In Which My Talent Is Recognized

Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O'Keeffe (1923)

In 2005 my dad authored an essay titled, simply, “Sex.” In it he related the following anecdote, of which I have no memory:

As a parent I tried not to make the same mistakes as my mother, but it wasn’t easy. When my son Brendan was somewhere between four and seven, he was watching a public television show about reproduction in our upstairs bedroom with my wife Franny while I was downstairs washing dishes. I later learned that at one point he began drawing madly and asked his mother if what he had drawn was in fact a vagina. When she stammered something possibly incoherent, he asked her what it was and what the sex act was. She, true to her upbringing, told him to go ask me. When he came into the kitchen, he showed me the picture, a remarkable likeness of a vagina for such a young kid, and then he asked me how the act was done. I thought about blowing him off but decided to be frank. I explained it graphically but briefly, and that’s all he wanted. He received the information in the same manner he would have if the question had been how dew was formed. He absorbed it and then walked away having already lost interest. I had finally done something right as a parent!

image: Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O’Keeffe (1923) 

Sailing the Black Star Line

The packet ship Huguenot of Thompson's Black Star LIne, New York to Liverpool, being struck by lightning (Peabody-Essex, Salem, Mass.)

My great-great grandfather, John R. Wolfe, arrived in America from Ireland in 1847. He sailed on the Cornelia with his wife, Honora, and their young son James, along with Wolfe’s cousin Maurice’s family. The packet ship, which weighed 1,040 tons, was built by Brown and Bell of New York and and part of the Black Star Line. Owned by Samuel Thompson, the Black Star Line ran eighteen ships between Liverpool and New York in 1847, sailing every six days. John F. French was the ship’s master.

The ship pictured above also was owned by the Black Star Line, about which you can find more in Queens of the Western Ocean: The Story of America’s Mail and Passenger Sailing Lines by Carl C. Cutler (1961).

I must admit that I had hoped, prior to conducting this research, that the owner of the Cornelia might have been Robert Bowne Minturn, my wife’s great-great-great grandfather. Part owner of Grinnell, Minturn, and Company, one of the largest and most successful transporters of Irish immigrants to the United States during the Famine years, Minturn operated the Blue Swallowtail Line between Liverpool and New York. In other words, my wife’s family transported Irishmen just like my family, and even on Brown and Bell–built ships.

Anyway, the Wolfes arrived arrived in New York City from Liverpool on August 23, 1847. You can find their names on this passenger list: Maurice, his wife, Ellen, and their children James, Ellen, Maurice, Mary, and Johanna; and John Wolfe, his wife, Honora, and their son, James. (Here’s the full page, in pdf form.)

Detail of Passenger List, Cornelia, 1847

There are a couple of problems here. John R.’s son James was not thirty-five; he was four. Probably a simple mistake. Additionally, Maurice may have had other children, alive at the time, who settled in the United States but who are not listed here.

Whatever the case, Cutler’s book shows us where the Black Star ships docked in New York (pier 30 or thereabouts)—

—and the New York Daily Tribune (August 23, 1847, page 3) reports on the ship’s arrival:

Details from the New York Daily Tribune, August 23, 1847, page 3

The newspaper records provide a bare account of the journey—passed a ship bound for Liverpool on July 22, sighted what was perhaps the John R. Skiddy on August 1, encountered a fishing boat off Marblehead, Massachusetts, on the sixth—while mentioning that five passengers died en route. The ship’s more celebrated passengers, however, including Arthur St. George—namesake to a line of Irish politicians—arrived safely. (Here’s the full page from the Tribune, in pdf form.)

From New York, the Wolfes traveled to LaSalle County, Illinois. How did they get there? What kind of money did they have? Did they have contacts in that place? Alas, I don’t know …

image: the packet ship Huguenot of Thompson’s Black Star Line, New York to Liverpool, being struck by lightning (Peabody-Essex, Salem, Mass.)

