Peter Quinn Essay - Critical Essays

Quinn, Peter

Introduction

Peter Quinn Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York

Born in 1947, Quinn is an American novelist and speech-writer.

Set in New York during the Civil War, Banished Children of Eve (1994) is an account of the city's economic and racial tensions at the time, which culminated in the bloody Draft Riots of 1863. Started by a predominantly poor Irish mob angry over the imposition of the nation's first military draft, the Riots quickly escalated, lasting five days and resulting in at least 119 deaths. Many of the victims were working-class blacks, largely targeted by the Irish mobs as their primary competition for low-paying jobs. Using an episodic narrative structure and brief character sketches to tell his story, Quinn ultimately offers several suggestions as to why social protest often degrades into naked acts of violent hatred. Kevin Cullen has described Banished Children of Eve as a "compelling, textured account of how those at the bottom inevitably turn on one another rather than join forces to challenge whoever or whatever it is that has kept them down."

Criticism

Michael O. Garvey (review date 20 March 1994)

SOURCE: "A Historical Novel Nearly Disorienting in Its Authenticity," in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 1994, p. L2.

[In the following review, Garvey praises Banished Children of Eve, calling it both "vividly imagined" and "scrupulously researched."]

It is an impressive illustration of the power of television advertising that most 18-year-old American boys now submit to the Selective Service system and to the blandishments of MTV with equal docility. The subservience urged and apparently secured by those annoying commercials would amaze and probably disgust their mid-19th-century counterparts.

During the summer of 1863, the nation's first federal conscription law was greeted with riots in towns and cities throughout the Union.

Even among the most enthusiastic supporters of the war effort, a passion for civil liberties overmatched the imperatives of military expediency. New York Gov. Horatio Seymour, in a Fourth of July speech that would haunt him for the rest of his political career—some historians insist that it guaranteed the failure of his presidential bid five years later—warned the administration: "Remember this, that the bloody, and treasonable, and revolutionary, doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government."

Nine days later, Manhattan exploded. It took more than a week for Union troops, many of them fresh from the carnage at Gettysburg, to restore order. While it's been established that at least 105 New Yorkers, many of them black victims of lynch mobs, were killed during that week, the riot was surely responsible for some of the dozens of unidentifiable corpses that washed up on both banks of the East River during the rest of July. New York, convulsed by 16 major riots between 1834 and 1874, was that kind of city.

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Noel Perrin (review date 27 March 1994)

SOURCE: "On the Sidewalks of New York," in Book World-The Washington Post, March 27, 1994, p. 4.

[Perrin is an American essayist, nonfiction writer, critic, and educator. In the following review of Banished Children of Eve, he praises the novel's "fascinating details about life in New York in 1863," but faults its "lurid" melodrama teeming with "too many characters involved in too many plots."]

Banished Children of Eve is a panoramic novel about New York as it was 140 years ago, during the Civil War. But people who know 19th-century New York from the novels of Henry James or Edith Wharton will not easily recognize the city. A different cast is here.

The book opens in Mike Manning's saloon, in lower Manhattan. A young Irish immigrant named Jimmy Dunne, who has just burgled the downtown branch of Brooks Brothers, is having an early-morning shot of whiskey. From there the scene shifts to the Astor House, where Stephen Foster is downing a morning beer. Now we jump to evening and to a minor theater where a young Irish immigrant named Jack Mulcahey is preparing to go on stage. He's a blackface minstrel.

Soon we're at the muddy site of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is only half-built. Archbishop Hughes (an Irish immigrant, of course) and Father Corrigan are up on the scaffolding.

By no means all the characters are Irish. Numerous WASPs appear, just as in James and Wharton, but they are seen from a very different angle. Take Bedford, the stockbroker. He begins as a liar, goes on to be a thief, winds up a murderer. Gets away with it, too. When last seen, he has fled to California and has made a second fortune.

There's also Eleanor Van Schaik, scion of one of the oldest and grandest families in New York, and currently a whore. And Sarah Ward, of another fine old family, who...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Peter Quinn with Patricia Harty (interview date March-April 1994)

SOURCE: "An Irish American Unearths His Past," in Irish America Magazine, March-April, 1994, pp. 64, 66.

