2009 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
“What James Joyce did for Dublin and Saul Bellow did for Chicago, William Kennedy has done for Albany, New York,” wrote critic James Atlas in Vogue. “His cycle of Albany novels is one of the great resurrections of place in our literature.”
Over the course of eight novels, three books of non-fiction, two screenplays, stage plays, essays, and two children’s books, William Kennedy has created a body of work that is second to none. His novels are mostly set in his home city of Albany and are populated by a collection of schemers, politicians, gangsters, priests and poets who evoke the best of Eugene O’Neill, James Cagney and other memorable Irish American artists. His most celebrated work, Ironweed (1983), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
A Lifetime of Accomplishment
Born in 1928 in Albany’s North End, Kennedy was educated by the Christian Brothers and, upon graduation from Siena College, began a career in journalism. He worked as a sports reporter and, after being drafted in 1950, worked for an Army newspaper in Europe. Beginning in 1956, he worked for a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, later serving as managing editor of the fledgling San Juan Star. 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] fully human as anyone else. The people he wrote about didn’t know they had become pariah. He wrote about them from the inside…. I was moved by the characters, by their naïve but human frailties.”
Kennedy exhibited his singular literary sensibility in his masterful Albany Cycle of novels, beginning with Legs (1975), about gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1979), which introduced the Phelan family, and Ironweed, which was later made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson as Francis Phelan, from a screenplay by Kennedy.
Quinn’s Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), The Flaming Corsage (1996) and Roscoe (2002) expand upon and round out the Albany Cycle. His nonfiction works includes O Albany! and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. His screenplays, in addition to Ironweed, includes The Cotton Club, which he co-wrote with director Francis Ford Coppola.
Kennedy has taught creative writing and journalism at University of Albany, Cornell University and University of Oregon. He has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and, in 1993, was elected to the American Academy of the 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 on the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities.