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Authors: Jim Tully

Shanty Irish

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Jim Tully, 1886–1947



Jim Tully

Edited by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak
Foreword by John Sayles


Black Squirrel Books



© 2009 by The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio 44242

All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 2009000937


Manufactured in the United States of America

First published by Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., 1928.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Tully, Jim.

Shanty Irish / by Jim Tully; edited by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak; foreword by John Sayles.

    p. cm.

978-1-60635-023-2 (pbk.: alk. paper) ∞

I. Irish Americans—Fiction. I. Bauer, Paul, 1956– II. Dawidziak, Mark, 1956- III. Title.

5 2009



British Library Cataloging-in-Publication data are available.

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There is in the human intellect a power of expansion—I might almost call it a power of creation—which is brought into play by the simple brooding upon facts



John Sayles

“I developed early a capacity for remembered sorrow.”

Jim Tully stands out in American literature as one of the few realist writers who did not just visit the rougher environs of human experience for material, but was fully
those depths (poverty, orphanage, menial labor, jail, the boxing ring, and the carnival) and somehow survived to tell the tale. The shanty Irish and hard-luck regular joes in his stories are always just smart enough to be aware of their own ignorance, and to dream (most often fueled by whiskey) scenarios of a beauty and import they know they will never experience. These are the homeless characters I used to see, chilly days on the the road, taking refuge in public libraries throughout the country, the ones not sleeping face down on an open book but reading, the text as likely to be Dostoevsky as Zane Grey. I had more literary discussions with stone alcoholics working day labor jobs than I ever had at college, the gist of the conversation never about where a book stood in the canon of Western writing but about the lives of the characters and what understanding could be drawn from them, “It's nice to know I'm not the only failure in the world,” I heard from a shaky-handed shovel jockey who'd just plowed through all of the works of Theodore Dreiser, “and far from the worst.”

Jim Tully wrote like a man surprised to still be breathing, thinking, feeling. He had access to books growing up, ten-cent paperbacks passed on from his emotionally mute, ditch digging father, and more importantly he had the heritage of the Irish tongue, which, once the Empire's language was imposed on the island, retained the poetic rhythm and graphic hyperbole of Gaelic.

“Tim Walsh came to me father's house. ‘Shake hands wit' a murderer,' says he to the ould man. An' me father says, ‘Who did ye murder,' says he, an' Tim says, ‘Who could I be murderin'? Why the Blakes—father an' son.…'

“‘It's too bad,' says me father, ‘ye should o' killed his three brothers….'

“‘Give me time,' says Tim Walsh.”

English, yes, but never the King's English.

Jim Tully's shanty Irish are not the sentimental, winking, top o' the morning Barry Fitzgerald tipplers of vaudeville stage and silver screen; these are the people forbidden by law in early New York to congregate in groups larger than three, the original foreign menace, depicted in newspaper cartoons as simian-browed bog-trotters, militant Catholics who despise priests and observe more than a few pagan Celtic superstitions and rituals. Tully's people never hooked onto the steady ladder of civil service like so many Irish (my own family included) city dwellers—they lived in the rural swamps of Ohio, grubbing a living out of land that nobody else wanted. But some of them, especially his grandfather, Old Hughie, who is the soul of this book, can imagine a different world. Like much of Irish folklore it is an exaggerated land of giants and great feats of strength and angels polishing the stars with their wings, but there is ever a dark river of resentment and discontent flowing through the discourse.

“It is of the famine I'm talkin' whin the dumb Irish wint starvin' to glory, wit' the praists showin' thim how to die like Christians gnawin' at the wood of the cross.”

In this book Tully makes no attempt to craft an adventure, or even a narrative of his upbringing as his predecessor Jack London did with his own desperate beginnings. He presents a series of family stories, their order only roughly chronological, with none of the striving for literature one finds in Hamlin Garland or other refugee/reporters from the unexamined life. “If you are going to understand me,” he seems to be saying, “you must know these people.”

Some of the cultural malaise is familiar from the
of James Joyce, but those Irish are petty bourgeoisie city-dwellers back on the drizzly, socially pinched island. Tully's people are simple laborers in the open air of America, where there is thought to be no ceiling on success. They live in the woods, they dig in the dirt, they raise cattle and pigs (in fortunate times) and they drink. And drink. American boosterism and ambition seems not to have penetrated their consciousness; they bring a European fatalism to the New World. They take a stubborn, sometimes violent pride in being who they are (a religion that foresees the Eternal Lake of Fire for the mostly non-Catholic rich is a constant comfort) yet have few kind words to say about their brethren and revel in their feuds. “And they never spoke another word to each other for as long as they lived” is the last line of many an Irish family story—verbal exile, the withholding of talk, being the ultimate punishment. Jim Tully presents but does little to judge his relatives; he is still trying to figure them (and by extension, himself) out. The lesson his grandfather passes to him, again and again, is the importance of having no illusions, as if by expecting little or nothing he might never know disappointment.