[In the following interview, Quinn discusses Banished Children of Eve and his identity as an Irish American.]

Irish history, New York history and Civil War history are the three topics that most interest Peter Quinn. Put all three together, add a dollop of fiction, set the stage with a wide range of characters, hold them all together with writing reminiscent of William Faulkner and you have Banished Children of Eve, a novel set in New York in 1863 before and during the draft riots, that is so powerful and colorful and full of history that it is sure to put Quinn, 47, on a course for the rest of his life.

Insiders will know Quinn as the editor of The Recorder, the journal of the American Irish Historical Society, and have been waiting for this novel for years. Other will know him as a speechwriter for Governors Carey and Cuomo and now Time Warner, and may be surprised at his latent talent for novel writing.

Quinn, who wanted to write a novel since he was 12, does not regret the 15 years as a speechwriter, in fact, perhaps there wouldn't be a novel if it wasn't for his day job. "The one thing that you learn being a speechwriter is that you don't wait for the muse to come. If the governor is down the hall you get to it," he says.

Each day as he took the subway in from Brooklyn, to arrive at his workplace two hours early to write, he would look out over South Street where in the years 1845–46 alone 85,000 Irish landed. He would picture his ancestors mingling with the crowd on the dock and wonder what life was really like for them—these banished children seeking to find the promised land.

He considered writing a social history, and whenever he could he would wander around the Lower East Side where his grandmother had lived and worked as a seamstress. As part of the research process he read Adrian Cook's Armies of the Street about the Draft Riots which contained the records of people killed, one of whom was a Peter Quinn: 55-year-old laborer, and "it happened," he says. "In some way the characters came alive and they told me who they were. I didn't start out with a graph and say this is what's going to happen. I started with a general idea that the riot would reveal people—the riot would tell you.

"Writing a novel you have to brood a lot. My daughter would say, 'Daddy are you sad?' And I would say, 'No honey I'm just brooding.' Because I wanted these people to tell me what happens.

"When I first started to do the research I would look at prints and lithographs. And they looked so clean—the dirt and grime wasn't there, and that was something I wanted to bring out in the book. These aren't quaint people. They are as real as we are. With our complexities and our contradictions."

[Harty]: Which of these characters did [you] feel closest to?

[Quinn]: Maybe Margaret.

Is she an ancestor?

Margaret is a combination of different people. I wanted her to be earthy, and the earthy side of my family is my mother's side. My father's side were all rural puritans. The women were much more capable of talking about sexuality than men.

There's a subtle but powerful moment in the book when Margaret is called Brigid by the man of the house, and she says, "It's Margaret, sir. Me name."

That's the ultimate contempt. It's not that the rich look down on them—it's that they are not there—the faceless poor.

Walt Whitman used the term invisible man about the blacks. And you see references in the 19th century to Irish maids as Brigids, that's the name they gave them, and there's terrible contempt in there.

So really the Irish and the blacks have a lot in common?

Yes. I think they have an incredible amount in common. In the 1830s the Irish were almost all rural people, peasants. Fifty years later when you are talking about urban machines in the United States you are talking about the Irish. There was this tremendous transfer from the land to the city in a kind of panic, and the same thing happened...

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John Crowley (review date 3 April 1994)

SOURCE: "The Bowery Sphinx and Other Irishmen: A First Novel about Immigrant Life in New York City during the Civil War," in The New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1994, p. 29.

[In the following positive review, Crowley describes Banished Children of Eve as "the mature fruit of protracted labor."]

There are two readers for any historical novel: the one who knows well the history on which it is based and the one who doesn't. Some novels depend for their effect on the reader's knowledge; some are spoiled by it. Readers of Banished Children of Eve, Peter Quinn's panoptic novel of New York City during the Civil War, need not know which of his many...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Kevin Cullen (review date 30 April 1994)

SOURCE: "A Vivid First Novel Chronicles the Irish Draft Riots of 1863," in The Boston Globe, April 30, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, Cullen offers praise for Banished Children of Eve, calling it "a compelling, textured account."]

