Anne Enright delivered the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction lecture on writer Maeve Brennan at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House at New York University. Enright’s lecture will serve as the introduction to a new edition of Brennan’s Dublin stories, The Springs of Affection, in bookstores in June.
The historic New York city townhouse at 58 West Tenth Street is abuzz with NYU creative writing program students waiting for Anne Enright’s lecture, “An Irishwoman Abroad: Maeve Brennan and the Streets of New York,” on a Thursday evening at the end of April. Brennan lived in this New York neighborhood off and on from 1954 to 1981 and wrote about it in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker, under the pen name “The Long-Winded Lady.”
Anne Enright herself has been staying in this area during her current term as NYU Creative Writing Program Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.
The Booker Prize-winning author of six novels, most recently The Green Road, began her lecture by saying that she chose Brennan as a subject, not just because living in the neighborhood called the writer to mind, but because of her interest in women’s voices “not being heard or being barely heard,” and “what makes the female voices survive or in Maeve Brennan’s case go mad.”
Enright recalled arriving in New York in 2000 with her first ever New Yorker story in her bag. At the famed offices in Times Square she went to the lady’s room, “looked into the mirror and wondered about Maeve Brennan and the rumor that she had ended her days or spent some of her days sleeping in the washroom of The New Yorker.
“In fact [Maeve] slept in a little cubicle beside – a lady’s retiring cubicle – not quite, you know, in the washroom itself,” she tells us.
Up until the 1990s you would not have found Brennan’s name on a list of Irish writers, though she had two books of short stories that were highly regarded. “Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped. She didn’t have to become a bag lady for her work to be revived, though that possibly helped, too. The story of her mental decline is terrifying for anyone who works with words, who searches her keen, sour sentences for some hint or indication of future madness and then turns to check their own,” Enright says.
When she died in 1993, Brennan’s books were mostly out of print and she was mostly forgotten. Then in 1997, William Maxwell, The New Yorker’s fiction editor and a longtime friend of Brennan’s, introduced a collection of her Dublin stories, The Springs of Affection, and it helped revive her reputation.
It was at this time that Enright became aware of Brennan’s work. “The prose holds her revived reputation very well, especially the Irish stories, these being transparently modern the way that Dubliners by James Joyce feels modern,” Enright says. “Brennan remains precise, unyielding – something lovely and unbearable is happening on the page.”
Enright goes on to talk about Brennan’s life, as if mining for the reason(s) of her decline.
“Her mother Una took part in the fighting in the 1916 Easter Rising, alongside her father Bob, who was arrested and sent to prison. Maeve was born 37 weeks later.”
Bob Brennan, she goes on to tell us, “left his young family to take part in the War of Independence and in the Irish Civil War, and Maeve’s childhood home was raided several times by men carrying guns.”
After the Irish Free State was formed, Brennan founded The Irish Press for éamonn de Valera in September 1931. And in 1934, when Maeve was 17, he was appointed as Ireland’s First Minister to America, and the family, Maeve and her sisters Emer and Deirdre, moved to Washington, D.C.
Enright describes Brennan as a Gaelic princess: “Her hair was chestnut, her eyes were green. A pixie, a changeling… She was admired for the sharpness of her wit. It is hard to find a description of Brennan that is not also a code for her ethnicity.”
When the Brennans moved back to Ireland in 1941, Maeve moved to New York and found a job at Harper’s Bazaar. And in 1949, she secured a staff job at The New Yorker. Enright quotes William Maxwell, who edited Brennan and became a true friend. “To be around her,” he wrote, “was to see style being reinvented.”
Brennan also, according to Enright, had “a tongue that could clip a hedge, and a longshoreman’s mouth.”
Enright tells us, “She said ‘fuck’ in company and drank in Costello’s on Third Avenue. Once, when no one came to take her order as she sat in the booth there, she lifted a heavy, full bowl of sugar and dropped it on the floor.”
And when it came to men, she didn’t show good judgement: “There is no sense that when she became the [fouth] bride of New Yorker colleague, St. Clair McKelway, fellow drinker, fellow madman indeed, that he was taking a virgin Irish bride.
Brennan was 36. One friend said of them, ‘Like two children out on a dangerous walk, both so dangerous and so charming.’”
Brennan wrote steadily for The New Yorker, though her progress as a fiction writer was “far from steady,” Enright says. Her first published stories, set in America, were published between 1952 and 1956. The Irish stories did not start to appear until 1959, a year after her mother’s death when she was deep in debt, and her marriage had fallen apart. There was a second rush of more fiction after the death of her father in 1964. Two collections of short stories, In and Out of Never-Never Land (1969) and Christmas Eve (1974), were also published.
But publishing in The New Yorker, and good reviews in the New York Times for her short stories, did not enhance Brennan’s reputation in Ireland. “Maeve Brennan may also have managed that female trick of being both well-regarded and completely unimportant – one that was played out in America often enough, but the deafness to the female voice in Ireland makes these issues of reputation moot,” says Enright.
In the 1970s, Brennan began to show signs of mental illness and alcoholism. In the 1980s she disappeared from view and was largely forgotten. She died in Lawrence Nursing Home in Rockaway, New York, of a heart attack on November 1, 1993.
Enright surmises that Brennan might have been bipolar. “She gave things away all the time. It was almost like she couldn’t bear to have possessions and was continually divesting herself of all the money and all of her things that have been of value to her all of her life,” she says. Perhaps lack of recognition plagued her. It wasn’t until 1969 that The New Yorker revealed her name as the writer of “The Long Winded Lady.”
The revival of interest shows that Brennan’s work stands on its own. As Enright concluded, “Each one of Brennan’s stories is a victory over sameness and the loss of meaning: she makes a bid for her sanity, one sentence at a time.”
A new edition of The Springs of Affection has just been published by Dublin’s Stinging Fly Press; with Enright’s lecture serving as the introduction. ♦