Tully is a hard, rough nugget in the rich vein of American writing that leads to James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren, to the neighborhood elegies of
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Call It Sleep
. He ended up in Hollywood, of course, selling his own story and writing celebrity profiles of the vagabonds who had suddenly become world famous for what they did or looked like in front of a movie camera.
Shanty Irish
is a window, cracked and soiled, into a time and a place and a people before the moving pictures became an American obsession, people who had to create their own dreams, invent their own stories, and find escape from hopeless lives in hard liquor or the cold comfort of a promised Hereafter. That Jim Tully wrote at all was a miracle; that he wrote so well is a gift to the world.


Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak

Jim Tully (June 3, 1886–June 22, 1947) was an American writer who won critical acclaim and commercial success in the 1920s and 30s. His rags-to-riches career may qualify him as the greatest long shot in American literature. Born near St. Marys, Ohio, to an Irish immigrant ditch-digger and his wife, Tully enjoyed a relatively happy but impoverished childhood until the death of his mother in 1892. Unable to care for him, his father sent him to an orphanage in Cincinnati. He remained there for six lonely and miserable years. What further education he acquired came in the hobo camps, boxcars, railroad yards, and public libraries scattered across the country. Finally, weary of the road, he arrived in Kent, Ohio, where he worked as a chainmaker, professional boxer, and tree surgeon. He also began to write, mostly poetry, which was published in the area newspapers.

Tully moved to Hollywood in 1912, when he began writing in earnest. His literary career took two distinct paths. He became one of the first reporters to cover Hollywood. As a free-lancer, he was not constrained by the studios and wrote about Hollywood celebrities (including Charlie Chaplin, for whom he had worked) in ways that they did not always find agreeable. For these pieces, rather tame by current standards, he became known as the most-feared man in Hollywood—a title he relished. Less lucrative, but closer to his heart, were the dark novels he wrote about his life on the road and the American underclass. He also wrote novels on prostitution, boxing, and Hollywood and a travel book. And there was
Shanty Irish
, a typically hard-edged yet affectionate memoir of his childhood. While some of the more graphic books ran afoul of the censors, they were also embraced by critics, including H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, and Rupert Hughes. Tully, Hughes wrote, “has fathered the school of hard-boiled writing so zealously cultivated by Ernest Hemingway and lesser luminaries.”

The literary path to
Shanty Irish
began with Tully drawing on his experiences of the road. Those roving years figure prominently in his first book,
Emmett Lawler
(1922), and his breakthrough work about hoboes, vagabonds, and road kids,
Beggars of Life
(1924). Tully's “road works” were followed by one of the earliest novels about Hollywood,
(1926), and
Circus Parade
(1927), which recalled his youthful stints with a small circus in the South. Each of these four books charted a course that took Tully away, physically and emotionally, from his small Ohio hometown.

He reversed course, traveling back to his boyhood home for
Shanty Irish
, which he began writing in April of 1927. Published the following year, it is a sometimes-tragic, sometimes-hysterical chronicle of the people who had the most influence on his personality. They were the Tullys and, his mother's family, the Lawlers. Largely set in and around St. Marys,
Shanty Irish
is both an exploration and a celebration of his Irish-American family. It is also Jim Tully's most personal, lyrical, and humorous book.

The crisp phrasing and cold-eyed brutality of
Beggars of Life
Circus Parade
are again evident in
Shanty Irish
, yet it is in his fifth book that Tully gives freest reign to the sentimental, poetic side of his nature. Remarkably, the two disparate sides of the writer's nature never seem to be in conflict. They are, rather, in dynamic balance, the sardonic Irish rover's rough instincts tempered by those of the Irish poet.

Tully did not take up the ditch-digging profession of his father, also named Jim Tully, yet he digs deep into the soil of his native Ohio to describe what life was like in the late nineteenth century for a dirt-poor Irish-American family. The choice of subject doesn't seem all that startling today, but Tully was breaking new ground in the 1920s.

Although Irish immigrants were hired as manual laborers on canals and railroads well before the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, their story had not yet been widely told. The Irish-American experience was first explored from the humorist's perspective in Chicagoan Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley books, published between 1898 and 1919. And Irish-American writers had made towering literary contributions before
Shanty Irish
. One need only mention Eugene O'Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But neither Irish-American writer had yet set his sights on the Irish-American experience.

