Study Guide

Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan Essay - Brennan, Maeve (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Brennan, Maeve (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Maeve Brennan 1917-1993

American short story writer and essayist.

For further information on Brennan's life and works, see CLC, Volume 5.

A longtime writer for The New Yorker, Brennan distinguished herself first as an essayist and then as a writer of psychologically insightful short stories. Her settings included both her beloved New York City and her native Ireland.

Biographical Information

Brennan was born January 6, 1917, in Dublin, Ireland, the daughter of a supporter of the Republican party of Eamon de Valera. Her family moved to the United States for a time when her father was appointed Irish Ambassador to the United States in 1934. Brennan decided to remain in the States after her father's term was up, working at first as a fashion copy editor and writer. She then became a book reviewer for The New Yorker and for twenty-seven years wrote short essays for the magazine's “Talk of the Town” column; her essays were once described as “communications from our friend the long-winded lady.” Later she produced short stories, set in both Ireland and the United States. Her 1954 marriage to writer and editor St. Clair McKelway eventually failed, largely because of McKelway's alcoholism. At The New Yorker, Brennan became something of a legend for her sparkling personality and sense of humor, as well as for her enduring friendships with writer Brendan Gill and editor William Maxwell. In the 1970s Brennan began to suffer from the mental illness from which she never recovered. She died penniless, in 1993, in a New York City nursing home.

Major Works

Brennan's first book, The Long-Winded Lady (1969), is a collection of pieces from “Talk of the Town” about life in New York City. In 1969 she also published her first book of short stories, In and Out of Never-Never Land. Set mostly in Dublin, these stories deal with unhappy married couples and perhaps mirror Brennan's own failed marriage. Christmas Eve (1974), a second collection of stories, concerns both poor Irishmen and wealthy New Yorkers seeking ways to fill the emptiness in their lives. In 1997, William Maxwell chose and introduced another selection of Brennan's stories in The Springs of Affection. This collection includes stories based on Brennan's life in Ireland and others chronicling the failing marriages of two Irish couples. In 2000 a previously undiscovered early novella, The Visitor, was published, as well as The Rose Garden, another collection of stories, most of which had been published earlier in The New Yorker.

Critical Reception

Critics have stressed Brennan's limited literary scope while praising her subtlety and her control of her material. At first identified mostly with her numerous “Talk of the Town” pieces, Brennan gained respect as a short story writer whose characters often dealt with sadness and disappointment. A few critics have felt that she borders on the dull when she extracts so much meaning from the trivial happenings of everyday life or the inner lives of her characters. Most reviewers, however, have valued her skill at characterization and her accurate portrayal of Dublin and New York City life. While some sought clues to her personal tragedies in her fiction, most critics evaluated her fiction on its own merits.

Principal Works

In and Out of Never-Never Land (short stories) 1969

The Long-Winded Lady (essays) 1969

Christmas Eve (short stories) 1974

The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin (short stories) 1997

The Rose Garden: Short Stories (short stories) 2000

The Visitor (novella) 2000

Criticism

John Updike (review date October 1969)

SOURCE: Updike, John. “Talk of a Sad Town.” Atlantic 224 (October 1969): 124-25.

[In the following review of The Long-Winded Lady, Updike notes that, despite the limitations of Brennan's short essays from “Talk of the Town,” she captures the eccentricities of both the city and its inhabitants.]

The New Yorker's “Talk of the Town” department, a space set aside when Ross founded the magazine as a smart-aleck local, survives as a vacuum maintained in case someone has something to say. When, a dozen years ago, I served on the large team that labored to fill each week this frontal void (a task that White and Thurber had performed with the aid of a few legmen), the problem was to perpetuate a cozy tone about a city that had ceased to seem cozy. We were, we “Talk of the Town” reporters, a sallow crew-cut brigade fresh from Cornell or Harvard, sent forth into the mirthless gray canyons to attend a mechanical promotional exhibit or p.r.-pushed pseudo-event, battering out upon our return six or seven yellow pages of rough copy to be honed into eight hundred gay, excited, factually flawless words by veteran martyrs like John McCarten and Brendan Gill. Some of us did not even live in the city, but had already established families and golf memberships in Bronxville or Rye, and even those who, like myself, did live in Manhattan had their hearts set on the green pastures of Fiction and the absentee ownership of Literary Glory. We were not avid to extract from the Eisenhowered, sullen if not yet apocalyptic metropolis of those years the enchantment of the Baghdad-on-the-Subway celebrated by O. Henry, by Scott Fitzgerald and Edna Millay, by Dorothy Parker and Benchley and Woollcott—whose chairs were still warm in the Algonquin lobby. It is to Maeve Brennan's credit that she, with the device of her letters from “the long-winded lady” has helped put New York back into The New Yorker, and has written about the city of the sixties with both honesty and affection.

