I’ve wondered for some time when a novelist or playwright would tell the story of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 trip to Ireland on the eve of the great famine, when Daniel O’Connell, the “Great Liberator” and champion of Catholic emancipation, embraced his fellow abolitionist as “the black O’Connell.”
And who better to bring that story to life than Colum McCann, the preternaturally talented, Dublin-born New York author, who reads from his new novel, “TransAtlantic,” tonight at Harvard Book Store’s annual Chuck Pacheco Memorial Lecture at the Brattle Theatre.
“TransAtlantic” reimagines Douglass’s extraordinary journey and two other historic crossings between Ireland and America: John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919, and retired U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s trip to Belfast to broker the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998.
The book begins in Newfoundland, where British pilots and Great War veterans Alcock and Brown prepare to fly a converted Vickers Vimy bomber to Ireland. Readers of McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin,” “Zoli,” and “Dancer” will recognize the bravura narrative style—lyrical prose shimmering with details of time and place, historic events and human achievement—that McCann uses to bring to life the exhilaration and terror of the journey. (“When they enter the layers between the clouds, there is no panic. They tug on their fur helmets, reposition their goggles, wrap scarves around their mouths. Here we go. The terror of a possible whiteout. The prospect of flying blind. Cloud above. Cloud below.”)
The second chapter opens with Douglass’s arrival in Dublin for a four-month lecture tour to raise money and awareness for the anti-slavery cause. An escaped slave and a fugitive—he was forced to travel to Ireland in steerage—he marvels at his transformed identity: “Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.”
Douglass spends much of his time in the well-appointed dining rooms and parlors of ardent Methodist and Unitarian abolitionists. He realizes that most of the Dubliners he breaks bread with speak in British accents; they are members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, living gracious lives in sequestered segments of the city. Elsewhere, he observes, “The filth was staggering. The poor were so thin and white, they were almost lunar.”
He is stricken by what he sees in Dublin, horrified by the Irish countryside, where the poor Irish lived underground in mud huts, and “children looked like remnants of themselves.” He had seldom seen such poverty, even in the American south.
Douglass’ relationship with O’Connell—little known outside scholarly circles for decades—has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, notably by President Barack Obama.
But Douglass’s response to starving Irish Catholics he encountered was circumspect. He was an Anglophile who, like many abolitionists, held “papists” in extremely low regard. He attributed Irish poverty to intemperance. What’s more, McCann makes clear, the American social reformer was a guest of people with vested interest in preserving the status quo. “He could not speak out against those who had brought him here as a visitor. There was only so much he could take upon himself,” Douglass reasons to himself. “The Irish were poor, but not enslaved.”
McCann shades the Douglass story deftly, never dimming the man’s monumental achievements. He is a generous narrator, who gives dignity and dimension to even his least savory characters—the feckless photographer in “Songdogs”; the spectacularly narcissistic hedonist ballet star based on Rudolph Nureyev in “Dancer”; TreeFrog, a homeless man harboring a shameful in “This Side of Brightness.”
McCann’s unabashed admiration for former Senator George Mitchell’s resolution of Northern Ireland’s fantastically fraught peace process drives the narrative of the novel’s third chapter, which recalls the days leading up to the agreement from Mitchell’s point of view. (The author has said he sent a first draft to Mitchell’s wife Heather, and a later version to Mitchell before interviewing him for four hours.)
A retired 64-year-old father of an infant son at the time, Mitchell had been called back to public service five years earlier by President Bill Clinton—for two weeks. As the chapter opens, he reluctantly leaves his wife and infant son in their New York apartment to fly to the negotiating tables in Northern Ireland one last time. The story follows him to Belfast, where he changes hotels in response to a bomb threat, updates throngs of reporters, listens with pleasure to Red Sox updates from his staff. Meanwhile, he pushes an almost Shakespearean cast of warring characters toward a resolution of a centuries-old conflict.
“TransAtlantic” is divided into three parts. The second and third weave McCann’s stories of larger-than-life men and events with fiction centered on four generations of women. The first is Lilly Duggan, a Dublin maid whose brief encounter with Douglass inspires her to make the 8-week journey to New York in a coffin ship.
One of the pleasures of McCann’s new book is its recognition (still too rare in Irish American narratives) that immigrant women’s transatlantic encounters significantly shaped Irish American history. Lilly, like the famous men who make the same crossing, succeeds against enormous odds. She tends to the wounded and loses a son in the Civil War. Salvages her husband’s ice farming business when she is widowed, learning the rudiments of reading and writing so she can sign company documents. She sends sons to college.
McCann worked as a reporter and columnist in Dublin before making his own Atlantic crossing, with plans to write a great American novel. (He gave up quickly, and embarked instead on an 18-month bicycle tour of North America.) He has honed his journalistic instincts and skills as he’s grown as a novelist, reporting on a remarkable range of subjects, and developing an exceptionally acute eye for the sort of details that add flourish to his rhapsodic prose: a catalog, in the first two pages of “Dancer,” of objects flung onstage during the Russian defector’s first Paris season, for example; the ranging crowd responses to seeing a tightrope walker running, dancing and leaping between the World Trade Center towers in “Let the Great World Spin.”
To research “This Side of Brightness,” a novel about New York City sandhogs and the homeless who live in the underground warrens they built (and a book I consider his best so far), McCann hung around subway tunnel entrances smoking cigarettes until he got to know people who would take him underground. Seeking eyewitness accounts of the peace process in the days before the Good Friday Agreement for his new novel, McCann wangled a 30-minute phone interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
McCann’s dazzling range and gifts are on full display in “TransAtlantic,” and the chapters on Alcock and Brown, Douglass, and Lilly Duggan may be among his best. I’m not sure the Mitchell chapter will convey the drama and significance of the unprecedented peace accord to readers who don’t readily recall names like Mo Mowlam, David Trimble, John Hume.
The last two chapters of “TransAtlantic” bring the book back to Northern Ireland, where Lilly’s granddaughter and great granddaughter make their lives. Set largely in a family cottage on a lough during “the Troubles” and after the Good Friday agreement, they are lyrical and lovely, at times moving and sad. But I found the characters thinly drawn, their stories freighted with more legacy and symbolic history than they can bear.
On balance, though, “TransAtlantic” is a Colum McCann novel: surprising, smart, and as welcome as a sea spray on a summer’s day.
Colum McCann talks to Radio Boston.
A former Boston Globe reporter, Maureen Dezell is the author of the critically acclaimed “Irish America: Coming Into Clover” (Anchor Books 2002) and a senior editor at Boston College. Her website is maureendezell.com.
This program aired on June 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.