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Tom DeignanDecember 01, 2003
Edwin O'Connor (Wikimedia Commons)

The most startling fact about Edwin O’Connor’s life was its brevity. The acclaimed author of such mid-century Irish and Catholic classics as The Last Hurrah and The Edge of Sadness seemed a fit and healthy man. Yet he died when he was just 49, in 1968, following a stroke.

Perhaps more important than O’Connor’s ethnicity—there was no shortage of Irish American writers, even 40 years ago—was the seriousness with which he treated the subject of religion in his work and in his life. O’Connor, of course, could very well still be writing today. What would he have made of post-Vatican II America, the demise of white ethnic urban political machines or even the current sex scandals?

A Family of His Ownby Charles F. Duffy

Catholic Univ. of America Press. 464p $49.95

Charles F. Duffy, in his fine new biography of O’Connor, argues that the Rhode Island-born author (who would always be linked with Boston) was writing what might have been his most ambitious work when he died. Readers will never know.

On the surface, this unfinished novel about an aged cardinal looks something like a reprise of the tribal chieftain saga in The Last Hurrah, Duffy writes. But with Catholicism—and America—undergoing swift, turbulent change, O’Connor seemed to be hinting at something more daring and profound. He might very well have achieved a remarkable novel about transgression and redemption, Duffy writes, though he also admits this is a speculative assessment, given the sketchy nature of the work.

The sections of Duffy’s book that treat O’Connor’s unfinished works are a strong point of A Family of His Own. Another is Duffy’s look at O’Connor’s youth. He was born in Woonsocket, on Rhode Island’s northern border with Massachusetts. The town was small, yet ethnic tensions abounded. Irish and French Canadian Catholics coexisted uneasily, at best.

Labor strife, too, was not uncommon. On Sept. 12, 1934, a series of strikes culminated in rioting, vandalism and looting. Duffy, a professor of English at Providence College, estimates 10,000 people—a quarter of Woonsocket’s population—participated.

The O’Connor family, however, was solidly middle class. Not surprisingly, much of O’Connor’s best work would strike a balance between stability and disorder, particularly as seen in politics and the church.

A highly complicated relationship with O’Connor’s taciturn dad (he was one of nine children), who became a prosperous doctor, would also find its way into much of O’Connor’s writing. But O’Connor never used art to expel personal demons. In one of his many excellent observations, Duffy writes that O’Connor was too Dickensian to believe the worst about his characters.

O’Connor went off to Notre Dame in 1935. He struck up an influential friendship with the popular instructor Frank O’Malley, who not only encouraged O’Connor’s writing, but whose weakness for drink contributed to O’Connor’s lifelong aversion to booze.

Following a brief career in radio and a stint in the Coast Guard, O’Connor moved to Boston in 1945. He sold television and radio articles to The Atlantic Monthly and was on his way to becoming a Boston author, even though O’Connor never did specify the city in his later famous books.

Much of O’Connor’s best work would strike a balance between stability and disorder, particularly as seen in politics and the church.

After several lean years, the 37-year-old O’Connor became a publishing success with his 1956 novel about an old-time Irish mayor’s final campaign. Duffy’s chapter on the reception of The Last Hurrah is solid, and downright juicy when he outlines the problems that plagued the Spencer Tracy film of the book.

O’Connor followed the financial success of Hurrah with the curious, provocative children’s book Benjy, and his troubled-priest saga Edge of Sadness, which won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. Yet, as Duffy notes, there was an unsettled quality to O’Connor’s later career, which included an unlikely (and disastrous) detour into Broadway musicals, and suggestions that he would never top The Last Hurrah.

Ultimately, Duffy presents O’Connor’s life with almost journalistic precision and balance. It would seem there is more to say about this Irish bachelor’s tepid romantic life. But Duffy leans on the Irish explanation: O’Connor, after all, had a doting mother and Irish male reticence about romance.

O’Connor did get married, in 1962, to the educated and vivacious (as well as divorced and lapsed from Catholicism) Veniette Caswell Weil, who had a son from a previous marriage. But this marriage, Duffy convincingly argues, was a happy one. It just would not be a lasting one.

A Family of His Own is the first full-scale biography of O’Connor to appear, and it is a good one. It is inexcusable, however, that we had to wait so long. O’Connor’s fiction transcended what one critic called the Studs Daedalus model, yet still managed to illuminate those cornerstones of Irish American life, religion and politics.

It could be argued that Duffy attributes too many of O’Connor’s personality traits to his Irish background. He also injects some jarring asides (including rather harsh comments about Leslie Fiedler and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes) which do not fit the overall tone of the book. I would also argue that O’Connor’s early death could have been used to suggest a tragic arc of sorts, to infuse this book with what we must inevitably call an edge of sadness. Duffy, instead, handles things more or less straightforwardly and chronologically.

Still, Duffy’s words about O’Connor also fit himself. He writes with great ethical integrity, with an unusual warmth toward his characters. For Duffy, there is only one special character—and he left us far too soon.

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