Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
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.
Peter Quinn, chief speechwriter for Time Warner, has chosen to unfold his first novel against this gritty historical surface. Vividly imagined, scrupulously researched, and almost disorienting in its authenticity, Banished Children of Eve performs the function of a historical classic, which historian M. A. Fitzsimons described as "to make us conscious of a past, of an otherness outside ourselves but with which we are kin."
Quinn's richly peopled New York is refracted through the perceptions of real and imagined characters whose plights and gripes seem strikingly contemporary.
Stephen Foster, drinking himself to death while his popular music saturates the squalid and violent 19th-century urban environment, much as gangsta rap does today, brings to mind a dozen drug enfeebled, self-destructive rock heroes of our own time.
Catholic Archbishop John Hughes—called "Dagger John" by the True American nativist bigots and Irish-fearing Yankee aristocracy—clambers about on the scaffolding of an unfinished St. Patrick's Cathedral and broods over past oppressions.
It is a familiarly ungovernable city of impoverished Irish newcomers, fatherless households, illegal immigrants, brutal cops, organized and sporadic crime, collapsing infrastructure, speculative greed and war profiteering. There are even street gangs to parallel our Bloods and Crips—the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies.
The draft riots themselves absorb remarkably little of Quinn's narrative, which concerns itself far more with cowardice, greed, racism, desperation and lust for power. Much like Mackinlay Kantor's 1955 book Andersonville, this story recaptures a past, seizes something nearly devoured by history, and invites wonder and even a little grief about it.
Here the riots, like the nationwide bloodletting they approximate, are a central catastrophe, a calvary that a variety of New Yorkers ascend and descend by a variety of tragic and farcical routes. A hasty and restrained summary of just one of Quinn's invented lives suggests the breadth and intricacy of the novel: Jimmy Dunne, a distracted Irish American thief, bungles a burglary at the height of the violence and reluctantly saves the life of Audley Ward, a benighted racist aristocrat. Dunne also falls in love with Margaret O'Driscoll, an immigrant maid in the household of Ward's niece's husband, a Yankee stockbroker, self-made man, compulsive gambler, embezzler and murderer named Charles Bedford. Dunne eventually marries Margaret O'Driscoll, gives up, or at least adjusts, his criminal career to become a Tammany Hall operative and saloon keeper. One of his children is ordained a Jesuit priest and elected president of Fordham University.
It would be equally suggestive to track the lives of Ward, O'Driscoll, or Bedford. Or, for that matter, of Maria Rose Pryor (alias Eliza) a mulatta actress starring in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Or of her spineless paramour, Jack Mulcahey, the star of a black-face minstrel show. Making immediate the passions that animated them nearly a century and a half ago, Banished Children of Eve bends these and its betterdocumented lives to the purposes of high art. The result is nothing short of splendid.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784
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 copulates with Bedford in a closed coach, going up Fifth Avenue. In modern terms, it is their third date.
In short, there is not much Jamesian sensibility here. Not in the WASP characters, uniformly known to the Irish as rat-noses. Not in the Irish characters, uniformly known to the WASPs as Paddies. There is some in Eliza, the beautiful black actress who lives with Mulcahey. And perhaps in some of the minor black characters, too. They have gained it because they are even worse exploited by the rat-noses than the Paddies are.
Banished Children of Eve is genuinely panoramic. It's loaded with historical characters—not just Stephen Foster and Archbishop Hughes but also General Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade of the Union Army; Jay Gould; and 80-year-old General Wool, who is still on active duty. It has all kinds of exciting stories to tell, culminating with the draft riots of 1863, far worse than any riots that have occurred in New York since. Many sections are a pleasure to read.
But it also has an astonishing number of faults. For one, there are too many characters involved in too many plots. I counted 100 speaking parts just in the first half. It's hard to remember them all, especially since there are also hundreds of non-speaking parts, such as those of nine generations of Eliza's ancestors.
For another, the author is a little free in assigning behavior to his historical characters. How can he know that Stephen Foster was impotent at the time of his marriage, let alone how his young wife responded? Is it fair to quote from an 1863 book by a philanthropic New Yorker named Charles Loring Brace in such a way as to make him seem an ugly racist, when Brace's aim in the book is to demonstrate that all humanity has a common ancestry, and not the multiple ancestry that many people at the time asserted in order to justify prejudice?
But the big fault is the melodrama. When Jimmy Dunne, who is an orphan, is taken out west along with many other Irish orphans, to be placed with settlers' families, the Protestant clergyman who leads the party proves to be a hypocritical bastard. Mrs. Ellingwood, the wife of the settler who takes Jimmy, seduces the 14-year-old boy at the first opportunity. He gets back to New York a few months later because a tornado sucks up both Ellingwoods. When Eliza, the beautiful black actress, does a stint in a whore-house (this is before she goes on stage), she gets the Prince of Wales as a customer.
If you like lurid, this is your book. If you don't, but are willing to overlook it for the sake of thousands of fascinating details about life in New York in 1863, it might also be your book. If you want plausible characters, I'm afraid it isn't.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780
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 in the black migration.
Today when you talk about urban youth you are talking about blacks. Their entry into power is through politics rather than through business, which is the Irish experience. The Irish in Ireland had a folk culture and the church. That's what gave them their dignity and their sense of organization. And you have the same thing with blacks. A fundamental institution that reflects who they are and a folk culture. And also the role of women. The women are the strongest part of both cultures.
At the end of the book the Irish have been allowed in. They have their own university [Fordham]. But the blacks are gone. You had black people who had lived in New York for over 100 years being driven out of the city.
And in the end of Banished Children, the question is still a racial question. We have admitted these immigrants but these banished children [the blacks] haven't been allowed in. There is a really bloody, violent, disturbing history of what we have done to immigrants, but in the end we have admitted most of them—after the anti-Semitism and after the anti-Catholicism—but blacks are still in question.
