City’s Literary Set Revives a Giant

In the mid-1980′s, someone asked the late Thomas Flanagan if he’d he read Erica Jong’s last novel. “I definitely hope so,” he replied.

He was a man of lightning wit and great learning. His first novel, The Year of the French (1979), won a National Book Critics Circle Award and earned a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review. His follow-up works, Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt (1994), also earned glorious reviews and awards in Europe as well as in the United States.

Sadly, though, he has started to slip off New York’s literary radar screen, his complicated worldview and elegant prose no longer widely appreciated in the age of PlayStation and Internet bloggers.

Fortunately, the NYRB press has just collected his articles for The New York Review of Books, as well as many other pieces, in a volume entitled There You Are, with a preface by his close friend, Seamus Heaney. (In the interest of full disclosure, Tom was my Ph.D. dissertation director, mentor and friend.)

In these essays, which the city’s literary crowd devoured over the course of several decades, Flanagan displays his wit and flash in pieces on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara and Mary McCarthy. Even though McCarthy was Tom’s friend, he still comments that in her best fiction, “sex is forever skidding on the banana peels of physiology and rubber goods.”

Flanagan’s passion for accuracy and his contempt for what he termed “stage Irish” sentimentality inform his long essays on Eugene O’Neill and William Kennedy. Flanagan carefully shows how these artists shunned the clichés of Irish-American life and produced profound insights into the Irish-American character and dilemma.

The longest section of the book is on Irish literature, and the essays prove what his students at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of California at Berkeley long knew: No other scholar understood Yeats and Joyce better, and none could evaluate more shrewdly Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, and contemporary Irish writers like Brian Moore and Seamus Deane.

Tom Flanagan always put literature within a historical context, so it’s no surprise that the final two sections of the book contain his essays on Irish and American history as well as his personal and professional thoughts about history and the writing of historical novels. But even in his thoughts on the deaths of his friends Kevin Sullivan and Darcy O’Brien, he places their lives within historical context.

The wit and learning are always present. In The Uncrowned King, he focuses on Charles Stewart Parnell, the 19th-century fighter for Irish independence; his mistress, Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea; and her husband, Captain O’Shea. Flanagan describes the captain as a “panderer, liar, blackmailer, boaster,” adding that “he lacked any redeeming trait, other than a fondness for such of his children as he had reason to believe might be his.” But Flanagan refuses to sentimentalize the great Parnell, and notes that Parnell referred to Kitty as “his ‘Wifie’ and his ‘Queenie.’ The epistolary style in her little circle was not an elevated one.”

Everyone who knew Tom has a favorite story of his wit and erudition. Mine occurred during a chaotic day at Berkeley in the late 1960′s. Governor Ronald Reagan had sent the National Guard to put down a minor student revolt, and the Guardsmen not only surrounded the campus but dropped tear gas from helicopters. I retreated into Wheeler Hall, the home of the English department, and went to the coffee lounge on the third floor.

Tom was alone in the room, staring out the window. We talked for a bit, and then another English professor, Howard Hugo, ran into the room, greatly agitated. Hugo affected many aristocratic mannerisms-he was married to an extremely wealthy woman. “The world is breaking down,” Hugo whined. “What will happen to us?” After listening patiently, Flanagan replied, speaking slowly as to a child, “Not to worry, Howard. I understand that, as we speak, the czar is on his way to the front.”

It was a brilliant remark, and it worked on multiple levels. The source of its humor was the juxtaposition of Hugo’s overwrought fear about the less-than-crucial Berkeley events with the epoch-shattering Russian Revolution. It also contained the sardonic Flanagan vision: Not only will things turn out badly, but the gesture to right them is futile and, in the czar’s case, also comic.

Similarly, Tom Flanagan regarded Irish history as a tale of bitter defeat and sorrow-but also a story containing great wit and laughter along the way to the inevitable grave. His friends miss him, but we hear his voice clearly in this collection of essays. Hopefully others will also listen to him, in this book and the recent reissue (by the NYRB press) of The Year of the French.

Murray Sperber is a professor emeritus of English and American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.