BYRON AND THE POETICS OF ADVERSITY by Jerome Mcgann, Reviewed by Jonathan Sachs

By Jerome Mcgann
(Cambridge UP, 2023) xi + 214 pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Sachs on 2024-02-09.

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The idea that "the Irish became white" in the nineteenth century has set the terms for most work on Irish racialization since Noel Ignatiev presented that memorable formulation in 1995. Ignatiev's influential analysis argued that "the Catholic Irish, an oppressed race in Ireland, became part of an oppressing race in America" because,

fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave[, t]hey came to a society in which color was important in determining social position. It was not a pattern they were familiar with and they bore no responsibility for it; nevertheless, they adapted to it in short order. (How the Irish Became White, 1--2)

The subsequent three decades have seen important modifications and critiques of this account (from Paul Gilroy, David Lloyd, Peter O'Neill, and others), but Patrick O'Malley's The Irish and the Imagination of Race systematically dismantles its framework, both marking and helping to produce an overdue reset of core tenets of Irish studies, nineteenth century studies, and whiteness studies.

O'Malley marshals wide-ranging, transatlantic documentation--from fiction, journalism, political speeches, and beyond--to show that "at least an incipient Irish whiteness must precede, rather than arise out of, the historical developments that Ignatiev details" (30). The conditions of the Irish peasant were not properly comparable to those of an American slave; the relationship between color and social position was familiar to Irish immigrants. But most strikingly, O'Malley demonstrates that Irish "adaptation" to American white supremacy often operated through the strategic deployment of precisely these kinds of misleading parallels, false equivalences, and flights-to-innocence.

Rather than an "oppressed race" becoming an oppressive one, then, O'Malley characterizes the rise of Irish white supremacy in nineteenth-century America as a failure of translation, arguing that the rhetorical genres and codes of Irish nationalism "frequently lost their liberationist drive in the new cultural and moral context of racial structures and racial oppression on either side of the Atlantic" (5). Following Frederick Douglass, O'Malley suggests that the nineteenth century saw a "devil's bargain by which Irish Americans paid for the privileges of whiteness through the assumption of racial violence [...] trading the possibility of a coalition of sympathy for the lie of whiteness, produced by and through racism" (130). But he also emphasizes that such a betrayal was only possible because the universalisms on which such a "coalition of sympathy" might have seemed to rely were false ones.

The key reason these "translations" of Irish liberationism into a racial milieu fail, for O'Malley, is the structural asymmetry between the constructs of whiteness and blackness. Drawing heavily on Frank Wilderson's concept of the ruse of analogy and, mostly implicitly, on a theorization of Black ontology rooted in Fanon, O'Malley's readings repeatedly emphasize the contrast between a static model of blackness and a fluid conception of whiteness. So, the very features of Irish racialization that have been sometimes taken to complicate Irish whiteness--"whiteness to lose" (49), participation in "white racial consolidation" (97), "splintered whiteness" (98), the "constructison of a transethnic whiteness" (184)--are powerfully refigured as the very index of racial privilege. "The romance of white precarity" (128) is a drama of racial prestige unthinkable without the fixed backdrop of a denigrated and immobile category of blackness.

O'Malley's substantive intervention into cultural history is mobilized through, and doubled by, a second, methodological intervention into the theory of literary genre. He argues that literary and rhetorical generic translations from the Irish to the American concepts creates an illusion of commonality, a "putative generic similarity" that "can undermine the need for both coalitional politics and the ethical account of difference" (18--9). To this extent, literary dislocations in the United States (sometimes geographical, but as often conceptual) of the gothic, the nationalist poem, the realist novel, the political polemic, and the stage melodrama, to each of which O'Malley dedicates a chapter, transform how those genres work, both politically and aesthetically. To this extent, the book advances a contextualist theory of genre, refusing familiar questions of generic ideology (is melodrama conservative, is realism bourgeois, and so forth) in order to think through genre as necessarily a kind of strategic repurposing, one that must name its self-difference in order to avoid nefariously obfuscating it.

Depending on the author, the genre, and the context, these failures of translation take different forms, but they are unified by their anti-Blackness. This can look like appropriative analogies that erase differences, as in gothicized rhetorics of Irish "slavery," or, conversely, like the disavowal of that analogy through an emphasis on rights due to the Irish as white people. It can involve opportunistic apathy to the condition of Black Americans or enthusiastic opposition to their rights. But across O'Malley's cases, we are presented with the disturbing spectacle of an "anticolonialism [...] of white grievance" (231). Not all nineteenth-century Irish nationalism was white supremacist--O'Malley is careful to note significant Irish figures who partook to greater or lesser degree in real solidarity with Black counterparts--but he insists it was white, self-consciously and politically so. The ideological and identitarian shifts of emigration, then, must be understood not as an arrival at whiteness but as "whiteness com[ing] to be expressed differently"--typically, by being "mobilized [...] to enforce Black dispossession" (131).

