The Edge of Sadness has almost unanimously been diagnosed within the literary world as "Catholic Literature", and indeed, it contains all the necessary elements to be labeled as such; however, simply being labeled as "Catholic Literature" would certainly not explain the book becoming a bestseller ? there would have to be some element of the book that sets it apart, that somehow draws its readers in. The Edge of Sadness has that particular element. It is a novel that puts aside the view of the priest as "local hero" and "leader of the people", to instead tell a more realistic story of the struggling life of a city priest. Author Edwin O'Connor is the first to address the stereotypes associated with Catholic priests of the time, and to turn them upside down, disassembling the notions set in front of readers by television, movies, and novels such as The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson. Because this novel strays from the traditional and beaten path of "Catholic Literature" to expose more true-to-life emotions and problems for priests, it had a stronger appeal within the literary community and a tighter grasp on its readers, both of which are necessary elements for a book to become a bestseller.
A sort of underlying purpose (aside from addressing the issues of the priest-novel) also exists within The Edge of Sadness. O'Connor can be considered somewhat of a formulaic writer in that he typically writes about the culture of middle-class, Irish-Americans. The Edge of Sadness, however, deals more with the death of Irishness in America, the loss of cultural identity, and the gap that exists between the generation of "old-world value" and "stubbornly traditional" fathers, and their "new-world" sons. Written at a time when people stopped being immigrants and started becoming Americans, The Edge of Sadness portrays the difficulties that arise within a family due to the changing ideals of each generation, and also the change in a community that is no longer of one cultural background.
Upon its release in 1961, The Edge of Sadness was met with mixed critical review. Many critics felt the book was merely a re-hash of O'Connor's previous novel, The Last Hurrah, which also dealt with the Irish-American community in America. Indeed, there is not much to the plot of the book. As J.G. Dunne wrote in the National Review, "Despite promising materials, nothing happens in The Edge of Sadness" (October 7, 1961). For other critics, though, the novel was recognized as a major achievement, and it was seen as such because of its realistic portrayal of the priest and the destruction of the American Catholic ghetto stereotype. Thomas McDonnell of The Critic saw the novel's narrator and protagonist, Father Hugh Kennedy, as "the first dimensionally human priest to emerge from the pages of an American novel" (July, 1961). The Edge of Sadness deserves such praise because it does present a different, but straightforward view of the priest. What is more important, though, is the conflict that the book creates. Before this novel, there existed a "popular stereotype which dominated American Catholic ghetto literature for nearly a century" (Rank, 122). This stereotype pictured the priest as "an authoritarian leader, a busy executive, a competent administrator, a wise counselor and shepherd to his flock, a gregarious extrovert, and a heroic celebate" (Rank, 123). Moreover, "according to the sociological studies done by Father Joseph Ficter, [this stereotype] was the dominant image held by the Catholic laity and priests alike in this era" (Rank, 123). O'Connor's realistic treatment of the clergy broke away from this stereotype and presented both the literary and Catholic community with a controversial and truth view of the priest. His novel is the pin that popped this inflated view of the ideal type of priest, and this was not easy for the Catholic community to accept. Stephen Ryan of Catholic World, in his review of the book, wrote the following:
"Certain readers will find some aspects of The Edge of Sadness unacceptable. Certain Catholics may well be offended by the portrait of Father Kennedy or by some of the more sharply critical passages in the novel. This is to miss the point. The novelist has written frankly and honestly; he has described certain situations which only the willfully blind can claim as nonexistent" (October, 1961).
O'Connor's priest is most definitely not the ideal ? he struggles with his own faith, his relationship with his church members, and, for a brief period of the novel, the reader learns the alcoholism the priest struggled with in his past, an illness that removed him from his parish for four years. This is a broken priest; this is a man; this is a fallible man; this is a character that until The Edge of Sadness had never appeared in American Catholic literature. Early in the novel, O'Connor's priest speaks of his own inabilities:
"I've said, I think, that this is not the kind of parish in which a great rapport obtains between the shepherd and his flock. We are all more or less strangers to one another. And most of all, I'm afraid, I'm a stranger in this smallest and dreariest part of my parish where ? all moving pictures to the contrary ? I can assure you that the priest is not this legendary, revered, and welcome figure, capable of healing with a glance. Or in any case this priest is not" (107).
