He discusses with them the lives of the longshoremen who lived and worked in the neighborhood decades ago, focusing mainly, though, on the struggles in their mobbed-up, employer-controlled union during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
He’s written a book, his third, about the subject. “On the Irish Waterfront: the Crusader, the Movie and the Soul of the Port of New York” will be published by Cornell University Press in the fall.
“I wanted to tell the whole story,” he said. The book will relate, for instance, the intimate involvement of the church in it.
“On the one hand you had the status quo, archdiocesan figures, including many of the pastors on the West Side who had customarily supported the way life was there,” Fisher said of an episode in New York’s history that inspired the classic movie “On the Waterfront.”
And on the other, there were two Jesuits from the Xavier Labor School on West 16th Street, Philip Carey, and the “crusader” of the book’s title, John Corridan, both working-class Irish-American New Yorkers who’d gone to Regis High School.
Speaking with the personable and animated Fisher in his office, a reporter guessed that the field trips are very interesting and enjoyable experiences for his students.
Testimony from James Martin, the Jesuit priest and author, tended to confirm it.
“Jim Fisher is probably the liveliest articulator of American Catholic culture in academia. And, frankly, it’s simply impossible to be bored during any of his presentations,” he told the Echo. “He brings to life long-forgotten figures in times past and reminds us of the long-standing vitality of the Catholic church in this country.”
Fisher said that 2nd generation Irish-Americans of mid-20th century New York have long been a preoccupation of his, particularly people such as his father and those like him, the successful grandchildren of impoverished late 19th century immigrants.
“I found them to be very inaccessible emotionally,” he said.
“When you find something that’s puzzling and mysterious and inaccessible — it may not be, but if it seems like it is — you create this kind of mystique around it, and you try to understand it,” he said.
His father was an executive with a chemical company and he relocated numerous times around the northeastern United States. The future historian and theologian grew up in a series of “cookie cutter” suburban neighborhoods — he lived in eight New Jersey counties alone — each one of them identical to the next. The churches were the same, too, and designed to be so.
“But then came the late 1960s, and it just all completely unraveled,” he recalled. “And to my family, I was an agent of the unraveling.
“There was a lot of conflict,” he added about an environment that he described as “old school” and “authoritarian.”
Fisher’s family had become middle class almost overnight in the previous generation after decades of poverty in America. His father’s maternal grandfather, an immigrant, drowned working on the Panama Canal, leaving behind a pregnant wife and small child.
“My great-grandmother lived for 75 years as a widow in Brooklyn, which might be close to a record,” said Fisher, whose ancestry is entirely Irish.
Her elder daughter, Fisher’s grandmother, never described her upbringing in heartwarming terms.
“It seemed to be a very angry and bitter experience,” said the co-director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham. “It was disturbing to hear her describe it.”
After his grandparents got married, they struggled through tough times, particularly during the years of the Great Depression.
Then at the outset of World War II, he got a good management job in New York’s garment industry and their situation was transformed. Their children were educated at the best Catholic schools.
The same opportunities were there for the next generation. Fisher went off to Georgetown University in 1974, but later dropped out. “I kicked around for a few years,” he said. “I drove a taxi in New York City.”
He restarted his academic career at Rutgers University, and eventually got his doctorate in history there.
When historians at that secular state college heard him describe his upbringing and his family’s background, they responded with a simple piece of advice: study Irish Catholic history in America. “It seemed interesting from the outside,” he said. “It was painful to me, but they found it fascinating.”
Into his 30s, Fisher was attracted to the Catholic social justice tradition and found “richer and deeper connections to my own faith.”
It’s a tradition identified with the Jesuits and with Fordham. He’s grateful to the order and the university for facilitating his more recent role as an advocate for autistic children. He and his wife, Kristina Chew, have one son, 11-year-old Charlie, who was diagnosed as autistic in early childhood.
Chew, who is Chinese American, teaches classics at another Jesuit institute of higher learning, St. Peter’s College in Jersey City.
A one-time theology professor at St. Peter’s who died in 1984 has occupied much of her husband’s attention over the past several years.
The Rev. John Corridan, the son of County Kerry immigrants, is the sort of figure that Fisher has been drawn to in his academic career.
“Catholics are always talking about assimilating,” he said.
He’s been more interested in the “authentic experience of being oneself.”
And many Catholics who were — he cited Jack Kerouac as an example — have had a profound influence on American culture.
“I never thought I’d see a priest in that way,” Fisher said.
However as he learnt more about Corridan, he came to see him as a heroic figure. Ignatian spirituality underlay his approach, he said, which, in contrast to the evangelical view, believed that people had to have dignity before anything else could be dealt with.
Corridan, who Fisher characterized as “driven” and a “loner,” did something unusual. In his battle against crooked businessmen and mobsters in his own ethnic group, he “went outside,” enlisting the help of a white Southern Protestant journalist, Malcolm Johnson, and a Jewish screenwriter and novelist, Budd Schulberg.
The Jesuit ultimately lost his battle to reform the union and so his legacy is hard to measure.
Nonetheless, Corridan is immortalized in a work of art that was written entirely from his perspective.
“We have this wonderful movie,” Fisher said.