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William (Joseph) Kennedy Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Albany, New York, 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. 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.

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 writings—he 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 opening—as Albany experiences freak disasters of fire and flood—and 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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