- The Selected Essays of Sean O'Faolain ed. by Brad Kent
Despite his prominence as a public intellectual throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and well into the 1950s, Sean O'Faolain has gained most of his recognition from his short story writing. The New York Times even called O'Faolain "an Irish Master of the Short Story" upon his death in 1991 (Flint B12). At his best, O'Faolain certainly rivalled in quality, if not consistency, other major names associated with the Irish short story, such as his friend Frank O'Connor. Later in life, O'Faolain lamented that he spent too much time on his non-fiction writing to the detriment of his first love. His loss is our gain. Many of the essays in this, the first serious scholarly selection of his non-fiction writing to date, are taken from O'Faolain's contributions to The Bell, the foremost literary journal in Ireland during the 1940s and the 1950s, of which O'Faolain was chief editor from 1940-45. His editorship was key in establishing the journal as an essential outlet for writers of the post-Yeats and post-Joyce generation; the diversity and quality of The Bell can be gleaned from the essays that Brad Kent has selected for this collection.
O'Faolain's essay writing is insightful and probing, and often features a biting and incisive wit. When William Magennis, the Chairman of the Censorship Board, attempted to justify to the Dáil (Irish House of Representatives) the proscription of a book that had been given the stamp of approval from Church hierarchy, O'Faolain [End Page 675] quipped about his long, meandering speech: "it is always depressing to see a man whorling about in the mazes of his own mind in the effort to stave off the humiliating admission that he has done a wrong thing. One sympathises with him. It is, nonetheless, an embarrassing public spectacle" ("The Senate and Censorship" 187). Two of O'Faolain's works of fiction, the short story collection Midsummer Night Madness and the novel Bird Alone, had been censored, which perhaps added a tinge of vitriol to his portrait of Magennis. Yet, in essays such as "The Dangers of Censorship," he moves beyond mere critique and proposes ways that the censor might fulfill a beneficial potential for Irish society; namely, that the board ought to be composed of more intelligent individuals who understood the writer's craft. These fifty essays depict a writer who wished to foster a community for Irish public intellectuals that prized rigour over and above any one particular point of view. In other words, O'Faolain held the merits of intellectual debate in the highest regard.
O'Faolain's knack for aphorisms and quips, which could otherwise run the risk of glib universalization, suggest a writer who has both his own art and reader accessibility in mind. The ease of access in these essays is all the more impressive considering the range of topics and references that O'Faolain takes up in his writing. O'Faolain was a devoted student of history-Irish and otherwise-and of European literary traditions. Russian and French realists such as Ivan Turgenev, Gustav Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant feature prominently in his conception of literary forbears. But he also admired the social concerns of Victorian novelists, especially Dickens at his most artful, as in Martin Chuzzlewit, at least before "you come to Eden and that truly shocking piece of flummery, the reform of Martin, and you begin to feel uncomfortable" ("Dickens and Thackeray" 70). Perhaps most striking for a writer in the 1930s and 1940s, though, is the lack of references to those now associated with high modernism. Joyce, inevitably for the interwar generation of Irish writers, makes frequent appearances in O'Faolain's thoughts, as do, more occasionally, Faulkner and Hemingway, though mostly for their proximity to realism. Still, these essays suggest that O'Faolain was aware of the diverse literary scene of his time: without ever...