Author William Kennedy (born 1928) rose from literary obscurity to national renown following the publication of his 1983 novel Ironweed. Taken together, his gritty, downbeat novels form an intricate cycles panning the history of his native Albany, New York. Kennedy has been awarded numerous literary honors and been hailed as one of America's most accomplished novelists.
William Joseph Kennedy was born on January 16, 1928 in Albany, New York. His parents, William Joseph and Mary Elizabeth (McDonald) Kennedy, were descended from Irish immigrants who had settled in North Albany in the 19th century. Kennedy grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood known locally as the North End or Limerick. As a child, he served as an altar boy at the Sacred Heart Church, and entertained dreams of one day becoming a Catholic priest.
Kennedy attended grade school at Public School 20. While in the seventh grade, he became fascinated by the world of print journalism. He began drawing cartoons and even started his own newspaper. Upon entering high school at the Christian Brothers Academy, he wrote articles for the school newspaper.
The allure of a career in journalism dovetailed nicely with one of Kennedy's other adolescent passions: politics. North Albany was a hotbed of Irish Democratic political activity. The area was dominated by a political machine organized by Daniel Peter O'Connell, whom Kennedy later used as the model for the character of Patsy McCall in his novel Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. Many of Kennedy's relatives held political jobs. His great-grandfather, "Big Jim" Carroll, served as a ward leader. His father worked the polls for the machine and occasionally took William Jr. to Democratic Party rallies. Two of his mother's brothers also served as political operatives.
A Career in Journalism
Kennedy left Albany after high school to enroll at nearby Siena College in upstate New York. He was named executive editor of the Siena News, the college newspaper. Upon earning his degree, he took a job as sports editor and columnist for the Glens Falls Post Star. In 1950, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Fourth Division in Europe. But his journalistic skills did not go to waste here either. Kennedy worked on the division's newspaper until his discharge in 1952.
Kennedy returned to his home town in 1952, securing a job at the Albany Times-Union. He remained there for the next four years, at which time he accepted an offer to work for the Puerto Rico World Journal. However, that paper went out of business nine months later, leaving Kennedy temporarily out of work. He eventually landed a job at the Miami Herald and lived in that city for a time, but he returned to Puerto Rico in 1957. There, two years later, Kennedy was named the first managing editor of a new paper, the San Juan Star.
While in Puerto Rico, Kennedy met and married Ana Daisy (Dana) Segarra, a dancer, singer, and actress. Together they would have three children. During this period, Kennedy also began turning his attention to writing fiction. He enrolled in a creative writing class taught by the acclaimed novelist Saul Bellow at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. Bellow was impressed with Kennedy's early attempts at fiction and encouraged him to continue developing his talent. For a time, Kennedy tried to write stories about Puerto Rico. However, he found it difficult to write authoritatively about an adopted land without sounding like a tourist. He soon found his muse urging him to the more familiar ground of his native Albany. After two years with the San Juan Star, Kennedy quit journalism altogether to concentrate on his creative writing.
Kennedy moved back to Albany in 1963. He was 35 and had climbed as high as he had ever aspired in the world of print journalism. His father's health was deteriorating, however, so Kennedy accepted a job as a part-time feature writer at the Albany Times-Union in order to pay the bills while he worked on his creative endeavors. He first earned public acclaim for a series of features he crafted about his home city, its history, politics, and colorful characters. These pieces later served as the genesis for Kennedy's 1983 collection O Albany!. In 1965, Kennedy was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles he wrote about Albany's poor neighborhoods.
Another lucrative avenue for Kennedy's writing talents was the world of book reviewing. From 1964 to 1972, he contributed 37 reviews to the National Observer. In the early 1970s, Kennedy also wrote for such prestigious national publications as Life, The New Republic, Saturday Review, and the New York Times. Despite all this success, however, Kennedy was becoming convinced that his real interest lay in writing novels.
In 1969, Kennedy realized a dream when his first novel, The Ink Truck, was published. Inspired by a real-life labor dispute at the Times-Union, the book follows the exploits of Bailey, a columnist embroiled in a newspaper strike. Working in a sardonic prose style, Kennedy was able to weave into the narrative many of his observations about Irish Catholic life in Albany. Critics generally lauded The Ink Truckas a promising first novel, though they pointed to its somewhat sloppy construction and artistic debt to previous authors as shortcomings.
