Monday, June 6, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE LAST HURRAH” by Edwin O’Connor (first published 1956)
Some time back, in a post called The Quality of Kindness, I opined that a certain American political novel was a good novel but that it was not “up there with the very best American political novels like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah.”
Almost at once I had a little twinge of conscience. All the King’s Men is undoubtedly a fine novel, but The Last Hurrah is a rather more obscure title and over the years has not earned the same critical esteem, even if it was highly praised on its first publication, won a literary prize and became a bestseller. For a short time its author, Edwin O’Connor (1918-68), was regarded as a major literary voice of Irish-Americans, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for another novel five years after The Last Hurrah appeared. But he is not somebody you would now find in the reading list of many tertiary-level courses in American literature. After I made my statement pairing his novel with Penn Warren’s, I reflected that I hadn’t actually read The Last Hurrah since I was a young student years ago, and I wasn’t really in a position to proclaim the book as a classic like All the King’s Men.
So I sat down and re-read it.
One obvious point has to be made. Like All the King’s Men, whose demagogic protagonist Willy Stark is based on the historical Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, The Last Hurrah is a fictionalised version of a real politician. Its Mayor Frank Skeffington is clearly, as all the novel’s first American readers understood, based on Mayor James Michael Curley (1874-1958), long-time mayor of Boston.
At the age of 72, Frank Skeffington decides to run one last time for mayor in the unspecified American city where he has served as mayor from many terms. Skeffington’s cronies often flatter him by giving him the nickname “Governor” because once, when he was much younger, he served one term as governor of his state. Skeffington is a widower with a foolish wastrel of a son whom he doesn’t like. He much prefers his nephew Adam Caulfield, a journalist and newspaper cartoonist. For no particular reason (apart from wanting a family member to talk to – and perhaps to be sympathetic to his view of things), Frank Skeffington asks Adam to come along and observe his campaign and be with him when there is political bargaining to be done.
From its opening, then, The Last Hurrah sets itself up as the story of a political campaign as witnessed by, and explained to, a non-political observer.
The city has in the past been dominated by Irish-Americans like Skeffington. Even if other second- and third-generation immigrant groups have crowded in, and the Irish are becoming a minority, the Irish influence is still great. Therefore all political groups court the important Irish vote. The third-person narrative declares of all the candidates running for mayor: “None was outstanding and all were similarly qualified for election to the city’s highest office; that is to say, all were Democrats, all were Irish, all were Catholics. It was not everything, but it was enough.” (Chapter 3) Much later in the novel, Skeffington notes to Adam: “You see my position is slightly complicated because I’m not just an elected official of the city; I’m a tribal chieftain as well. It’s a necessary kind of dual officeholding, you might say; without the second, I wouldn’t be the first.” (Chapter 8) His “tribe” is the Irish.
Not all the city’s Irish approve of Skeffington. While many of the Catholic clergy are taken in by his blarney, the Cardinal who heads the city’s Catholic diocese can’t stand Skeffington and sees him as a long-time crook and embezzler.
There is a certain “melting pot” aspect to this city, despite continued Irish political dominance. To win any election, Skeffington has to butter up the Italians, the Poles and the Negroes [that term was still the acceptable one at the time this book was written]. Even the Jews are on board. Despite being a “tribal chieftain”, Skeffington is no anti-Semite and one of his closest buddies, and part of his inner circle of advisors, is a Jew, Sam Weinberg. Of course, one group he will never win over is the city’s old Anglo-Protestant class, which still resents the fact that the peasant Irish began to swarm into the city in the 19th century. These people see all Irish as being “uppity”.
Edwin O’Connor gives us the accurate insight that gossip and personal affronts are what most stay in people’s minds rather than truly political issues. For example the wealthy Anglo newspaper owner Amos Force hates Skeffington because he can remember a time when Skeffington’s impoverished Irish mother was a servant in his parents’ house, and a part of Force’s mind still sees domestic service as the rightful place of all Irish-Americans. Yet even the plutocrat Anglos know that in this town, if they want to beat Skeffington, they will have to find an Irish candidate they can control – and they find him in the bland and complacent young man Kevin McClusky.