Not that the pieces, as collected here [in The Long-Winded Lady], without most of the italics that gave them on first printing a comic breathlessness, entirely escape the “Talk of the Town”'s way of making too much of too little and of being complacently, exhaustedly flat. She gives us John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s entire credo as chiseled into Rockefeller Center, and the menu of a...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Helen Rogan (review date 1 July 1974)

SOURCE: Rogan, Helen. “Moments of Recognition.” Time (1 July 1974): 62.

[In the following review of Christmas Eve, Rogan points out Brennan's skill at making much of the small details of people's lives.]

Maeve Brennan is the kind of writer who can transform the arrival of a sofa in a lower-middle-class Dublin household or the cleaning of a carpet (one with big pink roses on it) into an extraordinary celebration of family love. She does this by a steady accumulation of detail and alternate flashes of passionate statement and raw insight. The accomplishment is formidable—something few writers attempt without sounding precious, dull, or both.

...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)

Robert Kiely (essay date 4 August 1974)

SOURCE: Kiely, Robert. “Maeve Brennan at Home and Abroad.” New York Times Book Review (4 August 1974): 5-6.

[In the following essay, Kiely states that the Irish stories in Christmas Eve are far superior to the American stories in the volume.]

To collect and publish stories written over a period of 20 years is a risk for any author. Readers can hardly avoid making comparisons, noticing inconsistencies and remarking the slightest signs of unevenness. In the case of Maeve Brennan, the risk is particularly great because of the sharp distinction in the subject matter of her stories. Roughly half of the works in this new volume [Christmas Eve] by the New...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)

Jay Parini (review date 14 December 1997)

SOURCE: Parini, Jay. “Dubliners.” New York Times Book Review (14 December 1997): 38.

[In the following review of The Springs of Affection, Parini states that Brennan's narrowly focused fiction is realistic and simple, yet stylistically elegant.]

Maeve Brennan moved from Ireland to the United States at the age of 17 and eventually became a staff writer at The New Yorker, publishing sketches and stories, book reviews and notes on fashion in the 1950's and 60's. She was also responsible for the “Talk of the Town” items billed as “communications from our friend the long-winded lady.” When Brennan died in 1993, after years of mental illness, her...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Ambrose Clancy (review date 23 March 1998)

SOURCE: Clancy, Ambrose. “Irish Elsewheres.” Nation 266 (23 March 1998): 33, 36.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The Springs of Affection and works by two other authors, Clancy discusses Brennan's controlled writing and her delineation of her characters' deepest thoughts.]

It seems a guest staying at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, has just eased into his morning bath when a knock comes from the hall door. A young man's voice: “Message for you, sir.” The guest sinks deeper in the tub, calling out, “Just slip it under the door.” Long pause. Then: “I would, sir. Only, you see, it's on this silver plate.”

Funny, yes. But...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Linda Barrett Osborne (review date 20 February 2000)

SOURCE: Osborne, Linda Barrett. Review of The Rose Garden. New York Times Book Review (20 February 2000): 21.

[In the following review of The Rose Garden, Osborne praises Brennan's skill at dissecting the complex emotions of her characters.]

Reading Maeve Brennan (1916-1993) is like watching a master jeweler construct a ticking watch from an array of tiny, inanimate parts—her exquisite skill in piecing together the emotional landscape of her characters is evident in every line of The Rose Garden. The 20 stories in this collection—almost all of them appeared in The New Yorker during the 1950's and '60's, and six are in book form here for...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Michael Porter (review date 26 November 2000)

SOURCE: Porter, Michael. Review of The Visitor. New York Times Book Review (26 November 2000): 21.

[In the following review of The Visitor, Porter sees some foreshadowing of themes and characterizations that would pervade Brennan's later work.]

The short stories of Maeve Brennan (1916-1993), a Dublin-born staff writer at The New Yorker for almost 30 years, are populated by quietly suffering men and women who are surprised to find themselves trapped in unfulfilled lives, clinging to memories of better days. In this previously unpublished novella [The Visitor], written early in Brennan's career and recently discovered in a university archive,...

(The entire section is 275 words.)