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James T. KeaneMarch 28, 2023
Edwin O'Connor, author of (among others) the novels The Last Hurrah and The Edge of Sadness. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The last six months in fiction have been noteworthy in that many of the best-known practitioners of the art and craft were back in business,” wrote America literary editor Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., in a Spring 1956 roundup of new literary offerings. “Kenneth Roberts, John O’Hara, Graham Greene, François Mauriac, Bruce Marshall and A. J. Cronin, to mention a few fictional household names, are in the lists again, and their devotees have been licking their chops over the viands spread out.”

Nevertheless, “the old hands had better look to their laurels,” Gardiner added, “for some newcomers may take the bit in their teeth and run away with the literary horserace.” (The fearless Father Gardiner was not cowed by metaphors, and therefore mixed them with aplomb.) Way out in front, he noted, was The Last Hurrah, by Edwin O’Connor. “This sympathetic, yet somewhat sardonic study of the last campaign of an old-time Irish Catholic politico is, in addition to being good reading fun, more probing than one realizes while chuckling and tsk-tsking,” he wrote. “It has a great deal to say about the social and economic grounds that made possible the rise of such charming political robber barons.”

William J. Igoe on Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah in 1956: “I thought this the most important novel to come from a Catholic in any part of the world for a long time.”

Who is Edwin O’Connor? Why such praise for a novel about what Gardiner admitted was a “sour and sordid affair,” the political machinations of fictional Boston politician Frank Skeffington? Because O’Connor, whose life and literary career were abruptly cut short by his 1968 death at the age of 49, captured the imagination of his audience like few other authors of his time—and some of his biggest fans were contributors to America (including our 14th editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., if his Twitter bio is to be believed).

Just a few months after Gardiner’s comments, The Last Hurrah received further plaudits in William J. Igoe’s “London Letter,” a regular column in America at the time on drama and literature in Great Britain. “Surely there is something of a comic Lear in Mr. Skeffington with his court, his enchanting fool, his loutish son and devoted nephew,” Igoe wrote. “I thought this the most important novel to come from a Catholic in any part of the world for a long time.”

O’Connor, a Rhode Island native who attended the University of Notre Dame before serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, found success as a journalist, television and radio critic and short story writer in the post-war years, focusing often on the Irish-American experience in the United States. “I would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South,” Pete Tosiello quotes O’Connor in a 2016 encomium in the Los Angeles Review of Books. O’Connor’s first novel, The Oracle, appeared in 1951, followed five years later by The Last Hurrah, which would bring him to greater prominence—especially after John Ford directed a 1958 film adaptation starring Spencer Tracy.

After a brief foray into children’s literature with Benjy: A Ferocious Fairy Tale, O’Connor went to work on his masterpiece, The Edge of Sadness, which was published in 1961 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1962. It is the story of a recovering alcoholic priest, Hugh Kennedy, who is given a second chance in a new assignment at a Boston parish and runs into both old demons and new possibilities for redemption. The Edge of Sadness was praised at the time for its honest portrayal of the emotional life of priests—a quality also assigned to J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban, which was published the very next year, but not often found in the mawkish or wooden figures priests usually played in American fiction then and now.

Novelist Edwin O'Connor in 1963: “How rarely does it happen that any one of us remembers for more than five minutes what Father So-and-So said from the pulpit?”

Two more novels followed—1964’s I Was Dancing and 1966’s All in the Family, the latter loosely based on the Kennedy clan. He was working on another novel, this one about an aged Catholic cardinal trying to find his bearings in a rapidly changing church and world, when O’Connor died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1968.

In recent decades, authors and reviewers have increasingly noted the significance of O’Connor’s religious beliefs and sensibilities in his fiction. In the aforementioned 2016 essay, Pete Tosiello notes that O’Connor’s literary fondness for priests and the Catholic church didn’t mean he couldn’t be critical of both. “It is my impression that the impact of the average Sunday sermon is so slight that it can hardly be called an impact at all,” Tosiello quotes from O’Connor’s 1963 speech “A Meeting on Sunday.” “How rarely does it happen that any one of us remembers for more than five minutes what Father So-and-So said from the pulpit?”

In his 2003 biography of O’Connor, A Family of His Own, Charles Duffy speculated that the unfinished novel O’Connor was working on at his death—about the post-Vatican II aging cardinal—was a far more ambitious and unflinching account of human nature than O’Connor’s previous work, a “remarkable novel about transgression and redemption” that would have brought together the worlds of politics and priests about which he had previously written.

“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,” wrote Tom Deignan in a 2003 review of Duffy’s biography of O’Connor. “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?” What would his later works have been like if, to paraphrase another Irish American from New England, he had lived to comb gray hair? If he had not had every gift but length of years?

(For a somewhat eerie photo of Edwin O’Connor paying respects to four-time Boston mayor and one-term Massachusetts governor James Michael Curley, the presumed inspiration for The Last Hurrah’s Frank Skeffington, click here.)

Tom Deignan on Edwin O'Connor: "What would he have made of post-Vatican II America, the demise of white ethnic urban political machines or even the current sex scandals?”


Our poetry selection for this week is “Four Freedoms,” by Carolyn Oliver. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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