The very title of this novel warns us that Skeffington is on his way out. (For the record, it was this novel that popularised the phrase “last hurrah”, meaning one last big effort to gain public support or esteem.) Frank Skeffington himself is fully aware that he is old-fashioned and his heyday is past. To his team he says:
“Most of the boys coming along today stick pretty much to radio and television; it’s all nice and easy and streamlined. As for myself, I use all the radio and television I can, but I also go into the wards and speak in the armouries and junior high schools and on street corners. It can be a difficult way of doing things, but it’s exciting, it’s the way I’ve always done it, and what’s more, it’s usually paid off. I find that to be of some importance. But there’s no use kidding ourselves: it’s on the way out. People can’t be bothered doing things like that anymore… I suppose that I’m about the last of the old-style political leaders who’s still alive and moving around. All the others are dead or in institutions, held together by adhesive tape, bits of wire and plastic tubes. When I join them, the old campaign will vanish like the Noble Red Man. There simply won’t be anyone around who knows how to run one. And as this may be my last campaign, it may be your last chance to get into the act before it becomes extinct. It’s quite an opportunity when you look at it that way, isn’t it?” (Chapter 4)
The third-person narrative later comments:
“The indirect penetration of the home via the television was all very well; to his mind, it did not begin to compare in effectiveness with the direct and personal visit – with the sign of recognition, the extended hand, the solicitous enquiry into family affairs, the donation of favour or promise of favour. It was this procedure, painstakingly accomplished, that had always been the heart of Skeffington’s campaign; he did not change it now. Indeed, he added it to the newer techniques and thus acquired a schedule heavier than he had attempted before.” (Chapter 10)
When he appears before the new-fangled television cameras, Skeffington proves to be a deft performer, selling himself to the mass audience with avuncular blandishments. Even so, what we are getting here is a portrait of the old-fashioned “ward” politician who is outrunning his time. And yet he is very skilled in his old-fashioned approach to campaigning. Edwin O’Connor notes shrewdly how Skeffington manages to flatter even the dead when called upon to deliver eulogies at wakes. He makes such exemplary figures out of the deceased, that the bereaved relatives smile through their tears, knowing that their late family member wasn’t that good a person: “He had observed to his intimates that in these eulogies he accorded the departed their last and greatest gift: he rendered them totally unrecognizable to their relicts.” (Chapter 5)
Does this novel present Skeffington simply as a colourful rogue? Not entirely. Clearly his enemies have some justice on their side when they point to the fact that often city-funded building projects have cost three times more than they should have, because Skeffington has used allocated funds to pay off buddies on his support committees. Graft, in other words. Skeffington never profits personally from his financial fiddles – he gives away all the money he acquires to buy political support. He expects men for whom he arranges jobs to make generous donations to his machine. He can also be downright nasty. At one point he blackmails an un-cooperative banker into giving the city a major loan by exploiting and compromising the banker’s naïve and foolish son. Also, though it is treated jocularly and only in passing, there are stories of multiple voting and intimidation at the polls in past elections. We are reminded of the roughhouse that used to be commonplace in American ward politics. And yet the portrait of Skeffington is largely a benign one and an inducement to nostalgia for the ways city politics were once conducted.
So, for most of the novel, we simply trundle along watching Skeffington’s last campaign as witnessed by Adam Caulfield. Then, between Parts 2 and 3 of the novel, we jump to the last week of the campaign. As the title warned us, Skeffington goes down to big defeat. At the very end of Part 3 he has a massive heart attack and thus spends most of Part 4 dying, before, at the very end, various characters get to make their final judgments on him once he is safely dead. It is in Part 4 that a minor character spells out to Adam Caulfield one implicit message of the novel – that Skeffington had become an anachronism because his variety of ward politics had been wiped out by universal federal welfare, which means that the mass of the city’s population no longer has to look to city authorities, and the personal generosity of the mayor, to provide social welfare. They are no longer the mayor’s clients. Says the minor character “Roosevelt [meaning the New Deal] killed him.”
As an historical document, about a vanished style of politicking, this is all quite interesting. The political commentator Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (who was a personal friend of Edwin O’Connor) called The Last Hurrah “the best American novel about urban politics.” He might have been right about the politics part, but how good is it as a novel?
Perhaps inevitably, there are some things about it that are very dated – but then it does deal with a past age. We are still in the time when incoming election results are chalked up on a big board at campaign headquarters. The big potential scandal that at one point threatens to upset Skeffington’s campaign now seems merely quaint. One subordinate in Skeffington’s campaign team is having an affair with another man’s wife. Skeffington dumps him. More important, the role of women in the novel is very limited. They appear exclusively as widows and wives of important male characters. Widows are those to whom Skeffington doles out vote-securing largesse. Adam Caulfield’s wife Maeve is a cardboard character who has no other function than to bring a little domestic tension to Adam’s life by having a conservative father who hates Skeffington. I’m inclined also to note that the presumption that social welfare has wiped out personal-approach local politicians is also dated.
O’Connor has some narrative skill, especially in Chapter 8 where he shows an Irish wake turning into a political occasion as Skeffington spats with a rival for the mayoralty. But there is a certain deadness to the prose style. When Skeffington speaks, O’Connor allows his orations to take up whole pages, as if he is a reporter getting all the facts, ma’am. He has a tendency to spell things out in detail rather than giving us what is essential and significant. For example, we are given the whole transcript of young Kevin McKlusky’s oleaginous campaigning TV broadcast – McKlusky posing with his wife and kiddies in front of a strategically-hung photograph of the pope. The main weakness, though, is the thin character of Adam Caulfield. He seems to have been conceived by the author as some sort of objective witness through whose eyes we can see the nature of Skeffington’s politics. In this respect he has something like the observer role played by the character of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. But Adam is a cipher of a character. And he is insufferably stupid. We are meant to believe that he, an adult and a journalist, forsooth, who has spent his whole life in Skeffington’s city, knows nothing of the city’s political process and has never heard of his uncle’s working methods. This is simply so that the author can educate us about these things by having people reveal them to Adam.
My brutal verdict, then, is that The Last Hurrah holds up as an entertaining read about a dated political process, but that it is no classic. Its characters are seen mainly from the outside, with hardly any thought processes in sight apart from those intended for public display. While All the King’s Men’s demagogue protagonist has a complex life of the mind, Frank Skeffington has none. Perhaps it is best to call The Last Hurrah a good, but very dated, journalistic novel.
Cinematic footnote. The popularity of the novel was boosted by the fact that it was quickly made into a Hollywood movie directed by the best-known Irish-American director, John Ford. The 1958 movie starred Spencer Tracy as Frank Skeffington and Ford surrounded him with a cast of familiar Irish-American film veterans (Pat O’Brien et al). Apparently there was also a TV movie made in 1977 with Carroll O’Connor as Skeffington. I have seen neither of these and cannot comment on them, but I do know that the Ford movie did well at the box office and apparently drew in audiences by its Irish-American sentiment.