Not bad for an "ink-stained wretch" (continued)
Reporter in the 1950's
Pulitzer Prize winning novel Ironweed.
William Kennedy with the Director of the NYSWI, Paul Grondahl.
Reporter in the 1950's
Kennedy became founding managing editor of the new San Juan Star in 1959, only to quit in 1961 to work half-time as weekend editor in order to write fiction full time. His journalistic background has continued to inform his writing. In Quinn’s Book, Kennedy explores transitioning from reporting to fiction through journalist Daniel Quinn, who ponders: “All that I had written for Will and the Tribune seemed true enough, but a shallow sort of truth, insufficiently reflective of what lay below … The magnificent, which is to say the tragic or comic crosscurrents and complexities of such lives, lay somewhere beyond the limits of my calling … I was so busy accumulating and organizing facts and experience that I had failed to perceive that only in the contemplation of mystery was revelation possible; only in confronting the incomprehensible and arcane could there be any synthesis.”
In 1960, Kennedy took a course at the University of Puerto Rico with novelist Saul Bellow, who modestly recalled his role in helping get Ironweed published years later: “Oh, I don’t know, someone would have recognized Kennedy—someday. It didn’t take long for an old dog like me to know Kennedy was the real thing," said Bellow, " Even in 1960, when he was a student of mine in Puerto Rico ... What happened to him is going to fill a lot of writers with hope and enthusiasm.”
Kennedy had expected to find inspiration for his fiction in Puerto Rico, but discovered that Albany held a stronger claim on his imagination. He returned to Albany in 1963 and wrote a series of articles on the slums, poverty, politics, black life, and the history of the city’s neighborhoods for the Times Union; and for some of these his editors nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize. The neighborhood articles provided the basis for his history of the city, O Albany! (1983).
Kennedy described his return to Albany in a 2006 interview for The Believer with novelist Edward Schwarzchild: “When I left Puerto Rico in 1963 and came back to Albany, I felt totally isolated. I had no friends who cared about literature. I also had to do something … to pay some bills. So I started to freelance … I was the apprentice in those years, trying to learn how it [fiction writing] was done and I sought out established writers to profile, and pick their brains … I also remember the importance of making it all real—the world of publishing and writing—because it was only a fantasy world for me when I was in Europe and Puerto Rico.”
On the heels of the simultaneous publication of Ironweed and the republication of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Legs, Kennedy’s annus mirabilis began. Two days before his 55th birthday, January 16, 1983, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship of $264,000, liberating him from any need for additional income for five years. That same week the three novels received major reviews all over the U.S. The following January he received notification he had received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in April the Pulitzer Prize, both for Ironweed. The Pulitzer was awarded the same day his grandson Casey Rafferty was born. Kennedy was also a finalist for the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction that year. Among other honors received in 1984, he was awarded a Regents Medal of Excellence from the State University of New York and a New York State Governor’s Arts Award. The three novels were subsequently published in 28 countries.
Another part of Kennedy’s MacArthur award went to the institution of his choice, the University at Albany, specifically to bring writers of all types to the Albany campus. The University made a commitment to match those funds and in 1984 Governor Mario M. Cuomo signed into law the legislation creating the New York State Writers Institute, giving it goals and responsibilities to conduct a broad range of cultural and educational literary activities, with an additional annual funding of $100,000. The Institute sponsors a diversity of programs including author visits and residencies, film screenings, panel discussions, stage readings, book festivals, and writing workshops for adults and high school students. The events are mostly free and open to the public.
Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. He has received many literary awards, including the first Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award, and was named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, PEN, and the Writers Guild of America.
Kennedy has received numerous honorary degrees, and was presented with the inaugural SUNY Medallion of Distinction in May 2012 by the Chancellor of the State University of New York, and so joined the ranks of the SUNY Distinguished Academy as a board-appointed Distinguished Professor.
Kennedy lectured in creative writing and journalism from 1974 to 1982 at the University at Albany, becoming a full professor in 1983. He taught writing as a visiting professor at Cornell University during the 1982-1983 academic year.
In 2003, The University at Albany acquired the William Kennedy Papers, a collection comprising some 70 boxes of manuscripts, film scripts and memorabilia. The collection is maintained at the University at Albany Libraries’ M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives as a resource for scholarly research on Kennedy’s work and career, and on the social, political, and literary histories of the Capital Region.
Following the 2004 premiere of the Legs Diamond-inspired orchestral work “Eyeball High” by Kevin Beavers, Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller commissioned another piece from Beavers, “Roscoe: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” which premiered April 20, 2007 at the Palace Theatre in Albany. Kennedy appeared on stage reading selections from his 2002 novel Roscoe, which served as preludes to sections of the concerto. Miller and the ASO organized nearly two months of readings, discussions and city tours of William Kennedy’s Albany around the premiere to celebrate the author. “He’s taken what he knows best ... and has elevated it into high art,” said Miller. “He sings the song of Albany.” The concerto was recorded in Brooklyn in 2009 by the Knights Ensemble as “Roscoe: for violin, narrator, and orchestra, on a text by William Kennedy / Beavers.”
