A Touch of the Fishwife: An Irish American Poet Looks at Her Family History
My great grandmother grew up poor in New Haven, falling in love with a man who soon contracted tuberculosis and spent the last few years of his life bedridden. Widowed in her mid-twenties, she supported her two daughters, one of whom was crippled by polio, with factory work, taking in laundry, and at one point arranging the hair of the dead for a funeral director. Still, she wanted to be a writer, sending in submission after submission to Reader’s Digest for decades. There were copies of many of her short pieces in her papers, among them this letter:
Readers Digest Editir;=
I would like to ask you what is the matter with my writings,?
They are all rejected, you claim you like to help beginners.
Surely once in a while I should stumble on something you could print.
Did I make a mistake in writing you to ask if you printed something I could get permission to put it into a book. ?
The whole writing bit was because I wamted to write about my ancesters, they were very colorfull and unusual.
Surely I would rather forgo the book idea rather than not ever have anything published.
I want to earn money to get help writing the book as I only went to the 6th. grade in school.
Plus I have eye trouble and will need an operation some day.
I don,t want charity or even your sym ethy.
I am 79 years old and all I want from you is to tell me what is wrong with my writing so I can correct it.
I have been subscribing to Readers Digest for many years and would consider it an honor to have just one piece published .
Self addressed stamped envelope inclosed.
As an editor, I can understand why Reader’s Digest would pass on the submissions of an uneducated writer, even one as persistent as my great grandmother. But not for a moment did I consider correcting her errors when adding her letter to this essay. For me, her voice lives as much in these errors as it did in her sibilant t’s. I’ve got a feeling she’d understand why I took her name at the start of my own career as a writer, a writer who has the advantage of high school.
How does all this fit with Eugene O’Neill? Oh he does have a place in my life, Reader—not as a literary influence but as a window to the race and class struggles in my own family. His play, A Touch of the Poet, first staged posthumously in 1957, the year of my birth, looks at the clash between New England “Yankees” and Irish Americans. That play’s protagonist, Con Melody, is a working class Irishman long-hidden behind an aristocratic veneer. A quoter of Byron when it suits him, he’s a barkeep with a rage no amount of alcohol can quell. O’Neill spoke to one of the central issues in my family: class shame. Forget the shanty versus lace curtain distinctions. We were barely Irish at all! The play ends with a glimmer of his self acceptance and the words of Melody’s wife Nora, who’s willing to love both his true self and his pretensions: “I’ll play any game he likes and give him love in it.” I’ve come to terms with my family’s repudiation of our Irish forbears, even as I proceed under the name McGrath.
O’Neill took the lives of the strivers and the layabouts, the stubborn and fey, the loving and the unlovable among our country’s Irish immigrants and made them into drama both accurate and lasting. I’m indebted to his articulate persistence as much as I am to my great grandmother’s rougher efforts. I can hear in the lines of my own poetry my great-grandmother’s soft t’s. Even when I yell them like a fishwife.