Frank X. Gaspar - Poet, Novelist
Frank Gaspar's The Holyoke: Childhood as Catalyst for Portuguese-American Writing
by Reinaldo Francisco Silva (Universidade de Aveiro)
Unlike John Dos Passos and John Phillip Sousa, Frank Gaspar belongs to a generation of Portuguese-American writers who has not felt compelled to alienate himself to the point of disregarding his ethnic background. Instead, he has seen in his heritage a richness worth celebrating and writing about. Some of his poems in The Holyoke pulsate with Portuguese-American themes and are fine examples of a truly ethnic literature. While assessing what constitutes Portuguese-American literature as opposed to other emergent ethnic literatures, this essay also attempts to argue that despite its limited canon, Portuguese-American literature has matured to the point of aptly being classified as such thanks to the writings of Frank Gaspar, Thomas Braga, and Katherine Vaz. Unlike earlier immigrant voices, Frank Gaspar writes in English so as to focus on his Azorean childhood recollections in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Fully assimilated into the mainstream, Gaspar does not claim for himself the status of a hyphenated American. With a strong Azorean presence on the tip of Cape Cod, The Holyoke, however, contains very dim recollections of a childhood lightly swept by an ethnic way of life. Unlike Braga, in The Holyoke we do not encounter a poet deeply engaged in focusing on the complexities of being born and growing up as a hyphenated native of the United States. Nor is Gaspar eager to celebrate Portuguese-American heroes, express the Portuguese reaction to mainstream values and beliefs, or how Portuguese values and traditions are kept alive within a dominant culture.
As George Monteiro has shown in “’The Poor, Shiftless, Lazy Azoreans’: American Literary Attitudes toward the Portuguese,” John Dos Passos and John Phillip Sousa reacted negatively to their Portuguese ethnic background because of the demands imposed by the dominant culture (Monteiro 186-96). Two figures who may be seen as emblems of cultural dispossession, Dos Passos and Sousa may be regarded as sacrificial ethnic lambs who had to relinquish any attempt at cherishing their ethnic background so as to break into the cultural mainstream. In other words, they stand as symbols of ethnically dispossessed people due to the excessive demands mainstream American culture placed on its non-Anglo citizens, especially on those with artistic yearnings.
Fortunately, more recent writers have not felt compelled to alienate themselves to the point of disregarding their ethnic background. As a matter of fact, they have seen in their heritage a richness worth celebrating and writing about. Such is the case of Frank Gaspar. He has found in his Portuguese (Azorean) ancestry experiences worth pondering. His poems pulsate with Portuguese-American themes and are fine examples of a truly ethnic literature. Mary Dearborn has pointed out that the ethnic and cultural “outsider can best represent what it means to exist within American culture” and that the “literature by and about those who seem to be on the edges of American culture can perhaps best represent what happens within that culture” (Dearborn 4-5). We must look into the margins since what we will encounter there is, in essence, American culture. In William Boelhower’s words, “ethnic writing is American writing” (Boelhower 3).
Portuguese-American literature as it is understood today, does not have much of a tradition yet. Gaspar’s poems in The Holyoke (1988), however, qualify as representatives of American ethnic literature. But is there such a thing as Portuguese-American literature with similar claims and status as, let us say, African American literature, Chicano/a literature, Jewish American literature, Native American literature, or even Asian American literature? Can the writers in America with a Portuguese background claim a similar status as, for example, that held by Toni Morrison, Rudolfo Anaya, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich, or even Maxine Hong Kingston, to name a few? It is my belief that with Gaspar (and more recently, Thomas Braga and Katherine Vaz), Portuguese-American literature has matured to the point of aptly being classified as such. This is, in part, due to these writers’ choice of English as their means of expression. In the past, writers such as José Rodrigues Miguéis, Dinis da Luz, and even Jorge de Sena wrote mostly in Portuguese about what it meant to belong to a minority culture within a dominant, mainstream one. Frank Gaspar, Thomas Braga, and Katherine Vaz belong to a generation of Portuguese-American writers who can best express their condition as hyphenated Americans in the English language. Their appeal to a wider audience is obviously greater than those of the former immigrant voices. Not too long ago, however, scholars wondered when and if such a literature would ever come into existence. This can be seen in, for example, an interview conducted by Nancy T. Baden in June of 1979 and now recorded in the transcript with the title “A Literatura Luso-Americana: Que Futuro? – Uma Mesa Redonda” (“The Future of Portuguese-American Literature: A Round Table Discussion”), where one of her interviewees, Onésimo Teotónio Almeida, when asked about the possibility of the emergence of a Portuguese-American ethnic literature, observed that:
There may come into existence a literature written
in the English language, but in that case it shall
certainly accommodate itself within the canons of
American literature. Ethnic, at least. The so-called
ethnic literatures also have their own problems,
especially in terms of classification, but it is
obvious that what may concern such a potential
literature written in the English language and
focusing on the Portuguese immigrant experience,
that it shall either have to achieve such a good
literary quality to claim its right in belonging
to the American literary canon or that it shall have
to settle for the status of a body of minor works
with merely some sociological, historical, and
ethnographic value (Translation mine; Duarte 26).