A substantial introduction and first chapter lay out the book's theoretical framework and basic argument, providing an extensive overview of competing nineteenth-century models of racialization and situating them in relation to a wide range of examples of Irish nationalist racial discourse, painstakingly illustrating the pervasiveness of the presumption of Irish whiteness. The real ambivalences of Irish racialization, he shows, were produced by the ontological instability of whiteness as a category, not by any widespread doubt as to the place of the Irish within it: "if we're looking for the date at which the Irish became white, we might look to the origin of whiteness as a category" (39). This framework enables O'Malley to revisit a familiar set of textual and visual examples of nineteenth-century derogatory racializations of the Irish and to show that, far from reflecting an assumption of Irish non-whiteness, they relied on precisely the opposite as the basis for their denigration: "the key aspect of these racialized portraits is the fact that Blackness is represented as its own insult while Irishness is insulted by being brought into alignment with it" (49).

Chapter 2, on the Gothic, reads Matthew Gregory Lewis's "The Anaconda: An East-Indian Tale" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" for their structuring juxtapositions of Irish and Black experience, which are shown to rely on a faulty analogy that simultaneously appropriates and minimizes the particular horrors of slavery. O'Malley points to Harriet Jacobs's use of the Gothic as a more successful translation, taking Gothic palimpsest as a register of difference rather than a game of illusory identifications.

Chapter 3 reads William Grayson's epic poem of the American South, "The Hireling and the Slave," as a cynical arrogation of the Irish Bardic tradition in support of an effort to consolidate American white supremacy in support of the Slave Power. Grayson "figures the Irish worker as a paradigmatic instance" of so-called "free white labor" (106), using Irish liminality to construct a contrastive theory of peculiarly white rights, and furthermore drawing on the Ossianic model of formulaic, artificial past-making to naturalize this theory. Further, Grayson figures American Indianness as a triangulating racial category that, through its supposed spectral absence, "reduc[es] multiplicity to dichotomy and, in that reduction, highlight[s] Irish whiteness" (118). The revivalist model of cultural identity, so powerfully anti-imperial in a European context, gets ruinously translated in the American context into a formula for Confederate propaganda.

Chapter 4 reads the early African American novelist Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends, as "an important instance of literary witness to the corporeal and economic terrorism of Irish whiteness" (132), narrating "the Irish American claim to working-class whiteness precisely through anti-Black mob violence" (157). O'Malley presents The Garies as a more successful mode of generic translation in its refiguration of novelistic realism through the troping of the ethnographic. This success is marked by Webb's focus on differentiation. The novel emphasizes the artificiality and socially constructed nature of all racialization, but shows how this artificiality actually undergirds (rather than undermining) the consolidation of white supremacy.

Chapter 5 turns to the Irish nationalist (and Confederate apologist) John Mitchel, a figure who encapsulates the book's argument in miniature. Mitchel's enthusiastic embrace of the Confederate cause, O'Malley argues, was not a confusing failure to apply his liberationist politics outside of the Irish context, but rather a reflection of the white supremacism at the heart of those politics--a feature that, translated across the Atlantic, became more destructive and far more apparent, but which was consistent across Mitchel's racial politics. Irish whiteness, for Mitchel, is the very rationale for Irish liberation; treatment putatively analogous to that of Black people is formulated as the nature of the anti-Irish injustice. Moreover, O'Malley shows, Mitchel's American reception reflected a widespread white Southern alignment with this logic; American antebellum journalism and polemic readily understood that "Irish Americans in particular might have a vested interest in this increasing insistence upon the grounding of citizenship in racial whiteness" (175).

Chapter 6 takes up the Anglo-Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's plantation melodrama The Octoroon, a play which was significantly rewritten for different audiences in ways that literalize O'Malley's framework of generic translation. Boucicault, a famously chameleonic self-promoter who spoke the language of abolition in the North and that of apologetics in the South, actually rewrites the play's ending when it moves across the Atlantic. Different audiences apparently required a different ratio of sympathy and punishment within Boucicault's antipolitical cocktail, in which the titular, white-looking Zoe "has to die because she is Black--[while] the audience should sympathize with that death because she is white" (210). This kind of ideological opportunism is further explored in a Coda focused on the particular work of Irishness in the white supremacism of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.

This accomplished, persuasive book is particularly important because it arrives at a moment when crucial scholarly insights about the constructed and historical nature of race are being strategically mistranslated into denialism about the reality of racial oppression. O'Malley provides new frameworks for understanding the significant and multifaceted role of Irishness in the shifting nineteenth-century transatlantic racial imaginary through his insightful treatment of a broad array of literary texts. And in so doing, he powerfully refutes the notion that the nineteenth-century racialization of Irishness divested it from entanglement with and participation in whiteness and white supremacy.

Jacob Romanow is a Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Texas, Austin.