A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor
By Charles F. Duffy
Catholic University of America Press. 464 pp. $49.95
Somewhere between 1945 and 1963—somewhere, in fact, around the publication of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah in 1956—a certain kind of Catholic culture crested in America. There’s a temptation to say it has been slowly ebbing ever since, making its melancholy, long retreat down the naked shingles of the world. But, in truth, that old Catholic tide fled the American shore in a headlong rush. By, say, the late 1960s, what was left? A few Flannery O’Connor stories. A Walker Percy novel or two. A vague memory that the Australian Morris West’s papal thriller The Shoes of the Fisherman had once topped the American bestseller lists. A handful of anachronistic St. Patrick’s Day parades.
I have never known what to make of that vanished 1950s world. This was a Catholicism risen from obscurity and oppression to become the most visible extrapolitical institution in the nation. Catholics were suddenly everywhere: congressmen and actors, war heroes and writers. The seminaries were full, the convents bursting, parochial schools multiplying. But this was also a Catholicism filled with unlikeliness and contradiction, with the promise of its destruction written in the very compromises, adjustments, and assimilations that had purchased its success. Beyond the hipster and the organization man, above the sociologist and the psychiatrist, 1950s Catholicism seemed to offer a possibility of intellectual seriousness and artistic richness. But surely there’s some indictment—a proof of some essential flaw—in the fact that it left so little behind to mark its passing.
And its own passing was, really, its deepest theme, even at the high-water mark of its success. As Charles F. Duffy shows in A Family of His Own, the best-selling author Edwin O’Connor was middlebrow Catholic culture’s greatest champion in those days. But his better novels are all exercises in melancholy: sweet and sentimental, genuinely comic in a well-mannered way, but finally very, very sad. Not for nothing is The Edge of Sadness the title of what is probably his best book. O’Connor’s most popular story, The Last Hurrah, ends not just with the death of its charming rogue hero, the Irish mayor Frank Skeffington, but also with an explanation of why the fading Irish-American politics he had mastered could never again produce a politician of Skeffington’s stature.
Dying of a stroke in 1968 at age forty-nine, O’Connor didn’t live to see just how completely his world would vanish, and he has been surprisingly ignored as a representative figure of his day. In 1974, Hugh Rank wrote a slim volume on O’Connor for Twayne’s series of monographs on American authors, but Duffy’s A Family of His Own is the first full account of the novelist’s life and work. A professor at Providence College, Duffy draws on O’Connor’s unpublished work, particularly an abandoned autobiographical story “The Boy,” to create a pleasant and informative if finally somewhat indistinct work.
Duffy has a thesis about O’Connor’s writing that seems just about right: the novelist had the Irish tribal feeling that human happiness requires roots in a large, close-knit family, and he viewed the lives of the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants as proof of the ways America both creates and abolishes the chances for that happiness. But as a biographer, Duffy lacks sufficient novelistic sense to give clear shape to his story of O’Connor’s life. All the facts about the novelist are present in A Family of His Own, but the man himself remains a curiously blurry figure.
Born in 1918 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, just south of the Massachusetts border, O’Connor grew up knowing firsthand the situation of immigrants in the Catholic subculture. Fights among the Irish and French Canadians were common, and he saw a 1934 labor battle in which ten thousand workers rioted through Woonsocket. A generation earlier, James T. Farrell would be led by such scenes in his own home town of Chicago to leave the Church and join the Socialist struggle for the rights of labor. Though the three volumes of Farrell’s 1938 Studs Lonigan contain as precise a picture of Irish-American culture as anyone has ever achieved, the story ends with a May Day parade, a march into a golden proletarian future. But Edwin O’Connor’s family was above much of that: middle-class, hoity-toity, lace-curtain Irish of the kind that would make Farrell’s costermongers and bricklayers want to put their fists through a wall. O’Connor’s father, as Duffy presents him, was a flourishing if somewhat distant doctor, whose nine children were reared to be polite, intelligent, and successful.
