The Literatures of Irish America: On Joe Cleary’s World-Systems Scholarship

May 30, 2022   •   By Matthew Eatough

Modernism, Empire, World Literature

Joe Cleary

The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization

Joe Cleary

AMERICANS, IT SEEMS, can’t get enough of the Irish. Even leaving aside some of the kitschier displays of Irish music and dance to be found at ethnic festivals and celebrations, there is plenty of Irish culture to go around. Democratic presidential candidates quote Seamus Heaney and W. B. Yeats. Irish and Irish American characters take center stage in popular American cinema, from historical dramas (Gangs of New York) and big-budgets thrillers (The Departed) to the idealizations of white masculinity peddled by Clint Eastwood films (Million Dollar Baby). And in the more sordid corners of the internet, myths about Irish slavery are invoked to dismiss the horrors of American chattel slavery and the realities of racial discrimination in the present.

The American fascination with Ireland and Irish America has, unsurprisingly, spurred a long tradition of books about US-Irish relations: monographs on the Irish diaspora (Kerby Miller’s landmark Emigrants and Exiles and Ireland and Irish America) and the American reception of Irish culture (Stephen Butler’s Irish Writers in the Irish American Press and The Irish in Us, edited by Diane Negra); the poverty-porn of Frank McCourt’s 1996 best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes; and the heritage-driven historicism of Thomas Cahill’s runaway success How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995).

Joe Cleary’s two latest books, Modernism, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization (both published by Cambridge University Press), take up this subject in a refreshingly new light. Instead of tracing direct lines of influence or political solidarities, Cleary asks how we might begin to assess the structural conditions that have tied these countries and their literatures together. Borrowing Pascale Casanova’s concept of a “world literary system,” he hypothesizes that capitalist globalization has created a transnational literary field that functions alongside — and in some ways as a direct consequence of — networks of trade, labor, and finance. This world literary system operates according to its own rules and logic, which individual texts are both bound by and struggle back against, flouting established notions of literary value and asserting their own ideas about literature and its worth. It is the structures of this system, Cleary maintains, that have in large part determined the shape and substance of Irish and American literatures over the past 150 years, and it is these structures that are responsible for the enduring connections between them.

In Cleary’s account, the history of the 20th- and 21st-century Anglophone literary system is one of transition from a British-dominated network of publishers, reviewers, and accreditation to an American one. During the 19th century, Cleary writes in Modernism, Empire, World Literature, “England’s leading universities, distinguished literary reviews, and that nation’s most famous writers, intellectuals and literary critics were admired not just in England but across the English-speaking empire.” As Britain’s military and economic power began to wane at the tail end of the 19th century, however, other countries mounted challenges to its cultural hegemony. Foremost among these challengers, in Cleary’s reading, were the Irish and American modernists who came to prominence between 1890 and 1945.

Echoing Ezra Pound’s 1929 view that English-language literature “is now in the keeping of the Irish (Yeats and Joyce)” and that “[a]ll the developments in English verse since 1910 are due almost wholly to Americans,” Cleary suggests that modernism’s oppositional stance vis-à-vis established cultural institutions provided Irish and American writers with a language through which they were able to stage a collective “revolt” against British cultural authority. Over time, the weakening of London’s cultural position (as well as a snobbish disdain for modernism among Britain’s intellectual elite) enabled New York to displace London as the center of the Anglophone literary world, with modernism as its guiding aesthetic. What was initially a two-pronged assault thus ended with Irish writers gradually pulled into the gravitational orbit of the United States, where they found, at first, a welcoming market for Irish modernism and, later, a more permanent home in US creative writing programs.

Cleary’s narrative synthesizes a number of ideas that have proven influential in modernist studies and world literary studies in recent years. His attention to the transfer of global hegemony from Britain to the United States echoes Giovanni Arrighi’s well-known thesis on this topic in The Long Twentieth Century, and his account of how the United States ultimately “stole” modernism from Europe is indebted to work by Serge Guilbault, Frances Stonor Saunders, and Greg Barnhisel. His world-systems methodology is likewise in conversation with several ambitious models of world literature, most notably Casanova’s World Republic of Letters and the Warwick Research Collective’s Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature.

Bringing together these diverse strands of scholarship enables Cleary to pose a series of questions about how Irish and American literatures relate to one another over the longue durée of the American century: How and why did British cultural authority erode in the lead-up to the two World Wars, and why were Irish and American literatures so central to unseating the British from their traditional place of power? What social, cultural, and economic factors primed writers from both of these countries to think in terms of modernist “renaissances” in spite of their nations’ very different histories? How did New York’s ultimate victory over London shape not only American literature, but also the Irish fiction that followed in its wake? And finally, how has the transition to a US-led economic and literary world-system been recorded in the formal structures of an Irish novel that has, increasingly since the 1970s, looked to the US for guidance and inspiration?

Modernism, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization move back and forth across these questions, probing them for insights into our contemporary moment. Of the two books, Modernism, Empire, World Literature is perhaps the more confident and secure in its assessments. Focusing on the period of transition between British and American hegemonies, Cleary asks us to take seriously pronouncements made by Pound, Yeats, and their contemporaries about British decline. While there is undoubtedly an element of braggadocio in Pound’s claim (in 1913) that the United States “could within two decades become the centre of occidental art” or in Yeats’s diagnosis that English poetry was in its “sunset,” these statements nevertheless reflect, Cleary insists, a very real insight into the global reorganization of political and economic power during the first decades of the 20th century. It would have been almost unthinkable to have envisioned Britain’s displacement as the de facto center of cultural authority during the heyday of the pax Britannica in the mid-19th century; but Britain’s reputation had been tarnished enough by its participation in World War I, by its relaxing grip on its colonial possessions, and by the long economic downturn of the 1870s and 1880s, to countenance dissent from its erstwhile peripheries. For Cleary, “modernism” is the name that we give to this dissent, and modernist literature an archive of texts that embody the formal strategies writers used to make sense of an epochal transition between a fading British world-system and an emerging American one.

In order to trace the connections between modernist literature and its socioeconomic context, Modernism, Empire, World Literature adopts a broadly formalist approach. The book focuses primarily on a small number of classics — T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, James Joyce’s Ulysses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Derek Walcott’s Omeros — each of which is treated as a meditation on literary prestige and power in a changing world-system. The readings often shade toward the allegorical method popularized by Fredric Jameson’s Marxist analyses of literature, but with forays into the thicker historical descriptions found in the work of Raymond Williams. Thus, we find that the “cracked” structures of Eliot’s The Waste Land and James’s Golden Bowl register a crisis in the continued reproduction of Britain’s high-cultural tradition, but also express a faith in Americans’ ability to recover and repair that tradition (as performed in these modernist epics and, later, in the American university system’s attempt to “take charge” of Europe’s cultural heritage through its “Western Civilization” and “great books” programs). Similar criteria are applied to the book’s other case studies, which analyze the politics of literary rivalry in Ulysses; the contradiction between economic and literary modes of value in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; and the representations of the late-American world-system found in Walcott’s Omeros.

Compared to these sweeping, confident claims, The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization is much more provisional in its conclusions. The book leaps forward to the 1990s and 2000s, a period commonly referred to in Ireland as the Celtic Tiger era. During these years, Ireland experienced rapid economic growth, largely driven by cuts to the corporate tax rate, rising levels of foreign investment, relocations of multinational banks and IT firms to Ireland, and a precarious building boom. Such developments transformed Ireland from a poor, inward-looking nation into a paragon of capitalist globalization. And in doing so, they brought Irish society and Irish writing into increasing contact with the cultural and economic center of late 20th- and 21st-century globalization: the United States.

The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization tasks itself with pursuing the implications of this détente with American-led globalization for the contemporary Irish novel. Cleary’s method is once again broadly formalist, with the majority of the book consisting of close readings of individual texts. Examining recent works by Colm Toíbín, Joseph O’Neill, Colum McCann, Ronan Bennett, Anne Enright, and Naoise Dolan, among others, Cleary asks how key American cultural institutions, such as US creative writing programs, have exported American forms and idioms to Ireland, as well as how older literary forms, such as Irish variants of Orientialism, have been stretched to accommodate the expanded geographic horizon entailed by globalization.

