Saturday, March 23, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Edwin O’Connor, Master Chronicler of Irish America, Dies)

March 23, 1968—Worried about being financially overextended one decade after his most successful work, Edwin O’Connor, who chronicled the seriocomic transition of descendants of Irish emigrants to the U.S. in The Last Hurrah and other novels, died of a stroke at age 49 at his home on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. Despite considerable literary gifts, the Pulitzer Prize winner's standing in American literature did not long survive him.

The Last Hurrah, his most popular work, entered the language as shorthand for an old-style politico in his final campaign. (It was based on longtime Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.) Its vivid depiction of the end of the era of urban machine politics led to it joining other, far more prosaic conventional histories on the syllabus of an American Urban History course I took at Columbia University more than 30 years ago. The honor (which, I hope, was repeated elsewhere in academe) was well-earned. But I’m afraid that it only underscores that O’Connor is known--unfairly, I believe--for only one book.

Why has O’Connor fallen into obscurity while other fiction writers of his generation have not only maintained their sales, but seen them soar? Several reasons, I think, account for this sorry state of affairs:

* His life lacked the personal pathology, and even element of tragedy, that interests Hollywood. He was not a substance abuser, a philanderer, a hater. He did not labor in the face of a life-threatening disease, as did another O’Connor whose fame subsequently surpassed his, Flannery. At worst, it seems, he might have been afflicted with mild melancholy, brought on by some financial extravagance (a Porsche and a custom-made Cape Cod summer house). When biographer Charles P. Duffy interviewed his family, friends and associates, nobody seems to have had an unkind word to say about him. In short, Woody Allen would never have included him among the flamboyant, tortured geniuses of Midnight in Paris.

* He was almost guaranteed to be taken down a peg after so much early success. “A literary intellectual objects to nothing so much as a best-selling book that also possesses real merit," wrote critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson, a friend of O’Connor, knew his kind well. Critics have consigned O’Connor to the ranks of the middlebrow along with the likes of John Marquand and James Gould Cozzens.

* His brand of realistic fiction fell out of favor with critics, if not readers. Those postwar American novels enshrined in academe have often been associated with the Beat (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and postmodernism (Thomas Pynchon) movements. Other novelists who produced their best work in the Fifties and Sixties—Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Richard Yates—won subsequent acclaim for darkly satiric looks at American life that rested on a foundation of deep pessimism. While all of O’Connor’s work, in some way or other, relates to loss, however, they do not fundamentally question the premises of American life.

* He didn’t have the time to build a deeper legacy. Aside from The Oracle and a children’s book, O’Connor completed four major novels in his lifetime. Novelists such as Philip Roth and William Kennedy have had more than four decades from their first novels to their latest—plenty of time to create an entire body of work that can be analyzed and appreciated. O’Connor had fewer years as a published novelist—17—than even F. Scott Fitzgerald. Recent experiences (marriage at age 44) and sweeping changes in the culture (Vatican II’s impact on American Catholicism) would have added even greater depth to his work.

* His titles, except for The Last Hurrah, were not memorable. The Edge of Sadness sounds depressing. All in the Family is easily confused with the Norman Lear sitcom, even though it predated it by four years and had nothing to do with it. I Was Dancing says nothing. To win fame in American literature, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a title that is symbolic (The Sun Also Rises), richly apropos (John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra), or simply quirky (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

I used the occasion of O’Connor’s birth in 1918 for a prior post, but that hardly seems to have exhausted what can be said about his life and work. Even all that I’ve written till now here does not do so. It might be instructive, then, to compare and contrast him with another Irish-American writer at the height of his fame at the same time, John O’Hara

O’Hara won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick, while O’Connor appears the following year to have been a runner-up to the eventual Pulitzer Prize winner, Mackinlay Kantor’s Andersonville. (The one he received five years later for The Edge of Sadness is often considered a consolation prize.) Both books were turned into 1958 films starring aging male screen legends (Spencer Tracy, with Hurrah; Gary Cooper, for Frederick). Both novels dealt, in one fashion or other, with politics—Hurrah, as its main subject, and Frederick, as the field that proves the undoing of its protagonist. Both took their inspiration from real-life characters: Hurrah, obviously, as a roman a clef about Mayor Curley, and Frederick, a good deal less so, as a what-if exercise: i.e., what if Franklin Roosevelt, instead of being a patrician upstate New York Democrat with a keen interest in public office, had been a patrician Gibbsville, Pa. Republican who developed this same interest in midlife?

Both O’Connor and O’Hara were the sons of doctors, not only providing them with access to a good education and contact with the middle and even upper classes, but also, perhaps, with the genetic predisposition of one on whom nothing is lost. 

Moreover, both men exhibited an ear for dialogue so keen that they paid too much attention to those who insisted they should try their hand with plays. Aside from Pal Joey (he wrote the book for the Rodgers and Hart musical), O’Hara, according to biographer Matthew Bruccoli, worked on 16 plays from 1940 to 1970, with hardly any being produced. O’Connor’s involvement was more of a one-off, but also more disastrous: I Was Dancing, which lasted through only 21 performances on Broadway in 1964 and achieved equally lackluster sales as a novel (though it did win an extremely warm appreciation from Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley several years ago).

The most outstanding personal qualities of both men might have been loyalty. Though infamously cranky, O’Hara adored his second and third wives, and was devoted to such writer friends as Philip Barry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. O’Connor, a liberal Democrat thrilled that fellow Irish-Catholic New Englander John F. Kennedy was elected President, nevertheless broke off a White House dinner invitation from JFK because he was courting the woman who became his wife.

Yet the distinctions between the two were also significant. Born 13 years before O’Connor, O’Hara came of age during the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression, much of which he spent in brawling and drinking. His first novel, Appointment in Samarra, created during that extended lost weekend, won him commercial success at age 29. O’Connor, exposed to a wonderfully charismatic college English professor who squandered his talent because of alcoholism, became a teetotaler thereafter. His first novel, The Oracle, about a conservative radio idol (think Rush Limbaugh, but up one level intellectually), appeared when he was 33, but it was a slight apprentice work. He did not really hit his stride until The Last Hurrah five years later.

While both writers worked immensely hard, their speed varied greatly. O’Hara might have blown through one journalism job after another in his 20s, but the experience left him with a great facility for meeting deadlines. Particularly in his short stories, the architecture of the pieces seemed to have been assembled almost completely in his head by the time he sat down to his typewriter, so that he could crank them out within a few days. O’Connor would work a sentence over and over, until it finally took the form he wanted.

As much as anything, their attitudes toward Roman Catholicism sharply differentiated O’Hara and O’Connor. O’Hara, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, lapsed from Catholicism in youth and never looked back. The few priests who show up in his Balzacian fictional corpus seem included more to make sociological points (how their brand of alcohol differentiates them from rich and poor alike) or to shock (one gets drunk and has sex with a married woman—not shocking now, but perhaps so  in 1969, when Lovey Childs appeared). O’Connor was a daily communicant who knew many priests, and his fiction evinced extensive appreciation for their complicated humanity.

O’Connor wrote at a hinge point in the life of the American Irish, when this ethnic group had reached a zenith of influence in this country’s political, religious and commercial life. At this exact moment, the tribal loyalties that fueled their rise, forged over nearly a century of exclusion and misery, began to attenuate. 

"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," says John Rooney, the Irish-American crime boss played by Paul Newman, in the 2002 film The Road to Perdition. O'Connor would have disagreed: the grievances ran deep on both sides of the generational divide. Nobody was in a better position than O’Connor to depict the resulting ambivalence of this sunny and sorrowing ethnic group he knew so bone-deep.

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