Celtic Junction Arts Review

Taking Flight: An Appreciation of Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic”

Mary McCormick and Patrick O’Donnell

1919. A Vimy Vickers plane shudders off from a field in Newfoundland, Canada, the two pilots determined to complete the first successful transatlantic flight. It lands askew in a boggy field in Clifden, county Galway in Ireland. “The Vimy sticks out of the earth like some new-world dolmen. The nose is buried at least two feet in the bog.”

Vickers Vimy crashed into a bog in Clifden, Ireland.
Alcock and Brown’s Vimy at Clifden, Ireland on June 15, 1919. Public domain.
Author with extremely short hair and five o'clock shadow looking to his left, chin on fist.
Colum McCann 2019. ©Elizabeth Eagle

Dublin-born author Colum McCann’s 2013 novel, Transatlantic is structured around three factual historical events—the successful flight in 1919 of Alcock and Brown; the 1845-46 visit of the African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass to Ireland as its cataclysmic famine (“An Gorta Mór”/The Great Hunger) was beginning; and, Senator George Mitchell’s sealing of the Good Friday Agreement – bringing peace to Northern Ireland after thirty years of internecine conflict – in 1998.  McCann braids around these frames the lives of four generations of fictional women to confirm D.H. Lawrence’s assertion that “The novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.”  The world became smaller following that 1919 flight. Invisible threads of history and memory could now be more quickly woven to connect all of us in a globalizing world.

This novel’s brilliant style, ambition, and scope show how McCann is magnificently cresting the wave as one of the most significant Irish/ American authors of his generation (McCann has resided in New York for several decades). His novel demonstrates a confidence rather than an anxiety of influence.  McCann’s deft agility as a pointillist prose artist confidently integrates the influence of three giant figures of the Irish literary tradition: Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, and Edna O’Brien, as “fuel” for his own flights in the “craft” of writing. Most importantly, McCann’s commitment to “radical empathy” and “braided narrative” invites the reader to ‘complete’ the novel and to see the relevance of the transatlantic shrinking of distance.  How we are all products of an interconnected, intergenerational, globalized, twenty-first century. We are all transatlantic.

Seamus Heaney, 1996
Seamus Heaney, 1996 Image bh002449, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), the farmer’s son from rural county Derry in Northern Ireland who became ‘Famous Seamus’ on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, is a clear inspirational precursor. His manifesto-style poem, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist (1966) puts three generations of the Heaney family along with the poet’s child self in the same poem, anticipating the imaginative architecture of McCann’s novel. The authenticity of Heaney to his origins and roots is demonstrated when digging with a spade is ingeniously substituted with digging with a pen. “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it.” This anticipates the constant meditation on the act of writing itself as a means to authenticity in McCann’s work.

Indeed, McCann’s description  of the plane in flight transforms it into a symbol of the writer’s craft and art. “Keeping to the prescribed course is a matter of genius and magic.” The flight of the craft is a metaphor for the flight of the craft of writing. For McCann as for Heaney, writing is a “redress,” a wisdom-bestowing craft. The writer’s craft is a “modified bomber.” Fuel tanks have literally and figuratively replaced bombs. In the opening preface, instead of bombs being dropped, it is seagulls dropping oyster shells, indicative of hidden pearls of wisdom to be “cracked” open by the reader’s attentive understanding: “it was the gulls flying overhead, dropping oysters on the roof to break the shells open.” This recalls Heaney’s poem “Postscript”: “You are neither here nor there, /A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

Black and white image of Heaney's face as a young man. Serious expression.
By Simon Garbutt. Heaney at Uppingham School in 1970.

This then is very much a Heaney-influenced novel, and it is saturated in his peace-evoking influence and example. He provides McCann with frames to transcend the tragedies of Irish history. As Heaney made luminously and bleakly clear in his Nobel lecture, “Crediting Poetry,” the contradictory abundance of discourses “variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible” that besets the Irish writer means that poetry—or—in McCann’s case—poetic prose—becomes a framing wisdom-producing practice. It articulates, contains and transcends the tragic disorientating crises fissuring Irish identity. Whether paramilitary deaths in Northern Ireland for Heaney or famine and emigration and the uprooting of families for McCann, a writer’s command and mastery of style allows Ireland to become infinitely generative rather than “impossible.” Thus, in Irish writers such as Heaney and McCann there is a marked and almost obsessive determination to contemplate the primal wonder of the craft of writing. Poetic writing is “compellingly wise” and makes “possible a fluid and restorative relationship [as Heaney asserts] between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”

Writing centers and restores, Heaney insists. McCann’s novel is saturated in imagery and allusions echoing Heaney such as “spirit level,” “slabs of peat,” “carving open a tree,” “whatever you say, say nothing,” and the idea of the bog as a repository of difficult history and past trauma: “The stolen gun never resurfaced. [McCann writes] Who knows what history it served, or whether it was just thrown away and buried down in the bog to join the ancient elk, the bones, the butter?” These themes percolate across Heaney’s collections from Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1975) to The Spirit Level (1996).

James Joyce, 1915

The other precursor that McCann explicitly acknowledges is James Joyce (1882-1941). His epiphanies from Dubliners (1914) and stream-of-consciousness method from Ulysses (1922) are confidently integrated by McCann into his pointillist literary fiction. This bold acknowledgement and modeling of Joyce’s methods confirms the confidence of influence, particularly in a constant reworking of characters and scenes from Dubliners’ long concluding short story, “The Dead.” As Gabriel Conroy, the main protagonist of that story, self-consciously glances at himself in a mirror, so slowly Frederick Douglass gradually learns to find the wisdom to transcend his self-consciousness (“He caught sight of himself in the swivel mirror. Preposterous. But he was not beyond laughing at himself.”) in the 1845-46 segment of McCann’s novel.

