Huck Finn's brethren: Irish characters in American literature

Date of Completion

January 2009


Literature, American




Huck Finn's Brethren considers the development of literary constructions of Irish identity from the mid-nineteenth century arrival of the Famine generation through the Great Depression, exploring not only how the Irish were popularly conceived of in literature, but also why such characterizations appealed to writers and readers. It argues that literary constructions of Irishness became the site of intense cultural debate regarding American identity, with some writers imagining Irishness to be the antithesis of Americanness, but others suggesting Irishness to be a path to Americanization. Previous studies of Irish-American literature have mostly considered only the work of American writers of Irish heritage and have left largely unexplored the work of American writers with no Irish heritage who nonetheless participated in the popular construction of Irish-American identity. This study explores how a sense of Irishness was imagined by both Irish-American writers conscious of the process of self-definition and non-Irish writers responsive to shifting cultural concerns regarding ethnic others. In arguing that the fictional Irish-American became a locus for the expression and reconciliation of emerging American nationalist anxieties, this project analyzes specific iconic characters such as Mark Twain's Huck Finn and Margaret Mitchell's Scarlet O'Hara, as well as lesser-known Irish monsters who lurked in the American imagination such as T.S. Eliot's Sweeney and Frank Norris' McTeague. By placing such characters side by side, it shows the ways in which literature participated in the imagining of an Irish community in America and also how it helped construct an ethnic boundary that redefined the country. ^