William Kennedy Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

William Kennedy insists that all of his characters—even the ones wh ocorrespond to historical reality—are invented. How do real historical events and characters impact one’s understanding of Kennedy’s fiction?

Kennedy has cited William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Gabriel García Márquez as three of his biggest influences. What evidence of their influence do you see?

Kennedy’s characters often communicate with the dead (Francis Phelan in Ironweed, Roscoe Conway in Roscoe). Is this device effective?

What is Kennedy’s vision of the Irish American experience in Albany?

Kennedy’s characters are often schemers and swindlers, bums and bootleggers, crooked politicians and double-crossing knaves. Despite their shortcomings, is it easy to feel sympathy for Kennedy’s characters, to root for them?

Kennedy is certainly among America’s greatest literary regionalists. How does he manage to evoke the feel of an entire nation by writing about the complexities of a single city?

What is Kennedy’s vision of sin and expiation?

How has Kennedy’s experience as a journalist shaped his career as a novelist?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels, William Kennedy has produced nonfiction that largely centers on his native Albany, New York, including O Albany! An Urban Tapestry (1983), pamphlets for the New York State Library and Empire State College, and The Capitol in Albany (1986). Kennedy has also written two screenplays: The Cotton Club (1984), with Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, and Ironweed (1987), adapted from his novel of the same title. In 1996, his first work for the stage, Grand View, premiered at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, and in 2003, his play In the System was produced at the State University of New York at Albany. Kennedy has also collaborated with his son, Brendan, on the children’s books Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (1994). His collection of nonfiction essays and reviews Riding the Yellow Trolley Car: Selected Nonfiction (1993) provides informative background on Kennedy as reporter, reviewer, and traveler.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Before becoming known as a novelist, William Kennedy worked as a newspaperman in Albany, New York, a city in which politics plays an important role, and in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He struggled at writing for years while teaching as an adjunct at the State University of New York and writing for the Albany Times Union. He brought all these traditions to his writing: the bite of the newsman, the literary allusions of the professor, and the mysticism of the Irish-American. His first books—The Ink Truck, Legs, and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game—drew some notice but sold sluggishly, so Ironweed was rejected by thirteen publishers before writer Saul Bellow, Kennedy’s teacher and mentor, persuaded the Viking Press to reconsider. Viking reissued the previous two novels along with Ironweed as The Albany Cycle, and Ironweed won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1984. Kennedy received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1983. This unsolicited “genius” award freed him for creative work; he used part of the proceeds to start a writers’ institute in Albany, later funded by New York State with him as director. In 2002, Kennedy was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Roscoe.

The characters in Kennedy’s novels are drawn from the world of bums, gangsters, politicians, and aristocrats and have been compared in brilliance to those of James Joyce and William Faulkner. The Albany Cycle, with its interlocking characters and spirit of place, has been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stories and Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and Ulysses (1922). Kennedy’s style has won praise as a combination of naturalism and surrealism, yet some critics have faulted what they have called his overwriting and pandering to the public’s demands for violence, explicit sex, and scatological detail. Ironweed is among Kennedy’s best novels, fusing the style, characterization, attention to detail, and mysticism of the first two novels and focusing them with mastery. Kennedy has continued to add to his Albany Cycle with Quinn’s Book, Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Douglas R., and Mona Simpson. “The Art of Fiction CXI: William Kennedy.” The Paris Review 31 (Winter, 1989): 34-59. Conducted in two sessions, in 1984 and 1988, this wide-ranging interview provides an excellent introduction to Kennedy’s work. He discusses his experience as a newspaper writer, the vicissitudes of his literary career, and his development as a novelist. Includes Kennedy’s observation that he does not regard Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed as a trilogy but rather as works in an ongoing cycle that also comprises Quinn’s Book.

Giamo, Benedict. The Homeless of “Ironweed”: Blossoms on the Crag. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. Giamo explores the theme of homelessness and social problems in literature, focusing on Ironweed. Includes a bibliography.

Kennedy, Liam. “Memory and Hearsay: Ethnic History and Identity in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed.” MELUS 18 (Spring, 1993): 71-83. The author focuses on Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed to explore Kennedy’s presentation of ethnic identity. In a tightly knit community such as Albany’s Irish North End, family, civic, and ethnic history blend into an inchoate, yet powerful, force. The author points to Kennedy’s insistence...

(The entire section is 539 words.)