The Wreckage That Was Davenport

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)

In a new memoir, Ben Miller evokes our shared hometown in a way that is almost a little eerie. When you’re from Davenport, Iowa, as opposed to, say, New York, you’re not accustomed to encountering the streets of your youth in books. But in this passage, Miller puts us in the car with him and his mother, traveling from Rock Island, Illinois, across the Mississippi River to Davenport sometime late in the 1970s:

The junker galloped off the end of the end of the vibrating bridge grating and landed with a double thump. Urban Iowa hummed under our wheels. We shed the trestle shadows and veered onto River Drive. There was the modular Clayton House hotel, where a neighbor lady, Buddy’s mother, had once been arrested for turning tricks. There loomed the sooty French and Hecht factory, where Lonnie had once worked the line—Lonnie the red-haired live-at-home son of a Tennessee minister who had come north to study chiropractic science at Palmer College, wanting to combine preaching with medicine, and who, after graduating, had sold that brown house to Buddy’s mother and her husband in the raccoon coat, who, in turn, sold the place to the driver of a Frito-Lay delivery truck. There were the winks of the TIME & TEMP billboard, the bulb chorus blinking, blinking, blurting staccato notes of light.

Miller goes on to mention Al’s Wineburger restaurant on the left and the Robin Hood Flour factory silos on the right, particularly memorable to us Davenporters of a certain age for having exploded in May 1975, killing one man. Too much dust. You can see a bit of the wreckage in the image above. But you know, for whatever reason, it’s the “Time & Temp” reference that really got me: in the 1970s, you could get this information by looking at the clock, by watching the news, or by calling a special number on your rotary telephone. So a digital—digital!—billboard was so … cool!

I’ll write more about this book at some point. I have some strong feelings about it, not all of them positive. But for now, here’s how Miller leaves off:

I felt as if the car were suspended between industrial lots, as if we weren’t moving at all, as if instead it was the glaring night passing through us at a high speed that still everything. The river a blacker night flowing through thinner city dark. The river night of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, who had first glimpsed the Mississippi at this spot, crossing from Rock Island into Davenport in On the Road.

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)

There Was a Vast Unbroken Prairie

Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

This obituary of JAMES BUCKLEY WOLFE appeared in the Oxford Mirror, page 5, on February 3, 1916. Wolfe was my great-grandfather Maurice’s oldest brother. What strikes me is how this obituary, more than most, seems to be a means of remembering the early history of Clinton County, Iowa. Wolfe is cast in the role of the archetypal pioneer: one who made a pilgrim’s progress from Ireland, through the Slough of Despond (Chicago, apparently), fields of fire, and finally to the Celestial City, otherwise known (ironically?) as Lost Nation. It’s as if the obituary writer were not so much taking stock of James Wolfe as s/he was of the entire community.

Anyway, as for the misnomer in the headline: Wolfe did have a younger brother called John B., born in 1851.

Obituary of John B. Wolfe, Pioneer

James B. Wolfe was born in County Kerry, Ireland, April 13, 1844, and died at his home near Lost Nation, Iowa, January 27, 1916. When an infant he came to this country with his parents. The history of his life is the story of the immigrant and pioneer. They came to Chicago. Where a vast city now stands there were then only swamps and sloughs. Afterwards the family moved to Ottawa, Illinois, and later, in 1854 came to Iowa settling on the same farm, a part of which the deceased owned at the time of his death.

At that time, where there are now prosperous well tilled farms, there was a vast unbroken prairie over which the deer roamed at will and through which surged the all devouring prairie fire sweeping everything before it. Here, the deceased experienced the struggles and privations of pioneer life. Through the sides of the rude hut of a home, the wind and the weather blew. Often did he tell of how he shook the snow from the bed covers on awakening and brushed it aside on the floor to make a bare place upon which to stand while dressing. He lived to see the great evolution and progress of the past almost three quarters of a century. He saw the railroad, the steam engine, and the automobile displace the rail and the ox drawn wagon of the pioneer and the transformation which has made an unbroken, unpeopled* prairie the garden spot of the world.