Blending humor and heartbreak, realism and lyricism, Tully's
Shanty Irish
anticipates the 1930s work of another Chicagoan, James T. Farrell. But where Farrell was interested in the experience of the Irish-American in the city, Tully's people are country and small town folk. Unlike Fitzgerald, who wrote so brilliantly about the riches and glamor of the Jazz Age, Tully was drawn to Gorky's lower depths—the underclass, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised. Even though a proud Irish-American, Al Smith, ran for president the same year that
Shanty Irish
was published, America was not that far removed from the days of signs that declared, “No Irish need apply.” Tully's parents toiled at the only work open to them: ditchers and domestics.

A book soaked in mud and whiskey,
Shanty Irish
, charts the Tully-Lawler journey from the horrors of the potato famine through the author's own childhood. His hard-drinking grandfather, old Hughie Tully, emerges as the book's most vividly drawn character, and his life and death frame the narrative. A constant presence in
Shanty Irish
, old Hughie spins yarns of Ireland, of his emigration, of his days traveling through the antebellum South as a lace “piddler,” of “throwing dirt” for a living, of friends, and of enemies. Old Hughie is “capable of turning death into an Irish wake and pouring liquor down the throat of the corpse.”
Shanty Irish
, though, is far from a one-grandfather show. It is, indeed, a book loaded with unforgettable characters.

Within the covers of this work, we meet the author's father, “a gorilla built” man whose stooped shoulders carry “the inherited burdens of a thousand dead Irish peasants.” We meet his mother, Biddy, a “woman of imagination” who “had all the moods of April.” We meet his uncle, ruthless John Lawler, tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in the Ohio penitentiary for stealing horses. We meet Aunt Moll, who shocks the family and the community by attempting to join the Walnut Grove Methodist Church. We meet the author's devoted older sister, Virginia, who inherits her mother's faith and mysticism.

These are not the Irish-American stereotypes that flourished on the vaudeville stage during the first twenty years of the 20th century or would populate so many Hollywood films in the 1930s. The author of
Shanty Irish
makes them distinctly Tully and distinctly Lawler. Yet through the prism of his family, he captures the shanty Irish-American experience. For all his rough-hewn sensibilities, Tully writes with perception and sensitivity about women, children, and the elderly.

At turns wry and raw,
Shanty Irish
manages to be both nostalgic and cynical. His use of irony is particularly sharp throughout, never more so than when describing the roistering Lawlers: “They were all devout Catholics during mass on Sundays.” It's the type of terse turn of phrase that was a Mark Twain specialty. Perhaps there's an echo here of Twain's infamous line about “the serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces.”

With few words, Tully tells so much about his relatives. “At heart my father was an agnostic without knowing it,” he writes. “His wife relied much on God. He did not interfere.” He has, in three short sentences, defined their marriage, their beliefs, their understanding.

But Tully's memory also can be wonderfully journalistic in the precise details. Again recalling his father, Tully tells us:

He was nearsighted. When reading, he never moved his eyes. A country newspaper, a frayed volume of Shakespeare, or a medical almanac, it moved backward and forward within two inches of his left eye.

Tully inherited his father's love of reading and his agnosticism, but he also inherited a reluctance to judge friends and foes. Tully again echoes Twain when he discusses Virginia's devotion to Catholicism. “It rests me, and I feel better when I go to church,” she says. “Even if in the end I find out I'm wrong I'd still think it was wiser to kid myself.” Somewhere in there is Twain declaring that faith is believing what you know “ain't so.” There's also, in Tully's acceptance of his sister's faith, something of Twain's rule that he should never undermine anyone's religion because those beliefs are of incalculable worth to that person.

Given the Irish love of storytelling, it is not surprising that Tully spent his childhood immersed in family lore. And determined to render the Tullys and Lawlers as faithfully as possible, he visited his aging father in Dayton, Ohio, in August 1927 and began a correspondence in October. The letters, charming and sad, shed light on the two families' fortunes in America. For stories set in Ireland, there was no shortage of accounts of the famine. And in a small 1854 volume
Sketches of the Irish Bar
by Richard Lalor Sheil, Tully found the story of John Walsh (changed by Tully to Tim Walsh) which appears in the second chapter of
Shanty Irish
. The story about the 1827 murder of a rent collector and its bloody aftermath is drawn by Tully with little embellishment from Sheil's account.

The question one always faces when reading Tully is: How much is true? Tully opens
Shanty Irish
with a clue. Hugh Tully is certainly the most memorable character in all of Tully's books yet Jim was only fourteen when his grandfather died in 1900. And six of young Jim's fourteen years were spent in an orphanage, separated from his grandfather. While family members could add a few stories to Jim's memories, much of what Jim wrote about his grandfather came about through the hard business of writing. When Jim prefaced
Shanty Irish
with a quote from the Irish physicist John Tyndall (a move applauded by Mencken), he no doubt had the creation of Hughie in mind.

