John O'Hara Essay - O'Hara, John (Vol. 6)

John O’Hara

O'Hara, John (Vol. 6)

O'Hara, John 1905–1970

O'Hara was a prolific American novelist and short story writer. Gibbsville, Pa., his invented small town, seemed more "lived in" than most fictional worlds. O'Hara was a genuine anachronism: his stories combined to produce an "old-fashioned class saga," firmly in the tradition of the novel of manners. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[In] O'Hara's world … there were too many occasions when self-expression was equated with getting too drunk to stand, when manhood meant punching somebody on the nose, when morality was insisting that the whole world stinks. All of these propositions have some validity, but as they are no more than half-truths and O'Hara seemed uninterested in or unaware of the other half, he seemed to me to be one of those difficult cases for the literary conscience, readable but intolerable….

O'Hara published much too much, especially some of those awful short stories and the reams of monthly magazine hackery which would have been far better left to some poor fish who really needed the money….

For all that he wrote some very bad prose, for all that he had an inflated opinion of himself, for all that his intellectual powers were so feeble that he could announce his discovery to the world that George F. Kaufman was superior to Bernard Shaw, in spite of all this sort of loud-mouthed nonsense, O'Hara was a professional down to his bootlaces. If his style was often irritating, at least he worked hard enough to have a style. If his habit of often leaving the dialogue of his characters unattributed could confuse the reader to the point of distraction, at least that dialogue when you unravelled it, sounded like three-dimensional people talking.

And after all, at his best O'Hara was compulsive reading. The two O'Hara books I will always think of with special affection are Pal Joey (the book, not the musical, which is a different work entirely which happens to have the same title) because of its understanding of the social dilemma of the jazz musician, and a trio of novellas called Sermons and Soda Water…. [I am] only saying that John O'Hara was one of those professionals who could show a lazy man the way.

Benny Green, "Scarlet O'Hara," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 27, 1974, p. 520.

O'Hara never lost his precise ear for the intonations of dialogue, but the prose is thin porridge, the tone monotonously sour, and the final effect wasteful and empty…. (p. 15)

Heady with over-praise, he grew obsessed with the idea of becoming a great writer and identified greatness with bulk and productivity. Yet his best talent lay in his shorter novels, Samarra and Butterfield 8, and in his short stories. While he continued to write stories he felt them to be of minor importance. 'No one writes them better than I do', he announced in a preface to one of his collections, then added that he was slowing down his output to conserve time and energy for 'the long novel'. As a writer of short stories he was in fact never as good as Hemingway or Dorothy Parker or Ring Lardner or the best of Fitzgerald. His language, in Gertrude Stein's phrase, makes 'no sound to the eyes'. He sometimes brilliantly reproduces a world of fallen hopes, drinking bouts, suicides, desperate marriages and one-night stands, yet just fails to transform it into a world of his own. His style is immediate and laconic, but without the subtle undertones of the early Hemingway. The slangy first-person narratives of Pal Joey lack the personal electricity of Lardner's, or of Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. You admire the muscled craftsmanship and observation but miss the individual voice. O'Hara's threat to slacken production was never carried out, and many of the later stories have a conveyor belt quality. Having found his metier so early and so confidently, he remained comfortable in it instead of exploring it further.

Opting for an illusory greatness, he saw himself as super-chronicler of America in the first half of the twentieth century. 'I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt and to do it with complete honesty and variety…'. He could always record talk, and in the later novels simply records more of it. He gives us four to eight hundred pages of people talking, thinking and feeling, and it is all recorded, hardly interpreted at all. It comes out as information researched and reproduced in huge slabs of detail. Mean people are secretly unhappy and go on being unhappy and mean and sometimes die. Fathers and sons disappoint each other. Husbands are unfaithful to wives. Sex is an act of despair or aggression, rarely fulfilling. The business world is ruthless. And so on and so on. O'Hara's idea of a dramatic surprise is to reveal that two brothers have seduced the same secretary. Perhaps it's instructive that when he was a young man he read Balzac and Galsworthy and liked Galsworthy better.

And yet somewhere in these sagas obsessed with ambition and betrayal and bitterness a genuine talent lies buried. At moments a personal honesty comes to the surface, in the description of a son's hatred of his father, of a powerful ageing man's fear of death. O'Hara hints that he's able to feel the things he describes, then retreats behind the image of social historian who knows and has seen it all, the false genius who wrote the text of the headstone for his own grave: 'Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time…'. Better than anyone else—the fierce competitive note tells the truth about O'Hara, not his work. It points to the complex pathos of a man who moved from insecurity to success to egomania, building a series of fortresses against the memory of early panic and rejection. For all his talk of honesty O'Hara never told this story honestly, and it was one story he was finely equipped to tell. (p. 16)

Gavin Lambert, "A Thirst for Fame," in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1974), May, 1974, pp. 15-16.