Kennedy has been the subject of several films. ‘William Kennedy’s Albany’ was directed by filmmaker Richard Rogers, in 1992 and distributed nationally by PBS. It is a long look at Kennedy’s focus on the city of Albany in all his work, and ‘Fortune Cookie’, directed by the French filmmaker Catherine Berge in 1993, for French and Canadian television, and focused on his career. In the summer of 2013, a film about Kennedy will air as part of the series “Irish Writers in America,” produced by CUNY-TV.
In 2011 Albany PBS affiliate WMHT broadcast the premier of the 30-minute documentary entitled “William Kennedy’s Prohibition Story.” In this WMHT original production, produced by Dan Swinton, Kennedy delivers an impromptu narration of the tale of gangster-bootlegger Jack (Legs) Diamond and his fatal conflict with Democratic political machine boss Dan O’Connell, who created a formidable local bootleg empire during the Prohibition era. The local broadcast of the documentary coincided with the release of the national PBS series by Ken Burns entitled, “Prohibition: America’s Greatest Experiment.”
In 2017 WMHT-TV produced an hour-long documentary “Kennedy of Albany: A Writer and His City,” which explored the life and legacy of William Kennedy as told by the author himself.
The ninth novel in the Albany cycle is a work in progress.
Albany Cycle (continued)
“But then came Quinn’s Book in 1988, which reaches out from Albany to an impressionistic nineteenth-century America, a land of slavery and warfare and haunted rivers. There followed Very Old Bones in 1992 and The Flaming Corsage in 1996, set solidly in Albany, but bearing down not on the public scene but on erotic and creative energies within highly untypical … families in the city’s Irish Catholic community.” With Roscoe Kennedy “returned to the larger city, a model, so he has persuaded us, of urban corruption. Taken together, the cycle … is one of the triumphs of recent fiction, uneven but audacious in its ambition and dazzling in its technical resources.
“In Kennedy’s Albany, everyone knows everyone else, even if they do not know themselves. They have been cheating and screwing one another for decades, one way or another. They know each other’s bloodlines, alliances, vices, secret lyricisms, schemes for survival or success. The bosses and their lieutenants and goons know what buttons to press, what feudal loyalties to exploit. Ordinary people, the poor and the obscure and the homeless, can make themselves useful stuffing ballot boxes, or, like Francis Phelan of Ironweed, voting early and often. Their masters use power and triumph as counters to buy the best food and the gaudiest women. But they also cherish power for what in itself it is, a mysterious, self-justifying energy and delight.
“Kennedy creates this setting with scrupulous accuracy, a Joycean reverence for street names, urban legends. It is quite possible that his knowledge of Albany’s geography, its nooks and crannies and their histories, is wider than Joyce’s knowledge of Dublin. It is displayed with flourishes not only in the novels but in O Albany!, the combined history, street guide, and memoir which he published in 1983, and which is based on wide reading, a childhood and youth lived there, and long experience as a reporter on the Times-Union. He speaks of himself, in the preface to that book, as ‘a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul.’”
The eighth book in William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle is Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, published in 2011 and set in pre-revolution Cuba and in Albany on June 6, 1968, the day Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was assassinated. D. G. Myers noted in Commentary that “Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is the explanation of how William Kennedy the newspaper man became William Kennedy the novelist.”
“The novels in the cycle overlap and are non-sequential; they cover a little more than a century of Albany’s history, beginning before the Civil War with Quinn’s Book. But their connections are so eccentric that it’s best to think of them as planets in a common solar system, often crossing orbits and casting light and shadow on one another … But a key to the novels is that they are genealogical as well as geographical. The history of the city is revealed through the complex generational sagas of … the Phelans, the Quinns and the Daughertys. The life spans of the major characters, as well as the branches of the family trees, are traversed piecemeal through each added novel … True to Mr. Kennedy’s Irish-Catholic roots, the dead in these novels are just as vocal and rambunctious as the living” observed Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal review.
The eminent literary critic Alfred Kazin saw Kennedy as “a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and humanity, who took Albany, a place that had been unknown, buried for many years, and made us see the miniscule tragedies of lives caught up in the mercilessness of American life.”
In 1984 Saul Bellow reflected that Kennedy “could take material from skid row and write about these people as fully human as anyone else. The people he wrote about didn’t know they had become pariahs. He wrote about them from the inside. And it was very touching. I was moved by the characters, by their naive but human frailties. Kennedy’s books show some very original insights. His treatment of the characters is very far from the usual hackneyed treatment. There are no dead sentences in his work. His language is vigorous, full of energy … In his books, nothing is being put over on the public. He doesn’t latch on to subjects so that the book can be sold. He’s just a pure writer.”
