Edwin O'Connor Essay - Critical Essays

O'Connor, Edwin


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.)

Anthony West

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 is a remarkably ingenious solution, for it keeps a maximum of these fragile souls in torment for some little time longer. And it makes a very good story. (p. 90)

O'Connor is unquestionably one of the most skillful writers of the day. He has a gift for quick description and a singular purity of style. Moreover, in his own venue he has John O'Hara's ear for speech, and a gift for just the amount of exaggeration that provides contrast without loss of plausibility…. I do not think O'Connor's theme is excessively important. But out of his slender material I do think he has written a very good novel. (p. 94)

John Kenneth Galbraith, "Sadness in Boston," in The New Yorker (© 1961 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXVII, No. 19, June 24, 1961, pp. 87-94.

Hugh Rank

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 true that O'Connor is a perceptive observer of the changing status of the Irish immigrant children, but he is more than a local colorist; the apparently rambling side-comments not only contribute to the versimilitude of the story, but also serve in The Edge of Sadness as necessary functional devices. If a writer is to describe accurately the world of Charlie Carmody and his octogenarian friends, he must concern himself with Johnny Corrigan's stroke, Rose Gormley's death, Albert's gallstones, and Sebastiano's blood poisoning because, in fact, the obituary page is the most popular reading for the aged, and medical case histories are the choice topics of conversation.

The Last Hurrah, for instance, is filled with memories of quaint and picturesque "characters" of the immigrant generation; however, The Edge of Sadness has very few nonfunctional anecdotes. The unity and coherence in the novel are frequently unrecognized by critics who may be distracted by the seemingly rambling episodes. The "death" scene of Mrs. Sanchez, for instance, early in the novel, allows O'Connor to establish some necessary material foreshadowing Charlie Carmody's "deathbed confession" later; random conversations in the early pages frequently become meaningful as the story progresses, thus indicating the structural design and control of the author.

O'Connor's basic technique is the use of a dialogue between the narrator and one other character. Even in crowded scenes, such as the dinner party or the wake, there are seldom any conversations in which more than two people are talking. O'Connor focuses sharply on one character for several pages, then, using the narrator's analysis as a transition, shifts to another character. In spite of the crowded stage, the reader never gets lost because of this device.

Structurally the novel is centered upon a few scenes rendered in depth. The dinner party, the rectory, the flashback to the Cenacle rest home, and the wake constitute the bulk of the novel. The forward motion is sustained by two suspense devices introduced early in the novel as O'Connor plants subtle foreshadowings concerning Father Hugh Kennedy's "problem" and Charlie Carmody's motive for friendship. By the end of the first section …, the priest's alcoholism has been revealed, establishing another suspense here as to whether or not he will be a backslider. The question of Charlie's motives for seeking Hugh's friendship is resolved in the "deathbed" scene…. [With] this suspense removed, the center of attention shifts to Father Kennedy's priestly life and the novel reaches its climax in the bitter invectives of Father John Carmody's denunciation of Father Kennedy's lethargy and egocentricity.

Realism takes time and space, sharp attention to detail and a relatively slow pace in order to be convincing. Characterization is a subtle thing and the failure of most "realistic" novels is a preoccupation of the author with action or idea. If we demand that a novelist present a realistic treatment of a character, then we must recognize the achievement of O'Connor in capturing the essence of Father Kennedy's situation and in exhibiting it in its seemingly rambling appearance which disguises the structure underneath.

O'Connor deals also with ideas. Among other things in this novel, he is concerned with the present status of the Catholic Church in America…. Satire, expressed through the narrator's analysis or through the dialogue of other characters, appear frequently; but although O'Connor and [J. F. Powers] often share the same targets for their barbs, O'Connor lacks the...

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Denis Donoghue

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...

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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...

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David Dillon

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...

(The entire section is 2367 words.)