July 25, 2007

Charles Fanning to retire from SIUC on Aug. 31

by Andrea Hahn


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Charles Fanning, founder of the Irish and Irish Immigration Studies program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, moves to the next phase of his academic life beginning Aug. 31, when he retires.

He has scholarly writings up his sleeve and some ambition to write fiction, he said. However, his days of leading the program are soon to be over and the torch will pass. He's looking forward to devoting time to projects that were lower priority when he had on-campus responsibilities.

Fanning has been an important player in the Irish Studies field since he first entered academia. His doctoral dissertation, later published as "Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years," won the Organization of American Historians Frederick Jackson Turner Award in 1979 and rescued Dunne – and the once-famous fictional Mr. Dooley – from obscurity. Dooley, a forthright barkeeper who spoke with an Irish brogue, provided a witty commentary on his day – and incidentally, on the everyday, working class Irish Americans in his Chicago neighborhood.

Since then, Fanning has written or edited a dozen volumes, including two more award winners. He won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for "The Exiles of Erin: Nineteenth-Century Irish-American Fiction" and the Book Prize for Literary Criticism and Related Fields from the American Conference for Irish Studies for "The Irish Voice in America."

Maureen Murphy, interim dean of the School of Education and Allied Human Services at Hofstra University and past president of the American Conference of Irish Studies, said Fanning is "Irish-America's preeminent scholar."

"He has given voice to the Irish-American experience," she said. "Starting with his work on Chicago writers Finley Peter Dunne and James T. Farrell, Fanning went on to establish the canon of Irish-American literature in his critically acclaimed, 'The Irish Voice in America.' His anthology, 'The Exiles of Erin: Nineteenth-Century Irish-American Fiction,' made available fiction that he retrieved from periodicals and archival sources. Fanning's interdisciplinary interests – literature, history, folklore, popular culture, art and music – inform his current study of Irish America during the Depression. Those interests have supported a generation of graduate students in the field of Irish-America studies."

His literary reclamation projects remain his greatest legacy, Fanning said. "That's the thing I'm happiest about – reclaiming literature that had gone out of fashion," he said, noting that it wasn't just one writer but several generations of writers who nearly lost their collective voice.

Fanning stressed that Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s – especially after the potato famine when they came to America by the hundreds of thousands – faced the same sorts of discrimination plaguing other groups today. They were the inhabitants of the first ghettos and were caricatured as sub-intelligent, with simian features, and given to criminal and immoral behavior. Their cultural contributions, including poetry and prose, often went unnoticed by mainstream Americans.

"You almost have to re-teach about discrimination," Fanning said. "Irish is chic now, but it took a long time for that to happen."

James Rogers of the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), editor of the journal "New Hibernia Review" and current vice president of the American Conference for Irish Studies, put Fanning's contribution to the field – and to ethnic studies generally – in perspective.

"I met Charles Fanning at the first Irish Studies conference I ever attended, and I still marvel at my good fortune to have known this extraordinary scholar," he said. "His career has always shown the full promise and potential of interdisciplinarity. His use of Irish materials helps us to understand the global experience of migration, and serves as the basis for comparative studies of immigration and American ethnic histories.

"Fanning's work in discerning, retrieving and interpreting an entire tradition of Irish-American literature is almost without parallel. Before Charles Fanning, it was not possible to understand, let alone teach, Irish-American writing as a distinct body of literature. After Charles Fanning, it's not possible to survey American literature without hearing an Irish note."

Fanning studied under the late John V. Kelleher at Harvard University. Kelleher was a true pioneer in the field, holding the very first endowed chair of Irish Studies anywhere in the United States. Though Kelleher's students make up a who's who in the field, it was Fanning who claimed the professor's annotated library for SIUC. He said he counts those items as among the most personally meaningful to him of any in the library.

Fanning came to SIUC in 1993 from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, where he served for two years as assistant to the chancellor. He had a full teaching career already to his credit, having taught for 21 years at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. Richard Peterson, former chair of the English department, invited Fanning to come to SIUC with a joint appointment in English and history to start the Irish and Irish Immigration Studies program.

Fanning said he was attracted in part by SIUC's special library collections, which include rare holdings from James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Dublin's Abbey Theatre, and by the University's history of including Irish topics in its liberal arts curriculum.

Fanning credits a sizeable grant for making Irish and Irish Immigration Studies come alive at SIUC. "The thing that really made it happen was that I got a FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education) grant," he said.

That grant – worth $250,000 over three years – was more than enough to bring three conferences on Irish American topics to SIUC from 1996 through 1998. One of those conferences later became what is now the regional Southern Illinois Irish Festival. The grant also jumpstarted an exchange between SIUC and University College, Galway, Ireland, a constituent of National University of Ireland.

SIUC recognized his efforts in 2004 with the University's top academic honor, the Outstanding Scholar award.

Beth Lordan, a specialist in fiction writing and the director of the Irish Studies program upon Fanning's retirement, said Fanning profoundly changed her life.

"He sent me to Ireland," she said. "I had never been abroad – I went as part of the FIPSE grant while we established an exchange program with University College in Galway. I lived there four months, and I wrote 'But Come Ye Back: A Novel in Stories' – my best work – from the experience."

Lordan said Fanning has always been generous in his support of his colleagues and always excited when learning new things.

"We were awfully lucky to get him," she said.

Fanning earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard College in 1964, a master's from Harvard University in 1966, and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and 1972. He said he will remain a Carbondale resident with travel, scholarship and writing on the horizon.