Critical opinion of O’Hara’s work has long been divided. His receipt of the National Book Award in 1956 and the Gold Medal Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964 indicates that the literary establishment considered him an important writer. The academic community, however, has largely ignored him. He is seldom found in the anthologies used on college campuses. One reason for this neglect, and the most obvious one, is that O’Hara’s fiction gives the professor little to discuss in a literature class. O’Hara avoids figurative language and rhetorical richness. His style was permanently influenced by his newspaper training. He is very traditional in his narrative technique, eschewing all trends toward experimentation with chronology, point of view, or dialogue.
Perhaps it is this spareness of style which led the eminent American critic Edmund Wilson to comment that O’Hara’s long works always seemed like first drafts of what might eventually have become nice little novels. (Wilson did, though, praise O’Hara highly as a short-story writer.) Another adverse criticism often leveled against the novels is that they lack a moral center. The argument is that the narrative voice is so detached, so like the ideally objective journalist, that it is unclear how the author feels about his characters. O’Hara’s fictional world is a very dangerous place; his characters are never secure. Their lives may be blighted at any moment by financial reversals, social missteps, even violent death. As is true in life (but often unsatisfying in fiction), what happens to the characters may have little to do with their behavior. As is also often true in real life, some characters appear to have no good reason for being in the story. They seem to result more from the protagonist’s randomness of experience than from any necessity of the plot.
It has also been observed that O’Hara is America’s foremost out-of-date novelist. As this argument goes, he took little note of the immense changes wrought by World War II and the nuclear age, continuing to write the same kind of stories he had written throughout the 1930’s. In fact, say some critics, O’Hara continued to retell the same story in endless variety right up until his death. A substantial body of opinion holds that Appointment in Samarra is O’Hara’s best novel. As a rule, novelists do not welcome being told that their first novel is their best, because the implication is that they have shown no improvement in all the work that followed. Perhaps this is why O’Hara stated that Appointment in Samarra was his second favorite novel.
On the credit side of the critical ledger, O’Hara has been called one of the finest social commentators in American literature. He has been favorably compared to Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, and William Faulkner—authors who take a society, or some segment of a society, and examine it from every possible angle in one work after another. O’Hara is especially effective in revealing the workings of class in a society that gives lip service to its democratic character. Because Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of a class structure, O’Hara seems to say, they disguise their class consciousness and make snobbery even more cruel.
O’Hara’s ear for dialogue is almost unfailing. He also has the ability to characterize quickly and deftly with a snatch of dialogue or a few well-chosen details. O’Hara is justly famed for his accuracy of observation; his characters do not merely climb into a car, they climb into a particular make and model of car. A man is not merely wearing a blue suit, he is wearing a blue suit of a certain shade, made from a specific material, and cut in a particular style. Someone once made the point in this way: When O’Hara introduced into a story the schedule for trains running between two eastern cities, the contemporary commuter could have relied upon O’Hara’s schedule every bit as much as upon the one issued by the railroad. O’Hara, the old newsman, always did his research and would not allow himself to be caught in a discrepancy or an anachronism. It has been argued that the myriad details sometimes overwhelm the story, that O’Hara’s fiction is in danger of becoming more artifact than art. It is probably true that his books will serve future generations as valuable social histories of the first half of the twentieth century.
O’Hara revealed that he wrote quickly and revised little. He attributed this tendency to his early work as a rewrite man, when he was constantly getting pieces to rework just before deadline. The English novelist John Braine, who admired O’Hara very much, observes, of Appointment in Samarra particularly, that this rapid writing may account for the brisk pace and the energy of the narrative. He also praises O’Hara for not making judgments in his fiction, asserting that the proper role of the fiction writer is observer, not judge.
Appointment in Samarra
First published: 1934
Type of work: Novel
The pointless life of a young country clubber drives him to destruction.
Appointment in Samarra was O’Hara’s first published novel. For a 1953 Modern Library edition of the book, O’Hara wrote a foreword recounting how he had composed it. He wrote it over the period from September, 1933, to March, 1934, in a small hotel room in New York City. He worked five nights a week—he had developed a preference for nighttime writing during his early years in newspaper work. After completing the first twenty-five thousand words, O’Hara submitted the manuscript to Harcourt, Brace & Company. Alfred Harcourt was impressed with what he read and subsequently gave the young author a subsidy of fifty dollars a week until the novel was finished.