By his own admission, O'Hara schooled himself on Hemingway's spartan prose style and Fitzgerald's East Egg subject matter and then combined these lessons smoothly in his tough-minded chronicles of Pennsylvania society. Unfortunately, the obsession with empty social distinctions is not only true of O'Hara's characters but of O'Hara himself. Yet only an O'Hara-hater of the deepest dye can dispute his command of irony, his skill as a storyteller and his almost clinical expertise in classifying specimens of small-town life by the nuances of their social conduct and the shape and color of their speech. When, on occasion, O'Hara shifted his attention to the sleazy mores of the Broadway-Hollywood demimonde, the results were lively as well….

O'Hara's lean, compact short stories have generally been more admired than his poorly focused novels. (p. 2)

The stories … that work (and even some that don't) reveal O'Hara's undiminished craftsmanship. His famous eye for telling details and his ear for dialogue remained as keen as ever to the end. Like O'Hara's 11 previous volumes of short stories, "Good Samaritan" follows—at a respectful distance—the tradition of Henry James, Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Incapable of sounding the depths or capturing the poetic dimensions of life, O'Hara clung to its surface; but at their best, his racy, fast-paced, wittily malicious narratives make the surface a highly entertaining place to be. If it is impossible to say he was profound, he was something that, for a writer, is almost as important: irresistibly readable. (p. 3)

Robert F. Moss, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 18, 1974.

John O'Hara was such a natural storyteller that even the slightest of his sketches might, from the first lines, draw a reader in and keep him there, though all the time he might be going on an enigmatic, abruptly ended trip…. O'Hara had in abundance a capacity to render humans in conversations that brought them and all their concerns to life at once, and what he lacked was the capacity to sustain that life in depth. He was … a man with a fine ear for the soap-opera element in life, a writer who could render that element—in the lives of the upper middle classes and the lower—all the seriousness due it, and do so in a remarkably entertaining fashion. (p. 20)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 7, 1974.

O'Hara takes pleasure in depicting rogues but he leaves little space in his stories for men and women of conscience. Conscience might be implied in his remark in Butterfield 8 that "there comes one time in a man's life, if he is unlucky and leads a full life, when he has a secret so dirty that he knows he will never get rid of it." Generally speaking, however, it is the simple fear of being found out that vexes O'Hara's characters. (p. 25)

Adultery is the dirty secret—the obsessive theme—of O'Hara's stories. His inventiveness, his famous gift for dialogue, his ability to squeeze a whole life into 20 pages are all here [in Good Samaritan]. But there are weaknesses: in "Christmas Poem," for once, O'Hara is sentimental. "Noblesse Oblige" is merely an anecdote. "Tuesday's as Good as Any" suffers from ambiguity. Is it purely satire in the Sinclair Lewis vein or did O'Hara feel a twinge of compassion for the small-town bank teller who escaped stultifying routine by visits to a brothel that also became routine? The actress of "The Sun Room" dislikes lesbians but carries on a lesbian affair nevertheless, mysteriously motivated acts being her special cup of tea.

O'Hara was satisfied that he had lived in the right places and "at the right time." The fascination of watching 20th-century America touched all that he wrote and there is hardly a dead page in his work. The word for him, to paraphrase Henry James on Balzac, is vitality. (p. 26)

James Walt, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 5, 1974.

Even when his best work was under discussion, O'Hara was seldom accused of being a first-rate novelist. But his novels are better than his short stories, and the best of them generate a certain cumulative power. I think of such books as Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace in which O'Hara was able to catch the motives and attitudes that inform the upper echelons of American society. He was shameless in his manipulation of plots, his characters were largely cut from the same mould, and he depended too much on dialogue to carry things along. Still the best of his work fills a small niche in our enduring literature and tells us a little bit about ourselves.

Good Samaritan and Other Stories is O'Hara at his worst, and that can be bad indeed. The title piece was published in the Saturday Evening Post, which may be one reason that the magazine in its old form is no longer with us. "Good Samaritan" deals with marital infidelity among the country-club set—which is all that needs to be said about it. Other stories deal with the same basic human weakness. Yet even in these bad fictions one gets now and then a strong sense of the established order that furnished a background for all of his work. At his best O'Hara knew his people for what they were—sinners in a world mostly composed of sinners. He knew the difference between right and wrong; he had what seems to us now an almost naive faith in the resilience of American culture; and his better characters were certain of their own identities and willing to take the consequence of their own misdeeds. (p. 539)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975.