In another essay, “The Contribution by Americans of Portuguese Descent to the U. S. Literary Scene,” Francis M. Rogers defines ethnic literature as
a literature of maturity. Almost by definition,
ethnic literature normally has to be written by
immigrants resident here for many years and by
descendants born here. The ethnic literature of
Americans of Portuguese descent and birth forms part
of American literature, not of Portuguese
literature. It treats American problems, not
Portuguese problems (Rogers 425).
In “Portuguese-American Literature,” Leo Pap noticed a few glimmers of hope for this emerging ethnic literature, one which would eventually achieve a state of maturity after having, like other ethnic literatures, completed the cycle of development. At the very end of this study, Pap concludes that:
Much of the material cited, the greater part
written in Portuguese rather than in English, does
reflect the typical immigrant experience, often
nostalgically harking back to Portugal, but just as
often revealing a growing concern with and for
America (Pap 195).
What distinguishes Frank Gaspar from the earlier immigrant voices is his writing exclusively in the English language instead of Portuguese. An American-born and American-educated writer, Gaspar believes he can best express his childhood recollections in the Azorean community in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the English language. Thus, if the requirements of a truly ethnic literature in America are to be conveyed through the English language, in the poetry of Frank Gaspar they are completely substantiated. Unlike Thomas Braga in Portingales (1981), for example, Gaspar’s use of Portuguese is very minimal. He only sporadically uses a word or two in some of the poems that compose The Holyoke, winner of the 1988 Morse Poetry Prize. With Gaspar we are evidently a big step away from Braga.
Another aspect that differentiates Gaspar from Braga is that he seldom criticizes the American mainstream or even feels the need to “speak” to it. Perhaps this is due to his perception of where he positions himself in American society. He does not view himself as an outsider, that is, as someone living on its margins. Gaspar does not even seem to identify himself with the status of a hyphenated American. The impression one gathers from his poems in The Holyoke is that he views himself as a part of the mainstream, although with some dim recollections of a childhood lightly swept by an ethnic way of life. Unlike Braga, Gaspar does not capture the essence of his ancestral culture. He will not trouble himself – or perhaps is not aware of – what it means to belong to a minor culture within a dominant one. He will settle for observing his childhood community and leave it at that.
Mary Oliver’s assessment of these poems in her preface is an interesting one because she thinks that Gaspar does not resort to the subterfuges of most writers nowadays. She claims that the writers of today are obsessed with readers’ opinions that it was worth their time to read these writers’ work. This is not the case with The Holyoke:
Poems nowadays often address the reader with obvious
insistence. “Let me tell you about my life,” they
say, “and I will make it fancy enough that you
won’t be bored.” Frank Gaspar, I believe, has
something else in mind. He is speaking to the
reader – but also to himself, or perhaps to some
hazy divinity, or to the blue sky. I felt in his
voice no attempt to persuade me of anything (xi).
Perhaps she could have added that Gaspar may have also wished to “speak” about his ancestral culture in some of these poems, although very lightly. Oliver also writes that the “poems tell the old story: a young man’s passage from boyhood to maturity, in a small town by the sea. His people are Portuguese and Catholic” (xi). Upon closer inspection, one cannot help wondering if The Holyoke is the Portuguese-American version of Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will and how much of Frost there may actually be in these poems. The truth is that both works deal with a boy’s growth and how nature and the community assist in his process of maturation.
The setting in most of The Holyoke is clearly that of Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Who is Hans Hofmann and Why Does the World Esteem Him?” and “The Woman at the Pond” show us a few artists deeply engaged in their work. “August,” for example, alludes to the nearby town of Truro. Oliver adds more particulars on this issue and even makes an interesting comment on how these mainstream artists view the people they stay with temporarily while vacationing in Provincetown. As we all know, the dominant ethnic group in Provincetown is composed of Portuguese, more specifically Azoreans. For these mainstream artists, it was unthinkable that in a community composed mostly of fishermen a poet such as Frank Gaspar would have ever
emerged. Oliver further writes that:
Because I have lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts,
for many years, it was impossible not to recognize
the place-names of this manuscript. Provincetown has
been, and still is, a town where artists and
writers, Hans Hofmann among them, come to live and
to work. Over the years there has been a lot of talk
about what the “creative” people have added to the
town – opinions voiced mainly by the creative people
themselves. Perhaps a sense of elitism is inevitable
in such a situation, perhaps not. None of us was
born here. And no one, if you get my meaning, ever
considered the possibility of a Frank Gaspar. That I
was engaged by his work has nothing to do with
Provincetown but with the poems themselves,
naturally. But this part of the story, I decided,
was also worth the telling (italics mine; xiii).