O’Hara credits Dorothy Parker with giving him, indirectly, the title of the novel. He had been using “The Infernal Grove” as a working title until the day Parker showed him a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppy (1933). It contained Maugham’s rendering of the Samarra legend: A servant meets Death, in the form of a woman, in the marketplace at Baghdad. He imagines that she makes a threatening gesture. Terrified, he borrows his master’s horse and flees to Samarra. Death later tells the master that she was startled rather than threatening when she came upon the servant in the marketplace: She was surprised to see him in Baghdad, for she had an appointment to meet him that night in Samarra. O’Hara believed that Appointment in Samarra was the perfect title for the story of his doomed protagonist, Julian English. Parker disapproved of the title, as did O’Hara’s editor and publisher, but he stubbornly insisted upon it and, in the end, had his way.
The setting is Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, in 1930. Many of O’Hara’s stories would be set in Gibbsville, which was no doubt modeled upon his own hometown of Pottsville. He uses Gibbsville as a study of American society in microcosm and is, therefore, often compared to Balzac and Faulkner. In fact, he referred to Gibbsville on at least one occasion as his version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
Julian English is thirty years of age. He sells automobiles, and he and his wife, Caroline, are well accepted in Gibbsville society. The Great Depression has just to begun, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world of the roaring twenties has come to its apocalyptic end. For this reason, and because of certain stylistic similarities, O’Hara has been called Fitzgerald’s successor as a chronicler of American society. The novel is also reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis in its depiction of small-town businessmen—their shallowness, superficiality, and class consciousness. Some critics see the influence of Ernest Hemingway as well in the taut construction and spare language of the novel. In the foreword to the 1953 edition, O’Hara acknowledges his debt to Fitzgerald and Lewis but says that, unlike the case with his early short stories, he sees no Hemingway influence in Appointment in Samarra.
Very much like a Fitzgerald hero, Julian English drinks too much. He is subject to compulsions which threaten his marriage, his financial well-being, and his social status. He is not a stupid man. He has some insight into his self-destructive nature, but he lacks the values that might save him from himself. He can see his life only in terms of money and social standing. It is not farfetched to compare Julian’s story to a Greek tragedy. In his own mind, he lives under a curse: His paternal grandfather committed suicide after embezzling a considerable amount of money. Julian’s father, a successful and straitlaced surgeon, fears that the character flaw has been passed down to his son. Also as in a Greek tragedy, the novel recounts the final catastrophic events in a situation which has been building for many years.
Over several days at Christmastime, 1930, Julian suffers a series of social disasters. Harry Reilly is a rich acquaintance of Julian and Caroline who is constantly attempting to overcome his Irish-Catholic background and ascend Gibbsville’s social ladder. The previous summer, he lent Julian twenty thousand dollars when Julian’s Cadillac agency was in straitened circumstances. He now believes—or so Julian believes—that this gives him the right to make advances toward Caroline. At a Christmas party at the country club, Julian has again drunk too much. He snaps and throws a drink in Reilly’s face; Reilly is given a black eye by a big piece of ice. On the way home, Julian and Caroline have a terrible quarrel.
On Christmas Day, Julian falls out with another benefactor. Ed Charney is the local bootlegger. He has been a good customer and has helped Julian’s agency sell cars to other bootleggers. Charney owns a roadhouse called the Stage Coach, where his mistress, Helene Holman, sings. Hung over, unhappy, and drinking again, Julian goes to the Stage Coach. He dances with Helene and eventually leaves with her but passes out in the backseat of a car. Charney is furious, as is Caroline. The next day, she and Julian quarrel on the street. She cancels the big party they were to have given that evening. She leaves him, determined to end their four-year-old marriage. Julian has lost his wife, has alienated the man who holds the mortgage on his agency and has a strong influence over potential Irish-Catholic customers, and has angered his powerful bootlegger.
Julian tries to work but cannot. He goes to his club for lunch in a foul mood. He ends up in an altercation with some elderly lawyers from another table. He hits one of them in the mouth and knocks out his false teeth. He goes home, where later he experiences his final fiasco. A society reporter calls at his door, wanting a story about the canceled party. Julian invites her in and begins drinking again. He makes a futile and humiliating attempt to seduce her. After her departure, he closes himself up in the garage and starts the engine of his car, keeping his appointment in Samarra. In the final pages of the book, others discuss Julian’s death but have apparently learned nothing from it.
O’Hara is rightly labeled a literary realist, but the heavily deterministic nature of this novel causes it to be classified as naturalistic. Although the author concentrates primarily on the rich and the upper middle class of Gibbsville, other strata of society are represented by Ed Charney, Helene Holman, and Al Grecco, Charney’s ex-convict handyman. O’Hara wrote that Appointment in Samarra was his second-favorite novel; he did not reveal which he ranked ahead of it.
From the Terrace
First published: 1958
Type of work: Novel...
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