The Immortal Irishman

My 2016 reading challenge for myself was to read more non-fiction. I just finished The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan. The biography follows Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish revolutionary who was sentenced to exile in Tasmania in his early twenties. Meagher played a key role in the failed 1848 rebellion in Ireland against Britain. Saved from the typical fate of revolutionaries (drawn and quartered), Meagher and his accomplices were sent into exile in the farthest reaches of the British Empire.

From Tasmania, Meagher escaped to New York City, where he began the second biggest role of his life, that of an American hero. Meagher, a staunch supporter of Lincoln, lead one of the most famous brigades in all of the civil war. The Irish Brigade was respected and feared by all they encountered. Meagher’s mysterious disappearance in 1867 is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the American West.

Egan tells Meagher’s story well, with slight pacing problems. The entire section of the biography when Meagher was stuck in Tasmania, and then when he was in the American west fighting vigilantes, I was completely bored. The rest of the biography, however, really blew me away. Egan vividly depicted Ireland during the years of the famine, as well as America during the Civil War. I was constantly surprised and entertained by just how much Egan knew about Meagher and, well, everything.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history (American or Irish). So thankful that I followed my dad’s recommendation and got through this hefty biography.

As an Irish soul myself, the final passage of The Immortal Irishman gave me chills: “It is the living, of course, who need these markers of the dead in order to make sense of their place in this world–more than eighty million people with some Irish blood, most of them no longer looking for a country to call home. For them, memory is not an unwelcome burden but the raw material of stories that will always be passed on, in song, verse or tale, the great survival skill of the Irish.”




IMG_3887Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno; 2013

This biography was very compelling in its subject, but it stops there for me. Before reading Salinger I didn’t know much about J.D. Salinger other than the obvious stuff – i.e. hermitage. I didn’t know he fought in WWII, that he was a ladies man, or that devoted a large part of his life to studying Zen Buddhism. I read Catcher and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” only once each in high school, so all of this was new to me. Writer David Shields and director Shane Salerno researched material and conducted over 200 interviews for Salinger for over 10 years. What results is a kind of oral history of the writer’s life from those who knew him, or at least, knew about him.

My main grievance with Salinger is that it felt VERY Hollywood infected, which is ironic on so many levels. It’s the “official book” of the “acclaimed” documentary directed by Salerno. What makes Jake Gyllenhaal a reputable commentator on Salinger, I would like to know? What really killed me about this was that so many of the interviewees kept making the point that Salinger was probably smart for rejecting fame, and that the people who seek fame are actually the crazy ones. I can’t say I disagree, but the point hardly holds when it’s coming from, say, Edward Norton. To me, it seemed like this biography was fame-seeking, which didn’t sit right with me at all. Lining up a couple hundred voices in 700 pages made this biography a whole lot more like a tell-all than a critical look at a writer’s life.

Apart from that, I did find the format to be problematic, and I felt that it led to some pretty serious authority problems within the text. Rather than evaluating the evidence they present, Shields and Salerno simply insert themselves into the text among their witnesses. S&S, as well as many of their interviewees, make assertions about Salinger’s state of mind and his relationship to his art. The format sets the precedent that anything said about Salinger carries authority of truth. BIG PROBLEM. It doesn’t have an index, and its endnotes are incomplete. As I was reading and began to notice these things, I had a mounting distrust towards the entire text. Salerno and Shields also take a lot of liberties with Salinger’s psychological state and then conclude with a strange bullet list of their “argument” at the end. This would’ve been more okay with me if S&S had crafted an actual narrative with analysis.

By the time I got to the end, I just felt sad. There is an unfocused argument throughout the second half of the book that claims that Salinger was calculating about his image as a recluse. Even if this is true, the writer obviously wanted control over his own privacy, and so many people fought him on that. Overall, I didn’t dislike this book as much as the presentation of material and format of the text bothered me. It was compelling and it wasn’t a daunting read, despite its size. In any case, I was interested enough in Salinger’s life after reading this to decide to go back and read Nine Stories, Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey in the hopes that I will have a better understanding and appreciation of these stories.