He is not among the most discussed Catholic authors in the United States when the role of the twentieth century is taken in literary discussions. Some would argue that his output was limited: he produced only two best-selling novels, though the same can be said of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers—and in Powers’ case, the books were a quarter-century apart. The hesitation to raise the flag of Edwin O’Connor [1918-1968] to its rightful place probably has more to do with his timing. For in his two masterpieces, The Last Hurrah [1956, twenty-week best seller and film] and The Edge of Sadness [1961, Pulitzer Prize Winner] O’Connor chronicles the decline of two institutions at a time when the rapidly changing American culture was too impatient to provide decent burials.
A Family of His Own: The Life of Edwin O’Connor  is the story of a Catholic layman who crafted both real families and literary ones and lived comfortably in both until his untimely death in 1968 seated at his typewriter. The author, Charles Duffy, was a professor of English at Catholic Providence College in Rhode Island at the time this work was researched, a favorable platform from which to chronicle O’Connor’s childhood in nearby Woonsocket. Although O’Connor would live in Boston for most of his adult life, he remained a Woonsocket favorite son. O’Connor’s father was a physician, albeit an unconventional one. While the future novelist respected his father, it is true that his best novels feature complicated interactions between men of different generations.
O’Connor attended Notre Dame at South Bend where he encountered one of the most influential men in his career. Frank O’Malley was early in his 42-year tenure as professor in the English department, where he inspired, cajoled, and counseled generations of Fighting Irish. When O’Malley learned that O’Connor was majoring in journalism, he quickly steered him to literature and particularly toward the great Catholic writers of the time. Duffy cites O’Malley’s advice, “journalism is something you can pick up in a month; far better to sink one’s teeth into literature….” [p. 38] In later years O’Connor would make an annual pilgrimage to see his college mentor, though O’Malley’s worsening alcoholism probably confirmed O’Connor’s lifelong teetotaling.
In 1940 O’Connor embarked on a radio career, working at stations in Woonsocket, Hartford, and West Palm Beach, even hiring an agent to peddle his short stories and radio scripts. In 1942 he entered the Coast Guard, where his assignment to the “Cape Cod Beach Patrol” left him time to hone his writing skill, fed by the inevitable foibles and ironies of organized military living. After the war he settled on Beacon Street in Boston, for all practical purposes his home for the rest of his life and developed an engaging social circle that included John F. Kennedy, then embracing politics; one of the book’s mysteries is how O’Connor sustained his social outings and dining on his meager income.
Against his father’s wishes, O’Connor left radio entirely and embarked as a freelance writer. He developed his lifelong ritual of writing from early morning till noon, then socializing with friends, “making the rounds,” at the editorial offices of the papers and journals of Beantown. His “persevering phase” [Chapter Seven] produced some novels, short stories, and essays. But what he was also doing was researching the most successful novel of his career. Duffy describes the gestation of The Last Hurrah in detail, in terms of its artistic redaction and its tortuous route to the editors of Little, Brown, who began to realize that it “just might have a huge best-seller on its hands.” [p. 177]
The Last Hurrah  is the classic tale of the denouement of a big city political boss, seen through the eyes of his younger nephew. The worst kept secret in America was the inspiration for the novel’s central figure, Mayor Frank Skeffington. Suffice to say that Boston’s actual mayor and Massachusetts governor, James Curley, threatened a lawsuit. Curley backed down only when the rights of the book were sold to Hollywood [see trailer], and the controversial public servant began to see O’Connor’s book as a late-in-the day redemption of a complicated career which had included a prison stretch.
The Last Hurrah describes a mayoral campaign in which the fictional aging Irish mayor and political Godfather Frank Skeffington wishes to pass along a memorial of his skills and accomplishments--as well as a defense of his methods--to the succeeding generations of his family. The title of the book itself describes the trajectory of the contest. His aging advisors and hangers on have no answer for the changing demographics of the city and the advent of the television era of campaigning. Skeffington pulls all the right strings that have won for him in the past, but as he explains to his nephew after his defeat, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had robbed the big city mayors of much of their social patronage.
The Last Hurrah—in hardcover, paperback, and film rights—made O’Connor an affluent man. But in Chapter Nine, “The Interlude,” Duffy describes a five-year creative hiatus in which the author spent his money and indulged in an autobiographical children’s novelette. Some critics believed that “The Last Hurrah” was a shining moment in an otherwise mediocre career. But O’Connor was a daily communicant at the Paulist Center Masses in downtown Boston and conversant with Catholic affairs of the day. In the late 1950’s, on the heels of Vatican II, he began work on his second masterpiece, this one rooted in the heart of a Catholic priest.
The Edge of Sadness  “is O’Connor’s best novel.” [p. 249] For a Catholic in particular, this novel exposed the timelessness of even an imperfect priest set against the declining structure of big city ethnic Catholicism. Duffy speaks of the book’s main character, Father Hugh Kennedy, as the embodiment of loneliness, a recovering alcoholic navigating the challenges of an abandoned inner city parish megalith, a naïve assistant cleric, a powerful priestly classmate dying of anger, and a pathological family from his past, whose slum landlord patriarch’s sins of greed and control far outweigh Mayor Skeffington’s in Hurrah.
With the release of “Sadness,” O’Connor was fatigued. But this confirmed bachelor surprised everyone in 1962 with his marriage to Veniette Caswell Weil, a divorcee, but only after her annulment had been procured. Despite their differences of temperament, the marriage was exceedingly happy by all accounts. O’Connor was an excellent stepfather to Veniette’s ten-year-old son, who was an important source for this work. Duffy includes O’Connor’s critique of American Catholicism at this time. “Most sermons were unprepared, sloppy, and dull…local churches had ignored the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963…he saw that the Church might lose a whole generation through the sheer apathy generated in this one weekly encounter between the pastor and his flock.” [p. 285] O’Connor was remarkably prescient.
O’Connor would later write a screenplay and a political novel based loosely on the Kennedy clan. But as a national figure, O’Connor was losing ground to the 1960’s “cultural revolution.” His sales declining and living beyond his means, O’Connor was sitting at his desk at work on what he hoped was another epic novel when he died suddenly on March 22, 1968, two weeks before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Duffy writes that “during the 1970’s and 1980’s Edwin O’Connor simply fell from view…. but enjoyed a revival of sorts in the 1990’s when Frank McHugh’s Angela’s Ashes reignited interest in Irish fiction in the United States. [p. 357]
Duffy captures the essence of the man and his work product successfully; he builds the case that both of O’Connor’s epic novels are not only captivating entertainment but precious snapshots of a changing America and a changing Catholic Church.
NOTE: I will review each of O’Connor’s two major novels in coming weeks.
Leave a Reply.
CATHOLIC NOVELISTS and the BOOKS THEY WRITE