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James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024
Elizabeth Cullinan (Wikimedia Commons)

Last Tuesday, April 9, Fordham University hosted a celebration of the life and work of the writer Elizabeth Cullinan. The event included a book launch for the reissue of Cullinan’s out-of-print short story collection, Yellow Roses, and a reading and panel discussion featuring Mary Gordon, Peter Quinn, Keri Walsh and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. It comes a month after America published a St. Patrick’s Day essay by Tom Deignan asking “What is the greatest novel ever written about Irish New York?” Among the authors whose work Deignan cited: Elizabeth Cullinan.

What’s this? I thought I had a pretty good sense of the “Bronx Irish Catholic” literary mafia, including its newest members like Mary Beth Keane (no relation) and Matthew Thomas (Bronxville counts, it’s “Bronx-adjacent.” Why not? Half of Yonkers calls itself “Bronxville-adjacent.”) But Elizabeth Cullinan was a lacuna in my reading. Am I just a philistine, I wondered, or is Cullinan, as Deignan noted in Commonweal recently, “criminally under-read”?

Two things can be true. America reviewed her debut novel House of Gold in 1970, as well as her follow-up effort, the short story collection The Time of Adam the following year. 1982 brought a review of her second novel, A Change of Scene. Cullinan was also a regular mention in every discussion in the magazine of American Catholic literature for two decades.

Born in the Bronx in 1933, Cullinan completed a real trifecta in terms of “B.I.C.” education, attending St. Raymond’s for grammar school, the Academy of Mount St. Ursula (my mother’s alma mater!) for high school and Marymount College (now Marymount Manhattan College) on the Upper East Side for university. She was hired to work in the typing pool at The New Yorker soon after graduation and eventually became secretary to fiction editor William Maxwell. She published her first short story, “The Ablutions,” in The New Yorker in 1960.

House of Gold appeared a decade later and raised some eyebrows because of its unflinching depiction of Irish-American Catholic life. “[S]he achieves a spare, exact elegance in style, which she uses to bring searching scrutiny to her Irish-American Catholic culture of origin,” wrote Patricia Coughlan in a 2017 essay in The Irish Times with this banger of a headline: “Through a lace curtain, darkly.”

“In her masterpiece House of Gold and in many powerful stories, she broke new ground. She unforgettably exposes Irish-America’s instrumental deployment of Catholicism to achieve upward social mobility; she passionately critiques the hypocrisy of worldliness disguised as piety; she radically dismantles sanctimonious idealisations of the mother figure,” Coughlan wrote. “In this constellation of connected themes, ineffectual male characters play their part: perceptive and not entirely unsympathetic portraits of alcohol or gambling addicts, failed breadwinners exposing their families to precarious lives.”

“Her characters were all based on real people, and if you knew them, you could recognize them,” the writer Thomas Cahill told The New York Times in 2020. She also wrote in close detail about the church, sometimes in unflattering ways—not a commonplace among Catholic writers at the time. “Generalizations about Jesuit priests and nuns jar a story that might better have been allowed to tell itself and make its own point,” sniffed America’s reviewer of House of Gold in an otherwise positive review.

“I remember my parents being horrified because she had written about her family; she had uncles who were Jesuits,” the writer Peter Quinn (another St. Raymond’s grad) told Dominic Preziosi in a 2013 interview in Commonweal. “And this was hush-hush, it was ‘How could she do this?’”

Cullinan’s later work often featured single women making their way in the working world. Her short stories, wrote Coughlan, “place her in the vanguard of 1960s questioning of women’s roles. Her professionally-employed female characters express pleasure in their work environments as creative and sustaining: it’s a pointed rejection of 1950s prescribed domesticity.”

Cullinan also taught over the years at Fordham University, UMass Amherst and the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She otherwise lived in Manhattan for most of her adult life (with a three-year hiatus in Ireland, where she wrote House of Gold), moving to Maryland in 2015. She died in 2020 at the age of 86 and is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.

She finished a third novel before her death, Starting From Scratch; the protagonist is a young secretary at The New Yorker.

In an obituary in The New York Times, the critic John Leonard (who edited The Times Book Review in the 1970s) praised Cullinan for her economy of language and ability to transmit meaning without descending to the usual tricks writers might be tempted to use. “When you can say in eight pages what most novelists have never been able to say at all, heavy breathing notwithstanding,” he wrote, “you are a first-rate writer.”


Our poetry selection for this week is our “Spring Poetry Roundup,” by our poetry editor, Joe Hoover, S.J., and our O’Hare Fellows: Delaney Coyne, Christine Lenahan and Michael O’Brien. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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