Although Gaspar may be considered a Portuguese-American writer, in The Holyoke we do not encounter a poetic voice torn between both cultures. What we witness is a mature Gaspar reminiscing about how his childhood was shaped by his Portuguese family–but not too profoundly. Such an ethnic past is certainly not as strong as that of Braga who, like Gaspar, was also born on American soil. Gaspar’s poems obviously possess a Portuguese flavor or touch, but they also betray how much this writer resists plunging deeper into the aspects he decides to dwell on. Most likely, this may be due to his lack of ease with the ancestral culture and language, something we do not encounter in such voices as Alfred Lewis in Home is an Island (1951) or even more recently Katherine Vaz in Saudade (1994), Fado & Other Stories (1997) and Mariana (1998). A keen observer, he is yet a bit of an outsider who does not problematize the issues at stake. A brief incursion into some of his poems will certainly support this argument. Furthermore, in a volume composed of forty-five poems, only about eight of them touch directly
on Portuguese issues. Our next goal is to look at some of these poems.
The religious zeal of the Portuguese is, for example, an issue that has captured Gaspar’s attention. Gaspar does not wish to give up his opportunity to focus on an aspect that occupies much of the time of Portuguese women, eventually providing his own view on it. “Tia Joanna” (“Aunt Joanna”) is a good example of a devout woman who spends much of her time in church either praying the rosary, going to confession, or experiencing a mystical union with God. Perhaps the poem’s uniqueness lies in the manner in which it captures how Provincetown Portuguese women reconcile their spiritual lives with their role as housekeepers and wives of fishermen:
.................The soft kerchiefs
of the women, the dark cloth
of their long coats, the kale cooking
on the oilstoves in the redolent kitchens,
the checkered shirts of the husbands,
the fish they bring to the doorways....
She likes that, thinks of the host she will receive
in the morning, His light shining in her eyes.
But tonight still there is mackerel to pickle
with vinegar and garlic in the stone crock,
her husband’s silver hair to trim, the bread
to set rising in the big china bowl
on the stool tucked close to the chimney (7-8).
Unfortunately, Gaspar does not dwell on the sense of fate and mourning that traditionally has characterized the Portuguese temperament and how in this poem this is conveyed through, for example, this woman’s dark clothes. Another important aspect is how this particular couple still holds on to their native language in this “ethnic enclave” (Gordon 227). This can be seen when she says to her husband, before supper, “Go wash, she says in the old tongue” (8). Although the “old tongue” is often alluded to, as readers, we do not really hear its sounds. The other poem, “Ernestina the Shoemaker’s Wife” dwells on the mystical experience of a woman who claims having met St. Francis in the woods when she was a young girl.
“Potatoes” is an unusual poem because it highlights the fondness the Portuguese evince in growing a vegetable garden in their backyards. This is an aspect that characterizes Portuguese immigrant life in the United States and shows that even in an industrial setting as is, for example, the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, the Portuguese still plant lavish vegetable and flower gardens today. It seems that they cannot erase an ancestral rural way of life that easily and somehow find in these gardens some type of spiritual connection with the old country. Or, perhaps, like the mother figure in Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” this may be their only means to express their spirituality since most of these immigrants – like most Blacks after Reconstruction – were predominantly illiterate. Despite the obvious differences between both ethnic groups, the garden metaphor is what brings meaning into their lives. Writing about how Walker’s mother found beauty, creativity, and spirituality in her elaborate gardens, the Portuguese, too, feel the same way when in the midst of their vegetable and flower gardens. What is fascinating about the gardens in The Holyoke is that they have a little bit of everything. Apart from potatoes and even corn, this one also has a patch of kale (to make the famous Portuguese kale soup) as well as a “patch of anise” (10). The episode of Gaspar’s mother digging for potatoes comes in the tradition of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) when the narrator digs a few potatoes to make a chowder. Fortunately, the old New England way of life that Jewett so eloquently wrote about at the turn-of-the-century has not entirely disappeared since the Portuguese somehow keep it a little bit alive in their own communities. In this sense, Gaspar is shaping another motif typical of ethnic writing into his poetry: the importance of ethnic food and eating, which, for example, occupies a lot of contemporary Italian-American writing (Gardaphé 118). This is an issue that we may also encounter in Braga’s poetry and Vaz’s fiction.