Charles Fanning considered William Kennedy to be “[p]erhaps the greatest of contemporary Irish-American stylists … The Albany novels are strange, fascinating books, combining unillusioned realism in the Irish-American tradition of James T. Farrell, blasé flights into the fantastic as in the "magic realism" of South Americans such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and passages of compassionate lyricism, prose poetry, really, reminiscent of the fictions of William Goyen or Faulkner. Kennedy is also a prime example of a contemporary Irish-American light stylist, one who argues from plenitude and complexity toward affirmation.
“And so we have the Albany novels, which mix hard, gritty realism with a surreal lyricism of great beauty in the depiction of, among other things, an Irish-American underclass of ruthless criminals, gamblers, and homeless bums, the lowest of the low.”
Language is the principal element in Kennedy’s writing. “Language as style, language as elegance, language as life itself. That’s what I care about, more than anything else,” Kennedy remarked in a 1984 interview, and later expressed through his alter ego, journalist Daniel Quinn, who in Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes turns to fiction as a more effective method to “reveal history in language graceful but hip, simple but sly, exfoliating with the essential stories he had tracked down and wanted to tell the world.”
Literary critic Mark Shechner wrote, “Like Irish-American writers before him—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill or James T. Farrell—Kennedy is attentive to social class … But this ethnography needs translating into prose fiction, and it is writing that we prize Kennedy for: the brio of the vernacular—the pungent cantatas of the pool hall, the nightclub and the committee room—and the bristling argot of the street. Kennedy has mastered a style that could be called the poetics of the police blotter, combining hard-boiled lingo with taut lyricism, the muscular oratorios of daily speech with the barbed civilities of the drawing room.”
Kennedy’s rich use of language, frequently described as lyrical, is often interwoven with a resonant musicality. In his New York Times review, the novelist-filmmaker John Sayles described Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes as “his most musical work of fiction: a polyrhythmic contemplation of time and its effects on passion set in three different eras, a jazz piece unafraid to luxuriate in its roots as blues or popular ballad or to spin out into less melodic territory … [Kennedy] proves here he can play with both hands Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes and improvise on a theme without losing a beat.”
Music permeates his novels, and a long-time fascination with the so-called “coon song” “Shine” provided the theme for the opening chapter and set the cultural stage for exploring the progress of the black performer in America through minstrel shows and vaudeville. Literary critic Benedict Giamo wrote in an unpublished essay that “Kennedy’s keen interest in the color-coded genre became a cultural force that propelled him onward creatively … Kennedy views this rising of black performers as a critical form of racial positioning: ‘This was definitely a moment of progress ... because I think this is what some of those songs did, turning everything inside out, however horrible they were and degrading. There was substance to what happened because of them, and even the worst of them made everything so popular for black music and black entertainers.’”
Novelist Colum McCann described Kennedy’s use of language in his review of Roscoe in The Irish Times: “Over the course of seven novels, he has displayed a high-wire allegiance to language. His energies are directed at an ongoing harmony, the balance of imaginative riches and pure form … [He is] a writer who captures time, transforms it, then guides it forward into the present for his readers to consume. He steps into the lost moments of the past and makes history real. There is a huge amount of research done in his work, but he hides by forgetting it and allowing it to seep through language: you can feel the jazz bucking up from the needle … His allegiance is to the country of literature. In this landscape, he happens to be one of its bravest explorers. While a lot of contemporary literature is dull, beaten-down and housebroken, Kennedy goes for the big emotion and the major gesture ... Kennedy is a literary gambler, a crapshooter, a cardshark. A word has the weight of a stone in his hands. A vowel has color. A sentence stays up in the air way longer than it should—in fact, it stays up so long that it begins to succeed.”
In his foreword to the London paperback edition of Roscoe McCann wrote: “Stepping into a Kennedy novel is like stepping into all available art forms. He’s an historian, a journalist, a critic, an essayist, a poet, a philosopher, a playwright. He consistently seeks the edge of his art. He is one of the great verbal cinematographers of our times. He captures light, transforms it, guides it forward, shifts it around, and burns it down onto the page … But perhaps Kennedy’s greatest gift is his sheer decency and humility. He finds grace in the enormous human mess. He is a writer of deep empathy and soul … Kennedy’s work is deeply moral. His words have weight. He is not afraid of the big emotion. Our lives matter. So too do our deaths. He believes in redemption, even if we have to crawl down the gutter to find it. He is emphatic that, even despite the evidence, we cannot afford to give up our delight in the world … As Roscoe himself suggests at the end of his novel: love or death, it doesn’t matter, either way he could use a little music. In William Kennedy’s hands, it’s symphonic.”