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William Kennedy

William Kennedy

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.

Changed Course

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.

Early 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.

Greatest Work

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.

Literary Celebrity

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.

Fruitful 1990s

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

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. □

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Kennedy, William

William Kennedy, 1928–, American novelist, b. Albany, N.Y., grad. Siena College, 1949. Brought up in Albany, he worked as a journalist from 1949 to 1970, and began to concentrate on writing fiction in the early 1960s. In evocative prose, with vivid characterizations and acutely observed dialog, Kennedy's novels mingle history with myth, politics with the personal, and lyricism with squalor. His work is inextricably bound up with his hometown, which has provided rich subject matter for most of his fiction, including his best-known novel, Ironweed (1983; National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize; film, 1987), the tale of an alcoholic former major-league pitcher who ekes out an existence in the city's skid-row district in the 1930s. Kennedy's other Albany cycle novels are The Ink Truck (1969), Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Quinn's Book (1988), The Flaming Corsage (1996), Roscoe (2001), and Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (2011). He has also written other novels; essays, some of which were collected in O Albany! (1983) and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car (1993); a play and screenplays; and children's books. Kennedy has taught at the University at Albany–SUNY since 1973.

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Kennedy, William (Joseph)

KENNEDY, William (Joseph)

Nationality: American. Born: Albany, New York, 16 January 1928. Education: Siena College, Loudonville, New York, B.A. 1949. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1950-52: sports editor and columnist for Army newspapers. Family: Married Ana Daisy Dana Segarra in 1957; two daughters and one son. Career: Assistant sports editor and columnist, Glens Falls Post Star, New York, 1949-50; reporter, Albany Times-Union, 1952-56; assistant managing editor and columnist, Puerto Rico World Journal, San Juan, 1956; reporter, Miami Herald, 1957; Puerto Rico correspondent for Time-Life publications, and reporter for Dorvillier business newsletter and Knight newspapers, 1957-59; founding managing editor, San Juan Star, 1959-61; full-time writer, 1961-63; special writer, 1963-70, and film critic, 1968-70, Albany Times-Union; book editor, Look, New York, 1971. Lecturer, 1974-82, and since 1983 professor of English, State University of New York, Albany; visiting professor of English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1982-83. Since 1957 freelance magazine writer and critic; brochure and special project writer for New York State Department of Education and State University system, New York Governor's Conference on Libraries, and other organizations; director, New York State Writers Institute. Awards: Puerto Rican Civic Association of Miami award, 1957, NAACP award, 1965, Newspaper Guild Page One award, 1965, and New York State Publishers award, 1965, all for reporting; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981; Siena College Career Achievement award, 1983; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1983; National Book Critics Circle award, 1984; Celtic Foundation Frank O'Connor award, 1984; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1984; New York Public Library award, 1984; Pulitzer prize, 1984; Governor's Arts award, 1984; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1986. L.H.D.: Russell Sage College, Troy, New York, 1980; Siena College, 1984; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, 1987; Long Island University, Greenvale, New York, 1989; D. Litt.: College of St. Rose, Albany, 1985. D.H.L.: Skidmore College, 1991; Fordham University, 1992; Trinity College, 1992. Commander, Order of Arts and Letters, France, 1993. Agent: Liz Darhansoff Literary Agency, 1220 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10128. Address: R.D. 3, Box 508, Averill Park, New York 12018, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Ink Truck. New York, Dial Press, 1969; London, Macdonald, 1970.

Legs. New York, Coward McCann, 1975; London, Cape, 1976.

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. New York, Viking Press, 1978;London, Penguin, 1983.

Ironweed. New York, Viking Press, 1983; London, Penguin, 1984.

Quinn's Book. New York, Viking, and London, Cape, 1988.

Very Old Bones. New York, Viking, 1992.

The Flaming Corsage. New York, Viking, 1996.

An Albany Trio: Three Novels from the Albany Cycle. New York, Penguin Books, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Secrets of Creative Love," in Harper's (New York), July 1983.

"An Exchange of Gifts," in Glens Falls Review (Glens Falls, New York), no. 3, 1985-86.

"The Hills and the Creeks (Albany 1850)," in Harper's (New York), March 1988.

Plays

Screenplays:

The Cotton Club, with Francis Ford Coppola, 1984; Ironweed, 1987.

Other

Getting It All, Saving It All: Some Notes by an Extremist. Albany, New York State Governor's Conference on Libraries, 1978.

O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels. Albany and New York, Washington Park Press-Viking Press, 1983.

The Capitol in Albany (photographs). New York, Aperture, 1986; asAlbany and the Capitol, London, Phaidon, 1986.

Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (for children), withBrendan Kennedy. Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986; London, Cape, 1987.

Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. New York, Viking, 1993.

Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (for children), with BrendanKennedy. Viking Children's Books, 1994.

*

Bibliographies:

"A William Kennedy Bibliography" by Edward C. Reilly, in Bulletin of Bibliography 48(2), June 1991.

Critical Studies:

"The Sudden Fame of William Kennedy" by Margaret Croyden, in New York Times Magazine, 26 August 1984; Understanding William Kennedy by J.K. Van Dover, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1991; William Kennedy by Edward C. Reilly, Boston, Twayne, 1991; Conversations with William Kennedy, edited by Neila C. Seshachari, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

* * *

In O Albany!, William Kennedy's "urban biography" of Albany, New York, he describes himself as "a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place." This fusion has proved an impressive resource and theme in his novels which present an expansive yet intimate fictional and historical tableau of Albany life. While there is a humanist breadth of vision in Kennedy's writingshe views Albany as a city "centered squarely in the American and human continuum"his treatment of the city is closely focused on the lives and histories of Irish-Americans. His novels pay detailed attention to the culture and politics of this ethnic group, exploring both the local historical conditions and the internal mechanisms of ethnic identity, and illuminating the rich interplay of history, myth, and memory as these give meaning to the lives of Irish-Americans.

