For some 40 years, William Kennedy has crafted history and memory into a body of literature that is as remarkable for its variety as it is for erecting an Albany of the imagination. "What James Joyce did for Dublin and Saul Bellow did for Chicago, William has done for Albany, New York. . . .
His cycle of Albany novels is one of the great resurrections of place in our literature," asserted James Atlas in Vogue. In Kennedy's highly regarded "Albany Cycle," outcasts and machine politicians, lowlifes and swells populate an imagined Albany as real as any city of bricks. Thanks to Kennedy, Albany occupies a privileged place on America's mythic map as a capital of the national memory, and a metropolis of everyday struggles.
Born in 1928 in Albany's North End, Kennedy attended Public School 20, the Christian Brother's Academy, and Siena College prior to pursuing a career in journalism. He joined the Post Star, in Glens Falls as a sports reporter and, after being drafted in 1950, worked for an army newspaper in Europe. Upon his discharge he joined the Albany Times-Union. In 1956 he accepted a job with a newspaper in Puerto Rico, where he met and would soon marry Daisy (Dana) Sosa, an actress and dancer. (The Kennedy's have three children--Dana, Katherine and Brendan.) Kennedy became managing editor of the fledgling San Juan Star in 1959, only to quit two years later to pursue writing fiction full-time.
In San Juan, Kennedy took a course with novelist Saul Bellow, who said of Kennedy's early work, "He could take material from skid row and write about these people as [if they were 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. . . I was moved by the characters, by their naive but human frailties."
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 about the city that earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and provided the basis for a nonfiction book, O Albany! (1983). Matthew Parrish, writing in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, called O Albany! "a book distinguished by intellectual depth and a vibrant prose style. . . a rich feast that bubbles with the humor, nobility and pathos of the men and women who lived, worked and played in New York's capital city from the 17th Century to the present."
Kennedy's Albany journalism provided him with an opportunity to internalize the city thoroughly and use it as a fictional landscape. His first novel, The Ink Truck (1969), relates the story of a newspaper strike in a vividly evoked but unnamed Albany. People magazine called it "Wildly funny, rich and full of lyrical moments." Time called it "Lean, energetic and grounded in detail and humanities. . .a bawdy Celtic romp."
Legs (1975), the first novel of Kennedy's "Albany Cycle," tells the tale of Albany gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond. Newsweek called it "A particularly seductive portrait. . . a very skillful story, full of bounce and wit." Dean Flower said in the Hudson Review, "the speakeasies and gangsters and fast talk seem immediate and legendary, with Irish-Catholic Albany as a microcosm of the thirties."
Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978) introduces the Phelan family, subsequent generations of which appear in five more novels. Billy is a small-time Depression-era gambler and bookie who becomes mixed up in the kidnapping of a Albany politician's son. Doris Grumbach said in the Saturday Review, "No one writing in America today has Kennedy's rich and fertile gift of gab; his pure verbal energy; his love of people."
Billy's father, Francis, a derelict on the run from his own demons and past mistakes, is the principal character of Ironweed (1983), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Towers called Ironweed "a kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed. . . a work of unusual interest, original in its conception, full of energy and color, a splendid addition to the Albany cycle."
Kennedy's literary successes opened the door to the world of movie-making. A long-time cinema enthusiast and movie reviewer, he began to write screenplays when he co-scripted The Cotton Club (1986) with Francis Ford Coppola. He also wrote the film version of Ironweed (1987), directed
by Hector Babenco and starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
Kennedy also continued to expand his open-ended "Albany Cycle." While the first three novels in that cycle unfold in a Depression-era setting, the next three explore various periods in the city's history. Quinn's Book (1988) is set in the 19th century and follows the picaresque adventures of a Phelan ancestor, Daniel Quinn. The Boston Sunday Globe called it a "book of wonders and sweetness, magic and horrors, it immerses itself in the marvelous. . .Touching and vivid and comic."
Very Old Bones (1992) takes the "Albany Cycle" forward to the 1950s, and examines the mental breakdown and redemption of Orson Purcell, the bastard son of artist Peter Phelan. The New York Times asserted, "Few Irish-American writers have produced more haunting portraits of their ancestors or the ghosts that possessed them than Mr. Kennedy has in Very Olds Bones."
The Flaming Corsage (1996) portrays the turbulent courtship and marriage of Katrina Taylor and Edward Daugherty during the decades that precede and follow the turn of the century. Critic Harold Bloom said "The Flaming Corsage transforms the ['Albany Cycle'] into what Ruskin praised as 'Stage Fire' in Dickens. At once prose-poem, historical novel and theatrical melodrama, Kennedy's new book demonstrates an exuberance beyond his previous work."
