Authors: William Kennedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


When Viking Press finally agreed to publish Ironweed in 1983, the third novel in The Albany Cycle, William Kennedy achieved a measure of critical applause and popular recognition that few contemporary American novelists have enjoyed. Kennedy was born in Albany on January 16, 1928, the son of a deputy sheriff, William Joseph Kennedy, and his wife, Mary McDonald, a secretary. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic, working-class section of the city, and the gritty, realistic experiences of this early life provided him with the details that make his Albany novels such powerful re-creations of a Depression-era America. When he was in the sixth grade, Kennedy was given a toy printing press, and he quickly decided that he wanted to become a journalist. During his high school years at Christian Brothers Academy, he wrote for the school paper, The Sentry, and read the work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Damon Runyon.{$I[AN]9810001021}{$I[A]Kennedy, William}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kennedy, William}{$I[tim]1928;Kennedy, William}

After high school, Kennedy attended Siena College, a small Franciscan college near Albany. During this time, he concentrated on developing his journalistic style, editing the Siena News and functioning as the associate editor of another school publication, Beverwyck. After graduating in 1949, he began his newspaper career as an assistant sports editor and columnist with the Post Star in Glen Falls, New York. Kennedy entered the U.S. Army in 1950. Serving in the Fourth Infantry Division, he was sent to Europe and worked as a sports editor and columnist for Army newspapers. In 1952, he returned to Albany and became a general assignment reporter for the Albany Times-Union. As a journalist, Kennedy rediscovered Albany, and in the four years he spent at the newspaper, he divided his time between reportorial duties and working on his own short fiction. This period of apprenticeship was crucial for Kennedy, for it proved his commitment to a literary career and shaped his versatile command of language.

In 1956, Kennedy moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he became the assistant managing editor of the Puerto Rico World Journal. The small paper suffered from distribution and advertising problems and ceased publication within a year. In 1957, Kennedy married the actress and dancer Ana Daisy Segarra (whose stage name was Dana Sosa) and moved to Miami, where he continued to work as a reporter. He returned to San Juan in 1957, and in 1959 he founded the San Juan Star together with Bill Dorvillier. In 1961, Kennedy resigned from the newspaper to devote himself full-time to writing fiction. He began working on a novel about Albany entitled “The Angels and the Sparrows.” He failed to find a publisher for the work, but the experience was important for him. He decided to end his expatriate existence in Puerto Rico, to focus his energies on “serious fiction,” and to return to Albany.

After accomplishing the return to Albany in 1963, he initially worked for the Times-Union as a special writer. In 1963 and 1964, he wrote twenty-six articles about the ethnic neighborhoods of Albany, a series he later revised and published as O Albany! An Urban Tapestry. In 1965, Kennedy received an NAACP award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Albany slums. From 1968 to 1970, he was a film critic for the Albany Times-Union.

Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, is an experimental work based on the surrealist and expressionist visions of such writers as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. The next novel, Legs, a chaotic “documentary” about the exhilarating life and violent death of the gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, earned a positive critical reception and created an audience eager to read more about Kennedy’s Albany. The next two novels in The Albany Cycle, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed, further demonstrated Kennedy’s ability to create imaginative and exciting fictional worlds rooted in Albany’s Depression-era culture.

In Quinn’s Book, Kennedy abandoned the Depression era, choosing instead to set the novel in mid-nineteenth century Albany. Although the historical framework changed, Quinn’s Book is in other respects similar to Kennedy’s other work. Through the eyes of the narrator, Daniel Quinn, the reader encounters a world where the material and the spiritual are joined, a world that is both a vividly realistic landscape of nineteenth century America and a richly fantastic world of the imagination. Kennedy continued the Albany Cycle with Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe.

Kennedy was appointed to the faculty of the State University of New York at Albany in 1983 and in the same year founded a writers’ institute there. His many awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1981 and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1983. In 1983, Ironweed was named best book of fiction by the National Book Critics Circle, and in 1984 Kennedy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Albany honored Kennedy in September, 1984, with “A City-Wide Celebration of Albany and William Kennedy.” During these years, Kennedy also began to be involved with cinema, and he wrote the screenplays for film versions of The Cotton Club and Ironweed.

