The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: February 6, 2004
Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD
If you know an Irish American named James Michael, theres a good chance hes named after the legendary yet infamous, irrepressible James Michael Curley, who dominated Boston politics during the first half of the 20th century. Curley, who served several terms as Bostons mayor, was the ostensible model for Frank Skeffington in Edwin OConnors novel The Last Hurrah. Many recall the story of the Irish American mayors final campaign, opposed most notably by the citys powerful cardinal, and the film featuring Spencer Tracy. The phrase last hurrah, moreover, retains a permanent place in our lexicon. Sadly, the books author, OConnor, has been largely forgotten. That will change perhaps with the publication of Charles Duffys sympathetic, fair, yet flawed biography, A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin OConnor.
This is the English professor from Providence Colleges first book and the first OConnor biography. As Duffy portrays him, OConnor was witty, affable and possessed a wide circle of friends. Also prone to melancholy, he zealously protected his privacy. Absent anything such as letters and journal entries and the dramatic storylines that enliven writers biographies -- substance abuse, mental illness, troubled marriages -- Duffy relies upon extensive interviews with family and friends and probes the authors works to enrich his portrait of OConnor.
OConnor published one short story while a student at Notre Dame, but didnt discover his writing vocation until he was 27 after an unremarkable stint in the Coast Guard during World War II. He adopted Boston as his hometown and lived at various addresses in the historic Beacon Hill district until his premature death at 49. He never lived far from The Atlantic Monthly, which became his publishing home throughout his career after it published one of his short stories in 1947.
This convinced OConnor to quit his radio broadcaster job to write full-time. He drew upon his broadcasting experience to write a satire of that world in his first novel, The Oracle, published in 1950. It wasnt a critical or commercial success, however. In the years between publication of The Oracle and The Last Hurrah six years later, OConnor supported himself mainly as a television critic for the local newspapers. He lived largely a hand-to-mouth existence in rented rooms. When The Last Hurrah was published, OConnors impecunious days were behind him. The books contract, sales and lucrative deals with Readers Digest, the Book of the Month Club and Columbia Studios made him wealthy.
The story of a recovering alcoholic Irish American Catholic priests interaction with an affluent Irish American family he has known since childhood, The Edge of Sadness, OConnors next novel, won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and in Duffys judgment, is his best work. Duffy writes, The interplay of emotions and atmosphere in the novel is unlike anything OConnor had previously achieved. From spiritual aridity and filial bitterness to warm friendships and the mystery of Gods grace rekindling hope in the breast, OConnor covers a lot. Hes at his best rendering loneliness.
In 1962, at 45, the seemingly confirmed bachelor surprised others when he married Veniette Weil and became a stepfather to her young son. Perhaps inspired by his new happiness, OConnor wrote his first play, I Was Dancing, in 1964 but it was an unmitigated disaster. He returned to the novel and subjects that served him well: intergenerational conflicts within an Irish American family and politics. When All in the Family -- OConnors last novel -- was published in 1966, many saw similarities to the Kennedys story.
The novel, however, received mixed reviews, and OConnor became increasingly anxious about his works direction. He, furthermore, had lived too long off the success of The Last Hurrah and was overextended financially. The strains began to show, and according to Duffy, OConnor seemed older than his years. All these factors, in Duffys judgment, contributed to OConnors fatal stroke in 1968.
After his death, a Jesuit family friend wrote Veniette that OConnor was the finest Catholic layman I have known. Duffy describes how the Eucharist nourished OConnor and that he cultivated friendships with the Paulists and Jesuits, but the reader wishes Duffy would have explored more extensively the significance of the faith to OConnor.
Duffys analysis of OConnors writing is the principal strength of A Family of His Own. However, Duffy sometimes gets carried away with his interpretation. For instance, when discussing an unpublished later work, the author infers that a character resembles OConnor because the character enjoys ice cream. Who doesnt like ice cream?
As dutifully as Duffy interprets OConnors work, his assessment of OConnors place in American literary history seems cursory, unsatisfactory and is Duffys chief failure. He devotes one short paragraph to his assessment, which says OConnor helped interpret parts of Irish America, especially its difficult family life, following upon a remarkable assimilation. The reader demands a better explanation and OConnor is worthy of one. Nonetheless, Duffy deserves praise for rediscovering a writer who shouldnt be forgotten and for enhancing our perspective on the Irish American Catholic experience. A Family of His Own, for these reasons, is worth a look.
Chris Byrd is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.
National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004
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