William Joseph Kennedy, Jr., was born in Albany, New York, on January 16, 1928, to William Joseph and Mary Elizabeth McDonald Kennedy. Kennedy grew up as an only child in a working-class family whose Irish ancestors had come to Albany five generations earlier. Kennedy’s mother worked for many years as an accountant, while his father moved from job to job as a barber, foundry worker, pie salesman, and deputy sheriff.
The older Kennedy was a regular in the saloons, political clubs, and pool halls of Albany’s North End, and, like many other young Irish Catholics, he became a petty player in the city’s great political machine run by boss Daniel P. O’Connell. As a child, Kennedy often accompanied his father, who served as a ward heeler, making rounds to the gaming rooms and meeting halls where bribery, payoffs, and crooked dealings were the custom.
On his own time, Kennedy visited the pool halls and bowling alleys and followed with great interest the careers of all the day’s legendary baseball players and hustlers. At the same time, in keeping with his Irish Catholic upbringing, the young Kennedy served as an altar boy and attended Christian Brothers Academy in Albany. After high school, Kennedy enrolled in Siena College, a Franciscan school in Loudonville, New York, where he originally planned to study chemical engineering. A failing grade in geometry, however, made him decide to switch his major to English. In preparation for a career in journalism, he served as editor of the college newspaper; he received his bachelor’s degree in 1949.
After college, the younger Kennedy accepted a position as sportswriter with the Post-Star in Glen Falls, New York. He continued his journalism career as a sports editor and columnist for the United States Army newspapers and rose to the rank of sergeant before completing his military service in 1952. He then returned to his native Albany to join the Albany Times-Union as a reporter covering city hall.
Growing tired of his job and of Albany itself, Kennedy accepted a job in Puerto Rico and in 1956 became the assistant managing editor for a new English-language newspaper called the Puerto Rico World Journal. The newspaper went out of business only a few months after his arrival, and Kennedy moved to Florida, where he briefly worked for the Miami Herald. Returning to Puerto Rico in 1957, he served as Puerto Rican...
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Speaking about his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner once said, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” Kennedy seems to have discovered a similar truth about his own native soil, Albany. With its strong sense of time and place, Kennedy’s fiction has given regionalism a new validity.
For the most part, Kennedy’s stories are dark tales tempered with ironic wit and played out against a background of stark realism. He writes of the lower regions of humanity and shows how these often desperate people manage, in their own small ways, to transcend their limitations and survive from one day to the next.
William Joseph Kennedy was born of Irish Catholic heritage in Albany, New York, on January 16, 1928. He graduated from Siena College in 1949 and went to work for the Glens Falls, New York, Post Star as sports editor and columnist, followed by a stint as reporter on the Albany Times Union until 1956. He went to Puerto Rico to work for the Puerto Rico World Journal, then for the Miami Herald (1957), returning to Puerto Rico as founding managing editor of the San Juan Star from 1959 to 1961. Deciding to make fiction writing his career and Albany his literary source and center, he returned to the Albany Times Union as special writer and film critic from 1963 to 1970, while he gathered material and wrote columns on Albany’s rich history and its often scabrous past. Upon the success of Ironweed, he was appointed professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany in 1983. The university and the city sponsored a “William Kennedy’s Albany” celebration in September, 1984.
In 1993, Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has continued to add novels to the Albany Cycle and has also published works in other genres, including children’s books written with his son Brendan.