“The Old Town” and “Descent” aim at capturing the carefree attitude and simplicity in childhood experiences. While in the first poem the author and his “old friend Santos” (32) have gotten together for a bottle of beer, reminiscing about how they spent their time capturing birds, the second one reports back to when the boys used to dive for eels and other fish. Judging from the surnames in both poems, more specifically Santos and Carvalho, one is inclined to believe that the Azorean community in Provincetown was a very closely-knit one and that the boys socialized only with those belonging to their own ethnic background. This, I believe, calls into question Nancy Baden’s contention that “the Portuguese have not been concentrated in the ghetto-like situation in which one lives exclusively the ‘ethnic’ experience as have blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Chicanos” (Baden 27). Portuguese-Americans do tend to stay together and even avoid the mainstream, especially the first and, perhaps, the second generations. With the Portuguese, the process of assimilation is much quicker compared to other ethnic minorities, Hispanics in particular.
“Ice Harvest” is a poem that highlights the New England practice of cutting ice from ponds for business purposes. Like so many other poems in this volume, “Ice Harvest” succeeds in fulfilling one of Emerson’s tenets for American literature – the celebration of the commonplace. But the poem also reminds readers of the scarcity of references to Portuguese culture and language in this volume. When mentioning his “mother’s / favorite uncle William” (49) among the ice-cutters, Gaspar shows that the process of Americanization among his family members is well under way. Within just one or two more generations, surnames like Santos or Carvalho will be all that is left pointing to their Portuguese ethnic background.
In the poem “Leaving Pico” we are introduced to a group of nostalgic Azoreans in a living room, talking about their native island of Pico and the beautiful things they had left behind, especially the
green and clay roads, they said,
and the rolling walls
brushed white with lime,
and how many trunks
in the hold of a ship,
what dishes, what cloth, how many
rosaries and candles to the Virgin,
and the prayers for the old dead
they left to sleep under the wet hills
(the green hills, and at night
light from the oil lamps
and sometimes a guitar keening
and windmills that huddled white
over the small fields of the dead)
and all the time they were
preparing themselves behind
their violet lips and heavy eyes
to sleep in this different earth
consoled only by how the moon
and tide must set themselves
pulling off to other darkness
with as little notion of returning (9).
It is only the older generation who yearn for their place of birth or even remember it with fondness. Gaspar, however, manifests absolutely no interest in visiting Pico or any curiosity about it. His attitude towards the ancestral land and culture is one bordering on detachment and uninterestedness. With such feelings, a strong personal identification with the Portuguese allusions he dwells on in some of these poems is nowhere to be seen. Moreover, the ambiance of poverty and mood of isolation typical of island life are also left untouched.
“The Old Country” focuses on a superstitious belief some of these immigrants had brought with them from the Azores. After so many years, the poet still remembers how his “mother would never sweep at night, / would never let us sweep. The broom / rustling, she said, would bring the dead up” (55). Supposedly, the reason why the poet’s
mother had never questioned such a belief was because she was afraid her ancestors’ ghosts would come to haunt her and say this to her: “We never came / from the old country to live like this” (55). Is it the new lifestyle these immigrants adopt in America or the manner in which they slowly drop – one generation after the other – what distinguishes them from other ethnic groups that these voices are rebelling against? What is obvious is that the poetic voice completely resists them:
And this old country is any place
we have to leave. The voices
calling us back are dust.
I have traveled to the far edge
of a country now, fearing the dead.
They still want to speak with my mouth (55-56).
Gaspar might be acknowledging that his ancestors from the Azores cannot really count on him to perpetuate a cultural continuity since he is more of an American than a Portuguese. His ties with Portugal are weak and superficial. To add to this, as an adult he has moved to California (supposedly, for professional reasons) and is physically distant from the ethnic roots he had left behind in Provincetown. As far as The Holyoke is concerned, it contains absolutely no poems with explicit references to Portuguese history and culture. Whether the poet is well versed or not in these matters is a point this volume does not clarify. Moreover, Gaspar’s command of written Portuguese does not seem as proficient and error-free as was the case with Braga. A quick glance at the poem “Ernestina the Shoemaker’s Wife” seems to confirm this since the word “hervas” should have been spelled “ervas.” Clearly, what Gaspar wishes to convey here is “herbs.” A blend such as this one reveals how much closer he actually is to the mainstream language and culture than to that of his ancestors. True, one example cannot be held as a universal truth, but it certainly leaves this reader with the impression that Gaspar belongs to a generation of Portuguese-American writers whose command of the ancestral culture and language will become weaker and weaker. This is certainly due to the rapid process of assimilation of the Portuguese into the American mainstream. As Leo Pap has argued nearly two decades ago, assimilation of the Portuguese into the mainstream has been unsteady. It has depended on the patterns of emigration of the Portuguese into the United States and whether these immigrants came from the Azores Islands or continental Portugal:
It has been said that immigrants from the Azores
have been quicker to identify with America than
those from mainland Portugal, and those from the
western Azores quicker than those from São Miguel.