There is in the human intellect a power of expansion—I might almost call it a power of creation—which is brought into play by the simple brooding upon facts.

Jim later recalled writing and rewriting the scene that opens
Chapter VIII
. He originally wrote the scene with Hughie and a “group of hospitable yokels” sitting around a roaring fire one rainy night. When Jim was unable to loosen his grandfather's tongue, he tried a change of venue. Instead of a campfire, Jim placed Hughie in a saloon. His writer's block was broken with the introduction of a one-legged stranger who walked through the swinging doors and pushed the scene in a new direction. The barroom stories that followed, Jim later wrote, came not from any particular memory but from “the simple brooding upon facts” and the imagination, one might add, of a gifted and unique writer.

As was his custom, Tully offered the chapters of
Shanty Irish
to his trusted friend and critic, H. L. Mencken, for possible inclusion in Mencken's
American Mercury
. Mencken, who could be gentle but firm in declining work not up to his high standards, snapped them up. Late 1927 to early 1928 was a very productive period, with chapters of
Shanty Irish
and film pieces pouring from his pen. There was the filming of
Beggars of Life
and a considerable amount of time spent advising a couple of aspiring writers behind bars. He also was attempting to save a third prisoner from execution. Tully's personal life, however, was starting to fray. Bouts of depression, “moods,” beset him and his three-year marriage to 24-year-old socialite, Marna Myers Tully, was beginning to unravel. Despite their troubles, he dedicated
Shanty Irish
to Marna.

In the foreword to a later book,
Blood on the Moon
(1931), Tully described
Shanty Irish

In “Shanty Irish” was depicted the background of a road-kid who became articulate. Down the avenue of years my grandfather, who dominates the book, has been very real to me. I can still hear, on quiet nights, the whisky rattling down his bony throat. That he talked a great deal was natural, of course, being Irish. He was a sad old man with a broken dream in his head and a fear of death in his heart.

Broken dreams fill
Shanty Irish
but Jim inherited neither his grandfather's sadness nor his fear. In an early chapter of
Shanty Irish
, Jim wrote of his father. “A most amazing Irishman was my father—one devoid of sentimentality. A man without tears, he often seemed without pity.” Like his father, Jim too was a man without tears. What made him different from both his father and grandfather—and from lesser writers—was his great capacity for empathy.

Mencken was the first to recognize the book's excellence and contributed a blurb which appeared opposite the title page.

If Tully were a Russian, read in translation, all the Professors would be hymning him. He has all of Gorky's capacity for making vivid the miseries of poor and helpless men, and in addition he has a humor that no Russian could conceivably have. In “Shanty Irish,” it seems to me, he has gone far beyond any of his work of the past. The book is not only brilliantly realistic; it also has fine poetic quality.

Reviews of
Shanty Irish
were mixed. James M. Cain, writing in the
, praised
Shanty Irish
. Praise that Mencken believed, given Cain's “bilious” nature, would boost the book immensely. The
New York Post
concluded that
Shanty Irish
was “… Jim Tully's greatest contribution to literature. In our opinion it will become a definite part of our national belles lettres.” The
New York World
review was so enthusiastic that the book's publisher, Albert & Charles Boni, included part of it on the book's dust jacket: “A yarn that soars up into the vaulted blue. It is, we submit, literature. In it, for a moment, the national letters have a glorious reversion to the roaring vigor of yore.” The
Chicago Daily Tribune
was both amused and shocked, citing the book's “blasphemy” and “words that aren't pretty” but was forced to conclude that “there is something sturdy and lusty about it.” Perhaps not quite so lusty as Tully intended. In the one-legged stranger's story, Tully originally had the old man saying, “ … gigantic copulations shook the sky.” Tully would later complain bitterly to Maxwell Perkins about Boni's poor job of editing
Shanty Irish
. Whether out of timidity, as Tully suspected, or sloppiness, “copulations” became “osculations” in the printed book. A review that must have particularly pleased the author washed up from Dublin. The
Irish Times
concluded that
Shanty Irish
was “far in advance of anything he has previously done.” It praised the book's “clear-cut economy of phrase and stark precision of characterisation, a book wherein tragedy is splashed with humour and comedy steeped in sadness …” Even Upton Sinclair, with whom Tully had been feuding, wrote that
Shanty Irish
is a “chunk of real life. It made me feel human and humble, which is good for anybody.”

BOOK: Shanty Irish
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