Because we Irish always want to present the lace curtain was it hard to look at this other side of our history?
Yes. I found when I first read the accounts of the draft riots—the lynching of blacks and the sexual mutilations—it was hard for me to think about, to understand. But one thing you have to realize is that there's only one mob in history. It doesn't matter if it's Irish or it's the red guard. When people get together en masse and they lose their individuality, they are capable of doing anything. It's not just Irish. What is a tragedy is what's happening to the blacks in the cities, and what happened to the Irish in the cities in the 1860s is a tragedy. These people are 15 years removed from the Famine and it's a class struggle about which group is going to wind up at the bottom and that's what I try and say in the book. The tragedy is that the people at the bottom are fighting each other. If you want to understand American urban life in the 1990s you have to look at Los Angeles—here you have the city of the future and it blows up.
Look at New York in 1863—this ferocious explosion—the Draft Riots—and the poverty it came out of, and look at New York now and see the poverty and the squalor and the new immigrants, and it may seem hopeless, but I would want people to come away from my book with a sense of hope that along with people's pain and struggle there's this life, this vibrancy, and ambition that is the heart of New York and it's bigger and stronger than the poverty and the struggle. The genius and curse of New York is that nothing is going to stay the same.
Why this interest in the Irish?
Because I am third generation. My father didn't have to ask himself those questions, because he lived in an essentially Irish American community. There was the church, and the party, and the unions. That all dissolved in my lifetime. And you wanted to know what it was all about, just as you are about to leave it all behind. My mother is surprised at my interest in all of this. She thinks of herself as Irish American but moving into America, shedding this identity.
All the Irish studies programs have started in my lifetime. When I was a kid the Irish study program was parochial and Catholic education—that was what it meant to be Irish. I would say it's only since the seventies you have this systematic examination of the Irish American experience—how does it relate to Ireland? Who are we? As Ireland's role in the world is more obvious Irish Americans are asking themselves who they are. In one way after 130 years of emigration there is still a lot of Irishness left.
Irish people are surprised by this, to them you're American.
I was brought up in the Bronx where no one was brought up to think of themselves as American. You were Irish, you were Jewish or Italian, and then I went to school, for three months, in Galway and they didn't think I was Irish at all. And when I was a teacher in Kansas and they thought of me as a New Yorker rather than an American. I was an Irish New Yorker and I was caught—between two worlds. Ireland and America—both parts of me. And that's what this book is about, both parts.
Where do you see the Irish now?
I don't think you could say they are in one place. They have achieved economic success but they haven't told their story yet. And I think artists are just emerging like William Kennedy who are finally beginning to produce a body of Irish American literature. The Irish are such a big presence in America but the literature reflecting that presence isn't there. There's James T. Farrell, and writers with Irish names who don't write about Irish things like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara. But really, the first great Irish Catholic novelist in this century is James Joyce. There aren't a lot of great Irish Catholic voices before that.
It may sound pretentious but Ulysses is the only book I ever read three times. There are several things in there [Banished Children] that I steal right from Joyce. Like the citizen in the bar—the cyclops. And Bedford on the toilet is Bloom on the toilet, but I didn't want anyone to think I was stealing without paying homage, so it opens in June 1904, which is the month of Ulysses. I wanted people to know that this is a tribute to the master. It is such a tremendous book to read even to this day, because it says you can try anything, any voice. I wanted a black character—a black woman, but then I said this is a pretty presumptuous thing to try to do. But I said a prayer to James Joyce and just let go.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
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 characters and incidents derive from his sources and which are invented, and he has worked those sources so artfully that readers who don't know already won't be able to guess.
The Irish who left for America in the black years of the famine are Mr. Quinn's banished children of Eve; by the time the war began they were the greater part of New York's underclass, despised not only by the old Dutch and Anglo-Saxon ascendancy but also by the other immigrants they competed with for jobs and living space. They in turn despised and feared the small but growing class of free blacks, who (they believed) threatened their place on the next-to-bottom rung.
In July 1863, the tensions in the city eventually spilled over into a days-long riot against the imposition of the military draft, a confrontation in which many blacks were lynched or murdered and many other people died as well. The riot, looming in the future like a summer storm, is the destination of all the book's characters.
Mr. Quinn's narrative method is the usual one for novels described as sweeping or panoramic, one that derives ultimately, I suppose, from the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House: we ride along on the consciousness of one character after another, each for a few pages, returning frequently to some and less frequently to others, building little blocks of story from shifting points of view. This method has all the advantages of prefab housing: it comes in units that are easy to read (and write), and it gives the impression of crowded liveliness—but it can tend toward sprawl, sameness and tedium.
Mr. Quinn deploys this method with great energy. The individual sections of the plot are convincing and intriguing, yet at the same time the ceaseless forward flow of event and emotion that carries them is always felt. One wonderful touch is to have the various characters continually appear, often unnoticed or disregarded, in the lives of others, which makes Mr. Quinn's city not only a living web of coincidence but an engine of unguessable fate.
The big cast is largely Irish, inhabitants of the favelas of an old New York that was never built to hold such a population. There is James Dunne, who will end up being called the Bowery Sphinx for his reticence about his life and livelihood; in fact, he is a skilled thief who survived the awful crossing and the cruel charity of the Children's Aid Society, which shipped unwanted orphans and abandoned children to the West by the trainload, to be given as wards—often as slaves—to overworked pioneer families. There is Margaret, the maid in the house that is Dunne's next objective, there is Jack (no longer Sean) Mulcahey, the greatest blackface minstrel of the day; there are brutal gang leaders, heavy drinkers and upwardly mobile graspers.
