(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

John O’Hara’s life reads like the template for the twentieth century American writer, at least the male version. Like his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, O’Hara was an alcoholic who made as many enemies as he did friends and who had combative relationships with most editors and scores of other writers. He was also, however, a writer who, in hundreds of New Yorker stories, documented American behavior and mores as well as anyone of his period and a novelist of manners who left a remarkable record of the moral conditions of the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

O’Hara was born in 1905 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, a small city ninety miles northwest of Philadelphia built on the anthracite coal mined there for generations. O’Hara was the son of a doctor of Irish descent, and he mixed easily in his youth with friends from every social class. Pottsville, however, was an area of deep ethnic and class hostilities, and it would become the region O’Hara would return to in stories and novels throughout his career. Named “Gibbsville” (after his New Yorker editor and friend Woolcott Gibbs) in his first and best novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), Pottsville and its surrounding country would become a northern version of the Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner created at the same time in his Mississippi stories and novels. O’Hara’s work, like Faulkner’s, is grounded in his family geography and in the social and ethnic antagonisms that grew out of that peculiar place of his first and formative years.

O’Hara struggled early, but his problems were often of his own making. The gravest threat to O’Hara, as Wolff shows again and again throughout this biography, was the writer himself. O’Hara believed, in his life as in his fiction, that constitution is fate, and his life story and his novels both spell out that deterministic philosophy. Starting out as a cub reporter for a local paper (his father would not fund college after O’Hara missed graduation from prep school because he was drunk), O’Hara went through a series of journalistic jobs in the next decade—at The New York Herald-Tribune, the Daily Mirror, Time—but the pattern was always the same, and he usually lost his positions a few months after taking them because he showed up late or drunk—or both. He was writing all the time, however, and sending pieces to magazines. In 1928 The New Yorker took his first story and over the next forty years would publish 265 pieces by O’Hara, a record in the history of the magazine. The publication of Appointment in Samarra in 1934 launched his writing career.

The journey was not easy. O’Hara feuded with friends and foes alike, even after he was successful, and had a prickly relationship with the editors he was constantly accusing of slighting him. O’Hara was ambitious, very conscious of class status and distinctions, and sensitive to both real and imagined hurts. Over his more than forty-year career, he became best known for a series of long novels which were generally popular (many became successful Hollywood films) but rarely critically successful: Butterfield Eight (1935), A Rage to Live (1949), From the Terrace (1958), andOurselves to Know (1960). As an example of his commercial success, From the Terrace sold out its first hardcover printing of 100,000 and eight years later had sold 2.5 million copies in paperback, to go with the 13 million copies of O’Hara’s other books in print. Ten North Frederick(1955) was an exception to this prolix production which won the National Book Award. He was also the author of the pieces which would form the basis of the popular Broadway musical Pal Joey(1941). He also continued to write short stories—often brilliant analyses of American life and manners—many of which were published in the most cosmopolitan magazine of his day, The New Yorker.

O’Hara is part of an important tradition of the American novel of manners. Like Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and John Updike (the last two also closely identified with The New Yorker), O’Hara is one of those writers who can precisely nail down human behavior through his description of the details of clothing or speech,...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)