Alumni from several states returned to the Rose Hill campus Saturday, March 31, to participate in Communitas, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ reunion celebration marking it’s 90th anniversary. The daylong celebration drew more than 100 visitors to the campus to hear scholarly lectures, classical music, and a keynote speech by Peter Quinn (GSAS ’75), author of the novel Banished Children of Eve (Viking, 1994), winner of the 1995 American Book Award.
“This spring weekend in the Bronx has been made more glorious by your presence,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, told GSAS alumni. “You are our icons, our pantheons, those who have done well as scholars. It is a great joy to welcome you home, and we ask you to keep us true to our mission–of educating scholars who will go out into the world and make a difference.”
Quinn, a third-generation New Yorker whose grandparents were born in Ireland, delivered the semi-annual Gannon Lecture on “Writes of Passage: Confessions of a Bronx Irish Scribbler.” Growing up in a “provincial, parochial, prosaic” Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx, Quinn said that he never felt as if he belonged to the “enterprise of literature.”
“Growing up I didn’t know any [fiction]writers. It seemed to me that writers didn’t so much come from a different place as live on a different planet,” he said.
Communitas celebrated the past 90 years of scholarly achievements by GSAS faculty, students and alumni. GSAS has 19 departments that offer 11 doctoral degrees and 16 master’s degrees. It recently added a master’s degree program in elections and campaign management and has applied to the state to establish a master’s degree program in Latin America and Latino studies.
Nancy Busch, Ph.D., dean of the GSAS, said that applications to the GSAS are at record numbers, up 12 percent in the last year, and that the school’s student selectivity in both the master’s and doctoral programs is on the rise. She also said that the Department of English had a 100 percent placement record for its doctoral students, in full-time teaching positions — a statistic she said is “almost unheard of.”
“We have a remarkable faculty, remarkable students and remarkable candidates in the pipeline coming toward us,” Busch said. “It is because of you [alumni]that we are achieving new heights.”
Quinn said that “luck” led to his start as a professional writer, when he had occasional articles accepted at America while a graduate student in history. Based on his articles, he was offered a speechwriting position in the office of Hugh Carey, then New York state governor.
During his six-year career writing for Carey and, subsequently, for Mario Cuomo, however, Quinn became inspired to find his own voice in the written word. Reflecting on his struggle to make the transition to fiction, Quinn said that a novelist must make a “leap of faith” to believe three things: that he has something to say, that he has the stamina to get it down on paper, and that he believes people have a genuine interest in hearing it.
“These are not small things to believe,” he said. “Writing involves persistence rather than brilliance. I had a [novelist]friend who told me that you start by making the time. That truth penetrated my cast iron Irish cranium; if writing mattered to me as much as I insisted it did, I would have to carve out the space to make writing not something I did when I felt like it, but something I did the same as brushing my teeth.”
He also credited a former Fordham professor, Elizabeth Cullinan, author of the novel, House of Gold (Houghton Mifflin, 1970), with showing him that the raw material of literature can be found anywhere. Her novel about a contemporary Irish American matriarch in the Bronx, takes place on Poplar Street, across from Quinn’s old parish, St. Raymonds. “It was a street I knew, as ordinary as 100 other Bronx streets, now transubstantiated into the stuff of literature. In the hands of a writer, our shared human struggle is as rich and moving on Poplar Street as in the Royal apartments of Elsinor—that was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned,” he said.
In addition to publishing two novels and a book of essays, Quinn is the author of an Emmy award-winning documentary, McSorley’s New York, and has worked on academy award-nominated films both as a commentator and historical advisor.
– Janet Sassi