Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness
CHRISTIAN CLASSICS REVISITED
The arbiters of literary immortality have not dealt kindly with Edwin O’Connor: since his death in 1968 the once famous and popular novelist has fallen into obscurity. A Pulitzer Prize and three bestselling novels guaranteed accolades and much money during his lifetime, but they failed to win him a place with the masters of American fiction. Of his half dozen books only The Last Hurrah is readily available; occasionally one notices it in a bookstore as one reaches for a volume by that other O’Connor — Flannery. An additional title or two — most likely All in the Family or The Edge of Sadness — can sometimes be found (long unread) on the fiction shelves of the local public library where yesterday’s best-sellers go to die.
O’Connor deserves better. Although he failed to attain his highest goal — what he once confided to a friend as his longing “to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South” — he did manage, in a career cut short by his death at the age of 49, to delineate a fictional world unmistakably his own. Better than any other American writer, O’Connor captured that amalgam of cynicism, common sense, clannishness, and corruption that boosted the Irish politician to the top of the heap in big-city politics.
In Frank Skeffington, the wise and crafty mayor of The Last Hurrah, he limned a portrait as striking as Robert Penn Warren’s depiction of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. In his last novel, All in the Family, published a decade later in 1966, O’Connor turned what his friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “that marvelous fusion of gaiety and melancholy” upon the new breed of Irish politician, the Kennedy-like Governor Charles Kinsella, whose savoir faire, Ivy League sophistication, and contempt for the flagrant venality of the old politics signal the culmination of the ascent of the Irish from shantytown to respectability. Between the publication of these two novels O’Connor examined in The Edge of Sadness the other preoccupation of the Irish — the Church; it was this book, O’Connor’s personal favorite, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.
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