Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Frank O’Connor, pseudonym of Michael O’Donovan, was a prolific writer whose output includes poetry, biography, essays, drama, novels, and short stories. It is his short stories that have made the biggest impact on literature, but as Michael L. Storey notes, his recognition as a top rated author has been slow to come because many critics were reluctant to put ‘‘short story writers into the same league with novelists, poets, and dramatists.’’ Now this has changed.

However popular he is becoming now, things were not so positive at the beginning. For his early publications in The Irish Statesman, he used his middle name and his mother’s maiden creating the name Frank O’Connor. He did this to separate himself from the reputation of his hard-drinking abusive father and for political reasons, to avoid connection with the Irish revolutionary, Jeremiah O’Donovan. His first volume of stories, Guests of the Nation, was published in 1931 and was well received. During the 1930s he published a novel, some poetry, and the biography of Michael Collins, an important leader in the Irish Rebellion and negotiator of the peace agreements at the end of the Rebellion. Despite these successes, the strongly Roman Catholic Irish Government’s Censorship Board took issue with some of the topics in his stories, according to Ruth Sherry. As a result, it became difficult for him to get his work published. By 1940, he was under a ban among even Irish publishers and broadcasters. To circumvent this, he used another pseudonym, Ben Mayo (an identity that was kept secret until after his death), for a series of newspaper articles in the Sunday Independent. These articles covered such disparate topics as farm life, poverty in city slums, a more practical education, and the need for theaters, libraries, and arts societies in provincial towns.

The continued censorship and the resultant shrinking markets, especially in Britain and the United States, created a need for him and others who were also being censored to find an outlet for their work. In 1940, a new magazine, The Bell, was founded. It was edited by his friend Sean O’Faolain and provided a forum for the next several years for him and other ‘‘strayed revelers,’’ who hoped to clear the air of what they thought was the stodgy and elitist writing forms of earlier Irish authors. In addition to contributing poems, essays, reviews, and short stories, O’Connor was the poetry editor for the magazine.

By 1950, because of economic pressures following World War II and his inability to support himself in Ireland, O’Connor accepted several teaching offers and moved to the United States. During the next decade, he wrote more than during any other comparable period in his life, mostly about his homeland. His stories about the common Irish people muddling through their daily lives are, as James Matthews says, ‘‘his most enduring contribution to modern literature and Irish life.’’ Because of this contribution and his easy writing style, James Plunkett said that O’Connor had achieved ‘‘the air of someone who had found where he belonged.’’ By the time of his death, in Dublin in 1966, O’Connor had accomplished a greatness in a ‘‘lonely and personal art’’ and had created simple stories of impeccable design and craft.

Michael Storey says, ‘‘O’Connor’s art is great, not because it is so well crafted, because it is rooted in life itself.’’ O’Connor told stories with ‘‘a rich and rushing flow of language’’ that grew out of his life in Cork and were based on the simple ways of the common Irish people. Richard Ellmann says that the ‘‘stories of Frank O’Connor refresh and delight long after they are first read.’’

Storey, in his review of Michael Steinman’s edition of A Frank O’Connor Reader, remarks: ‘‘The recognition of O’Connor as a top flight literary artist has been slow in coming for several reasons, including the reluctance of critics to accept short story writers in the same league with novelists. . . . The former notion seems to be gradually giving way, and Steinman’s book should do much to dispel the latter notion.’’ Frank O’Connor has taken his place in the ranks of great Irish writers. He has also become a leading exponent of short fiction without regard to national identity. His stories have gained a universal appeal that, as Wohlgelernter said, ‘‘transcends the bounds of time and space.’’ O’Connor’s tales speak of universal truths and, as he said, ‘‘Story telling . . . just states the human condition.’’

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