A second nonfiction book, Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, appeared in 1993. Library Journal called this collection of essays, memoirs, reviews, and reportage "a great pleasure to read, no matter what the subject. Another winner from Kennedy: highly recommended." Kennedy's other works include two children's books co-authored with his son Brendan, Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (1986), and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (1993). Kennedy's first full-length play, Grand View (1996) the story of apolitical war between the state governor and Albany's political boss, was staged in the spring of 1996 at Capital Repertory Theater in Albany. Roscoe, the next installment in the "Albany Cycle," came out in January 2002.
Kennedy taught creative writing and journalism as an instructor from 1974 to 1982 at the University at Albany, where he is now a professor in the English Department. He taught writing at Cornell University in 1982-83. In 1983, Kennedy was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Part of that award went to the institution of Kennedy’s choice, the University at Albany, State University of New York, using fifteen thousand dollars for five years (each), to create a writers institute at Albany. The University made a commitment to match those funds, thus helping the Writers Institute at Albany become a reality. The following year, 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.
In 1993, Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition he has received numerous literary awards, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Regents Medal of Excellence from the State University of New York, and a Governor's Arts Award. He was also named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities. He is also the 2001-2002 Kritikos Professor at the University of Oregon. He was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2002.
The Ink Truck. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
Legs. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. New York: Viking Press, 1978.
Ironweed. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
Quinn's Book. New York: Viking Press, 1988.
Very Old Bones. New York: Viking Press, 1992.
The Flaming Corsage. New York: Viking Press, 1996.
Roscoe. New York: Viking Press, 2002.
O Albany!: Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
The Making of Ironweed, New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.
Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, New York: Viking Press, 1993.
The Cotton Club. Co-authored with Francis Ford Coppola. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Ironweed. Tri-Star, 1987.
Grand View. Premiered at Capital Repertory Theatre, Albany, NY, 1996.
In the System. HumaniTech* Short Play Project Premiere, UAlbany, March 2003.
Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (co-authored with Brendan Kennedy). New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (co-authored with Brendan Kennedy). New York: Viking Children's Books, 1994.
Flanagan, Thomas. O ALBANY!. New York Review of Books. April 25, 2002
Giamo, Benedict F. THE HOMELESS OF IRONWEED: BLOSSOMS ON THE CRAG. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick, READING WILLIAM KENNEDY. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press (in press).
Lynch, Vivian Valvano, PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS: WARRIORS IN THE NOVELS OF WILLIAM KENNEDY. Bethesda: International Scholars Publications, 1999.
Mallon, Thomas. WILLIAM KENNEDY'S GREATEST GAME. The Atlantic Monthly. February 2002.
Seshachari, Neila C., COURTESANS, STARS, WIVES & VIXENS: THE MANY FACES OF FEMALE POWER IN KENNEDY'S NOVELS, AWP Conference, Albany, NY. April 17, 1999.
Marowski, Daniel G. and Matur, Roger, editors. "William Kennedy." CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM, Vol. 53, Detroit: Gale Research, 1989, pp. 189-201.
Michener, Christian. FROM THEN INTO NOW: WILLIAM KENNEDY'S ALBANY NOVELS. University of Scranton Press, 1998.
Reilly, Edward C. TWAYNE'S UNITED STATES AUTHORS SERIES: WILLIAM KENNEDY. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Van Dover, J. K. UNDERSTANDING WILLIAM KENNEDY. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
INTERVIEWS AND PROFILES
Baruth, Philip. "William Kennedy on the Surreal and the Unconscious, the Religious, the Subline, and the Gonzo." NEW ENGLAND REVIEW, V 19 No 1 Winter 1998: 116-26.
Bauer, Douglas. "Talking With William Kennedy." THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD, 13, 3 January 16, 1993: 6.
Busby, Mark. "William Kennedy." In DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY: YEARBOOK, 1985. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985: 387-94.
Croyden, Margaret. "The Sudden Fame of William Kennedy." THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, August 26, 1984: 33+.
Heron, Kim. "The Responsibility of Carrying the Dead." THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, May 22, 1988, Sec. 7:4.
Sheppard, R. Z. "Stealing From Himself." TIME, V. 147, May 13, 1996: 92.
Stokvis, Irene. "First Novelists: Twenty-Five New Writers--Fall 1969--Discuss Their First Published Novels." LIBRARY JOURNAL 94, October 1, 1969; 3475.
Seshachari, Neila C, ed., CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLIAM KENNEDY. Jackson, MS & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
IRONWEED. Pub Group West Audio, 1988. [read by Jason Robards]
THE FLAMING CORSAGE. Newport Beach, CA: Books on Tape, 1996.
VERY OLD BONES. Newport Beach, CA: Books on Tape, 1996.
"William Kennedy, Interview." American Audio Prose Library, June 1987.
"William Kennedy's Albany." Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1996. (Videocassette, 58 minutes.)
"William Kennedy" [video recording]. Directed by Fenella Greenfield; Northbrook, IL: The Roland Collection of Films on Art, 1989.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Reilly, Edward C. "A William Kennedy Bibliography." BULLETIN OF BIBLIOGRAPHY, 48 June 1991: 61-74.
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