Father Kennedy struggles with his parish, and he fails to make the connections with his people that were expected of a priest. This is a dramatic leap from the stereotype that existed at the time. The priest, a man to follow, a man to tell your problems to, a man to whom you go to seek advice, a man who you instill trust in, is now a man who does not even know who you are. Father Kennedy has no place in his community and no rapport with his church members. There is not a relationship in the church that generally derives from religion and the common sharing of beliefs. Catholicism places a great amount of emphasis on the priest as an iconographic teacher of the religion, but O'Connor's priest has no connection to this ideal, and though a struggling priest has probably existed in real life since the beginning of religious time, there had never before existed one in American literature. Perhaps the biggest problem with O'Connor's protagonist, or at least, the most controversial aspect of the character, was his drinking problem earlier in his career. After his father's death, Father Kennedy started drinking and slowly climbed the ladder to becoming a full blown alcoholic. His dependency became so overwhelming that he neglected his duty as a priest, neglected his church members, and stumbled along on late-night, drunken strolls through the church yard. Finally, the bishop in charge of the cities churches removed Father Kennedy from his parish and sent him to a rehabilitation center, and he remained there for four years. Again, this is not a topic associated with typical Catholic literature of the time. A story that deals with a priest and the story of "his own struggle with loneliness, alcoholism, and doubts about duty" totally diminished the "expected" character of a priest (Foell, 11). Prior to this novel, the only stories about Catholicism dealt with "sentimental stories, parochial special-pleadings, and romances in which the idealized priest-hero was in conflict with external antagonists, [and a novel with] its emphasis on inner conflict, about a priest-protagonist simply could not exist in [an] atmosphere in which the highly-inflated image of the priest denied any inner conflict" (Rank, 123).
The character of Father Hugh Kennedy shows how the novel had an impact on the religious community, but the novel also takes on a cultural context. O'Connor focused on the late period of Irish-American history, approximately 1948-68, and he almost exclusively wrote about Eastern, urban, Irish-American Catholics. The Edge of Sadness deals with the effects of acculturation on their religion and family life. Critic J.V. Kelleher wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "To hail this book as the definitive Irish-American, middle-class, Catholic novel would do it an injustice. It is all of that" (June 4, 1961). Specifically though, the novel deals with the dissipation of a strictly Irish community, and the disappearance of the Irish culture within families as they move further and further from their roots in immigration. In essence, it takes as its subject the death of Irishness. For Father Kennedy, the Irish community was something of a memory from his childhood, but as an adult and a priest, this memory has faded. He is the priest in the ghetto where his church is no longer filled with Irish-Americans, but with Chinese and Egyptian and Polish immigrants, some of whom do not even speak English. This is part of the reason why Father Kennedy cannot establish a rapport with his members. They are not what he knows, they are not what he grew up with, and they are not Irish. His struggle to deal with himself and his own emotions during his battle with alcoholism, transforms into an external battle of trying to reach out and connect with the culturally diverse. Father Kennedy battles with the notion that "a priest's marriage is to God, not to a particular ethnic group. His choice is either to become a model teacher for his curate and a true shepherd to his alien congregation, or else fail a second time as both priest and man" (Dillon, 116). The death of the Irish culture is also expressed within the different generations of one Irish family, the Carmodys. Here, O'Connor portrays an old-world father, Charlie, and the distance that exists between himself and his children. Charlie is 81 years of age, and he is most certainly of another era. He comes from a time when the world he lived in, his town and city, was filled with people just like him. But time has changed that world. It is more diverse, and at one point in the novel, when the characters are all talking at the birthday party of Charlie, the narrator (Father Kennedy) discusses the inherent differences between his own generation and the one before his. He writes:
"But it was the same talk with which I had grown up, the talk which belonged, really, to another era, and which now must have been close to disappearing, the talk of old men and old women for whom the simple business of talking had always been the one great recreation. And so the result was the long, winding, old-fashioned parade of extraordinary reminiscence and anecdote and parochial prejudice and crotchety improbable behavior?the newer, smoother, tolerances had not yet arrived" (O'Connor, 70).
