Politics, Mr. O'connor, and the Family Novel

BOOKS and MEN One of the country’s most accomplished literary historians here discusses the works of Edwin O’Connor, and in particular, his latest novel, ALL IN THE FAMILY, just published by AtlanticLittle, Brown.


IN All in the Family, his latest novel, Edwin O’Connor returns to that nameless metropolis and that imaginary commonwealth (any resemblance to any other commonwealth is purely coincidental) he has visited two or three times before. It was there that Waltzing Daniel Considine (I Was Dancing) finally surrendered his bedroom in his son’s house and retired to an old-age home. There, in The Last Hurrah, defeated for re-election as mayor, the great Frank Skeffington took to his bed and died, a lonely combination of charlatanism and genius, understood only partially by his nephew, Adam Caulfield. And there, in The Edge of Sadness, Father Hugh Kennedy fell into alcoholism, was cured, comforted the dying Charles Carmody, another lonely old Irishman, refused a better parish, and stuck to St. Paul’s in the slums and to his Polish associate, Father Danowski.

These lives are all in the past. The new novel is, so to speak, in the present tense. Money talks powerfully in the living generation of Irish leaders in that anonymous city, and most of the money seems to belong to Jimmy Kinsella, whose language is not cultivated, though he sees to it that his three sons go to the right schools and acquire cultivation. One of them is James, who becomes a priest and fades genteelly out of the book. Charles is elected governor, largely through the influence of his father’s money. Phil, a temperamental idealist, for a time goes along. But Phil grows more and more uneasy as campaign promises are left persistently unfulfilled and as he watches the soft corruption of ambition deaden his brother’s zeal for modernizing the state government. Coming to believe that both the honor of the family and the welfare of the commonwealth are at stake, he ultimately launches an attack on his brother, which Charles stops cold with one of the nastiest and most ruthless devices I ever learned of in public life or the political novel.

This story encloses, and is enclosed by, another one. The novel is told through the eyes of a cousin of the three boys, Jack Kinsella, a professional writer who has experienced disaster in his branch of the family. When he was a lad, his charming mother and his smaller brother were mysteriously drowned in an ice-cold lake — an opening episode told with haunting poignancy. Tortured by self-accusation concerning his own negligence (if there was any), the father takes Jack to Ireland to revisit the scenes of his courtship and honeymoon. There for the first time Jack meets and lives with Uncle Jimmy’s tribe, who are temporarily domiciled on an Irish estate. Later, his father having died, Jack marries; and for no apparent cause his wife (was it impulse? was it passion?) runs off with a lover. By and by she asks to return, comes back, and creates a problem of readjustment. The narrative about Uncle Jimmy and Charles and Phil is seen across the temperament and the troubles of Jack Kinsella, and comes in two unequal portions: the experiences of boyhood and the immediacy of adult reporting.

The boyhood portion, told through a Proustian feat of memory, is narrated with wonderful skill as the adult looks over the shoulder of the lad he once was and remembers how the world looked. There is nothing in the Irish part of the book that is obvious preparation for Charles’s election, and one hunts about to see why this prologue to the main action exists. I think the answer is twofold: aside from the education of Jack through sorrow, we get these glimpses into the boyhood life of the three Kinsella lads in something like the natural environment of an Irish family. But the section also hints that the dislocation of Irish family life in America may be the remote cause of the final disaster.

The manager of a Dublin hotel, Mr. Guilfoyle, makes both young Jack and the reader subtly aware of the increasing distance between traditional Ireland and life in America. Moreover, the residence of Uncle Jimmy and his family in Ireland is but temporary and seems to have small relation to Irish life around them. During the visit Jack’s father impresses upon his son the difference between the Old World and the New:

I heard about my great-grandfather (my father’s grandfather) [says Jack] who had been born not far from where we were driving now in a cottage with a dirt floor and a roof made of straw, and who had come to America as a very young man and had got a job putting down railroad tracks; about his son, my grandfather, who had left school before finishing and had run away to sea, and then, a few years later, had come back home wearing a very handsome suit and with more money than an ordinary sailor could have hoped for.

