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last hurrah

The Last Hurrah

The Last Hurrah is a 1956 novel written by Edwin O'Connor. It is considered the most popular of O’Connor’s works, partly because of a significant 1958 movie adaptation starring Spencer Tracy. The novel when published was immediately a bestseller in the United States and stayed so for 20 weeks and on bestseller lists for the year it was published. The Last Hurrah, which won the Atlantic Prize, was also highlighted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and Reader's Digest. The Last Hurrah received very positive critical reviews, including an "ecstatic" one from the New York Times Book Review.

Plot summary

The plot of The Last Hurrah focuses on a mayoral election in an unnamed city in which veteran Irish Democratic Party politician, Frank Skeffington, is running for yet another term as Mayor; a former governor, he is usually called by the honorific title "Governor." While the city is never named, it is frequently associated with Boston and Skeffington with former Boston mayor and Massachusetts governor James Michael Curley. The story is told in the third person; our viewpoint character varies between the omnisicient narrator and Adam Caulfield, the Mayor's nephew. Skeffington is a veteran and adept machine politician, and, arguably, corrupt as well; the novel portrays him as a flawed great man with many achievements to his credit. At the beginning of the book, Skeffington, who is 72 and who has been giving signs that he might consider retiring from public life at the end of his current term, surprises many by announcing what he had always intended to do -- to run for another term as Mayor. The main body of the novel gives a detailed and insightful view of urban politics, tracking Skeffington and his nephew through rounds of campaign appearances and events. In the actual election, Skeffington is defeated. One of Adam's friends explains that the election was indeed a last hurrah for the kind of old-style machine politics that Skeffington had mastered; the changes in American public life, including the consequences of the New Deal, have so changed the face of city politics that Skeffington no longer can survive. Kevin McCluskey, a neophyte candidate with a handsome face and good manners and a good World War II record but no political experience and no real abilities for politics or governing, defeats Skeffington. Immediately after his defeat, Skeffington suffers a heart attack with another soon afterward; ultimately, he dies, leaving behind a city in mourning for a pivotal figure in its history but one that has no room for him or his kind any longer.

Characters

  • Frank Skeffington is the mayor of an unnamed city as well as a former governor. It is commonly believed that the character of Skeffington is based on the person of James Michael Curley (1874–1958).
  • Frank Skeffington Junior is the son of the mayor, Frank Skeffington senior. He is a disappointment to his father, as he has no ambition and seems only to be interested in dancing and socializing.
  • Adam Caulfield is Frank Skeffington Senior's nephew and a cartoonist for a local newspaper, where he draws a comic strip that he created, "Little Simp." He is 33 years old.
  • Maeve Caulfield is wife to Adam Caulfield; she is 22. Her views of Frank Skeffington evolve in the course of the book, but she begins with dislike and suspicion of him, due to her upbringing.
  • Roger Sugrue, Maeve's father, is a bitter critic of Frank Skeffington; his views have shaped his daughter's views.
  • Amos Force is the publisher of the leading newspaper in the city; for an array of reasons -- personal, political, bigotry, and family -- Force loathes Skeffington and is committed to seeing him lose his latest campaign for re-election as Mayor.
  • Sam Weinberg, one of Skeffington's advisers, is Jewish and a shrewd political observer; he is wary about Skeffington's chances for re-election.
  • John Gorman,another of Skeffington’s advisers, is a senior ward boss and a master politician; he is torn between his faith in Skeffington and his cold-eyed political realism.
  • Ditto Boland is an ardent supporter of Skeffington. Like many of Skeffington's acolytes, he does his best to mimic his hero's dress, manner of speaking, and personality. He has so few views of his own that he has won the nickname "Ditto" from Skeffington, a nickname that he accepts with pride because his hero has conferred it on him. Nobody remembers his real first name any longer, and even he seems not to use it.
  • The Cardinal is a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church; he is a bitter opponent of Skeffington, believing that Skeffington has disgraced his religion, his fellow Irish, and his office.
  • Kevin McCluskey, Skeffington's designated political opponent, a young and handsome veteran of World War II with virtually no political experience. He is probably based on future president John F. Kennedy, who succeeded Curley as congressman from Boston's 11th district.

Major themes

Relation to Curley

While not a roman à clef, there are points of similarity between Skeffington and Boston mayor James Michael Curley which led some to believe that Skeffington was based on him. O'Connor denied this. The city of the novel is never explicitly named; but that it is supposed to represent Boston is certainly implied (O'Connor also lived for a period in Boston).

Changing politics

More than the defeat of a single politician , The Last Hurrah is a work which tells the story of the end of an entire era of American politics, specifically the era of the "big-city politician" exemplified by Frank Skeffington. As is posited in the novel, Frank Skeffington lost because of the changing times during which the national government took over the role of city mayors and began to aid the people in a way that only locals had before. The New Deal and its constituent laws implemented systems whereby the national government would, "dispense money, jobs, health care and housing". Traditionally, these matters would be handled by local authorities; this shift meant a new standard of accountability by which mayoral candidates would be measured. Franklin D. Roosevelt, initiator of the New Deal, "[substituted] government social welfare programs for the corrupt ward heeler's ill-gotten private dole and power source".

Some scholars disagree with the above assertions, arguing that several city mayors have benefited from the aid that New Deal agencies give to their constituents. They may also cite that Roosevelt himself endeavored to strengthen ties to local politics before the Hatch Act stopped him.

Influence

With Democracy (1880), All the King's Men (1946), and Advise and Consent (1959), The Last Hurrah is among the more successful novels about American politics; it is also one of two successful works of fiction about Boston, along with The Late George Apley (1937).

Perhaps most notably, the phrase '"The Last Hurrah" has since become a common phrase in the English language to mean a swan song or, in politics, the last campaign of a politician.

Interestingly, the success of the novel and subsequent film adaptations have greatly improved the public image of James Michael Curley, on whose story the novel is thought to be based. Skeffington, who possibly represents Curley, is depicted in the work as rambunctious, yet heroic, where Curley, before publication, was largely forgotten. Now the late mayor and governor is looked upon with nostalgia.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

John Ford, himself an Irish-American, directed this very notable book-to-movie adaptation. Much of this notability is due to the very reputable, and well-performing, cast which includes Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Gleason, Frank McHugh, Wallace Ford and Willis Bouchey. Columbia Pictures bought from O'Connor the rights to make this movie for $150,000.

Other

In addition to the 1958 movie, a number of other adaptations of the novel exist. There was a 1977 version made for television and a 1999 staging for the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston by Eric Simonson. In addition, a two-act musical was written and produced at Northwestern University.

References

Further reading

  • Edwin O'Connor, The Last Hurrah (Boston, 1956), p. 330; Lyle W. Dorsett, The Pendergast Machine (New York, 1968), pp. 103-17.
  • Dorsett, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the City Bosses (Port Washington, N.Y., 1977).
  • Bruce M. Stave, The New Deal and the Last Hurrah: Pittsburgh Machine Politics (Pittsburgh, 1970).
  • John M. Allswang, The New Deal and American Politics: A Study in Political Change (New York, 1978), pp. 68-87.
  • Charles H. Trout, Boston, the Great Depression and the New Deal (New York, 1977).
  • Sidney M. Milkis, "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Transcendence of Partisan Politics," Political Science Quarterly, 100, 3 (Fall, 1985): 492-99.
  • A. James Reichley, The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties (New York, 1992), pp. 258-62.

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