A Life of Edwin O’Connor
by Charles F. Duffy
Catholic University of America Press
376 pages, $49.95
By ROGER W. SMITH
Surprisingly for a writer who occupies a well-defined niche in American literary history — his The Last Hurrah was the most widely read Irish-American novel since James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan — Edwin O’Connor has never been the subject of a full-scale biography until now. Charles Duffy, a professor of English at Providence College, has taken it upon himself to remedy this defect.
The Last Hurrah has been justly termed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “the best American novel about urban politics.” It made a legend of Boston politician James Michael Curley (on whom the book’s main character, Frank Skeffington, is partly based) and its title added a new phrase to the American idiom which is now a cliché of political and sports writing.
O’Connor was quoted as having once said to an acquaintance that he “would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South.” He did not live long enough to be able to attempt this, having published five novels of varying importance and quality (only one of which is still in print) at his death in 1968 at the age of 49.
O’Connor died suddenly of a stroke, leaving behind fragments of two novels that he had worked on alternately in the last months of his life. One, tentatively titled “The Cardinal,” was to focus on the Church in the post-Vatican II era; the other, entitled “The Boy,” appears to be autobiographical. O’Connor had also planned to write a novel about Boston’s first Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century.
It was Samuel Johnson who first claimed, in a famous essay on the writing of biography, that “the minute details of daily life” are of the greatest biographical interest. It was also Johnson who, in his Lives of the Poets, provides a model for literary biography in which a conscious effort is made to shed light on areas such as each writer’s moral character, work habits, and the particular concatenation of circumstances and influences (intellectual and cultural) that resulted in an oeuvre.
In true Johnsonian spirit, Duffy has mined every conceivable scrap of information about O’Connor, bringing him as it were back to life. He has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Norte Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at the Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it. He uses O’Connor’s works to illuminate the life and makes interesting speculations, based on autobiographical readings of the novels and unpublished sketches, about O’Connor’s relationship with his father, but at the same time resists the temptation to make easy generalizations in this regard.
Duffy is even-handed and perceptive in assessing O’Connor’s strengths and weaknesses. Chief among the strengths: a gift for characterization (his minor characters, such as the political hangers-on in The Last Hurrah, were said by Clifton Fadiman to be worthy of Hogarth or Daumier), his humor, and his gift for dialogue. A sampling of the critical comments (which are many) regarding O’Connor’s works: his wordiness and frequent neglect of the dictum “show, don’t tell” (resulting in a propensity for making overly explicit what is clearly implied by the narrative), a penchant for nostalgia that can at times seem cloying, and a tendency to enjoy his favorite characters so much that they never leave center stage and the reader begins to tire of them.
One thing I would have liked to learn more about are writers who influenced O’Connor. Duffy mentions the influence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, but more information on O’Connor’s literary influences and reading would have been welcome. I would also take issue with an occasional glibness that creeps into Duffy’s prose, as, for example, in an aside in which he dismisses “the half-baked theories of the Doctor from Vienna, most of which are now in the dustbin”; his figure of speech for Kristallnacht, “that vandalic shattering”; and his characterization of mid-twentieth century Boston Brahmins, “Backsliding in finances, resting on imaginary laurels, and underperforming in sex, that class had had its noontime in Boston’s weak sun.”
Duffy thinks (as do other critics) that The Edge of Sadness (1961), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a priest whose career and inner conflicts are portrayed with unsparing realism, is O’Connor’s best and most finely crafted novel. The book’s understated tone (avoiding what Duffy calls “spiritual histrionics” and a Hollywood-style treatment of the priestly vocation) and narrative style play to O’Connor’s strengths. “At his best,” Duffy observes, “[O’Connor] wrote with great ethical integrity, with an unusual warmth towards his characters, with elegant wit.” Similar qualities are evident in this biography, especially a sincere affection for its subject which it is hard for the reader not to share.
Mr. Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Maspeth, Queens.