Actually those from the western Azores started
coming first, followed by those from São Miguel and
then by Continentals. The Azoreans as a group have
had less of a sense of Portuguese nationality than
the Continentals to begin with.
There have been contradictory opinions about the
comparative rate of Americanization of the
Portuguese in urban New England as against rural
California. Those in Hawaii are said to have
assimilated more rapidly than the ones in
California; but Portuguese immigration into
California continued long after influx into Hawaii
had ended. It is too early to appraise the rate of
Americanization of the tens of thousands who have
come from the Azores and the rest of Portugal in
recent years…. Generally speaking, it is the “second
generation,” the American-born (or American-raised)
children of any immigrant group, that have the most
decisive influence on the Americanization of the
foreign-born adults. As these children go through
American public schools, usually perceiving
themselves as a “minority” and mingling with “other”
children, they tend to become more subject to peer
pressure than to parental control and present their
elders with the choice of a widening generation gap
or else parental willingness to adjust at least
partially to majority patterns. This is also true
for the Portuguese ethnics (Pap, The Portuguese-
As these ethnic communities become less and less rejuvenated with new waves of emigrants from Portugal, the collective memory from the old country will gradually
disappear, leaving us somewhere down the line with only a handful of Portuguese surnames. Such is the current situation in Hawaii. Perhaps this might soon be the trend in continental U.S.A. as well, especially now that Portugal has developed so much after joining the European Union in the mid-nineteen eighties. In this sense, the Portuguese are no different from the waves of Eastern Europeans, Germans, Poles, and Italians who arrived in America at the end of the nineteenth-century or during the earlier decades of the twentieth-century. At this point, these ethnic groups have been fully assimilated into the mainstream. What may distinguish them from one another is, perhaps, their look or physical features and the inevitable surname. The Portuguese are no exception since they are also marrying people from ethnic backgrounds other than their own. The melting-pot, after all, is still alive in America even if it takes a few generations to bring it to a full boil.
What we may safely conclude is that the closer one is to the ancestral culture, the stronger the criticism or the need to “speak” to the American mainstream is. Such was the case with José Rodrigues Miguéis in such stories as “Steerage,” “Cosme,” and “Bowery’64”; Alfred Lewis in, for example, the poem “Bicentennial: A Portuguese Salute”; and, to some extent, Thomas Braga in the poems “Chants Fugitifs” and “Judith Melo.” The closer one is, the more passionate one’s voice will be in denouncing the excesses in the American way of life. Such is also possible because these voices are well aware of the major differences between both cultures. In the case of Gaspar, the opposite tends to prevail. The more one is distant from the ancestral culture and, in turn, completely immersed in the culture of the mainstream, the more uncritical such a voice will be. While Miguéis in, for example, the story “Bowery ‘64” felt compelled to denounce certain political and social excesses in American society, knowing that other alternatives existed elsewhere, Gaspar, for example, is fully accommodated to the mainstream. With their respective time periods taken into consideration, the attitude of the latter sounds something like this: Why criticize if one has no qualms about the space one occupies?
With Frank Gaspar, Thomas Braga, and Katherine Vaz we are already near the heart of Portuguese-American ethnic literature. That is why some of the scholarly arguments discussed at the beginning of this paper may be seen as somewhat outdated and in need of reassessment. There is no doubt that the poetic writings of Gaspar belong to American ethnic literature since they completely fulfill Onésimo Almeida’s and Francis Rogers’ criteria for what constitutes ethnic literature in America. With these writers, Portuguese-American literature is evidently beyond an embryonic stage. It is ethnic literature in its own right. My contention is that a truly ethnic literature emerges when second or third-generation American-born voices attempt to retrieve their ancestors’ roots so as to learn more about where they came from. Such is the case with Gaspar. The great Portuguese-American ethnic novel, however, is yet to be written. With Frank X. Gaspar’s Leaving Pico (1999) and Katherine Vaz’s Saudade (1994) and Fado & Other Stories (1997), we are certainly a step closer.
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