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Celebrated Author William Kennedy to Give Reading at Bard College on Monday, October 4

A Screening of Ironweed, Starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and Based on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–Winning Novel, Will Follow the Reading

Darren O'Sullivan

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— Renowned author, screenwriter, and playwright William Kennedy will read from his work at Bard College on Monday, October 4. “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. Kennedy is the author of eight novels, including Legs and Ironweed, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction; three books of nonfiction; two screenplays; stage plays; essays; and two children’s books. He is a professor of English at SUNY Albany and founder and executive director of the New York State Writers Institute. Kennedy will be introduced by novelist and Bard literature professor Bradford Morrow. The reading, which is being presented as part of Morrow’s Innovative Contemporary Fiction course, is free and open to the public and takes place at 6:30 p.m. in Weis Cinema in the Bertelsmann Campus Center. The reading will be followed, at 8 p.m., by a screening of the film Ironweed, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and based on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.

For some 40 years, William Kennedy has crafted history and memory into a body of literature that is as remarkable for its variety as it is for erecting an Albany of the imagination. In Kennedy’s highly regarded “Albany Cycle,” outcasts and machine politicians, lowlifes and swells populate an imagined Albany as real as any city of bricks. Thanks to Kennedy, Albany occupies a privileged place on America’s mythic map as a capital of the national memory and a metropolis of everyday struggles.

Born in 1928 in Albany’s North End, Kennedy attended Public School 20, the Christian Brother’s Academy, and Siena College prior to pursuing a career in journalism. He joined the Post Star in Glens Falls as a sports reporter and, after being drafted in 1950, worked for an army newspaper in Europe. Upon his discharge he joined the Albany Times-Union. In 1956 he accepted a job with a newspaper in Puerto Rico and eventually became managing editor of the fledgling San Juan Star in 1959, only to quit two years later to pursue writing fiction full-time. 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 as] fully human as anyone else. The people he wrote about didn’t know they had become pariahs. He wrote about them from the inside . . . I was moved by the characters, by their naive but human frailties.”

He returned to Albany in 1963 and wrote a series of articles about the city that earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and provided the basis for a nonfiction book, O Albany! (1983). His first novel, The Ink Truck (1969), relates the story of a newspaper strike in a vividly evoked but unnamed Albany. Legs (1975), the first novel of Kennedy’s “Albany Cycle,” tells the tale of Albany gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) introduces the Phelan family, subsequent generations of which appear in five more novels. Billy is a small-time Depression-era gambler and bookie who becomes mixed up in the kidnapping of an Albany politician’s son. Billy’s father, Francis, a derelict on the run from his own demons and past mistakes, is the principal character of Ironweed (1983), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. These first three novels in the Albany cycle unfold in a Depression-era setting, while the next three, Quinn’s Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), and the historical novel The Flaming Corsage (1996), explore various periods in the city’s history. Roscoe, the most recent installment in the “Albany Cycle,” came out in 2002.

A longtime cinema enthusiast and movie reviewer, Kennedy began to write screenplays when he coscripted The Cotton Club (1986) with Francis Ford Coppola. He also wrote the film version of Ironweed (1987). With his son Benjamin he coauthored two children’s books, Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (1993). Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, a collection of essays, memoirs, reviews, and reportage, appeared in 1993; and Kennedy’s first full-length play, Grand View (1996), the story of a political war between the state governor and Albany’s political boss, was staged in 1996 at Capital Repertory Theater in Albany.

He taught creative writing and journalism from 1974 to 1982 at SUNY Albany, and in 1982–83 at Cornell University. In 1983, Kennedy was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Part of that award went to the institution of Kennedy’s choice, the University at Albany, State University of New York, using $15,000 each year for five years, matched by the university, to create the Writers Institute at Albany. The following year, Governor Mario M. Cuomo signed the legislation creating the New York State Writers Institute, giving it goals and responsibilities to conduct a broad range of cultural and educational literary activities.

In 1993, Kennedy was elected to the American Academy of 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 the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities. He is the 2001–2002 Kritikos Professor at the University of Oregon and was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2002.

For more information about the reading, e-mail or call 845-752-4933.

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This event was last updated on 09-22-2010