There are others too: Eliza, a light-skinned black woman whose name was not at first Eliza but who now plays the role in the endlessly running production of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a cast otherwise white; and Charles Bedford, a Long Island farm boy on his way up, then down again, betting against the Union in the ferocious money market of Civil War Wall Street. He too has had more than one name, more than one life. All of Mr. Quinn's main characters are survivors, able to discard unrewarding lives, families, backgrounds, and invent or grab new ones; their efforts don't always keep them afloat. Learning who will go under and who will not in the coming disaster is, of course, one thing that keeps us reading.
By the time the riot breaks out, Mr. Quinn has so many oranges, Indian clubs, flaming torches and wine-glasses in the air that we barely notice when he drops a few. Hardly a page of the book is without some revelation. We observe the origins of professional baseball at the same time as we watch Mr. Quinn's ruined broker turn to violence to save himself. Stephen Foster sinks into hopeless alcoholism even as he tries and fails to invent a new art form, the musical comedy.
This very long and quite accomplished book is, surprisingly, a first novel; Banished Children of Eve certainly seems the mature fruit of protracted labor. It is to be hoped that Peter Quinn hasn't shot his bolt. Historical fiction as well made and whole as this is not common.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
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 banks dozens of bodies washed up during the summer of 1863, when in a fit of anger and resentment Irish immigrants led riots against the nation's first draft and, because they had no one else to take out their frustrations on, lynched blacks.
Quinn is the chief speechwriter for Time-Warner and former speechwriter for New York governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey. His grandfather arrived in New York 10 years after the Draft Riots. Quinn spent six years researching and four years writing his book. It shows.
Like the best historical novels, the book plucks one's consciousness, stirring old social studies lessons while creating characters and events, so it is hard to say what is based on fact and what is the fruit of Quinn's fertile imagination.
The novel is a vividly drawn chronology of New York's inexorable march into madness, when a protest over conscription into the Union Army degenerated into a frenzy of looting and murder.
The Irish had a point. They literally had been starved out of their own country by famine and indifferent British colonizers. Hundreds of thousands of them had endured great hardship for a new start in a new land only to be awarded society's lowest rung, positioned above only blacks. To add insult to insult, the Irish were ordered to fight for a Union that openly regarded them as inferior. And afflicted with that inferiority complex, many Irish saw themselves being asked to liberate slaves who would inevitably take the few crumbs they had scavenged for themselves. Meanwhile, they watched "true Americans" exploit the working class and pay $300 to avoid the draft.
But whatever principle motivated the resistance gave way quickly to unbridled hatred, much of it racist. There is a depressing undercurrent to Banished Children of Eve. Evil often triumphs over virtue. Yet the book is so relevant because it resonates in contemporary New York. Many people, especially those who don't live there, consider New York lost and irredeemable, anarchy in the USA. Through Quinn's prism, New York seems to be struggling with many of the same fundamental problems it had some 130 years ago. It is the ultimate melting pot, and pots tend to boil. If New York is hopeless, it is no more hopeless today than it was in 1863.
For all the import of its subject matter, Quinn's book is driven more by characters than plot. Some of the characters, such as Stephen Foster, the composer whose songs were on millions of Americans' lips even as cheap booze was on his, are real. Others, like Jimmy Dunne, an Irish-American hustler, are imagined. All of them are survivors, because only the fittest survived the summer of 1863 in New York.
Dunne would steal a hot stove, but he is likable in a way that charismatic criminals often are. And in a sobering story line, he alone is ultimately redeemed, changed by Margaret O'Driscoll, an Irish domestic for Charles Bedford, a self-made Wall Street broker who is about to be ruined, not by inside trading or a hostile takeover, but by bad investments and a gambling addiction. Dunne is determined to hustle Bedford but instead falls for Margaret, the maid. It seems fitting and not entirely implausible that a good woman leads Jimmy Dunne to give up his thieving, or at least most of it, for Tammany Hall politics. His career segue seems appropriate.
There is a moral in Quinn's book, though his work is too sophisticated to resort to blatant exposition. The parallels between the Irish and blacks in this country are unavoidable. Yet their histories, even to this day, suggest a relationship based more on hostility than common ground.
Besides creating a half-dozen characters who linger on long after the last page is turned, Banished Children of Eve is 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. It is a lesson with no shortage of examples today.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903
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, resentment and ethnic hatred."
Spanning 10 days in the spring and summer of 1863, this historical tale, a bit reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, loosely interweaves the destinies of many fictitious and actual people.
We meet Jimmy Dunne, a wily con man whose brittle exterior camouflages vestiges of decency; Charles Bedford, the stockbroker with a troublesome appetite for gambling; volatile Jack Mulcahey, a minstrel performer who slathers burnt cork on his face and struts onstage disguised as a black man; Mulcahey's lover, Eliza, an actress of mixed ancestry whose spunk almost exceeds her beauty, and Stephen Foster, the nearly penniless tunesmith who guzzles liquor to forget that his ebbing imagination won't even yield a tidbit of quality music.
Quinn, chief speech writer at Time Warner, enlivens his narrative with cameo appearances by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Prince of Wales and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, among others. The novel's intensity, however, stems from Quinn's wrenching portrayal of the dolorous existence of the Irish immigrants in America, who had already faced seemingly endless calamities in their native land.
One typical newcomer is Bedford's maid, Margaret O'Driscoll. Like thousands of others, she journeyed here because, as Quinn explains, there was virtually nothing worthwhile to aspire to in Ireland, "a country haunted by the memory of hunger, humiliated by the improvidence of its children, the wrath of God visited upon them."
Unfortunately, when the boat carrying Margaret docks at these shores, the first American she sees utters a greeting sour enough to disenchant the hardiest adventurer: "Well, ladies and gents, welcome to hell."
