On the Waterfront with James Fisher
James Fisher is the kind of history professor you wish you had. Sure, he looks the part, round glasses and floppy hair, but what most recommends him is his energy. Not energy as in some kind of new age-y good aura, but literally his enthusiasm and passion for his subject, whether that be history, theology or the subject of his latest book — wherein all his other interests seem to merge — the Port of New York.
As a New Jersey native, the often-untold stories of the mostly Irish waterfront workers on both sides of the Hudson River are a source of endless fascination to Fisher, and, whether talking to him about it, or reading his book, his excitement about the subject is contagious.
On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York, Fisher’s fourth book, was published last year by Cornell University Press and is the result of over ten years of research, interviews and writing begun when Fisher and his wife lived in the Midwest and completed after they moved, with their son, back to New Jersey.
In many ways, Fisher sees the composition of On the Irish Waterfront as a joining of often-disparate fronts. In addition to the backing of Cornell University Press, the book was funded by a grant from the University of Notre Dame and joins two disciplines that don’t often meet, American Catholic studies and American history.
The book chronicles the lives of the major, predominantly Irish, politicians, gangsters, union leaders and priests whose combined stories inform the broader history of the region in the early half of the twentieth century. Fisher points out that due to an almost unbreakable code of silence on the docks on either side of the Hudson, prior to the writing of this book not much of this story has been told; the most notable exception being the Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. And the film itself factors into Fisher’s book in a large way as he details the true story behind the movie, that of “labor priest” Father John Corridan, depicted in the film by Karl Malden.
“I’m one of those characters who …” Fisher pauses briefly to consider his words before continuing. “I’m probably a little quirky and I do these off-beat kind of things, but I like the idea of being part of a communal enterprise. I like the idea that it was part of a series at Notre Dame which was designed to put the Catholic American stories into the mainstream of American historical narrative more than they ever had before.”
And certainly this “communal enterprise” is one of the features that make the book most accessible to a wider audience. There is plenty of rich information for history buffs and those with interest in Catholic social teaching, but there is also a particular appeal for those of us whose lives, like those of the characters he profiles, straddle the Hudson.
The importance of Jersey City on the culture of the waterfront is not lost on Fisher. Pointing out that it was often ignored by the New York media, he posits that the most powerful figures in the history of the waterfront were those, like infamous Jersey City mayor Frank Hague, that had controlling stakes on both banks of the river. This fact, he adds, was really only ever known to Hudson County residents.
“People like Hague and others who were here, they always had a lot of action going over there,” Fisher says. “It never worked the other way. Nobody from the West Side of Manhattan ever said, ‘I want to get into the Jersey City market.’ But if they had, they would have understood that that was, of course, the key to control and authority in the port.”
As Fisher sees it, the importance of Jersey City in the region has not dwindled since the heyday of the waterfront, though it has changed. The legacy of that time, he says, can be seen not only in the fact that Irish-Americans have always played a part in Hudson County politics, including our own Mayor Healy who Fisher says is a “kind of liberal incarnation of the old school,” but also in the influence that Jesuit education has had in the region.
“In every American city like this there was pressure on the Jesuits to move their schools and colleges out of these urban settings, but in almost every case they refused. They dug in,” he explains. “So the Catholic scene in Jersey City really did help make this transition. To make the change,” he says, referring the city’s urban renewal.
James Fisher, himself, has become a part of the story through his role as professor of American religious history in the Theology Department of Fordham University, a Jesuit school. And he uses his classes as an opportunity to inform his students not only of the significance of Catholic education in the region, but also the important place of Manhattan’s West Side on the story of the port, which he does by taking his classes to the piers.
More personally, Fisher also fits into the Irish-Catholic history of the port as a kind of outsider-insider. His family has strong roots in the area, his mother grew up in Hudson County and his father attended Saint Peter’s Prep in Downtown Jersey City, though Fisher did not grow up in Hudson County and, for that reason has always felt “somewhat estranged.”
“I grew up in eight counties in New Jersey,” he adds. “My family was the upward mobile Irish descendancy, post-war. But all my relatives grew up around here, so there’s a little bit of that distance. I don’t make any claims to being an insider. But I’m the product of it in a way … Spiritually, emotionally as an Irish-Catholic, this is where I’m from.”
Last fall I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Fisher at Saint Peter’s College in which he tailored his talk toward his Jersey City audience and affirmed the place of the city in not only the region’s history, but also in the story told in his book. That evening, Fisher was particularly personal about his family life as well, perhaps because he was in the company of many friends and colleagues (he taught for a while at SPC and his wife teaches there still), or because his son, who is autistic, was in attendance.
“This book would not have been written without Charlie,” Fisher said of his son.
“Seeing my son’s experience and some of our experience advocating for him and his education got me out of myself for the first time in a way that I could look more broadly at political systems,” he says when I talk to him later. “It offered a broader perspective, gave me a little more compassion and humility.”
“I just know it made me a better person, so there had to be some consequence,” he concludes.
This compassion and humility is evident not just by Fisher’s preference for talking about his family or his subject matter over himself, but it’s also evident in his writing. Reading his book, it’s clear that Fisher is aware that he is dealing with the lives of real people. He never reduces them to caricatures or stereotypes.
James Fisher’s success in the On the Irish Waterfront is a direct result of his passion for history and theology, yes, but also for education, art, and, ultimately, for the people of the region.