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After struggling in obscurity, Kennedy has become a major voice in contemporary American letters. An author of regionalist literature whose works examine universal themes, Kennedy is best known for his novel Ironweed (1983), which won both the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Irish Catholic Roots
Kennedy was born in Albany, New York, on January 16, 1928, to William Joseph and Mary Elizabeth McDonald Kennedy, whose Irish ancestors had settled in North Albany several generations before. Kennedy was reared in North Albany, a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood, often called the North End or Limerick. He attended Public School 20, was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Church, and even aspired to the priesthood. In his nonfiction work O Albany! (1983), however, he emphasizes that his religious aspirations lasted until about the seventh grade, when he began drawing cartoons, printing his own newspaper, and was ”fixated on the world of print.”
Discovering Roots by Way of Puerto Rico
Having developed a love for journalism, Kennedy worked on his high school newspaper at Christian Brothers Academy, became executive editor for the Siena College newspaper, and worked for the Post Star in Glens Falls, New York, as sports editor and columnist. After he was drafted into the army in 1950, Kennedy became a journalist for the Fourth Division’s newspaper in Europe, which was still recovering from World War II. After his discharge in 1952, he worked for newspapers in both Albany and Puerto Rico, eventually moving into editorial positions.
Kennedy married Ana Daisy (Dana) Segarra while in Puerto Rico. He also enrolled in Saul Bellow’s creative writing class at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. In 1983, Kennedy told Joseph Barbato that Bellow was ”very, very encouraging” and confirmed Kennedy’s belief that ”I had something to say.”
Kennedy had eagerly left Albany in search of his muse and thought Puerto Rico would be the catalyst. Indeed it was, but with an ironic twist. After trying to write stories about Puerto Rico—but failing because he felt like a tourist and could not write convincingly about the island and its people—he finally discovered his literary turf when he began poring over picture histories of Albany from 1842, 1867, and 1899.
When he returned to Albany in 1963 to care for his ailing father, Kennedy wrote a series of articles about Albany that served as the genesis for O Albany! Although nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for some of his Albany articles, Kennedy realized that his hometown provided the natural setting and material for his fiction and abandoned his journalistic career. In his first novel, The Ink Truck (1969), Kennedy introduces the city of Albany from the perspective of a mentally unstable syndicated columnist whose unsuccessful efforts to disable a newspaper firm culminate in a desperate attempt to drain an ink truck of its cargo. The book initially received mixed reviews.
Persistence Pays Off
In the 1970s, Kennedy initiated a trilogy of novels set in Albany during the Great Depression that interweaves related characters and events in the manner of William Faulkner’s works about the fictional region of Yoknapatawpha County. Although Kennedy garnered several positive reviews for Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), the first two volumes of his triad, both books failed commercially. When Ironweed (1983) was rejected by thirteen publishers—including Viking, its eventual publisher—Kennedy’s future seemed even bleaker, until Saul Bellow admonished Viking for not publishing Ironweed and even prophesied that this novel would be both a commercial and a literary success. Not only was Ironweed a financial boon for Viking, but it also won both the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Kennedy’s earlier novels were republished in 1983.
Other Literary Efforts Prove Successful
In addition to his fictional Albany cycle, Kennedy published O Albany!, which combines a nostalgic memoir of his youth in Albany with a nonfiction examination of the city’s neighborhoods, ethnic history, and Irish American political dominance under Mayor Dan O’Connell. On his fifty-fifth birthday he received a $264,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; he used part of that money to establish the Writers Institute in Albany. He coauthored the screenplay for The Cotton Club (1984) with Francis Ford Coppola, and the film version of Ironweed premiered in Albany in 1987. In his novel Quinn’s Book (1988), Kennedy examines the history of Albany from the perspective of a young orphan who witnessed the progress of the Underground Railroad, the chaos of the Civil War, and the New York City draft riots of 1864.
In 1993 Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That year he also completed a three-act play, The Angels and the Sparrows, taken from his novel Very Old Bones (1992). Kennedy and his only son, Brendan, have collaborated on two children’s books, Charlie Malarkey and the Belly-Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (1994).
Kennedy published two more works of fiction set in Albany, The Flaming Corsage (1996) and Roscoe (2002). He continues to submit book reviews and articles to literary journals, including Harper’s and the New York Times Book Review.
Works in Literary Context
Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the history, idiom, and people of his hometown of Albany, New York, Kennedy depicts the outcasts, vagabonds, derelicts, and gangsters that he encountered in his childhood and, later, as a journalist. Kennedy often embellishes the stark realism of his settings with surrealistic events and imagery, prompting many critics to link his approach with magic realism, a technique in which fantastic events are presented within the scope of rational experience. Kennedy’s focus on such concerns of the typical Irish Catholic novel as sin, suffering, and redemption has prompted critics to compare his works to those of novelist James T. Farrell.
