Friday, November 21, 2008

"No Irishman Need Apply"

While working on my Longfellow House project today, I came across a rather bizarre letter from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to James T. Fields. Longfellow starts off the letter,
Cambridge, Sept. 19, 1850
My dear Fields,
Patrick Cummings called on me today; and not wishing to tell him to his face that “no Irishman need apply,” I told him to call on you tomorrow. Will you be kind enough to say, that I shall not need his services, this being the way least likely to give offence. His recommendations are good so far as character goes; but no farther.
Not very remarkable, beyond revealing HWL as both a bigot and a coward, unless you consider that the 1850 census records show that four servants, including one Irish-born woman, one Irish-born man, and one Newfoundland-born woman, lived with the Longfellows in 1850. The census page devoted to Brattle Street in Cambridge is dated Sept. 17, 1850.
So what gives? Did Longfellow fail to notice the Irish already living in his house? Or did their age indicate that they were long-time residents of the USA, and therefore somehow less Irish?


Robert J. said...

It sounds like someone who was known to both of them already though, no? If it was a random person who knocked on the door looking for work I would expect HWL to write "A man named Patrick Cummings..." or "One Patrick Cummings...." Perhaps he was a press worker or an illustrator or some other similar trade who had done work for them before. (I'm guessing this is Fields the publisher, yes?)

(When I was in grad school I picked up for a few dollars at Goodspeed's bookshop a letter from Alexander Agassiz that I thought was amusing. It read something like, "Dear Sir: We have no need of any female assistants at the Museum.")

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting. On a literary level, Longfellow urged transcending international boundaries. He tended to support civil rights in American politics. And, as you note, he already employed some Irish servants.

Perhaps Longfellow's use of "No Irishman need apply" was a half-facetious reference to a common phrase of the day, and he expected his friend and publisher Fields to pick up that tone.

Here's a possible clue: a Patrick Cummings, born in Ireland, died in Lowell at the age of 102 in 1871. Was he visiting Longfellow (an Appleton in-law) and asking for support at the age of 80?

The part that seems most consistent with Longfellow's known character is his aversion to confrontation and controversy. Rather than tell Cummings himself that he doesn't need his services, he asks his publisher to do so for him.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Yes, you're right - Cummings may have been someone working in the printing industry rather than a prospective servant. That would certainly explain why Longfellow would send him to Fields, which still seems a cowardly thing to do, even if he did like to avoid confrontation.

I hadn't considered "no Irishman need apply" as a general way of saying "thanks, but no thanks," but I guess it makes sense. On the other hand, Longfellow's anti-Irish prejudice is well documented elsewhere. The other day, I was talking to Jim Shea (site manager at the Longfellow house), who said that he gets some satisfaction out of touching all of Longfellow's stuff after Longfellow specifically said he didn't want any "wild Irishmen" in his house. Perhaps the distinction is between the "wild" Irish and the not-so-wild. He did entertain Irish poets occasionally and, as mentioned before, he hired plenty of Irish servants.

I don't know what I was expecting when I started reading about Longfellow, but I suppose I did expect him to be a bit more socially liberal. He was liberal compared to the rest of the country, but then, as now, there's liberal and there's Cambridge liberal.

Robert J. said...

"Perhaps Longfellow's use of "No Irishman need apply" was a half-facetious reference to a common phrase of the day, and he expected his friend and publisher Fields to pick up that tone."

That was how I read it also. I tried to think of a modern equivalent and all I could come up with was something like, "The salesman came to the door again and I told him 'We don't need no stinkin badges.'" (Not quite parallel, but similar in referring to a phrase known to insiders.)

That being said, I'm perfectly willing to believe that HWL wasn't fully cozy with his Irish neighbors.

"Intelligence and courtesy are not always combined;
Often in a wooden house a golden room we find."

--RJO, non-wild Irishman, Puritan mutt (like our incoming president), and non-Cambridge liberal