Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Chandler reviews Small World

Seamus Deane. Small World: Ireland 1798-2018. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 364 pp.

Review by James Chandler

22 December 2021

Joe Cleary has done the world a great service with this book. He persuaded Seamus Deane to publish a collection of new and old essays, some of which date from the 1970s and 1980s, and he guided the selection and arrangement of the contents. Deane only lived long enough to see the project finished and acknowledge Cleary’s efforts. Cleary’s foreword lays out the book’s aims and the case for Deane as “Ireland’s most notable literary critic” of the last half century, observing, too, that it was not a career made in literary criticism alone (p. ix). Deane was a published poet of some accomplishment, though his life-long friendship with Seamus Heaney made him conscious of his deficiencies. In “The Famous Seamus” (2000), Deane self-deprecatingly recalls a teacher at Queen’s University Belfast who told him that he wrote poetry whereas Heaney wrote poems. Deane did have a major literary success. His quasi-autobiographical novel about a haunted childhood home in troubled Derry, Reading in the Dark (1996), was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

In the early 1980s, Deane had collaborated with Heaney, Brian Friel, and Stephen Rea to undertake a major cultural intervention they called Field Day. Part of its aim was a rejuvenation of Irish theater, and the first of its many successes was Translations—staged in Derry in 1982 with Rea and Liam Neeson—Friel’s play about the British occupation of Ireland in 1832. In many Field Day projects, however, it was Deane who took the lead. He organized and edited the Anthology of Irish Writing (1992), which was soon expanded to five volumes to incorporate women writers not represented in the first three. He launched a monograph series in Irish Studies under the Field Day rubric that included two of his own books. The great project of his final decades was the impressive Field Day Review, dedicated to making Irish Studies more attentive to the visual arts and more expansive in its political and intellectual reach. The conceptual repertoire for this latter task includes such categories as republicanism, nationalism, imperialism, and postcolonialism, and its methodological dimension includes questions about the relationship of literature, history, politics, and culture. This intellectual agenda, with Ireland as its recurring site, not coincidentally reflects the preoccupations of Deane’s own critical oeuvre over almost five decades. It also guides this new collection of essays.

The “Ireland” of the subtitle demands both a local and a cosmopolitan frame of reference. The date 1798, year of the French-supported rebellion in Ireland, also calls for a gloss, as the book’s first three essays deal with Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, and Wolfe Tone. If the case of Ireland has a cosmopolitan context, in other words, the events that led to the Act of Union with Britain in 1800 have a prehistory. It is in his examination of this prehistory that Deane’s graduate training as a European dix-huitièmiste at Cambridge stands him in particularly good stead, especially for the recurring triangulations of Ireland, Britain, and France. He traces Tone’s consequential republican navigations of this triangle brilliantly, and his exposé of Burke’s US reception in the twentieth century emphasizes that the Burke who challenged the hegemony of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland was a necessary blind spot for conservative American scholars preoccupied with Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). 

It is, however, with “Classic Swift,” that Deane’s triangulation of enlightenment cultures is most revelatory, as he makes good on the curiously worded premise of T. S. Eliot’s throwaway line that James Joyce’s Ulysses was “the first Irish work since that of Swift to possess absolute European significance” (p. 11). Deane’s insistence on the Ireland-Britain-France triangle returns in “Irish National Character 1790-1900,” an essay from 1987 that bridges the book’s eighteenth- and twentieth-century investigations. Late in the book, in Deane’s searching commentary on Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018), this through theme enables him to explain why so much of Middle Sister’s narrative of sexual harassment during the Troubles is preoccupied with her night class in French literature.

The question of modernism, Irish modernism in particular, raises issues addressed in the last part of the book, where they make another triangle, one not plotted on nations but on forms of practice: literature, history, and criticism. The most pointed and polemical essays appear back-to-back as “Emergency Aesthetics” and “Wherever Green is Read,” the former never before published and the latter an occasional piece first published in wake of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  

“Emergency Aesthetics,” the strongest piece in the volume, ranges widely in literature and politics from William Yeats and the Irish Revival to Burns and the revival of the Irish Gothic (with Martin McDonagh and Patrick McCabe), all in pursuit of a question: How to negotiate the legacy of modernist aesthetics in a nation where the state of emergency becomes a routinized state of affairs? Part of the answer is supplied by “Wherever Green is Read,” which takes as its point of departure a comment by R. F. Foster on the rising. Close reading Foster’s own reading of “green,” Deane shows that Foster’s implicit view of the Protestant North—sober, rational, factual—is the flip side of an equally false view of the Catholic South as mystical and archaic, a counterfeit coin with history as heads and literature as tails, and hardly a new story. Deane works through a critique of each as the face of false detachment—one utilitarian, the other aesthetic. In the end, his own brand of criticism emerges, in effect, as the currency Ireland needs most at the present time. This is not the criticism Matthew Arnold called for in his time. It is closer to that of Daniel Corkery, or even William Hazlitt, whose writings Deane recalls reading with Heaney in a Derry schoolroom. It is a criticism defined not by disinterestedness but by combative gusto. Perhaps in these two essays, and in the compelling Adornian piece that concludes the volume “The End of the World,” Deane is demonstrating why a writer of so many talents decided over time to pursue the life of the critic.