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Frank O’Connor Studies

Portraits of O’Connor

William Maxwell, from ‘Frank O’Connor and The New Yorker

Intellectual colloquy, bread loaf

His voice, his face, his innocent nature, his knowledge of the world–these come to mind not in any order of importance; they are just part of the way I remember him. I was aware of them all during that first meeting. . . . His clothes. Those rough Harris tweed coats. The smell of his pipe tobacco. His smile. His kindness. There is a snapshot of him that I keep under the glass top of my desk–taken in Vermont, on the front porch of a clapboard house. Michael is addressing a raccoon. Their size being very different, Michael is bending from the hips in what looks like a formal bow, and from the way the fingers of his right hand are arranged he is either offering the raccoon a morsel of food or making an important literary distinction. The raccoon is balancing on his hind legs, his nose lifted as high as it will go, his gaze earnestly directed not at the food (if it is food) but at Michael’s face. He is, obviously, head over heels in love. No human being has ever bothered to understand him before, and the understanding of other raccoons is not the thing he has needed all his life. What is also clear from the snapshot is that the affection is reciprocated. Without this blaze of understanding, which he had hardly dared hope for and perhaps no longer expected to find, that raccoon might well have perished. The conversation is not in words but direct from the heart, one creature to another.

His voice, his face. The horn-rimmed glasses. The eyes, that, when I try to recall them exactly, give me trouble; their color varies all the way from a hazel to a brown so dark that it seems black, and this cannot have been possible. It can only be an effect of distance. The thick gray hair and the gray mustache. The fiery black eyebrows. The color of his skin, and the habitual lines of his face, in his forehead, at the corners of his eyes particularly, and bracketing his mouth. Though he was not free from worry, it did not show. The lines expressed only animation, the mind excited by and delighting in perceptiveness. . . . When I think of him I hear his voice, I see his extraordinary face. I remember the affectionate and amused expression in his eyes, the kingly turn of the head, the beautiful smile. In speaking of him I cannot bring myself to use the past tense.

Eric Solomon, ‘Frank O’Connor as Teacher,’ Twentieth Century Literature

Frank O’Connor was often accused of being iconoclastic–of being in a perpetual state of annoyance with the Catholic Church. It was even written that “the sight of the collar was enough to make his hair stand on end”. It is true that he had little time for the institutional Church’s pedantic and legalistic moralizing, and even less for its Byzantine secrecy and triumphalist and authoritarian voice. But towards the actual men set apart by the collar–those called “father” by people who are not their children–he had an attitude compounded of amusement, respect, curiosity, and, above all, compassion.

Unlikely as it may seem, he felt a certain kinship with them. In a review of J.F. Powers’s book The Presence of Grace he wrote:

The attraction of the religious life for the story-teller is overpowering. It is the attraction of the sort of life lived, or seeking to be lived, by standards other than those of this world, one which, in fact, resembles that of the artist. The good priest, like the good artist, needs human rewards, but no human reward can ever satisfy him.

Perhaps this explains the large number of stories about priests in his work – the first written when he was in his thirties, the last, unfinished and untitled, the year he died. Taken as a whole, they not only seem a salute from one maverick to another, but also show an interesting development of his understanding of the difficulties of the job.

Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, ‘Introduction’ to The Collar: Stories of Irish Priests

Michael burned himself out and died too young, but I feel that he died content. Content that, at last, his fellow countrymen understood, if only partially, why he had been such a fighter, and understood that it was love for Ireland which made him critical of the mediocre and shoddy. He always said that he wrote for the lonely person down the country who read a story and said to himself: ‘Yes, he understands, he knows what it is like’, or who read an article in the Independent and thought: ‘Yes, that is what I want, we can be or do better’. I think he finally was able to say to himself, ‘Well, after all, my life’s work has made a tiny difference . . . what I’ve been able to do has mattered.’

I’d like to give him the last word. This is what he wrote in An Only Child when, as a young man, he had given a speech, which as he said was all ‘vague words and vaguer impressions that with me passed for thought’. But, he discovered for himself:

All that did matter was the act of faith, the hope that somehow, somewhere I would be able to prove I was neither mad nor a good for nothing; because now I realized that whatever it might cost me, there was no turning back. When as kids we came to an orchard wall that seemed too high to climb, we took off our caps and tossed them over the wall, and then we had no choice but to follow them.

I had tossed my cap over the wall of life, and I knew I must follow it, wherever it had fallen. (New York, 1961: 180)

Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, 2007

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