When Irish-Americans sit down to write fiction about their forebears, they tend to produce romantic epics, chronicling how their ancestors overcame overwhelming odds, poverty and oppression to prosper in the New World. They are comfortable books, warm respites.

Peter Quinn's first novel, Banished Children of Eve, is like a January dip in the Liffey or, more appropriately, New York's East River, on whose...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Judy Bass (review date 9 May 1994)

SOURCE: "Struggling to Survive in a World of Hate," in Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1994, p. E2.

[In the following review, Bass commends Quinn for his "pungent style, refusal to romanticize and affinity for historical details."]

When most of us try to conjure up images of Civil War-era New York, we think of ornate drawing rooms populated by ladies in voluminous gowns and urbane, frock-coated men puffing on cigars. Banished Children of Eve, Peter Quinn's exceptional debut novel, presents the far more earthy New York of yesteryear. According to him, it was a grotesquely primitive and savage place or, as the book itself puts it, "a vast nether world of poverty,...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Peter Quinn with Ken Emerson (interview date 12 July 1994)

SOURCE: "Remembering New York's Deadliest Riot," in Newsday, July 12, 1994, p. 35.

[In the following interview, Quinn and Emerson discuss the New York Draft Riots of 1863.]

[Emerson]: A hundred and thirty years ago tomorrow, a mob of New Yorkers, mostly Irish, hung a black man from a lamppost and cheered for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. After the cops cut the corpse down, it was dragged by the genitals through the streets of New York. How could this have happened?

[Quinn]: Well, the first thing to notice is the date: July 13, the day after Orangeman's Day, when the Protestants in Ireland celebrated—and still do—William...

(The entire section is 1652 words.)

Lorraine Kreahling (essay date 24 July 1994)

SOURCE: "A Long Historical View of What Foments Mob Rioting," in The New York Times, July 24, 1994, p. 8.

[In the following, Kreahling discusses the historical background of Banished Children of Eve, placing special emphasis on the role of poverty in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.]

A mass of sweating angry men storm New York City's summer streets, breaking windows and stealing property, murdering people with different skin colors and beating others whose clothing suggests middle-class comfort.

That racial riot in Peter Quinn's Banished Children of Eve a new novel that provides a detailed context for the four days in July 1863 when New...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)

Elizabeth Bartelme (review date 9 September 1994)

SOURCE: "A Splendid Stew," in Commonweal, Vol. 71, No. 15, September 9, 1994, pp. 26-7.

[In the following review, Bartelme offers a favorable assessment of Banished Children of Eve.]

Irish history, like the history of the Jewish people, embraces diaspora, exile, suffering, and a vision of the promised land. In his remarkable first novel, Peter Quinn, chief speechwriter for Time Warner, brings a new and formidable talent to the chronicling of Irish wanderings and their outcome. Although the emphasis of the book is on the Irish experience in nineteenth-century New York, Quinn goes beyond it to include on a broader canvas the entire sweep of a history steeped in the...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Maurice N. Hennessy (review date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: "The New World Irish, Warts and All," in The Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Hennessy commends Banished Children of Eve, claiming that the novel "marks a new voice in the annals of Irish literacy."]

To those who hold history as an uncompromising and sacred art, Peter Quinn's novel, structured around local incidents in the history of New York City during the Civil War, adds a new and surprising dimension. While literary ability has frequently found its source of fiction in history, Quinn's book deserves special recognition as a historical pathfinder. In essence, he appears to have followed in the...

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Maurice Walsh (review date 25 November 1994)

SOURCE: "A New York History," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4782, November 25, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following mixed review of Banished Children of Eve, Walsh argues that Quinn is not entirely successful handling the vastness of his narrative and the large number of characters.]

The lonely farmer's wife, in Peter Quinn's novel [Banished Children of Eve], who seduces a young Irish orphan from New York sent to the cold western prairies for moral reeducation, shares with him her tantalized imaginings of the distant city: "My husband says it's a wicked place, noisy, dirty, impious. Says that most of the people don't work, live off politics and that...

(The entire section is 777 words.)