The deceased united in marriage to Annie O’Connor, February 8, 1872, which union was blessed with seven children all of whom with the wife survive. They are John O. C., Nora L. and James L., of this place; Mrs. Frank Goodall [May R.], of Toronto; Doctor Jeremiah, of Grand Mound; Mrs. I. S. Ryan [Anna], of Welton; and Attorney Walter I., of Dunlap. Besides, the deceased leaves to mourn his death four brothers and three sisters as follows: Judge P. B. Wolfe, Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald [Katherine] and Mrs. D. Langan [Margaret I.] of Clinton; Attorney Richard B. of DeWitt; Maurice B. of Lost Nation; and Sister M. Scholastica [Johanna] of St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, Sioux City.

He was a man of sterling worth and unimpeachable character who counted every man his friend. Always a natural leader of men he held many positions of honor and trust, though never a seeker after public acclaim. At the time of his death, he was president of the Lost Nation Savings Bank.

The funeral services were held at St. James’ church, Toronto. Requiem High Mass was celebrated by Father McNamara assisted by Father Regan of Oxford Junction and Father Small of Lost Nation and the choir of the Sacred Heart church, Lost Nation. Father Small paid an eloquent tribute to the faith of the deceased—a life-long Catholic in which faith he so calmly and resignedly passed away.

The remains were borne to their last resting place by sight of his life-long neighbors and friends, namely James Connors, Anthony Early, William Burnett, Thomas Early, Edward O’Donnell, Edward Scanlan, M. P. O’Connor and James Hughes.

Those from a distance who attended were, Judge P. Wolfe and daughter Mollie and Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald and daughter Margaret of Clinton; R. B. Wolfe and family and Mrs. M. Scanlan of DeWitt, Iowa; John B. Wolfe of Melrose, Iowa; Kate Carroll, Kilkenny, Minnesota; Mrs. B. McBride of Hawarden, Iowa; Hugh Buckley, Chicago; O. S. Gilroy and Jennie McLaughlin of Bettendorf, Iowa; and Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Leahy of Fulton, Illinois.

* It should go without saying that this was not true.

Scan of the obituary after the jump.

image: Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

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I Do Hope I Won’t Be Too Hard on You

Baby Book of Brendan Wolfe, with note by Tom Wolfe

The first note my dad ever wrote to me was in my baby book. I was not quite five months old.

January 26, 1972

Brendan, me boy,

I trust, lad, that the time will come when you will exhibit a bit more intelligence than that presently displayed. You are on your third day of diarrahea (sp?), and you seem to enjoy it! I had rather expected you to exercise a bit more control by now.

Actually, Brendan, I am quite proud of you. I get rather excited when I think of your future. I do hope I won’t be too hard on you. Love God and your fellow man, and serve both. Remember the Sermon on the Mount.


Your Father

image: two pages from my baby book, including my first picture, which my dad labeled “Neanderthal Man”

I Am Still Trembling As I Write This

"On Family Fun" by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2

I found this essay among my dad’s papers.


Tom Wolfe

January 6, 1981

Who in the name of all that is sweet and holy ever said that families should stick together in order to have fun? I have a profound distrust for anyone espousing such a philosophy. Over the years, I have discovered that sanity for me lies in avoiding “family fun” like the plague.

Occasionally, I stray though. Last summer, a friend and I thought we would try the super father role, a mental derangement of which we all paid dearly, fathers and children alike. For three days and two nights, we stayed on a small Mississippi sandbar with six small, screaming, and semi-delirious children, seven million mosquitoes of indeterminate age, and the filthiest, smelliest scum the Mighty Mississippi could offer us for water. By the end of this nightmare, neither of us could tolerate children any[more], nor, for that matter, were we too crazy about each other. This winter holds no terror for me. I laugh at twenty inch blizzards, and I scoff at sub-zero weather because I know in my heart that nothing could possibly be worse than a child-and-mosquito-infested sandbar!