Sideview of parked Vimy Vickers.
Vimy Vickers. Public domain.

The description of the successful takeoff of the Vimy Vickers plane integrates influences from both Heaney (surety and awareness of one’s craft) and Joyce (stream of consciousness’s partial sentences) and celebrates symbolically McCann’s confidence in his drawing inspirational “fuel” from his great Irish precursors: “They head straight into the wind. The nose goes up. The plane slows. An agonizing climb over treetops and low roofs. Careful now not to stall. Keep her rising. Higher up, they begin a slight bank. Take her easy, old chum. Bring her around. A stately turn, all beauty, all balance, its own sort of confidence.”

McCann seems to lift the character of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, from Joyce’s “The Dead” as inspiration for the maid who emigrates to America, Lily Duggan. In this evocation of female consciousness and liberation he is clearly drawing on Edna O’Brien (1930—), the groundbreaking author who broke into the literary world at the age of thirty with The Country Girls, whom  McCann has acknowledged as an influence and model.  Her example can be found at multiple levels in TransAtlantic.

Edna O'Brien pictured on her memoir, smoking.

Thematically, Emily, the fictional daughter of the Irish emigrant Lily, builds a career as a successful journalist in the U.S. and Canada, but encounters sexual harassment and predation along the way, including her newspaper editor substituting his name for hers on her work.  This theme hearkens to the life and work of Edna O’Brien, whose writer husband was envious of her literary success, and tried to take credit for her novels.

Stylistically, McCann uses many of O’Brien’s best skills—immersive prose marked by keen observation, striking use of vivid sensory details, sentence fragments, deft weaving of container, character and plot, and melding the outer story with inner monologue.

The “icehouse” chapter begins the second half of TransAtlantic, where it reverts to traditional chronological order.  The chapter is told from the point of view of Lily Duggan, the first of the fictional female characters.  She has appeared, briefly and enigmatically, in the “freeman” chapter on Frederick Douglass, as a 17-year-old servant girl with sandy hair and freckles in the Dublin house of Richard Webb, an Irish Quaker and Douglass’ publisher.  She cleans the room Douglass is staying in, and listens to his discussions with Protestant abolitionist guests.  There are unmistakable echoes of Lily the maid who greets the guests at the Christmas party in James Joyce’s story, “The Dead.”

Why does Douglass represent liberation for Lily? He embodies a liberating example for her, as – we learn—she had her own childhood backstory of oppression, and realized she had to take her life into her own hands if she was to avoid being an overlooked menial for the rest of her life.  This determination to achieve autonomy parallels the self-taught Douglass.

By Unknown author – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

Why then is Douglass, the former slave, feeling a psychological liberation in Ireland? He felt liberated by Ireland on the surface because he wasn’t treated as The Other, as automatically less than, but rather as a full human being, if a curiosity.  And the fear of being captured and returned to slavery slid off his shoulders.  He perhaps also realized that white men could enslave and abuse other white men, too. Oppression is everywhere.

Initially, we catch only a few glimpses of Lily until the end of the chapter, where she turns up at another house in Cork, where Douglass is staying, and is crestfallen when, at first, he doesn’t recognize her out of her maid’s uniform.  Inspired by his speeches, she has left her employer and walked from Dublin to Cork to board a ship bound for New York.

The first section of the “icehouse” chapter, seventeen years later, puts us inside Lily’s head as she tends to wounded and dying Civil War soldiers at a field hospital in Missouri.  The reader is immersed in heartbreaking sensory details—the sights, sounds, and smells of the dying—and deft metaphors.  The second section is a flashback to her arrival in New York in 1846 after eight weeks at sea.  McCann builds the scene with more pointillist detail.  After she buries her dead soldier son, Lily marries the man who delivers ice to the hospital, and has five sons and one daughter, Emily, who is the protagonist of the next chapter.

McCann’s careful research shows again in the meticulous detail he uses to describe the deepening, scoring, and harvesting of ice in the lake next to the house.  Lily’s husband prospers, then returns from a trip with a lovely painting of a rural cottage in Ireland.  She reacts badly—an epiphany—because the scene had never been her Ireland, which was a dark urban childhood of drunken parents and abuse.

After her husband and two of her sons die in a collapse of the icehouse, Lily forges ahead, despite being illiterate, to make the business grow, and then to prosper as an ice dealer.

1847 Edition

The braiding of the chapter is completed at the end, when Emily reads the Frederick Douglass autobiography to her mother, and Lily takes her daughter to a lecture in St. Louis by Douglass himself, sponsored by the National Women’s Suffrage Association.  Douglass again does not recognize her, and Lily reflects on the meaning of the inspiration she had drawn from meeting him in Ireland.

This chapter is a tour de force of prose poetry, and the fulcrum of the novel.

The overall structure of the novel demands that the reader opens the “oysters” of the meaning patterns linking the male and female characters across multiple generations and continents. The novel’s first half represents the outgoing vectors of the three sets of male stories crossing the Atlantic, all pointed toward Ireland, representing first a technical adventure to set a record, then a principled reprieve from slavery, and last the good faith effort of an American senator and judge to mediate ancient hatreds.  Each adventure represents an evolution of sorts. The second half, the four fictional female stories, describes a circle, from Dublin, to Missouri, to Canada to Belfast, without major public significance, but connected by the individual stories of related women.

TransAtlantic demonstrates how Colum McCann bypassed the Anxiety of Influence, and instead drank deep from the well of wisdom and craft of his Irish literary predecessors Joyce, Heaney, and O’Brien, transmuting their models into his own contemporary statement of the undaunted human spirit.

Learn more about Frederick Douglass here.
CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota offers classes on McCann, Joyce, Heaney, and O’Brien.