For Margaret, along with most of the Irish depicted in Banished Children of Eve, New York does resemble a nightmare. Although she anticipated a metropolis alive with opportunities, this earnest young woman quickly realizes that, at least to the have-nots, it is merely a hotbed of squalor and vice where saloons, music halls and brothels cater to individuals who might euphemistically be defined as "riffraff."
Before joining the Bedford household, Margaret lived in a roach-infested tenement and took a job at a factory where employees received pathetic wages for exhausting physical labor. Her situation brightens greatly after she starts work at the Bedfords', but Margaret's idealism has been permanently curbed, thanks to the knowledge that downtrodden folks like her could ascend in American society via only three routes: outright lawlessness, cunning or luck.
The lowly need all the good fortune they can muster. Overt antagonism flourishes between Protestant Yankees and Catholic immigrants, the gentry and the paupers, and especially Irish and blacks, writes Quinn, who sketches these hostilities in flashbacks.
For example, when Mulcahey sojourned in Boston as a boy, three ruffians his age taunted him, then gave him a wholly unwarranted beating. A kind passerby stopped the assault and dispensed some wisdom to Mulcahey, too. The Yankees "will ship the lot of us back to Ireland if they have the chance," the man declared, "but not before they've made sure they've wrung us dry."
Quinn has chosen to emphasize such historical themes instead of using his literary craftsmanship to concoct elaborate plot twists or spotlight character development and interaction. Thus, Banished Children of Eve is atmospheric and cerebral, rather than tautly suspenseful. Nevertheless, an offbeat cat-and-mouse chase is particularly gripping.
Bedford, who rises to the venerated position of director at a stockbrokerage mainly by lying about his humble family background, undergoes a series of war-related business fiascoes so dire that his usual swagger vanishes. To pay off his debts, he resorts to gambling and embezzlement, avenues by which he can secretly amass thousands of dollars.
But a hood named Waldo Capshaw learns about Bedford's plight and enlists the wary Dunne in a scheme to rob this ignoble titan of commerce of his ill-gotten treasure. Meanwhile, New York's prolonged social turmoil culminates in violence as feverish mobs jam the streets to air their loathing of a new law mandating conscription. Whether Bedford, Dunne, Mulcahey and everyone else will survive the widespread rampage known as the Draft Riots is a question left tantalizingly unresolved until the book's final scenes.
Quinn masterfully communicates the irony of the fact that men and women endured tremendous risks when they fled Ireland to seek better prospects in urban America, where further degradation, exploitation and oppression awaited them.
An equally painful irony applied to northern blacks during the Civil War, Quinn points out. Although free from metal shackles, they were subjected to symbolic bondage. Obliged to grapple with the racial prejudices of whites, blacks had scant economic mobility, therefore, they found themselves pitted against the Irish for the most menial jobs.
The author's pungent style, refusal to romanticize and affinity for historical details all blend to make Banished Children of Eve an achingly vibrant panorama of ethnic feuds and struggles.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652
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 of Orange's victory at the Boyne. It has often been a time of sectarian violence in Ireland, and that tradition was carried undiluted to New York. The bloodiest single day in New York City history is July 12, 1871, when there was a riot between the Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics on Eighth Avenue. The militia opened up and killed 41.
That's part of the text of the Draft Riots of 1863: this agrarian, this Irish resentment, and this explosion from below.
How long did the Draft Riots last?
They started on Monday the thirteenth, and by Friday the army had regained control.
How many people had been killed by then?
They can identify 119 people. There was an armory on Second Avenue that blew up and burned down. How many bodies were not recovered? I would say the northern figure [for riot fatalities] would be 150.
Were these the deadliest riots in American history?
Why are they called the Draft Riots?
In the spring of 1863, a lot of the two-year enlistments were coming up and casualties were such that the government didn't think they could fill the ranks with volunteers anymore. There would have to be a military draft. They put in a provision that you could either hire a substitute (which had always been true; it was true in the Revolutionary War) or you could pay $300 to get out of that round of the draft. Those alternatives were not accessible to working people or the poor—and 99 percent of the Irish were in that class. It was a race riot because class and race in America have always been intertwined, but it was also class warfare.
Then how come so many of the mobs' targets were blacks, even lower on the economic ladder?
The rich neighborhoods were less accessible. The blacks lived intermingled with the Irish, so you could serendipitously grab a black man and take out your resentment on him. Also, in April, 1863, there was a longshoremen's strike on the East Side where they brought in black strike-breakers—which seemed to some people like a deliberate provocation.
But rich white men were assaulted. They were forced to kneel before Irish workmen. This humiliation would never leave the consciousness of the upper classes.
Do you think this reinforced prejudice against the Irish?
It confirmed every impression of the Irish as rowdy, unreliable, drunken, violent. Like all stereotypes, it contains a grain of truth, but it substitutes a fraction of the truth for the whole. And [it contributed] to our vocabulary of "paddy wagons," "hooligans" and "Irish confetti" (which used to be what came off the rooftops when the police came in to any neighborhood).
Were African-Americans a real economic threat to the Irish?
There were newspapers that said, "Emancipation is going to bring the blacks north and take your jobs." But in reality blacks had occupied most of the servant and waiter positions in New York, and when the Irish flooded in after the Potato Famine, they took those jobs away from the blacks.
Why weren't New Yorkers rallying around the flag and Abe Lincoln?
The war enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the beginning, but the casualty lists and the reality of modern warfare dragged on. The war started inflation, the most punishing thing the poor can suffer. And the draft seemed to add to this. However central the struggle to end slavery is to American history, to a working person on the Lower East Side in the 1860s it was pretty distant.
How did the rioting affect relations between New York's Irish and African Americans?
It's not just New York. The same struggle was going on in Boston in the 1970s with busing. The Irish were the working class left in Boston, and they were fighting blacks. Race has often had that effect on the United States: Working-class groups who should get together don't because the most important thing is race rather than class.