Characteristic features that dominate Kennedy’s work include the primacy of visual spectacle, the use of the past, the frequent and shocking images of violence and sex, and the delicate mix of realism and surrealism. His novels are populated with troubled characters seeking an inner peace, a last grasp for salvation. In Ironweed, Kennedy defined this peace as a moment of stillness, as a time when the central character, Francis Phelan, finds refuge from the dizzying chaos of his desperate life. Fascinated by Albany, by the past, and by the worlds of the working class and of “outsiders,” Kennedy typically focuses on troubled father-and-son relationships or on difficult relationships between men and women. His novels are further characterized by his vigorous experiments with language and by his ability to create sympathetic characters. Above all, however, it is his ability to evoke a particular place, a small corner of America as it has changed over time, that has assured Kennedy a place as a significant contemporary American novelist.

BibliographyAllen, Douglas R., and Mona Simpson. “The Art of Fiction CXI: William Kennedy.” The Paris Review 31 (Winter, 1989): 34-59. Conducted in two sessions, in 1984 and 1988, this wide-ranging interview provides an excellent introduction to Kennedy’s work. He discusses his experience as a newspaper writer, the vicissitudes of his literary career, and his development as a novelist. Includes Kennedy’s observation that he does not regard Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed as a trilogy but rather as works in an ongoing cycle that also comprises Quinn’s Book.Giamo, Benedict. The Homeless of “Ironweed”: Blossoms on the Crag. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. Giamo explores the theme of homelessness and social problems in literature, focusing on Ironweed. Includes a bibliography.Kennedy, Liam. “Memory and Hearsay: Ethnic History and Identity in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed.” MELUS 18 (Spring, 1993): 71-83. The author focuses on Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed to explore Kennedy’s presentation of ethnic identity. In a tightly knit community such as Albany’s Irish North End, family, civic, and ethnic history blend into an inchoate, yet powerful, force. The author points to Kennedy’s insistence on the role of the past in the motives and impulses of his characters.Kennedy, William. “The Art of Fiction CXI: William Kennedy.” Interview by Douglas R. Allen and Mona Simpson. The Paris Review 31 (Winter, 1989): 34-59. Conducted in two sessions, in 1984 and 1988, this wide-ranging interview provides an excellent introduction to Kennedy’s work. He discusses his experience as a newspaper writer, the vicissitudes of his literary career, and his development as a novelist. Includes Kennedy’s observation that he does not regard Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed as a trilogy but rather as works in an ongoing cycle.Kennedy, William. Conversations with William Kennedy. Edited by Neila C. Seshachari. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. Part of the Literary Conversations series, this book of interviews with Kennedy is insightful. Includes an index.Michener, Christian. From Then into Now: William Kennedy’s Albany Novels. Scranton, Pa.: University of Scranton Press, 1998. Discusses the theme of city life in Kennedy’s works. Contains a bibliography and an index.Nichols, Loxley F. “William Kennedy Comes of Age.” National Review 27 (August 9, 1985): 78-79. An excellent short piece on Kennedy with much useful information. Discusses The Ink Truck, which Nichols considers Kennedy’s most atypical work. Also analyzes Jack Diamond’s death in Legs. Explores Ironweed in the light of its mythical allusions and describes O Albany! in terms of the “pervasive vitality of the past.”Reilly, Edward C. William Kennedy. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A useful source of biographical, critical, and bibliographical information.Turner, Tramble T. “Quinn’s Book: Reconstructing Irish-American History.” MELUS 18 (Spring, 1993): 31-46. Discusses the presentation of the Irish and the African American in Quinn’s Book. Similarities between the two outcast communities in the nineteenth century do not prevent racist outbreaks such as the Draft Riot of 1863. The author compares Quinn’s Book to Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved as commentary on America’s past.Van Dover, J. K. Understanding William Kennedy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Van Dover provides a genealogy for the complex Phelan and Quinn family relationships and a chronology combining events that occur within the novels.
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