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.
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.
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.
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.