Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Remembering The New Northwest, Part IV: "Paddy's New Idea"

About two years ago, P&PC ran a three-part series, "Remembering The New Northwest," that spent some time thinking about the poetry published in the suffragist newspaper started in 1871 by Oregon women's rights leader Abigail Scott Duniway. (That's Duniway with a copy of her paper pictured here.) Now digitized, The New Northwest ran poetry—some political, some not so overtly political, some written by Willamette Valley poets, and some sourced from other papers across the United States—in nearly every issue, frequently printing it not as filler between articles but as prominent page-one news (cf. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower").

Although many people today think of the history of Pacific Northwest poetry more in relation to writers from the second half of the twentieth century like William Stafford, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, and others, the region's poetic tradition goes back much earlier—back, at least, to when Duniway's weekly began offering a way for disparate (and oftentimes anonymous) Northwest voices to find a community of people reading and writing under the paper's motto "Free Speech, Free Press, Free People."

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in Oregon—a centennial being commemorated statewide in events chronicled, sponsored, or otherwise linked to the Century of Action: Oregon Women Vote 1912-2012 project. And so, in helping to mark this anniversary, P&PC has directed its current crop of interns to dip back into the poetic archives of The New Northwest. In 2010, we showcased "The Perplexed Housekeeper" and "Don't Quarrel About the Farm," and we argued that Samuel Simpson's once popular and now much maligned nature poem "The Beautiful Willamette" got converted into a suffragist poem by virtue of its appearance in Duniway's paper.

Now, for the fourth installment of "Remembering The New Northwest," we bring you Stephen Maybell's problematic suffragist poem "Paddy's New Idea," which ran in late January or early February of 1872. (Due to some haphazard records kept by a former P&PC office member, as well as several missing issues in the otherwise spectacular digitized run, we are unable to pinpoint the exact publication date at this time.) Maybell was a regular contributor to the paper, and, we think, one of its most consistently interesting if troublesome voices. Here—in an Irish dialect, in two voices, and referring to the Democratic Party's post-Civil War New Departure political platform as well as to the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870—is "Paddy's New Idea":


"Och! Biddy, did ye hear the news,
How politics has got the blues,
Turned upside down and inside out?
Bedad, one don’t know what he's 'bout
When he goes votin'."

"Shure once 'twas plain Democrisy;
Now 'New Departure' troubles ye.
With Ku Klux Klan and Loyal Laygers,
We're no better than the others
Whin we go votin'."

"Shure things ain't things at all of late;
The Pope and Boney's bald pate;
And, faix, I heard Mullroony say
The Chinese'id take Amerikay
By beatin' us a votin'."

"Shure, Chinese, nagurs and the Injun
All can vote without infringin',
For the new 'mendment gives, 'tis clare,
To everything with skin and hair
The power to go votin'."


"Spite of all the clergy's prachin',
Spite of all old fogy teachin',
I always knew a woman's head
Held brains, no matter what they said –
Aye, brains enough for votin'."

"Oh, Paddy, darlint, whin wid me
It's then you are sobriety;
It only is when ye're away
Ye go upon the bastely sprae,
Dead blind drunk wid votin'."

"It's brains ye may have in your head,
And wit and all that may be said;
Though kin intelligence vote right
Whin that intelligence is tight?
Whisky doin' the votin'?"

"Last election whiskey won it;
Ye's all drunk upon it;
Your polls were held at whiskey mills,
Your candidates run whiskey stills,
And whisky did the votin'."

"Now, had the ladies been adjacent
Ye'd tried and been a little dacent.
Would it not be the nation’s gains
Were whiskey less and more were brains
To do Columbia’s votin'?"

"So, Paddy, whin we can do so,
We'll arm in arm together go
To cast our vote in freedom's pride,
And say who shall tax our fire-side,


"Shure, Biddy, this caps all the bother
For maid, wife, sister, mother;
Say, if kind to pagan misters,
Why not kind also to sisters
And let them go votin'?"

"This is liberty's dominion,
The boasted land of free opinion,
And if free men are but true men,
Why not make you a free woman
And let you go, too, to votin'?"

