O'Connor, Edwin 1918–1968
An American novelist, O'Connor drew many of his fictional settings and characterizations from his Irish-American Catholic background, creating novels that both entertain and contain important sociopolitical themes. Although his characters are at times reduced to caricature, his novels have been praised for their realistic dialogue and sensitive description. O'Connor won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Edge of Sadness. An earlier novel, The Last Hurrah, was subsequently made into a motion picture. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah" … arrives festooned with pre-publication laurels…. In view of all this, one is tempted to raise one's hat silently to the cortege and to let it pass on its way to oblivion with the best possible grace. The temptation is all the greater because it is difficult to discuss the book without infringing on a number of taboos that can be indicated by saying that its main subjects are the nature of city government in the New England states of the Union, the role of the Irish in municipal politics, and the relations between city machines and the Catholic Church. The approach chosen is to bring two clean-cut young persons, Adam and Maeve (get it? Innocents), into this thorny area by having them taken under the wing of the boy's uncle, old Frank Skeffington, as he launches his campaign for reelection to the mayoralty of a big Eastern-seaboard city. He loses the election, because he is an old-fashioned kind of political boss and times have changed, but in the course of his campaign Adam and Maeve discover what a charming, lovable, and heart-warming boss he is, what kindly, simple chaps—great-hearted, too, in their small way—his ward bosses and heelers are, and what a little thing peculation from the public funds really is, after all. (p. 121)
[From] the starting thesis—that a kindly thief is better than a plain greedy one—the line of thought advances to the conclusion that because some...
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John Kenneth Galbraith
Currently, the leading prophet of the acculturation of the Irish, to give the phenomenon its technical name, is Edwin O'Connor. In my view, he is an excellent novelist and a master at showing how much can be made of moth-eaten material. His "The Last Hurrah," published in 1956, was a classic in one sense of the word: Frank Skeffington, the hero, was politically and sociologically a completely standardized phenomenon….
There is evidence that when he began ["The Edge of Sadness"] …, O'Connor intended to leave the acculturation of the Irish for good and all, and deal with the simple but delicate problem of a priest who in his middle years turns to alcohol. The advance billing of the book made much of this theme. In fact, it forms only a small and not wholly plausible part of the story. The causes of the descent into drunkenness are not fully developed or entirely convincing. The lost weekdays are deliberately and mercifully left unchronicled. The cure, as recovery from alcoholism goes, seems to have been rather easy…. There being no story here, the author turns back to the struggles and torments of the Irish. But he has to find a new twist. (pp. 88, 90)
Because the author is not able to talk of the struggle between the Irish and their precursors, his solution is a struggle between the Irish and the Irish. He finds, or invents, a formidable tension between those who are fully acculturated and those who are not. It...
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The extent of Edwin O'Connor's achievement in The Edge of Sadness has been concealed, ironically, by his own subtlety in craftsmanship. Although the novel was recognized by some as a major achievement in the realistic portrayal of a priest, there were just as many readers who found it merely an entertaining "re-hash" of the Irish-Catholic world of The Last Hurrah: Frank Skeffington had metamorphosed into Charlie Carmody and that was that. (p. 3)
[For] the reader (who has learned not to believe everything that the first-person narrator tells about himself) focusing on Father Hugh Kennedy as the protagonist, a subtle and highly dramatic conflict emerges as the priest reaches a crisis in his life.
It is extremely important to establish who the protagonist is in this novel. For if one [selects] Charlie as the main character, as some critics have, the book can be seen as [escapist literature]…. (p. 4)
But the book is Father Hugh Kennedy's story, whether he, as narrator, denies it or not. It is the story of the regeneration of a priest, a story of sanctity in the modern world, of a man coming to terms with himself and with God.
Part of O'Connor's widespread appeal is his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the New England Irish-Catholic environment through a mass of details, anecdotes, and informed commentary, which some critics have labeled sheer nostalgia…. It is...
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There is a passage in All in the Family where the narrator, Jack Kinsella, something of a novelist, is thinking of his books:
I think they were all good books of their kind: they were honest, decently plotted, with believable characters, and were reasonably well written. I was proud of writing them, in fact; I knew that not everyone could have written them, and indeed that many writers who were better than I could not have written them, either.
Kinsella is not O'Connor, but this seems to me a fair account of O'Connor's novels. Except for The Oracle, which is merely a caricature, the novels are serious studies of the relation between people and institutions. O'Connor's imagination was always concerned with the stress between an individual's nature and the public terms in which it is defined. The Last Hurrah: or what happens when the institution itself changes, runs to a new style. The Edge of Sadness: a priest-physician who cannot heal himself. The Cardinal fragment: the good man bewildered in a bewildered Church. There is no fault in the themes, except that they are never brought to the pitch of their possibilities.
O'Connor was variously gifted, but his gift of language was not remarkable. Notice, for instance, how often he resorts to italics, desperate to be heard, as if he feared that the words, left to themselves, would die...
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Edward R. F. Sheehan
The "Boy" fragment, at the very end of [The Best and the Last of Edwin O'Connor], is 40 pages of the novel that O'Connor was writing when he [died]…. It is a charming account of a boy growing up in a small, ugly mill city of New England; his friends … felt that in finished form it might have become his best book. The much shorter, and less polished, 16-page fragment of his "Cardinal" novel, however, seemed to me more ambitious of its intent and therefore more interesting for its unconsummated purpose.
The "Cardinal" of O'Connor's fragment is an eighty-year-old prelate, presumably of a New England see, staring death in the face. O'Connor's opening shafts are exceedingly veracious and well-aimed, not at the Cardinal himself, but at the insipid city newspapers which have thrived by nominating him every morning for sainthood….
[The Cardinal] ruminates during the visit of an uproarious, slightly batty priest called Charlie Crimmins—the kind of character we are so accustomed to in O'Connor and which, had he lived to be eighty himself, he would never have ceased to conjure up—about the "silent, isolating, depth-less and overwhelming" sadness of his own declining days…. He meditates as well on the confused laity—who are no more confused than the Cardinal himself—on the unsettled older priests and the rebellious younger ones, of the changing contemporary Church. Soon afterwards, the Cardinal is examined...
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Except for Benjy (1957) and his first novel, The Oracle (1951), a jejune satire on radio commentators, [Edwin O'Connor] wrote exclusively about Eastern, urban (Boston), Irish-American Catholics, and primarily about the effects of acculturation on their politics, religious beliefs, and family life. He concentrates on a late period of Irish-American history, approximately 1948–1968, with few immigrants or ghettos, when the battles against poverty, discrimination, and the Yankee establishment had already been won, and when, as a result, "nobody felt very Irish any more, or had much reason to." The dominant theme in his novels is the death of Irishness. Many of his characters have made it in America at the cost of their ethnic identity, while others, in apparent defiance of time and the world at large, cling stubbornly to traditional attitudes and customs. The result is a severe conflict between the generations, particularly between fathers and sons, and the widening gap between the values of the old world (Ireland, the ghetto) and those of the new. O'Connor is concerned not simply with the fact of change, however, but with individual responses to it. He is a novelist of manners preoccupied with the interaction between character and history.
Frank Skeffington, the hero of his first major novel, The Last Hurrah (1956), and Charles Kinsella, a central character in his last, All in the Family (1966), represent...
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