The Home Front: 1861 to 1865

Walt and the Other Whitmans

What did the author mean by “only an Irish girl”?

In January 1863, The Atlantic Monthly ran an article written by a sympathetic member of the Anglo-American upper class. Whether she lived in Boston, New York, or Baltimore is unknown, but the story has an almost universal feel. This fortunate woman, well aware that she was blessed in her circumstances, had chosen to hire an Irish girl as her personal servant. Friends and relatives warned her against this, and they seemed to be vindicated when the girl died at the home in which she served. The police, on first entering, exclaimed that it was “only an Irish girl.”

“She was such a maiden as her mother must have been, one of Nature’s own ladies, but more refined in type, texture, and form, as the American atmosphere and food and life always refine the children of European stock—slenderer, more delicate, finer of complexion, and with a soft, exquisite sweetness of voice, more thrilling than her mother’s, larger and more robust heartfeltness of tone—and with the same, but shyer ways, and swift blushes and smiles.” Is this really how Bridget O’Reilly looked? What matters is that the upper-class Anglo-American is expressing an idea, very likely a current one, of what feminine beauty should be.


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