My wife not only believes in “family fun” more than I do but she practices it often. It is presumably for this reason that she smokes God knows how many cigarettes a day, has stomach cramps, and has a little twitch beneath her left eye. She will periodically gather all our children into the kitchen and tell them they are going to have “fun” cooking something. Our teenaged girl invariably mixes the wrong ingredients, then spills it all onto the floor; our nine-year-old boy sticks his face as closely as possible to his mother’s Gallic countenance and talks nonstop; and our seven-year-old girl just manages to be underfoot. After about a half hour of this “fun,” my dear, gentle wife will invariably snap and scream some horrible epithets at the children wihci [sic] would destroy any normal psyche but, strangely enough, never seems to significantly damage their relationship with her. She always insists afterwards, long afterwards, that it was worth it.

Recently, “family fun” unobtrusively insinuated itself into our home once again like a fog in the night, this time in the guise of apparently harmless games called “Scrabble” and “Uno.” At first, other family members played the game, but I, not trusting such things, gave it a miss. Unfortunately, I weakened and was soon seated around the table with everyone else. I even smiled a little—but not for long.

Tonight was surely one of the most harrowing examples of all this I’ve experienced in recent years. Our teenager took forever keeping score; our little one kept showing all her cards and nearly drove me crazy with her creative method of dealing cards; and our freckle-faced boy giggled until both my wife and I were on the raw edge of hysteria. I am still trembling as I write this, and I doubt that anything on God’s sweet earth will induce me to participate in such “fun” again.

image: “On Family Fun” by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2

He Is Survived by Four Small Children

Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

An obituary for my grandfather RAY WOLFE, from the Jackson Sentinel, September 16, 1941:

Rites At Delmar Thursday For Raymond B. Wolfe

DELMAR – An unusually large and sympathetic assemblage of the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the late Raymond B. Wolfe were gathered together in St. Patrick’s church at 9:00 o’clock Thursday morning, Sept. 11, to attend the funeral services. Requiem high mass was celebrated by the Rev. J. J. Hopkins, with the Rev. James Quinlan, of Charlotte, and the Rev. Herald O’Connor, of Lost Nation, as his assistants on the altar. Interment was made in St. Patrick’s cemetery, Delmar, with the Rev. J. J. Hopkins officiating at the ritualistic service. Eight members of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion, of Maquoketa, under the command of Glen Bailey, composed the firing squad, and Hugh Fletcher, bugler, sounding taps, as military honors were accorded the deceased veteran of the world war. Casket bears were also Legion comrades: Charles Rasmussen, Allen Bracket, Percy Cassin, Peter McGinn, Ralph Guise, and Dan Waters. Deceased was born October 27, 1896, the son of Morris [Maurice] and Sarah Wolfe, near Lost Nation. He married Gladys McGinn, of Delmar, on August 25, 1925, and they lived on a farm near Lost Nation before moving to Delmar. He was a veteran of the world war, and a member of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion. Besides his wife, he is survived by four small children, three daughters, Sarah [Sara], Mary and Marjorie [Margery], and one son, Thomas; and four brothers, Philip, John, Melvin and James, all of Lost Nation.

image: Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

The Ballad of Short Dick

An onomatological curiosity in the Wolfe family: my great grandfather was Maurice; my great (x3) uncle was Maurice, as was his son and two of his nephews, one of whom—wait for it—was named Maurice Morris. Maurice Morris’s brother, by the way, was Edmund Maurice. Edmund Maurice’s father was Maurice, and his father, my great (x4) grandfather was James Maurice. James Maurice’s brother was Maurice James, aka Young Maurice, whose father also was Maurice James, aka Old Maurice. Young Maurice had a nephew, Edmund Maurice, whose father was Short Dick. And, finally, Old Maurice’s grandfather, which is to say my great (x7) grandfather, who farmed land in County Limerick at the time Cromwell’s men came through, was the original Maurice James, or Really Really Old Maurice.

image: ca. 1920. Standing (left to right): Maurice Wolfe, Frank and Mary Carraher, Sarah McAndrews Wolfe, Ray Wolfe, Phil Wolfe, Melvin Wolfe. In my father’s hand, seated: “McClains (sp.) from Clinton (They liked chicken!).”