In fact, a lot of Anglo-Americans would not have counted the Irish as white. Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children's Aid Society, in 1863 wrote a book in which he says that the Irish brain is halfway between that of an Englishman and Ethiopian. Every tester of intelligence from that time on has always proved that the poor are stupid, that the poor are poor not out of any fault in the system, but because of the fault of the poor. It makes it a lot easier for the rich to believe that.
I've read that a lot of the things we think of as the great achievements of New York—Central Park, for instance,—were largely the creations of white Republicans—and before that, Whigs—who were terrified of the teeming Irish masses and trying to create some kind of safety valve.
There's a real strain in American history: Americans don't like cities, and they don't trust them. That comes from Thomas Jefferson, and it goes through Frederick Law Olmsted [co-creator of Central Park] to Robert Moses. We do not have the same attitude to our cities Europeans have to theirs. We regard them as repositories of things that are foreign and dangerous. We're a suburban country in mentality.
Two of the people who had the greatest influence on New York—Olmsted and Moses—loathed cities?
They regarded them as dangerous places in which the job of the upper classes and government was to order people's conduct. The idea of Central Park was that they'd let the lower classes mingle with the upper classes, see their betters, and they'd learn how to behave. Moses had that attitude, too: Best to get people out of the cities.
As a student of a riot that took place 130 years ago, what do you think when you consider L.A. or Crown Heights, and racial tensions today?
In a weird way it makes you kind of optimistic. If you look back at what New York was in the 1860s—the sanitation, the poverty, the highest death rate of any city in the Western world—you might throw up your hands. But, you know, the struggle goes on. And if you look at New York in the 1990s, in some ways it's more a 19th-Century city than it was 50 years ago—the public squalor and decay of institutions. But I think you have a right to be hopeful. This is a process. Once a people arrive in the United States, there's a struggle to [become included]. Maybe Los Angeles is a hopeful sign. People have woken up.
There are many parallels between the Irish and the blacks. Maybe that's why they've had such difficulty—in a lot of ways they're alike. In their almost total transfer from the land to the cities in a very short time. That has happened with blacks since the Second World War. Of course, the Irish enjoyed a great advantage: they're white. But if any group of white ethnics should have a sense of what it is to be an outsider and underdog, it should be the Irish. The closer they come in contact with their own history, the more they can serve as a kind of a bridge between groups.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1664
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 York City exploded into a bloody riot.
"I believe in history that there's only been one mob, and all mobs act the same way," Mr. Quinn said in an interview as he compared the New York draft riots of 1863 to the riots in Los Angeles in 1992. "The reptilian brain somewhere on the evolutionary scale takes over, and when people go berserk for whatever reasons they do the same thing."
The mob in Mr. Quinn's novel and in history's record of the draft riots was mostly made up of impoverished Irish people rebelling against conscription into the Union Army during the Civil War. As they poured into the streets from tenements and shanties along the Hudson River, they not only burned and looted stores and homes, but also murdered any black person they could lay hands on and a few military men as well.
Records verify 119 deaths. Some historians estimate that up to 1,000 people died and property losses ran $1 million to $2 million.
Banished Children of Eve, a 612-page first novel, portrays the tensions between working-class blacks, who had been freed by the New York antislavery law of 1799, and the Irish, who, along with 2.1 million of their countrymen, had recently fled death and famine in Ireland.
As the two groups competed for low-paying jobs, the Irish used their skin color to push blacks out of their way. The paradox, Mr. Quinn said, is that the two groups had more in common than they realized.
"Irish culture was a popular culture," he said. "It was a folk culture that resided in music, dance and storytelling, which is what black culture was in the South."
Both groups, he said, transmitted the traditions through the church and music and both spent generations farming land that did not belong to them.
Writing in The Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen called Mr. Quinn's book "a compelling account of how those at the bottom inevitably turn on one another, rather than join forces to challenge whomever or whatever it is that has kept them down."
Mr. Quinn said many Irish-Americans did not realize that their ancestors were social outcasts. "Almost every person in the establishment of New York in the middle of the last century was horrified by Irish immigration, from Herman Melville to Charles Loring Grace to Frederick Law Olmstead," Mr. Quinn said. "The only one who wasn't was Walt Whitman."
That may explain Mr. Quinn's use of a quotation from "Leaves of Grass" at the end of the book. It reads: "Each belongs here or anywhere as much as the well off … just as much as you. Each has his or her place in the procession."
Mr. Quinn shares another affinity with Whitman. Both were regular visitors to Greenport. "Walt Whitman's sister lived in Greenport," Mr. Quinn said. "He used to take the train out, and it took three and a half hours. So some things don't change."
Mr. Quinn, who was born in Greenport 46 years ago and raised in the Bronx, lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. His family owns a house on Shelter Island and regularly makes their way there through Greenport.
His parents were vacationing on Shelter Island the summer when he was born. "The doctor took an X-ray, and when he saw two tiny spines he put my mother in what was then the Greenport Hospital," Mr. Quinn said, explaining that he has a twin brother.
The author's interest in Civil War New York began when he was working as a speechwriter for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and received a copy of "Armies in the Streets," a history of the draft riots. "In the back of it was a list of people killed, and one of them was Peter Quinn," Mr. Quinn said.
He began collecting pictures of mid-19th century New York City. "They all looked like South Street Seaport," he said. "You know, quaint."
When Mr. Quinn came across a copy of the first housing report to the State Legislature, he realized, he said, the "incredible squalor and misery" suffered by some people in that era.
The report documented "back-lot tenements, basements filled with people, no plumbing, no air," Mr. Quinn said. He started trying to recreate the lives of people forgotten not only by history, but also by the period fiction and seen in books like Henry James's "Washington Square."
