When the Pulitzer Prize board declined the other day to award a prize this year for fiction, John Williams of the New York Times suggested that it might be a good time to revisit some of the forgotten Pulitzer-winning novels of the past. One of the books he cited was Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, which won in 1962. It happens to be one of my favorite American novels, and in 2009 I wrote an essay about the book for National Review. The piece never appeared on line, so I thought I’d post a shortened version today for your consideration.
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The O’Connor everyone remembers is Flannery, who wrote herself into the history of American literature by looking at the poor white Protestants of her native Georgia through the X-ray glasses of Roman Catholic dogma. But there was another Catholic novelist named O’Connor at work in the Fifties and Sixties, and for a time he was both better known and vastly more popular than his opposite number.
Edwin O’Connor first rang the gong of success with The Last Hurrah, a 1956 novel about an aging Boston politician that added a phrase to the English language and made the man who coined it rich and famous. Like his opposite number in the Deep South, O’Connor was a devout, wholly orthodox Catholic, a daily communicant who stuck close to home, settling in Boston and writing about the people whom he saw there every day. But unlike the prickly author of Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the other O’Connor, who died in 1968, had the gift of immediate accessibility, and readers in every corner of the land reveled in his stories of Irish-American life in mid-century New England. The Edge of Sadness, his 1961 tale of an alcoholic priest, was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, condensed by Reader’s Digest, and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Not surprisingly, it was also one of the top ten best sellers of the year, sharing the list with The Agony and the Ecstasy, Franny and Zooey, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Such popularity is not easily forgiven in certain cultural circles. Edmund Wilson, who knew O’Connor and admired him greatly, observed apropos of The Edge of Sadness that “a literary intellectual objects to nothing so much as a best-selling book that also possesses real merit.” Small wonder that the book in question, like its author, is now all but forgotten…
Hugh Kennedy, the narrator of The Edge of Sadness, is a fifty-five-year-old priest from a city not unlike Boston who has just climbed back up from the end of his rope. Sent into an emotional tailspin by the death of his beloved father, he takes to drink and is sent to an Arizona retreat for wayward priests, there to grapple with a spiritual emptiness that has left him vulnerable to depression in the middle of life….
The self-effacing Father Kennedy starts off by informing the reader that the story we are about to hear is not about him: “I am in it–good heavens, I’m in it to the point of almost never being out of it!–but the story belongs, all of it, to the Carmodys, and my own part, while substantial enough, was never really of any great significance at all.” The Carmodys are a well-to-do family that Father Kennedy knew and loved as a boy and whose irascible octogenarian patriarch takes a renewed interest in him after he returns to Boston to pick up the pieces of his life. Charlie Carmody and his children, each one representing a different facet of the immigrant experience, are drawn with striking vividness and sympathy, so much so that it is not until well into The Edge of Sadness that we realize that the author has contrived to throw us off the scent: his real subject, it turns out, is not the Carmodys but Father Kennedy’s painful journey from the slough of despond to the brink of renewal….
In The Living Novel, V.S. Pritchett praised those novelists “who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man.” Pritchett was talking about Walter Scott, but he could just as well have had The Edge of Sadness in mind, for it is above all a story of acceptance, a portrait of a group of men and women who find themselves forced at last to face the fact that their dreams will not come true….
Yet the closing pages of The Edge of Sadness are also suffused with the warm glow of possibility, and never for a moment does it have the factitious feel of a confidence trick played by a best-selling author determined to send his audience home happy. For even though Father Kennedy continues to believe in “the essential goodness of man,” he also knows that “only a fool can look around him and smile serenely in unwatered optimism.” He knows, too, that the spiritual dryness that came close to destroying him can only be held at bay if he immerses himself in the daily life of his shabby parish, trading the easy familiarity of his old existence for the awareness that
while something was over forever, something else had just begun–and that if the new might not seem the equal of the old, that might be because the two were not to be compared….that something might be ahead that grew out of the past, yes, but was totally different, with its own labors and rewards, that it might be deeper and fuller and more meaningful than anything in the past.
After The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor published only one more full-scale novel, All in the Family, which was as popular and artistically successful as its predecessors. But the pace of change in America had sped up between 1961 and 1966, and a new generation of critics who had cut their teeth on high modernism now found little to like in an unselfconsciously old-fashioned storyteller who worshipped the gods of directness and simplicity. Two years after he died, Edmund Wilson and Arthur Schlesinger put together The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor, a well-meant anthology that sought in vain to keep his memory green. Denis Donoghue, who wrote about it in The New York Review of Books, declared that O’Connor’s oeuvre was “a public success but still, in the artistic sense, incomplete, his possibilities unfulfilled.”
Perhaps–but to read The Edge of Sadness today is to doubt the finality of that reasonable-sounding judgment. I thought that it was an extraordinarily fine book when I first read it a quarter-century ago, and now that I am almost as old as Father Hugh Kennedy, I think it better still. Few American novels have done a more honest job of telling how it feels for a man to come to the middle of life’s journey, and even fewer have the power to fill their readers with a sense of hope strong enough to be felt not merely in the bright light of day but in the middle of the dark night of the soul.