This money forms the basis of the Kinsella millions in the United States.

O’Connor has an enchanted ear for varieties of human speech, and his ear does not fail him in All in the Family, except, I think, in the case of Uncle Jimmy, who talks a stage slang that reads as if it came out of O. Henry. But the pace of Jack’s boyhood memories and of the conversations therein is finely controlled; and in the rest of the novel even the long monologues are a delight to the ear and to the critical intelligence. It is true that aside from Uncle Jimmy we are listening in on more cultivated circles than in The Last Hurrah, so that some of the pungency of that amazing book is lost. But the conversations and the speeches move, they express, they delineate, they demonstrate the Irish capacity for word-spinning, they vividly render individuals and individual idiosyncrasies. History, somebody said, does not exist until it is read. The same thing is true of fiction. O’Connor’s power in recording speech is so compelling that the reader wants to turn the page to see who is talking next.

O’Connor is sometimes regarded as a political novelist. The standard political novel commonly has some public issue at its center, as in the parliamentary novels of Trollope, and the fortunes of the characters are involved in the fortunes of the issue. The political novel is a major branch of American fiction, going back to Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry and coming down to books by authors like Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.

In this country the political novel has undergone at least three major transformations. As written by Brackenridge and James Fenimore Cooper it commonly illustrated the ignorance and venality of the mass of voters, who need to be guided by enlightened and responsible gentlemen. After Lincoln, a second type appears. In the second type the citizenry has right instincts but is misled by venal politicians, a corrupt church, and cynical capitalists. The Gilded Age, a bad novel but a brilliant document, is a naïve example of this type. In the later development of the second type in the muckraking era, a young man, often a lawyer of Lincolnesque temperament, exposes political corruption, rallies the people around him, and is elected to the governorship or to Congress, where he triumphantly routs the devil and all his works. Paul Leicester Ford’s The Honorable Peter Stirling, Booth Tarkington’s The Gentleman From Indiana, and Winston Churchill’s Coniston are of this order.

In the third and latest phase of the type, the voter virtually disappears or is dimly seen at the periphery of the book as an undistinguishable gray mass. The novel concentrates on the workings of the political scene as viewed from within, and more particularly upon the psychological quirks of the chief protagonist and his drive for power. The psychology of the politician is, then, the theme; civic responsibility is either taken for granted or ignored. All the King’s Men is of this order; so is Advise and Consent. Not the intellectual issues that are part of statesmanship, but sentiment for the poor and a determination to win are central. The writers have an air of having gone to school to Lincoln Steffens, who, muckraker though he was, concluded that political bosses were intricate mixtures of good and evil desires, and likewise men with greater insight into human woe than was true of reformers. The Last Hurrah is a political novel of this third type. Skeffington is a complicated personality whom we see across a variety of temperaments and through a mixture of emotions ranging from hatred to adoration: the result is a composite photograph that takes on a three-dimensional reality. All in the Family is a political novel in one sense, since it explores the psychology of politicians and reformers, but its strength lies elsewhere. the same construction. The Oracle, with which he began, was a merely competent, machine-made exposure of hypocrisy in a radio commentator. I Was Dancing and benjy, that “ferocious fairy tale” (which is among his triumphs), are short stories in novel form, each in a style appropriate to its special theme and each a straight-line narrative. Beginning with The Last Hurrah, O’Connor started a series of experiments in narrative by indirection. Thus Skeffington is first presented sketchily and in the raw; his figure takes on bulk and humanity as we view him through the eyes of innumerable persons and learn things about his biography in episodes that often begin as if they were irrelevant. In The Edge of Sadness O’Connor shifted to firstperson narrative, making Father Hugh the chronicler of his own dishonor and his own recovery — a difficult technical task — and endowing him with extraordinary sensitivity and a tenacious memory. Through his sensitivity a complicated family story — or rather two of them — is slowly revealed.