Mr. Quinn researched his project for six years. He organized the information in notebooks in sections for each character. When he started writing, making up stories to go with the material came naturally, he said, adding:
"As a kid growing up in my family it was important that you could speak at the dinner table and tell stories. Speeches that work tell stories. Speeches that don't work are dead rhetoric."
He is now chief speech writer at Time Warner Inc.
Banished Children of Eve details characters of different races and classes, most fictional but some nonfictional. Stephen Foster, past his creative prime, stumbles in and out of the novel in a drunken stupor, the notes of scores and visions of the future music industry circulating in and out of his consciousness.
"Stephen Foster is a lot like Elvis," Mr. Quinn said. "He brought black music to white people, because they wouldn't take it from black people." The Irish, he said, did the same thing when they put on black face to perform in the minstrels.
In Banished Children, Mr. Quinn uses the theater as a symbol of how the races can get along if they share a common vision. A cunning mulatto woman, Eliza, finds her way out of a high-class brothel and into work as an actress in a presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her lover, Irishman Mulcahey, who survived the crossing of the Atlantic during the Potato Famine, becomes a minstrel performer through sheer will, Mulcahey's other closest friend is his black assistant, Squirt.
Drive and ambition are what the characters in Mr. Quinn's book share, regardless of their class and race. Spunk and exceptional resourcefulness, intermingled with a necessary callousness, often spell the difference between not only the characters' success, but also their survival.
There are a farm boy from Southampton who erases his past and eventually heads a Wall Street brokerage, an Irish teen-ager who ignores adult advice and lies her way into a maid's position in a "good house," an Irish-born con artist and petty burglar who finally establishes himself in a "legitimate" saloon and an elderly female fishmonger who uses will and feigned madness to keep her fish stall, the only one owned by a black person on Fulton Street.
As the portraits emerge and the stories intertwine, water becomes a symbol for a social rank. The broker knows that he has truly made it when the house he buys for his bride has flush toilets. "People's access to water—that was the real divide between the comfortable and the uncomfortable," Mr. Quinn said. "You could hook up to the Croton system for $10 a month. That means you didn't have to go to the privy in the yard."
Another liquid that flows steadily through Banished Children is low-quality liquor, which, Mr. Quinn points out, parallels the drugs in inner cities today. "We don't think of it as substance abuse," Mr. Quinn said of the alcohol that his characters consume. "But it really was the poor anesthetizing themselves against their poverty."
Mr. Quinn said a chief interest in writing the book was to convey the complexity of history that is lost in its retellings by the ruling classes. That helps explain Audley Ward, a comical figure who, despite his financial decline and need to rely on his son-in-law's "new money," spends most of his time writing essays that ennoble his family's history and confirm their aristocratic superiority.
Ward is obsessed with the notion that the size of the English cranium is larger than that of both the Irish and the blacks.
Banished Children of Eve ends with fictional historic documents that Mr. Quinn said purposefully erased the impoverished, black and female characters that he took such pains to create. "In the epilogue women and blacks disappear," he said. "Their history is totally lost and never recorded."
Mr. Quinn counts among the "banished children" all who have been deprived of fertile ground on which they might have thrived. The words are taken from a Roman Catholic prayer imploring the Virgin Mary.
"To thee," it says, "we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears."
Mr. Quinn said he wrote Banished Children of Eve in three and a half years, working weekday mornings from 7:15 to 9:15. Part of his inspiration came while crossing the East River on the subway from Brooklyn. He said he would look down on South Street, where his ancestors probably landed when they arrived here.
"Taking that train every morning was part of my writing," he said. "Writers hope for some kind of grace, and that to me was mine."
Mr. Quinn is now working on a novel that focuses on a murder in September 1938. "It's about the Bund, a Nazi camp in Yaphank," he said. "It's about eugenics, selective breeding and forced sterilization of the retarded, which I think is one of the most horrific movements of the 20th century. The Eugenics Record Office was in Cold Spring Harbor."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942
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 bitter fruits of subjugation. Nor does he neglect the Yankees and the free blacks who were so much a part of the New York Civil War tumult, and who were respectively the masters and the foes of the Irish.
As he draws together the strands of his narrative, Quinn moves between Ireland and New York, turning the latter teeming metropolis into a village that becomes his own American Nighttown. Here the immigrants, the "Paddys," go about their dubious business, survival uppermost in their minds, displaced only by the oblivion of a night's drinking. Here, too, they vie with the blacks for the menial jobs they are terrified of losing, and vent their anger and hatred of the Yankee "ratnoses," the Know Nothings or true Americans, who are indifferent to the miserable poverty around them, or prey on it.
These antagonisms and fears erupt in the draft riots of 1863, when the poor of New York battle armed federal troops, using bottles, paving stones, and arson. Out of control, the rioters maim and murder a poor dwarf, Squirt, believed to be the offspring of the lovely Eliza La Plante and her white lover, Jack Mulcahey. When the carnage is over, and the dead are buried, a new direction is indicated for each of the main characters.
And what richly realized characters they are, almost Dickensian in their variety and quirkiness: Jimmy Dunne, likable and resourceful, though hardly the conventional hero, who is rescued from Great Plains servitude by a tornado to become a New York hustler; Eliza, beautiful and a gifted actress, starring in Uncle Tom's Cabin and as well, the light of Jack Mulcahey's life. Mulcahey himself is the greatest of the blackface minstrels, performing his routines nightly to the music of Stephen Foster. And what of Margaret O'Driscoll, devout maidservant ready for the main chance, which could be Dunne?
