National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Spring Books
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

By Charles Duffy
Catholic University of America Press, 376 pages, $49.95
The story of Edwin O’Connor’s forgotten life

Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD

If you know an Irish American named James Michael, there’s a good chance he’s 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 Boston’s mayor, was the ostensible model for Frank Skeffington in Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah. Many recall the story of the Irish American mayor’s final campaign, opposed most notably by the city’s powerful cardinal, and the film featuring Spencer Tracy. The phrase last hurrah, moreover, retains a permanent place in our lexicon. Sadly, the book’s author, O’Connor, has been largely forgotten. That will change perhaps with the publication of Charles Duffy’s sympathetic, fair, yet flawed biography, A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor.

This is the English professor from Providence College’s first book and the first O’Connor biography. As Duffy portrays him, O’Connor 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 author’s works to enrich his portrait of O’Connor.

O’Connor published one short story while a student at Notre Dame, but didn’t 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 O’Connor 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 wasn’t a critical or commercial success, however. In the years between publication of The Oracle and The Last Hurrah six years later, O’Connor 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, O’Connor’s impecunious days were behind him. The book’s contract, sales and lucrative deals with Reader’s Digest, the Book of the Month Club and Columbia Studios made him wealthy.

The story of a recovering alcoholic Irish American Catholic priest’s interaction with an affluent Irish American family he has known since childhood, The Edge of Sadness, O’Connor’s next novel, won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and in Duffy’s judgment, is his best work. Duffy writes, “The interplay of emotions and atmosphere in the novel is unlike anything O’Connor had previously achieved. From spiritual aridity and filial bitterness to warm friendships and the mystery of God’s grace rekindling hope in the breast, O’Connor covers a lot. He’s 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, O’Connor 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 -- O’Connor’s last novel -- was published in 1966, many saw similarities to the Kennedys’ story.

The novel, however, received mixed reviews, and O’Connor became increasingly anxious about his work’s 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, O’Connor seemed older than his years. All these factors, in Duffy’s judgment, contributed to O’Connor’s fatal stroke in 1968.

After his death, a Jesuit family friend wrote Veniette that O’Connor was “the finest Catholic layman I have known.” Duffy describes how the Eucharist nourished O’Connor 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 O’Connor.

Duffy’s analysis of O’Connor’s 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 O’Connor because the character enjoys ice cream. Who doesn’t like ice cream?

As dutifully as Duffy interprets O’Connor’s work, his assessment of O’Connor’s place in American literary history seems cursory, unsatisfactory and is Duffy’s chief failure. He devotes one short paragraph to his assessment, which says O’Connor “helped interpret parts of Irish America, especially its difficult family life, following upon a remarkable assimilation.” The reader demands a better explanation and O’Connor is worthy of one. Nonetheless, Duffy deserves praise for rediscovering a writer who shouldn’t 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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