In surveying these texts, Cleary is careful to not draw any hard and fast conclusions about the underlying nature of specific literary devices, or about the future direction of the Irish novel. As he explains in a chapter on Ronan Sheehan’s Foley’s Asia and Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, his goal is to explore “the different strategies Irish writers have deployed as they have attempted to work within” or through the “binds” of inherited forms and ideas, but without proposing either “a narrative of clear-cut progress” or of “regress.” In general, Cleary seems to be somewhat skeptical about whether or not Irish fiction as it currently stands can do justice to the globalized world in which it finds itself. He notes, for example, how the transatlantic settings of Toíbín’s Brooklyn, O’Neill’s Netherland, and McCann’s TransAtlantic offer at best a “‘weak’ kind of novelty,” and his sense that Irish novels about the Global South tend to rely too much on the tropes of the literary thriller and the adventure tale to incorporate the perspectives of non-Western peoples is a point well taken. But even at its more critical moments, The Irish Expatriate Novel suspends any final judgment, acknowledging instead that changing structural conditions within the capitalist world-system render the possibilities for such forms “intriguing but obscure.”

Part of the hesitancy here undoubtedly lies in the changing nature of the present-day Irish literary field. Ireland was hit particularly hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and the shock imparted by the collapse of the country’s housing bubble lent a new sense of energy and purpose to Irish fiction. Added to this, the expansion of Ireland’s small-press publishing industry over the past decade (financed, in part, by the Arts Council of Ireland) has loosened some of the market pressures described by Cleary in his book (even as it has solidified a neoliberal approach to state-sponsored arts funding that values literature’s contributions to the so-called “creative economy”). The result has been a literary field that is more diverse, more experimental, and in some ways more socially and politically engaged than its late 20th-century predecessors. From the dense modernist style of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones and Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing to the Marxist romances of heralded “millennial” novelist Sally Rooney, and from the fragmented narrative structures of Keith Ridgway’s London novels to the dystopian settings of Niall Bourke’s and Sarah Davis-Goff’s work, Irish fiction has been venturing into new genres and approaching them from new perspectives at an almost breakneck speed.

There is, in other words, a palpable sense of unfinishedness, of openness and flux, to contemporary Irish literature. What these changes might portend for the Irish expatriate novel is, as Cleary seems well aware, a matter of some conjecture. Some of the possibilities suggested by emerging forms are compellingly teased out in Cleary’s book. (Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, for instance, very much reads as a Rooney-esque novel about Irish knowledge workers, but with a significant change in setting from post–Celtic Tiger Dublin to high-finance Hong Kong.) Others, however, are as-yet-unshaped enough to pose questions about their future direction. How might, say, the fragmented stories that make up Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child and A Shock, and which appear to share some important stylistic and thematic elements with the work of David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy, provide Irish writers with a form for describing the flows and migrations of capitalist globalization? Can science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian fiction provide the necessary impetus to force the Irish expatriate novel out of its more familiar forms, and, in doing so, open up new conversations about Ireland’s place within the global capitalist world-system? And what sort of cognitive maps are being drawn by organizations like Tramp Press, the critically acclaimed Dublin-based publisher whose commitment to cutting-edge fiction by Irish women writers is matched with an interest in international feminism (as seen, for example, in Tramp’s publication of Canadian academic Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word and Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls).

The fact that many of these novels have been published in the last three years — and thus fall outside the period surveyed in Cleary’s book — points to just how rapidly things are changing in Irish literature. Taken together, Modernism, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization provide us with an essential account of how and why we have arrived where we are. The next step for Irish studies will be to take up Cleary’s project and answer what comes next. Doing so will entail not only cataloging the emerging forms of Irish fiction, but also taking up Cleary’s call to examine the structural relations that shape these novels.

If the United States, as Cleary argues, now functions as the de facto economic and geopolitical backdrop against which Irish fiction is produced, then it is the task of criticism to trace how American neoliberalism continues to inflect the material context and ideological coordinates of the Irish literary field. We must ask ourselves, for instance, how the consolidation of the Anglophone publishing industry into a handful of multinational conglomerates (the so-called “Big Four” of Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins) has influenced the current trajectory of the Irish novel, as well as whether the rise of small-press publishing in Ireland and the United States may provide an alternative to corporate homogenization.

We must also continue to consider how the global market for Irish fiction exerts a formative pressure on the types of novels being produced — from the narratives of Irish immigration that have proven so popular with American audiences, to the equally American nostalgia for Irish modernism we see reflected in the recent zeal for Irish experimentalism. Answering these questions will require us, like Cleary, to see the Irish novel as embedded in a global capitalist system that constrains creative expression, but which also opens up new possibilities for fiction.


Matthew Eatough is associate professor of English and Affiliate Faculty of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York.