There are others: Charles Bedford, Wall Street entrepreneur and hustler in a different mode, taking his chances at the faro table in Morrissey's gambling establishment and losing to the implacable owner. And how will this sit with the whining fence, Capshaw, who has Bedford between a rock and knife for improper securities dealings? We encounter, too, Colonel Robert Noonan, administrator of the draft, an honorable man hated by his compatriots who see him as a threat to their independence. Stephen Foster lurches from saloon to saloon, accompanied by his fictional great friend, One-eyed Jack Cassidy.
Over these and a host of minor characters is the brooding figure of Archbishop John Hughes, who truly sees his "banished children of Eve" as the exiles they are, a people wandering in the wilderness, in need of saving. He is determined that it will be he who leads them out of their degraded situations and into the promised land and to this end he is building his cathedral. The scene of Hughes on the scaffolding of the just-begun Saint Patrick's, attended by his sycophantic auxiliary, is one of the most dramatic and at the same time most comical scenes in the novel.
The research that informs the narrative is so smoothly and seamlessly integrated that it would hardly be noticeable were it not for the ebb and flow of the historical underpinnings. Quinn handles with great skill the events of the months leading to the draft riots, and at the same time acquaints the reader with the history of the famine-cursed Irish, the terrible blight that brought about the migration. With tenderness and compassion he describes the pain and sorrow of those famine years in Ireland, the wrenching farewells of parents to children whom they would never see again, the panic and despair of the greenhorns landing at Castle Garden in New York. And the survivors—what of them? Pickpockets, whores, servants: Was being in service to the Protestant Ascendancy any better than starving in Ireland?
Well, yes. Although Banished Children arrives at no conclusions of this kind, the epilogue opens up possibilities for the future. Here Quinn's controlled sense of irony has full play as he draws the reader beyond the riots into calmer waters. And comedy, too, is one of his gifts, for who could resist his more raffish characters as they reel in and out of bars and brothels, declaiming, singing, cadging drinks. His creations, then, are living, breathing, original habitués of the dens and warrens of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Beyond that they are, some of them, men and women with aspirations, longing for a better life, and with only the thinnest slice of hope to keep them going.
That they have been celebrated in this splendid stew of a book is a tribute to their resilience and to the overflowing life with which they have been filled by their creator. His empathy, knowledge, and masterly narrative have brought them into being. Flawed and broken though they are, these "banished children" are irresistible. Peter Quinn's achievement is to have brought them alive in a historic moment and to have given us a historical novel of stature and breadth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1424
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 tradition of Dostoevski rather than Tolstoy. The latter tended to pontificate from a God's eye view; Peter Quinn, using a Dostoevskian tradition, has presented his historical narratives from the point of view of the participants and devoid of any claim to objectivity by the author.
This work has as it major theme the intense hatred which existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans. The freed slaves who fled the South and came to New York inflamed the passions of the Irish who were particular victims of the notorious draft laws implemented by Colonel Noonan, also an Irishman. However, Quinn cannot be accused of being chauvinistic; he refers to "Paddy" in the words of a former Congressman from New York who said,
God bless his democratic soul, he is as pugnacious and resentful a creature as God put on this earth. And don't let the veneer of musicality fool you into believing otherwise. In his heart of hearts, every Paddy believes the same thing: that the Know-Nothing-Abolitionist-Protestant-Ascendancy has decided that in the contest between him and the nigger as to which would occupy the lowest station in life, Paddy must win.
A characteristic literary pattern, established by a number of Irish writers, appears in this novel. Quinn introduces as a prologue to each section, either a verse of poetry or an apt quotation. This reviewer applauds this format as an effective means to channel the reader in anticipatory fashion to related incidents.
Among Quinn's historical findings, which are both original and noteworthy, is the way the development of minstrel shows created a rivalry for the musical soul of New York, another sore point between the Irish and blacks. The music of African-Americans was much more popular than that of the Irish, who were frequently accused of turning musical only in their more drunken moods. Today we laud, justifiably, the musical genius of our African-American citizens; during the Civil War the music of the blues and the minstrels were already laying the foundation for the extraordinary talents of today's African-Americans.
The Irish in the United States have always been considered a diocese of the Vatican; however, the narratives dealing with religion not only give the distinct impression that many of the Irish women immigrants became prostitutes, but that they rose to the position of madams in a number of important New York brothels. Pungent observations in a similar vein are to be found throughout the book. Describing one Irish character, Quinn says of him. "He had the best training in the romantic arts that the young Republic could provide," and observes in another passage that "the women were given to amorous acrobatics that their counterparts in the East were incapable of." Certainly this is a new approach to the romantic reputation of the Irish!
Not all of Quinn's portraits are so unsparing. As a tribute to his alma mater, Quinn gives us a short note on the first president of Fordham University, one admirable Father Dunn who hailed from the Bronx, and was of course a descendant of Ireland. And one great Catholic stands out here: Archbishop Hughes, who spent many hours watching the building of St. Patrick's Cathedral: "A fine sight, Archbishop Hughes and his secretary wrestling in the mudhole surrounding the Cathedral while his coachman yells at him, 'Your grace, please stand back.'" This was the man who was wont to admonish those of his flock who insisted on participating in public mayhem, "Keep out of the crowd where mortal souls are launched into eternity … Ireland has been the mother of heroes and poets, but never the mother of cowards." He was referring to the hanging of African-Americans by the Irish during the Draft Riots.
Quinn has taken daring license in fictionalizing famous characters, from the Prince of Wales slumming in brothels during a visit to the City in 1860, to other real-life characters such as Stephen Foster, who apparently careened around the city creating disturbances; apart from his musical ability he was known as something of a nuisance. Even then New York was very tolerant of drunken musicians like Foster. Quinn quotes from a well-known theatrical figure: "The dancer, the singer, the balladeer, the minstrel, the thespian, whether comedian or tragedian, those of us who compose music and those of you who play it, we know no qualification but ability. We accept no distinction but talent!"
