In 1972 the Southern Illinois University Press republished Edith Summers Kelley’s 1923 novel Weeds, beginning what became the Lost American Fiction Series.1 Matthew J. Bruccoli, the series editor, aimed to republish obscure and disappearing works of fiction felt to deserve new audiences. E. P. O’Donnell’s novel The Great Big Doorstep (1941) was chosen in 1979 to be republished in the series with an afterword and end note about the author by Eudora Welty. Welty’s essay and note are reprinted here following this brief introduction.
O’Donnell, born Edwin Phillip and known to friends as Pat, grew up near the wharves in an area of New Orleans known as the Irish Channel. Though he left school by the seventh grade, O’Donnell developed a pattern of working two jobs at a time (Welty, Afterword 19–20). While at the Ford assembly plant, he rose from working on the assembly line to being chief of publicity. It was here that, after giving a tour of the plant in the 1920s to Sherwood Anderson that the author encouraged O’Donnell to use his gift for words to write (Flora and Vogel 303). O’Donnell published his first short story, “Transfusion,” in the 1929 first issue of Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms, a little magazine with which Welty was familiar created by Brookhaven, Mississippi, native Charles Henri Ford. The magazine also attracted work from Erskine Caldwell, another southern writer (Weddle 23). From this beginning, O’Donnell continued to gain recognition for his style and talent.
O’Donnell’s short story “Jesus Knew,” published by Harper’s in 1935, won him third prize in the O. Henry Memorial Awards and helped him earn the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship in 1936, the first year the award was offered, although Jon Edgar Webb’s entry had the backing of Sherwood Anderson (Flora and Vogel 303, Brooks 34, Weddle 23). The title of O’Donnell’s sample for the fellowship application, “Spume on the Pollen,” referenced a scene for the projected novel in which a Cajun grows Easter lilies on someone else’s property. Although this scene was later included in The Great Big Doorstep, O’Donnell used the alternate title suggested by editors Paul Brooks and Ferris Greenlet to replace “Spume on the Pollen.” [End Page 7] While flipping through Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, Brooks and Greenlet had come upon the phrase “margents green” from John Milton’s Comus.2 The phrase, modified to “Green Margins,” became the setting for both of O’Donnell’s novels (Brooks 34–35). Described by Welty as a narrow peninsula on the fringe of Louisiana, the area and lives of the people in it are just that: on the margin (Afterword 13). The novel itself, however, gained notice from O’Donnell’s contemporaries.
When The Great Big Doorstep appeared in October of 1941, its publication caused a stir with two reviews in the New York Times within a month of its release. Ralph Thompson remarked that O’Donnell is “half as fancy a writer … and about twice as diverting” in his second novel (21). Herschell Brickell noted that despite the recent familiarity of plots involving underprivileged families, “O’Donnell’s setting and characters have refreshing novelty, and the plot … is sufficiently strong to carry the story without creaking” (22). Brickell concluded that O’Donnell had easily and successfully overcome “the severe handicap of the second novel” and expected much from O’Donnell in the future (22). The next month Joseph Loewinsohn reviewed the novel in the Atlanta Constitution, insisting that readers would like the characters (4). The following year Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who later gained renown in adapting The Diary of Anne Frank for the screen, adapted O’Donnell’s novel for Broadway (“Frances Goodrich”). Despite its short three-week run from November 26 through December 19, 1942, the play continues to be produced occasionally by local theaters around the country (“The Great Big Doorstep”). The Great Big Doorstep is different from previous southern novels, felt reviewers, in the way in which it combines the themes of poverty, comedy...