Though a recurrent theme in O’Connor’s fiction is the life of the Irish in America, as a novelist he refuses to be typed. No two books by him are of

The indirect method is pushed to its limits in All in the Family. The first section has no apparent relation to the main narrative. There is a huge gap in time: we drop Jack as a boy and take him up as an adult. Jack tells the story, but he is naturally preoccupied with his personal bewilderment and his domestic problem. Moreover, he and his wife absent themselves from America while important events build up about the Kinsella family in the United States. As a political novel, necessary scenes are omitted because Jack cannot be present at them. We have to take for granted, for instance, the crucial change in Charles Kinsella’s outlook after his election; we are not prepared for Phil’s extraordinary outburst of jealousy and civic virtue; nor are we present during a long and lonely night when Phil tries to make up his mind about meeting Charles’s trick attack. We are present at die crucial scene between the two brothers mainly because Uncle Jimmy calls a family council into which Jack and his wife wander almost by accident. If the novel is a political novel, the technique is awkward.

But is it a political novel? I think politics is the occasion, not the theme, of the story. That theme is one recurrent in O’Connor’s books, and concerns not the state but the family. Thus in I Was Dancing, the problem is that of family responsibility for the aged, especially as they grow cantankerous, benjy is a Swiftian satire on children’s books, sentimental motherhood, and the Century of the Child, and shows what happens when the husband is displaced from his proper role as a father. The great disappointment of Frank Skeffington is not his defeat but the inadequacy of his shallow son; that is why he calls in Adam Caulfield as a son substitute. The intricate design of The Edge of Sadness pivots on a problem of family disruption: in this book as in the others the patriarchal role is eaten into by modernity. American life is, it appears, the enemy of the traditional family pattern, and no amount of verbal concealment by brilliant Irish talk hides the fact that among the American Irish neither the church, nor respect for the old, nor patriarchal authority, nor the power of money, nor the clan spirit can withstand the constant erosion of traditional family ways by arrant American individualism.

In the new book the conflict between Charles and Phil, the temperamental gulf between toughminded Uncle Jimmy and his sensitive nephew Jack Kinsella point once more to the survival of a family in modern America. O’Connor puts the case without riding a thesis. It is perhaps significant that in the last pages of the story Jack and his wife go back to Ireland, where it is revealed that the wife is pregnant; and if they return to America it may be to illustrate that, the ancient Irish clan beingout of date, some other basis for a family in America may become possible.

From time to time academic quarterlies, writers’ conferences, lecturers in the colleges, and highbrow writers of fiction anxiously announce that the novel is dying. The novels that form the basis of these gloomy forecasts are usually intricate exercises in the subconscious mind, tales in which no action is what it purports to be, no motive is rational, and no character is prepared to accept any responsibility for the society into which he was born. These themes have enlarged the scope of fiction, but only by a narrow strip and along a dead-end road. They offer too few permutations and combinations. They do not accept the long line of narrative achievement from Fielding through Scott and Dickens to, if you like, writers like Edwin O’Connor.

Yet the principal duty of the novelist is to get himself read, as the principal duty of the playwright is to get himself acted before a considerable audience. Otherwise his support becomes artificial — fellowships, grants-in-aid, publishers’ advances, and writers’ conferences. But in accepting these wellmeant yet adventitious supports, the novelist loses living touch with a potential public in a manner that would have horrified Dickens and puzzled Henry James. Meanwhile, the great undifferentiated public goes on happily reading detective stories and science fiction, two branches of narrative excessively ignored by “literary” criticism, though they keep the central virtue of the novel, which is expectancy. O’Connor has this virtue. His reader is kept in a continual stream of expectation. When the American novel gets over its extralegal love affair with sex and psychiatry and heads back to the main line of fiction, it will perhaps discover that writers like O’Connor are the proper heirs ot the great tradition. A storyteller’s holiday is a contradiction in terms.