Blending History with Lyrical Fantasy
With Iron-weed, Kennedy garnered acclaim for his command of historicity and setting and his use of varied prose styles. Written in an ironic, elegiac mode, this novel compassionately yet unsentimentally relates the story of Billy Phelan’s alcoholic vagrant father, Francis, a haunted but resilient man who returns to Albany after having accidentally dropped and killed his thirteen-day-old son twenty-two years earlier. Using language and imagery suggestive of classical myth, as well as allusions to James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses (1922) and Dante Alighieri’s Purgatory (1308-1321), Kennedy shifts from past to present and from brutal realism to lyrical fantasy as Francis confronts the ghosts of friends and family members. Like Ulysses, Francis visits the spiritual underworld and feels compelled by a sense of fate to face mortal dangers and the vengeful furies of his past in hopes of atoning for his guilt and shame.
The Criminal Perspective
In Legs, Kennedy uses multiple viewpoints and a mix of styles to examine the gruesome facts and legends surrounding the life of Jack “Legs” Diamond, an actual Albany gangster. In his six years of research, Kennedy discovered so many conflicting facts and myths that the novel finally emerged as a study of American responses to criminality. Although some reviewers objected to Kennedy’s unsentimental acceptance of American crime and violence, others commended his suspenseful narrative control. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is based on the actual 1933 kidnapping of the nephew of former Albany mayor Dan O’Connell. This work centers on a gambler and hustler who must decide between preserving his street image and satisfying the demands of Albany’s political figures by informing on the kidnappers.
Works in Critical Context
Kennedy’s early novels did not receive much critical attention when they first appeared. He was known primarily as a respected and versatile journalist. Columbia Journalism Review writer Michael Robertson cites former editor William J. Dorvillier’s comment that Kennedy was ”one of the best complete journalists—as reporter, editor, whatever—that I’ve known in sixty years in the business.” But, when Kennedy’s 1983 novel Ironwood won the Pulitzer Prize, his fiction was given new life: three early novels were reissued and became best sellers.
Kennedy believes that Ironweed is the best of his first four novels, and critics agree. In his New Republic review of the book, William H. Pritchard claims that Ironweed is the best ofKennedy’s novels and ”should bring this original and invigorating novelist to the attention of many new readers, especially since it is written in a language that is vital throughout.” In a review for Time, Paul Gray praises the novel’s characterizations and plot, mentions that Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game are being republished, and then states: ”Those who wish to watch a geography of the imagination take shape should read all three and then pray for more.” Some critics even speculated about the impact Ironweed’s success would have on Kennedy’s career. For example, in his review for Newsweek, Peter S. Prescott writes:
William Kennedy has written good fiction before, which has largely gone unnoticed. This novel… should place him among the best of our current American novelists. In its refusal to sentimentality, its freshness of language and the originality with which its author approaches scenes well worn before his arrival, Ironweed has a sense of permanence about it.
- Edinger, Claudio. The Making of Ironweed. New York: Penguin, 1988.
- Reilly, Edward C. William Kennedy. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
- Van Dover, J. K. Understanding William Kennedy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
- Agrest, Susan. ”Tough Guy with a Golden Touch.”Hudson Valley Magazine (July 1987): 42-49, 72.
- Allen, Douglas R., and Mona Simpson. ”The Art of Fiction CXI—William Kennedy.” Paris Review 31 (Fall 1989): 35—59.
- Beuttler, Bill. ”O Albany.” American Way 26 (January 1, 1993): 60-66, 85-87.
- Black, David. ”The Fusion of the Past and Present in William Kennedy’s Ironweed.” Critique 27 (Spring 1986): 177-184.
- Bonnetti, Kay. ”William Kennedy: An Interview.” Missouri Review 8, no. 2 (1985): 71-86.
- Clarke, Peter P. ”Classical Myth in William Kennedy’s Ironweed.” Critique 27 (Spring 1986): 167-176.
- Croyden, Margaret. ”The Sudden Fame of William Kennedy.” New York Times Magazine (August 26, 1984): 33, 43, 52-53, 57, 59, 64, 68, 70, 73.
- Reilly, Edward C. ”A William Kennedy References:.” Bulletin of References: 48 (June 1991): 61-74.
- ———. ”Dante’s Purgatorio and Kennedy’s Ironweed: Journeys to Redemption.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 17 (May 1987): 5-8.
- ———. ”William Kennedy’s Albany Trilogy: Cutting Through the Sludge.” Publications of the Arkansas Philosophical Association 12 (Spring 1986): 43-55.
- Smith, Tom. ”Very Bountiful Bones: An Interview with William Kennedy.” Weber Studies 10 (Winter 1993): 21-44.
- Tierce, William. ”William Kennedy’s Odyssey: The Travels of Francis Phelan.” Classical and Modern Literature 8 (Spring 1988): 247-263.
- Whittaker, Stephen. ”The Lawyer as Narrator in William Kennedy’s Legs.” Legal Studies Forum 9, no. 2 (1985): 157-164.
- Williams, Don. ”William Kennedy: An Interview by Don Williams.” Poets & Writers 22 (March/April 1994):42-49.
- William Kennedy. Retrieved October 19, 2008, from http://albany.edu/writers-inst/wjkennedybio.html.
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