Those are the very qualities of O’Connor’s novels. Sent to college at Notre Dame, he came under the spell of Frank O’Malley, an enormously charismatic and hugely alcoholic English professor—isn’t that another Irish type of those days?—whose abused talent spilled out in long, drunken monologues that both inspired the young writer and turned him into a lifelong teetotaler. After some work in radio and the war years spent in the Coast Guard, O’Connor moved to Boston in 1945, where he did a little scriptwriting, some interesting reporting, and a bit of work for the Atlantic Monthly, while writing his first book, The Oracle, published in 1951.
But it wasn’t until after he’d been reinvigorated by his first trip to Ireland that the breakthrough came, with the 1956 publication of The Last Hurrah. He was, as a result, forever associated with Irish Boston—although, it should be noted, he never actually names Skeffington’s city in The Last Hurrah, nor did he ever quite admit in interviews that he had used Boston’s greatest rascal, the often-elected mayor James Michael Curley, as the model for Skeffington. An immediate and overwhelming success, the book received ecstatic reviews, sold out everywhere, and made O’Connor rich enough to drive around Boston in a Porsche and buy a summerhouse on Cape Cod. Hollywood added to his income, producing a 1958 movie version of The Last Hurrah—a dreadful film that is the worst botch John Ford ever directed or Spencer Tracy ever appeared in. (One of the best portions of Duffy’s biography of O’Connor is the description of the film’s production spiraling down into an incoherent mess.)
O’Connor followed up his success in 1957 with Benjy: A Ferocious Fairy Tale, a children’s book of surprisingly black comedy about a perfectly mannered little boy named Benjamin Thurlow Ballou living in Smiles, Pennsylvania. The story reads like something from a proto–Roald Dahl, as Benjy and his Mummy share a contempt for the mild-mannered Daddy, a television repairman, and Daddy’s only friend, a dog named Sid. But when a cigar-smoking and hungover fairy shows up to grant Benjy a wish, the resulting catastrophe brings a satisfying comeuppance to Mummy and her insufferable child. The reviews at the time were harshly critical, making it sound as though O’Connor was advocating child sacrifice—although he merely suggested that Benjy’s “very special sad-little-boy voice” made Sid the Dog “want to stuff his ears with dirt and pound his head hard on the ground.” But, in truth, a floundering quality infused all of O’Connor’s work after The Last Hurrah. He did win the Pulitzer Prize for his next book, The Edge of Sadness, in 1961, with its wry narration by Father Hugh Kennedy and its account of the Irish patriarch Charlie Carmody. And even his very pedestrian attempt to describe a Kennedy-like successful Irish-American political family in the 1966 All in the Family sold well. But the disaster of O’Connor’s 1964 I Was Dancing—which began as a failed play and ended as a failed novel—is proof that he wasn’t sure what he should be doing, and he squandered much of his talent and time in a series of disastrous Broadway musicals.
In A Family of His Own, Duffy claims that O’Connor’s unfinished novel about an elderly American cardinal would have been his greatest work, and the snippets Duffy quotes suggest that he may be right. A settled bachelor, O’Connor startled all his friends with a late marriage at age forty-four that proved surprisingly happy, and it is possible that he was discovering new artistic depths within himself when his life was cut short in 1968.
But I tend to think not. His portraits of Irish-American chieftains had sharper edges and deeper insights than most of the other works in the genre, but they remained sentimental in a style that the nation’s reading public was rapidly turning against. He wrote in a moment when Catholic culture seemed to offer something powerful and influential. But, as he himself chronicled, the base of that particular era’s power and influence was a tribal unity that was rapidly crumbling. And when the base was gone, the Catholic moment that was built upon it vanished as if it had barely existed. Did Edwin O’Connor himself suspect it? Perhaps in titles like The Last Hurrah and The Edge of Sadness there is an answer.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard.