Edwin O'Connor John Kenneth Galbraith - Essay

John Kenneth Galbraith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.