While the dialect-facilitated rhyme of the words "adjacent" and "dacent" is totally pleasing, "Paddy's New Idea" is never- theless a puzzling and complex poem—especially as it depicts the nature of the "lightbulb moment" when Paddy makes the right decision to support women's suffrage but makes that decision for the wrong reasons.

As the slurs in Paddy's catalog of ethnic others ("Chinese, nagurs and the Injun") suggest, the poem serves to remind us that not all progressive political agendas go hand in hand. That much we know and have known, not only generally but specifically in relation to the movement for women's suffrage, which was stressed from the inside by racist rhetoric, agendas, and policies that distinguished between, and divided, white women and women of color.

What "Paddy's New Idea" offers in addition to this, however, is a demonstra- tion of how, at least from the vantage point of history, a progressive political stance can be founded upon a logic that is not, in fact, progressive. That is, while Paddy comes to see the light (that women should vote) in the final two stanzas of the poem, he not only doesn't acknowledge the legitimacy of Biddy's arguments about how women have "brains enough for votin'" and could help reform the drunken culture of voting in the Northwest, but he makes his decision on the basis of a nativist and racist political logic that fears, and seeks to curtail, the new voting power of Chinese, African American, and American Indian men named in stanzas three and four. For Paddy, enfranchising women has less to do with women's rights than with finding a way to come up with extra votes to counter and overwhelm newly enfranchised social groups whom he perceives as threatening to "take Amerikay / By beatin' us a votin'." A similar argument for women's suffrage was used in the American south, where suffragists appealed to white southern men by claiming that larger numbers of white women going to the polls would work to keep black men from gaining power.

We think there's even more at work in "Paddy's New Idea" than this, however —an extra-extra dimension to how Paddy instrumentalizes the women's suffrage movement to accomplish something other than the enfranchisement of women. In fact, that added dimension is suggested all over the poem, right there in the Irish dialect that should remind us how, in the nineteenth-century U.S., the Irish weren't necessarily considered "white" but racially other; that is, many Americans—perhaps cued in part by the drunken stereotype that Biddy evokes in her part of the poem—would would have been inclined to include "Irish" alongside "Chinese, nagurs and the Injun" in Paddy's catalog from stanza four. In her famous essay "The Yellow Wallpaper and the Politics of Color in America," for example, Susan Lanser traces in part how the adjective "yellow" referred in daily discourse not solely to peoples of Asian heritage but to a range of ethnicities and races including the Irish. Consider also the cartoon pictured here (taken from from the mainstream periodical Harper's Weekly), which depicts the Irish (on the left) as more similar to the "Negro" (on the right), with the "Anglo Teutonic" in the middle.

The "whitening" of the Irish is thus a fascinating and complex history that includes, but is hardly limited to, the color of skin, and we here at P&PC think that "Paddy's New Idea" gives us one of the many plot points in that history. For if Maybell's character of Paddy sees women's suffrage as a way to counter the voting power of newly enfranchised people of color, he also finds in its occasion for nativist performance a way to distinguish himself from other people of color and thus affiliate himself with whiteness. That is, in this "lightbulb" moment wherein he embraces one progressive political agenda (women's suffrage) only to simultaneously embrace—and recruit Biddy for—an unprogressive political agenda (the project of white supremacy), Paddy demonstrates solidarity with white America and thus works to whiten the Irish in the process. In a sense, then, we can do worse than to read Paddy's moment of political "enlightenment" as a moment of political "en-whitenment" as well.

We are left, therefore, at the end of "Paddy's New Idea," to wonder what, exactly, the singular "new idea" of the poem's title refers to. That women should have the right to vote? That voting women are a viable political weapon to leverage against the votes of people of color? Or that Paddy can use this occasion to demonstrate, and even establish solidarity with, white America? We here at P&PC are going on record to say that Paddy's Machiavellian new idea is not any one of the above, but that he can do all three at once.

1 comment:

Capital Taps said...

Thanks for more on whiskey and the vote!

In the next big election after gaining suffrage in 1912, Oregon women were instrumental in passing prohibition in 1914, a few years before it went nationwide.

As you say, the stew of progressive and anti-progressive ideas is fascinating, and should be remembered more widely.