the United States. Quinn’s project is lofty -- to understand, explain and recast the Irish American experience. He grapples with stereotypes and offers alternative interpretations in their stead.

Quinn cobbles together the historical and personal in his commentaries. An example is Quinn’s discussion of the Irish American entry into politics and civil service. He writes about Tammany Hall and its politicos or bosses. Quinn reframes the discussion of Tammany instead of simply adopting the pervasive view of it as a corrupt cesspool. He also references his grandfather labor-union organizing, his father’s judgeship, and his own civil service experience in the Bronx Landlord and Tenant (L&T) Courts. Quinn suggests pragmatism, specifically; a need to create an infrastructure in a hostile new urban landscape led the Irish, mostly rural poor, to become politically active. Their sheer numbers made them a powerful voting block.

Looking for Jimmy can only be described as a labor of love – an insider’s tribute to his own. Quinn writes with equal parts fervor and knowledge. He displays an extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness in his essays. Quinn’s preoccupations with his origins, discouraged by his mother, mythologized, and, arguably, overlooked by American historians, drive his essays. Irish peasant stock fleeing the brutal Famine and settling in urban epicenters of the United States -- particularly New York City -- are the heroes of his essays.  

For the most part, Quinn’s use of language is lyrical and image dense. Be forewarned, recourse to a dictionary seems probable for virtually any reader. There are some instances when his writing seems overly labored. Most often, however, the more academic tenor or content of Quinn’s essays is balanced by adept storytelling. Perhaps because of his experience speech writing, Quinn manages to end nearly every one of his essays with a potent summation or image.

One of my favorites is a description of his Quinn’s grandfather and father -- a young boy at the time -- in the midst of a Canadian crowd playing “God Save the King” with the Union Jack coming down. Quinn’s grandfather -- despite threats and reproof from the crowd -- refuses to remove his hat and stops his son from doing the same, saying, “That flag is a symbol of royalty and aristocracy… It stands for empire and greed. Never doff your hat to it.” Quinn ends this essay, “The Perils of Pat,” by saying, “Pat stood there with my father at his side until the anthem was done, hats unremoved, heads unbowed. And that’s how I like most to think of them: Irish laborer and son, together in that twilight, refusing to bend a knee before emperors or empires.”

For those of us Americans who hyphenate our identities, but also for those who do not, Quinn’s collection of essays will provoke recognition and longing. Descriptive and meditative in his essays, Quinn tracks a single community’s arrival, struggle and eventual acceptance in the United States. In a climate where fears of cultural divides and racial difference animate the discussions of immigration -- both illegal and sanctioned, Looking for Jimmy is particularly timely. 

Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America by Peter Quinn
The Overlook Press
ISBN: 1585678708
283 pages