This distinction between generations causes problems within the Carmody family. Father, Charlie, and son, John, share a difference of opinion on just about everything. Charlie remembers the way things were, and feels that they should still be the same, but John recognizes the changes; he recognizes how things really are. As a result, father and son do not get along and go through life without every feeling that they love one another. The book seems to have a subtle longing and a sense of nostalgia for what used to be, but still manages to focus more on dealing with the changes in an Irish-American community. "O'Connor is less concerned with the fate of Charlie Carmody and Father Kennedy than the fate of the entire Irish-American community in an unnamed city that is obviously Boston. What he feels elegiac about is the death of a separate ethnic cultural identity" (Time, June 9, 1961).
What also might have drawn readers to The Edge of Sadness is simply O'Connor's ability to write and to produce meaningful, emotional prose, as well as memorable, heartfelt characters. Both Charlie Carmody and Father Kennedy make lasting impressions on the reader, and it is impossible not to feel some small bit of sadness for each of them. Charlie, on his deathbed, comes to the realization that he is not really loved or admired by anyone, despite what he tells his family and friends. And in Father Kennedy readers are forced to realize the unfortunate sadness the exists in life, and that is that the only positive outlook may come from the fact that "settling" in life might just turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else though, The Edge of Sadness was a follow-up to a bestseller. The Last Hurrah, its predecessor, put O'Connor on the literary map, and it is not uncommon that an author's previous works will have an affect on his current work.
Although it had only a few subsequent reviews, later critics still acknowledged the importance of this novel. It presented a new image of religious life, and revealed for the first time in American literature that "the priest, like everybody else, has problems" (Donoghue). The novel also showed the developing melting-pot of culture that America had come to symbolize, and how that affected a single cultural background as well as the generations within that background. O'Connor's writing represents a specific people, it embraces them as well, and "in focusing on priests O'Connor is not, of course, dealing with the total Irish-American experience, only with its most representative elements" (Dillon). The Edge of Sadness, though, was a bestselling novel that was only a bestseller because of its time period. Having been the first novel to deal with the priest in a truthful light, it was very controversial at the time. Today, however, this is not the case. Church scandals and accusations of priest-child molestation grace the headlines of today's newspapers and magazines; a priest with a drinking problem is simply "no big deal" anymore. The fact that this book's "shock-value" could only exist when it did is a big reason why the book is not a continuing bestseller. There has not been a newly printed edition of the book in over ten years. The last new edition was printed in 1991, probably as an anniversary edition. The controversial issue lead to its immeadiately high shelf velocity when first published in 1961, but once the issue subsided, O'Connor was left with just a pretty good book without much of a plot.
1)"Book Review Digest" 1961, pages 1075-76
-"Catholic World" Stephen Ryan (October, 1961)
-"Time Magazine" (June 9, 1961)
2)"The New York Times Book Review" June 4, 1961
3)"The Critic" Thomas McDonnell (July, 1961)
4)"National Review" J.G. Dunne (October 7, 1961)
5)The Edge of Sadness Edwin O'Connor
6)Edwin O'Connor Hugh Rank
7) Contemporary Literary Criticism - Vol. 14, pages 390-395
-Denis Donoghue - "Language Barriers" - The New York Review of Books (June 18, 1970)
-David Dillon - "Priests and Politicians: The Fiction of Edwin O'Connor" - Critique Vol. XVI, No. 2, 1974