For his next work, Kennedy turned to Albany history for inspiration. Legs (1975) told the story of the final days of gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, who died in a shootout with his enemies in an Albany boarding house in 1931. To bring the underworld milieu to life for his readers, Kennedy spent several years doing research on Diamond and the Prohibition era. It took eight drafts to get the level of verisimilitude he desired. This is a process he did not attempt again because, he admitted that too much research can overburden the imagination. Critics responded favorably to Kennedy's efforts, as Legs received mostly positive reviews.
Prohibition-era Albany provided the setting for Kennedy's next novel, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978). This time, however, the milieu Kennedy chose to explore-Democratic machine politics-was closer to home and did not require such extensive research. The book is told from the point of view of a journalist, Martin Daugherty, and revolves around the unsuccessful attempt to kidnap the son of a prominent political boss. The title character, Billy Phelan, is a pool shark and ward operative who becomes entangled in a web of corruption. Once again, critics praised Kennedy, this time for his facility with the speech patterns and manners of Albany's political subculture.
Five years after Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Kennedy completed Ironweed, the novel many critics believe is his masterpiece. Set in the Depression-ravaged Albany of 1938, the book traces the dissolute wanderings of Francis Phelan (father of Billy from Kennedy's previous novel). Relentlessly downbeat, the manuscript was originally rejected by Viking Press, Kennedy's publisher, on the grounds that it would not sell. Similar demurrals came from thirteen other publishing houses, prompting Kennedy's old friend and mentor, Saul Bellow, to intervene on his behalf. Bellow wrote a scathing letter to Viking executives urging them to publish Ironweed and assuring them it would be both a commercial and critical success.
After Viking acceded to Bellow's request, he was proved right on both counts. Ironweed was hailed as a masterwork and awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Most gratifying for Kennedy, who had to struggle to make ends meet through the publication of his first three novels, was the fact that the novel sold 100,000 copies over the course of two years. Its artistic achievement earned Kennedy a MacArthur Foundation grant worth $264,000 over five years. The struggling novelist who had labored in relative obscurity was now a literary celebrity with the financial security he had long desired.
After the triumph of Ironweed, Kennedy did not rest on his laurels. He returned immediately to the life of letters, accepting appointment by New York governor, Mario Cuomo, to head a New York State Writers Institute. A collection of Kennedy's new and old essays about his home city, O Albany! was published later in 1983. In 1987, Kennedy wrote the screenplay for a film version of Ironweed, directed by Hector Babenco. The well-received adaptation was filmed on location in Albany and starred Jack Nicholson as Francis Phelan.
In interviews and addresses about his novels, Kennedy began openly referring to them as part of a cycle in which all the events and characters were somehow interconnected. His next two works fit into that pattern perfectly. The 1988 novel, Quinn's Book, was set in Civil War-era Albany and featured characters related to those in his previous novels. Very Old Bones (1992) expanded on the history of the Phelan family.
In 1993, Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a group of 250 prominent American artists, architects, writers, and composers. A non-fiction collection, Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, comprised of essays, memoirs, reviews, and reportage from his days as a reporter for the Albany Times-Union, appeared in 1993. Three years later, Kennedy diversified his artistic portfolio when his first play, Grand View, premiered at Capital Repertory Company in Albany. Although he adopted a different medium, Kennedy did not stray too far from his familiar turf. The play dramatizes the clash between the two major political parties vying for control of Albany's government.
In addition to his acclaimed novels and non-fiction collections, Kennedy has also co-authored two children's books with his son Brendan, Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (1993). He returned to his familiar milieu for the next novel in the cycle, 1996's The Flaming Corsage. The book, which spans the period from the 1880s to 1912, concerns a tragic couple: Edward Daugherty, a brilliant playwright, and his equally headstrong wife, Katrina, whose lives are shaped by a 1908 murder-suicide in a Manhattan hotel room. Kirkus Reviews called it "the most impressive entry in the Albany Cycle since Ironweed."
Further Reading on William Kennedy
Lynch, Vivian, The Novels of William Kennedy International Scholars Publications, 1999.
Michener, Christian, From Then into Now: William Kennedy's Albany Novels University of Scranton Press, 1997.
Reilly, Edward C., William Kennedy Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Seshachari, Neila C., Conversations with William Kennedy University of Mississippi Press, 1997.