Kennedy offers his readers a richly detailed world where language is always inventive. The interactions of realism and romance, and of historical and mythical vision in his novels have led many critics to describe them as "magic realist." The lyrical treatment of larger-than-life characters and use of vernacular humor also suggest the influences of American strains of imaginative journalism and oral storytelling. If there is a "magic" in the narratives it is the sense of intimacy they convey. The sounding of a common past and shared memories is an important element in Kennedy's writings and in having places, characters, and everyday objects animated by reminiscence and anecdote he shows how the past may be kept alive in "memory and hearsay." Kennedy's first novel, The Ink Truck, is a black comedy which details the pathetic attempts of a small group of strikers to keep alive a failed strike against their newspaper employers. The true center of the novel is Bailey, a garrulous loner who invents crazy plots to challenge the newspaper company. Like the other strikers, Bailey is caught in the paradoxes of ideal and action which emerge from supporting a lost cause, but Kennedy draws his protagonist with an irrepressible energy and wit which mark his repeated failures with curious heroism. Although there is clearly a satirical intention to illuminate the way American society can both foster and thwart idealism, the narrative relies a little too heavily on the egotistical rhetoric and surreal imaginings of Bailey. If he is a failed hero there is little to draw the reader into his predicament.

Legs deals with a form of hero in the character of Jack "Legs" Diamond, the prohibition gangster-cum-celebrity whose life story is narrated by Marcus Gorman, a lawyer who is simultaneously attracted to and perturbed by this "venal man of integrity." Diamond is an entertainer who is able to act out his fantasies and appetites in public, only to find that he is "created anew" by the media who draw on, add to, and manipulate his glamour. Kennedy interweaves history and myth in his characterization of Diamond as a powerful public figure who finds that fame is not a force he can control: "Jack had imagined his fame all his life and now it was imagining him." Kennedy uses Gorman to mediate the multiple and conflicting documents, stories and cultural references surrounding Diamond's life. Legs is less a close study of what motivated this particular criminal than an examination of how he became a product of America's "collective imagination." In Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Kennedy shows a more localized interest in how memory and myth circulate in the everyday actions and discourses of Albany's Irish-Americans in the 1930s. Billy Phelan, a young Irish-American hustler, has his world turned upside down when he is caught up in the kidnapping of Charlie McCall, son of the city's political boss. While Kennedy keeps the kidnap plot moving steadily along it is clear that his real interest is in exploring how an ethnic past is absorbed into the present day lives of his characters. Billy's encounters with the McCalls reveal a political network which maintains its power by endorsing and exploiting a rhetoric of family, morality, and loyalty that draws heavily on mythicized immigrant experiences. Kennedy also identifies rich seams of a common or collective memory which establishes a knowledge of the past in stories and anecdotes engendered by commonplace stimuli. In detailing and juxtaposing multiple rememorisations of the Irish-American past he shows how all members of the ethnic group, not only the politically powerful, are engaged in reconstructing the past to meet the demands of the present.

Ironweed, a Pulitzer prize-winner, is widely viewed as Kennedy's finest novel to date. The novel is closely connected to Billy Phelan's Greatest Game in terms of character, event, theme, and temporal setting. Francis Phelan, father of Billy and the "Ironweed" of the title, is a vagrant who returns to Albany after twenty-two years "on the bum," a partly self-induced exile sustained by the guilt he feels about the deaths of a scab he felled during a strike and of his thirteen-day-old son Gerald whom he accidentally dropped and killed. On his return to Albany he confronts voices and images of ghosts which press him to re-examine his past. Returning to a community which has projected him into myth Francis reaches no clear resolution of his need to locate himself "in time and place," but he does discover that in releasing memories and sharing them with others he is able tentatively to embrace much that he has repressed. Kennedy brilliantly meshes fantasy and realism in this narrative, examining both the inner confusions of his protagonist's ethnic identity and the powerful cultural and social forces which willfully idealize or obscure aspects of the ethnic past.

Set in mid-nineteenth-century Albany, Quinn's Book is the narrative of Daniel Quinn, an orphaned boy who witnesses such major historical events as the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the New York draft riots. While there is a wealth of historical detail in this novel it is the apocalyptic openingas Albany experiences freak disasters of fire and floodand the surreal tinge to the events which imaginatively fire the narrative. Kennedy evokes a spirit world which shadows the lives of his characters providing sometimes comic, sometimes frightening perspectives on the past, present, and future. A sense of prescience grips the narration as Daniel grows to become the journalist-writer who views his life as a "great canvas of the imagination." As in his earlier novels Kennedy intermingles fact and fantasy, but is perhaps more ambitious with his historical sweep, constructing a phantasmagoria of human actions and desires that denies any simple patternings or resolutions.

In Kennedy's novels the Irish-American past is always under construction, its reinvention important to the patterning of social relations in the present. Kennedy is a speculative historian of this ethnic past, self-consciously aware that he is himself playing a part in its reinvention. He skillfully dissolves distinctions between the real and the fictional as his writings explore how memory and fantasy can influence historical understanding. In Billy Phelan's Greatest Game he offers an ironical authorial note: "Any reality attaching to any character is the result of the author's creation, or of his own interpretation of history. This applies not only to Martin Daugherty and Billy Phelan, to Albany politicians, newsmen, and gamblers, but also to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas E. Dewey, Henry James, Damon Runyon, William Randolph Hearst, and any number of other creatures of the American imagination."

Liam Kennedy

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"Kennedy, William (Joseph)." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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