Christopher M. Dowd
Two of the most famous Irish-Americans in literature are probably not characters you think of as Irish-American.
But the characterizations of both Huck Finn and Scarlett O’Hara have a lot to say about Irish-American stereotypes and the prejudice of other Americans toward the Irish, the first group of immigrants to arrive in the United States by the millions.
Christopher M. Dowd, a University of New Haven assistant professor of English and author of “The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature,” says both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Gone with the Wind” are loaded with Irish-American stereotypes and show not just how the Irish were portrayed but why Irish characters appealed to writers and readers.
“Huck Finn is probably the most famous Irish-American figure in literature,” he says. “And the novel does play with popular stereotypes. Twain himself seems torn between nativist anti-Catholic, anti-Irish attitudes and some actual admiration for the rugged individualism he recognized in the Irish character.”
Dowd says “Huckleberry Finn” has come to be viewed as an interracial adventure between a black man and a white boy. “Since the Irish of the 19th century were not generally seen as fully entitled to claim a white racial identity, the novel seems more about the adventures of two ethnic outsiders.
“Huck, as an Irish-American, was wild. He was not really civilized and not really civilize–able,” Dowd says. “At the time the book was written (1885), the perception of the Irish in America was that they were lower class, vulgar, even dangerous. Twain uses a lot of stereotypes to demonstrate this – Huck’s father, for instance, is a drunk who doesn’t sleep in the house but among the pigs in a shanty in the woods. “Twain plays with stereotypes and prejudices,” Dowd says.
Margaret Mitchell’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara nearly 50 years later, in 1930, is another case in point. “My research on Scarlett O’Hara began when I realized how odd it was that a family that had been oppressed by English landowners would come to America and find it acceptable to become slave owners,” says Dowd, who will discuss his theories about “Gone with the Wind” at Columbia University this fall.
Mitchell’s novel presents a very anachronistic vision of how the Irish would have been treated in the South at that time. But the novel seems to be an accurate portrayal of Irish-American concerns of the 1930s, Dowd says.
“Mitchell, like many later generation Irish-Americans, did not have a clear sense of what it meant to be Irish in America,” he says. ‘Gone with the Wind’ seems to be her attempt to figure out what it means to be Irish in an American context. While Scarlett seriously misunderstands Irish history and culture, readers are supposed to understand that it is her Irish heritage that allows her to thrive after the Civil War when all of the other Southern women wilt and are defeated.”
Dowd, who earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut in 2009, is now studying pulp fiction from the 1930s and is focusing on Conan the Barbarian and its author, Robert E. Howard.
“The idea that Conan was Irish has been lost,” Dowd says. “Everybody thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger when they think of Conan. But actually, these were stories about Irishness and the hyper-masculinity ascribed to Irish athletes, gangsters, cowboys, and detectives.”
His studies are particularly interesting today because most Americans fail to recognize many Irish-American characters as even being Irish.
“Irishness has been largely absorbed into a homogenous white culture and, as a result, it has become a largely invisible ethnicity to many modern literary critics,” Dowd says. “American characters have been de-ethicized in literature but Irishness is an integral part of their story.”