Mise Éire

Lower detail of "Mise Éire" by Catherine Ryan


Poets dip themselves in language, while the rest of us squirm. My dad is telling me: “Do they speak much Irish over there? Is that all they speak? Will I be able to understand anything?” I reassure him that there are more native speakers of Navajo than Irish. It’s true that water pipe caps on Dublin sidewalks are marked Uisce and I eagerly tell him it’s pronounced EESH-ka, or “water,” as in uisce bheatha, “water of life,” which is Irish for whiskey. Don’t you see the phonetic relationship, Dad? The ironic humor? He snorts impatiently on the other end of the line. I can almost see his nose twitter. So I tell him that Irish—like more and more languages every day around the globe—is gasping and almost dead.

He relaxes.

Although my family rehearses a kind of determined monolingualism—our English is like a lot of Midwesterners’: flat, suggestive, a little indignant—I think we are haunted by the ghosts of tongues lost. I’m telling you, it’s the poets who know about this stuff. Eavan Boland writes:

a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation
of what went before

I first read these lines a few years ago and they reminded me that my great-great grandfather, a Kerry farmer who emigrated to the hills of Iowa in 1848,* spoke Irish. His countrymen, even those who didn’t leave, were in the process of abandoning the language wholesale. While a few radicals were still publishing newspapers full of those strange, almost occult consonant clusters, mothers were only speaking English to their sons and daughters. They were ashamed but convinced it was necessary. And maybe it was.

Now, just a couple generations removed, my dad actually seems afraid of the language. He is hostile toward it. Could it be a scab is being picked at that he didn’t even know was there?

The title of Boland’s poem is “Mise Éire,” which is pronounced MISH-uh AYR-uh, and it means “My name is Ireland” or, more literally, “I am Ireland.” It’s a simple enough concept. To say Mise Brendan is to say, in a manner of speaking, that I am my name, that it was no accident my parents named me for both a Dublin playwright who drank himself to death and a Catholic priest. I suppose they were hoping I’d split the difference. But to say Mise Éire is to go a step further and argue that Ireland is her language. “We exist in the element of language,” the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday reminds us in The Man Made of Words. And in “Mise Éire,” which is but one in a whole sub-genre of English-language poems by the same name, Ireland exists by virtue of a language that is vanishing.

Oh, I could crack open a beer and bend your ear indefinitely on the somber irony of such paradoxes. But I understand you’re busy. I will skip over the part about how Mise Éire is just the sort of thing you’d expect to find embedded in a language, like a line of digital code whose task is to defend itself against its own extinction. And instead I will get back to what’s hiding under all of that scar tissue.

What does my family no longer know about itself because it stopped speaking Irish?

A few years ago I drove several hours to a town in Wisconsin with a wonderfully dense Indian name—Oconomowok—in order to study Irish for a weekend. Ghosts of missing languages were everywhere, as were the elderly priests and fussy nuns who were gracious enough to host the event. They taught us call and response, a little elementary grammar, even some sean nós, or “old style,” singing. The rest of the time we loitered around kegs donated by The Miller Brewing Company.

Driving home, new words popped and buzzed between my ears. I made all sorts of resolutions about how I was going to keep up with it on my own, only to promptly abandon them. My guilt was vague and sinking. And then recently I read this line in a magazine: “But there is a sharp difference between ethnic identity as something you claim and something that makes claims on you.”

You cannot wear your language like your drunk cousin Tim wears a “Screw me, I’m Irish” pin on St. Patty’s Day. You must wear it like your name—you must be it. Last week a friend e-mailed me an essay titled simply, “Just Speak Your Language.” I’ve heard its story expressed several times before, the importance of knowing your ancestors’ language. How else will you be able to communicate with them in the afterlife?

