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Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness


By James J. Thompson Jr. | July-August 1984

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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