It has often been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. The author offers further proof. A comparison of the City today and of the Civil War era shows up many fascinating parallels. Gangs were as prevalent in those days as now and were just as flamboyant. They had names like The Plug Uglies, The Buckaroos, The Slaughterhouses, The Daybreak Boys, The Underswamp Angels, and so forth. Even Wall Street comes in for its fair share of attention: bureaucratic robbery, white-collar pilfering and similar varieties of middle-class roguery are described as the order of the day. In one instance a leading Wall Street pundit was guilty of a personal act of murder and managed to get away with it. In fact, it is in the area of comparison that this book tells so much. In painting so terrifying a picture of the City as it was then, one can only wonder whether the violence, murder and extraordinary absence of conventional morality as it exists now did not have their origin in what some people call "the good old days."
One particularly affecting incident is the execution of a young, innocent black woman while a great crowd of New Yorkers gathered around the City's gallows, which was located in what was then Potter's Field. The woman's name was Maria Rose Prior, born on 20 January 1840. The presence of this level of detail is indicative of the enormous research which the author has done.
In painting this often unflattering picture of the immigrant Irish, Peter Quinn does not suggest that they had any corner on the arts of greed. Many of his seamiest characters were themselves victim of oppression by other New Yorkers. This raises the question: against whom can we cast the first stone? Certainly the Dutch immigrants who landed in the City in the middle of the 17th century were as voracious as many of the later arrivals, including the Germans. The English, who were hated by the Irish, added their own brand of cupidity, even though they were but a small segment of the immigrant population.
As an Irishman reading this book, I felt not the slightest urge to take pride in my people; at the same time, I was delighted to find someone who was sufficiently honest, even in fictional narrative, to paint a portrait of the New World Irish with all their warts, all their dishonesty, and above all, their appalling enslavement to the bottle.
In short, this book is a formidable and yet fascinating read. The author sweeps the reader along on an ever-changing tide of people, places and incidents. He indeed proves that far from being a melting pot, New York City in the days of the Civil War was a seething mass of intolerant and warring tribes. What emerges triumphant, however, is a sense of the vibrant and vital contest between good and evil which has made this country what it is.
One thing must be added: the writing in this book marks a new voice in the annals of Irish literacy. It is dark and brilliant, fateful and forceful, unsparing in its evocations of brutality and tender in bearing witness to the travails of the innocent. In style it forges into the new space created by the belief in local knowledge and local meaning. There are no overarching explanations, no overarching narratives. The reader is left to create out of vivid rags and snatches the world of a vanished period and the cry of a banished race.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
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 criminals abound and whores and drunkards are everywhere. It belongs to the foreigners he says, and let them have it. America's got no use for it."
This anarchic vista is the mood with which Peter Quinn has infused his long novel about the city during the time of the Civil War. He seems to make a bet on controlled length, rich learned detail, historical verisimilitude and a wide spread of characters jostling across the page for our attention, in the manner of the Irish mobs massing on the Bowery. His bet seems to be that this teeming edifice will bring to life his imaginative vision of the city's history. That the more elaborate the structure, and the greater the length, the more compelling and irresistible will be the recreation for the reader of the stuff of life in New York during the critical moments of the mid-nineteenth century. It is a bet because there are pages in this book which suggest another, perhaps discarded, line of attack; a technique that is more concentrated, more imaginative, less discursive and expository. These are the pages which work best, and their suggestiveness and force diminish what is thinly stretched in plot and characterization.
The story of New York from April to May 1863, when the Union seemed to have been losing the war with the Confederates, is told through the individual deeds and histories of a long list of characters, some of them historical figures. There is Jimmy Dunne, the Irish orphan who grows up to be a resourceful and reflective thief: Charles Bedford, a cunning young broker who enriches himself only to gamble away his fortune; Bedford's drearily loquacious uncle-in-law, Audley Ward, relentlessly peddling his theories; the Irish minstrel, Jack Mulcahey, and his lover Eliza, a freed slave. Civil War generals and the popular composer Stephen Foster appear in person. As he describes the rise and fail of the stock market, the race wars between the Irish and the blacks, and the eventual victory of patrician Republicans over the Confederates, Quinn contrives to make the lives of his characters intersect, often subtly.
It is clear that Quinn has a command of the period. His narrative is particularly vivid in conveying the extraordinary pace of change. He hints, through his characters, at the growing power of the railroads. And Charles Bedford, desperately dreaming of some opportunity to rescue himself from debt, muses, while sitting on the lavatory, about the wealth represented by piped water: "the great divide between the haves and the have nots … the spawning pond of the bourgeoisie". But the author's chosen motif of rushing History, carrying his characters to intertwined destinies, ultimately engulfs their individuality. And we are left with particular passages which suggest he could have mined the rest of his historical material less predictably.
Early on in the novel, there is an eerie description of the triumphalist visit by Archbishop Hughes to the city's unfinished Catholic cathedral. The cranky old man wades through puddles and mud and climbs the scaffolding desperately pursued by his aide, Father Corrigan. When the Archbishop reaches the edge of the wall, a strong gust of wind tears away his hairpiece. Corrigan sees him standing there, his skull "shiny and knobby, his cheeks sunken. He was smiling, he beckoned to Corrigan to come forward. Then he turned around again." And later, with the orphan boy, Jimmy Dunne, there is a scene where he is brought by the farmer in the West to a place by the railroad where passengers take potshots at the herds of buffalo crossing the tracks. "Across the prairie in front of him were thousands of animal carcasses, some little more than skeletons, others swelling masses of decaying, putrid flesh…. Jimmy worked all morning at collecting bones, a rag soaked in cottonseed oil tied across his face to keep out the terrible odor. Toward late afternoon a strong wind came up and the sky clouded over." More of this close focus across a smaller cast of characters would have been a better bet.
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