“I know that Cheyenne is the only language they know, the only language they ever needed to know,” writes Richard Littlebear, an instructor at Dull Knife Memorial College in Lame Deer, Mont. “And I hope when I meet them on the other side that they will understand me and accept me.”

It’s a beautiful story, one that suggests language as more than uisce bheatha. It is the water of life and afterlife. I can’t help but be drawn by the redemptive quality of such an image—lapsed Catholic that I am—but I am still nagged by this question, a question that forms itself most perfectly in English:

Is it too late?

* As it turns out, my relatives came to America in 1847, and to Iowa a few years later.

image: lower detail of Mise Éire by Catherine Ryan

The Old Goat, R.I.P.

Tom Wolfe

This is my dad’s obituary—as I wrote it and pretty close to how it appeared.

THOMAS A. WOLFE (1940–2012)

Thomas Anthony Wolfe was born in Maquoketa, Iowa, on December 20, 1940. The son of Raymond Bernard Wolfe (1896–1941) and Gladys McGinn Wolfe (1903–1966), he was the great-grandson of Irish immigrants. The youngest of four, Tommy—as his sisters insisted on calling him—found himself deprived of a father as an infant and set free on not quite two hundred acres of Clinton County farmland. As a result, he lived inside his imagination. He became his hero, Jackie Robinson, by throwing balls against the barn and scooping up grounders. He found stacks of freshly mown hay to be occasions for an intense kind of dreaming. “What I remember most about farm life,” he once wrote, “was an aching feeling of loneliness.”

Wolfe graduated from Delmar High School in 1958 and then, with support from an uncle, from St. Ambrose College, in nearby Davenport. He later earned a master’s degree in American history from Western Illinois University. Having decided to forego farm life, Wolfe began his teaching career in Blue Grass, Iowa, before moving down the road to Walcott, where he taught across the hall from Frances Cupp Wolfe, whom he married on August 1, 1964. The couple—a sometimes uneasy mixture of Irish and French ancestry—raised three children in Davenport: Bridget Colleen (b. 1967), Brendan Martin (b. 1971), and Sara Elizabeth (b. 1973). As the names suggest, Wolfe’s Irish side often prevailed, although he lovingly called his wife Françoise. She called him “the old goat,” only sometimes lovingly, and they managed until 1993, when they separated. Divorce followed soon after.

Until his retirement in 1997, Wolfe held court in a room at Walcott Junior High School (later Middle School), mostly teaching American history. His great passion was for teaching, which took him back to the farm he never quite left: it was an exercise in imagination. A colleague remembers his closet full of hats. “He would put on a hat and act out various historical characters,” she recalled, and if on one occasion he actually tumbled from a windowsill during a performance—that made it only more memorable for his audience.

Wolfe’s other great passion was the teachers’ union. His wife Fran beat him to it, voting to strike on an occasion when he didn’t, and her zeal rubbed off on him. He served two terms as president of the Davenport Education Association, and was a near-annual delegate to assemblies of the state and national unions. For at least a decade he served as Midwest regional director of the NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus, and in 2012 the Iowa State Education Association presented him with its highest honor, the Charles F. Martin Award for Association Leadership. He accepted with a generous and very funny speech calling for an end to the bitter and unthinking partisanship of American politics.

Tom Wolfe, who died at his Davenport home on August 4­, is survived by his sister Margery; his former wife; his close friend Nancy Porter, of Iowa City; his three children; and his three grandchildren. (His sisters Sara and Mary K died in 1998 and 2004, respectively.) One imagines he has finally returned to the old Wolfe homestead in Clinton County, to the hay bales and reveries. “As long as I live,” he wrote, “I’ll associate freshly mown hay with those dreams and yearnings, and I won’t know whether to be happy or sad.”

image: Tom Wolfe, ca. 1980s