John O'Hara, the last of the quartet of Irish Catholic writer-outsiders [the others being Philip Barry, Eugene O'Neill, and F. Scott Fitzgerald], early cultivated the rich and throughout a much longer lifetime than Fitzgerald's … made them the objects of an intense, ice-cold scrutiny. Unlike Fitzgerald, he had a curiosity that never flagged. He took care to know where everybody's money came from and where it went…. The range of O'Hara's knowledge of how Americans live was incomparably greater than that of any other fiction writer of his time; one would have to go back to Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser to find a novelist who had even the intention of acquiring knowledge on the scale that O'Hara acquired it on, and with his degree of particularity.

The world, both high and low, fascinated O'Hara and revolted him; no doubt correctly, he assumed that there had never been a time when it wouldn't have fascinated and revolted him. He was a Jansenist in spite of himself, loathing his body for committing sins that he no longer believed in but that cost him remorse. Though he was not a practicing Catholic, he continued to believe, straight out of the penny catechism, that man was a fallen creature, subject to the most fearsome carnal temptations; to resist these temptations was to love God, and not to resist them was somehow to hurt God's feelings and delight the Devil.

Few of O'Hara's female characters are able to remain chaste for long; indeed, he wrote about women and their sexual failings so often and with such relish that many reviewers accused him of seeing all women as nymphomaniacs. The truth is that his gloomy view of their weakness was but a manifestation of a profound and typically Irish Catholic disappointment. Almost without exception, in O'Hara's day the puritan Irish, brought up by nuns and priests, wished that every woman, even every mother, could remain a virgin; the fact that women made love, and especially that one's own mother made love, or had once made love, was intolerable. O'Hara's male characters are less to blame for their sins than his female ones, for the reason that man, in his simplicity, is never a match for a woman and her wiles. It is Adam and Eve all over again.

O'Hara trusted his eye and ear only to the extent that he could keep them free of admiration and pity. In this he was like O'Neill and radically unlike Fitzgerald and [Philip] Barry, who found much to admire and pity in their fellows. (pp. 54, 56)

As for the rich, in O'Hara's view they were no better and no worse than the poor; he would never have been sentimental enough to speak, as Fitzgerald did, of not being able to forgive them. For O'Hara the question of forgiveness didn't arise; there they were, such as they were, and he would tell us honestly everything he had found out about them. He would be honest, too, in admitting that he wanted to be one of them. By the time of his death, he had long been a millionaire. It pleased him that by a tireless forty-year-long flogging of his remarkable talent he had become one of the richest writers who had ever lived. Still, he would have preferred being born rich…. (p. 56)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 15, 1975.

"Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century." This was John O'Hara's own estimate of his career, and one to which the American public would probably assent more readily than literary critics. His novels were always immensely popular, despite the indifferent critical reception some of them received; and even though no single work of his after "Appointment in Samarra," his first, was all that favorably reviewed, his reputation was so great that by the end of his life he had become, at least in his own mind, a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

O'Hara was given to immodest appraisals of his talent, but his convictions about the scope and value of his work were by no means unjustified. Like Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis before him, he was determined to record the whole of American life, and in such a comprehensive manner that the truth of his portraits would be unassailable. And as he grew surer of the subject that was closest to him—the lives of the rich in his own Pennsylvania hometown of Pottsville, O'Hara began to include more and more specific information about the intimate habits of his characters. He carried this to the point where his novels were overwhelmed with naturalistic detail, as if he were illustrating Zola's idea that the novelist should think of writing as a scientific venture and regard the world as his laboratory. In the later novels, he tended to chronicle several generations of a single family with a sort of biographical thoroughness, all the while managing to depict the times in which they lived and the people who surrounded them with an untiring sense of particularity.

Yet there was a heaviness to these novels, in spite of their heroic span, a tedious sociological density that made all his characters seem too much alike. In becoming so encyclopedic, he forfeited the sophistication and verve that distinguished his earlier novel, "Butterfield 8." There the subject is the same New York to be found in Fitzgerald's work or in Edmund Wilson's "I Thought of Daisy," full of speakeasies populated by a crowd of hard-drinking, fast-talking young men and women. In contrast, the Tates of "A Rage to Live" and the Chapins of "Ten North Frederick," two of his best-known later novels, have too narrow a range of emotions; their unflaggingly malevolent attitudes towards one another are finally dispiriting, while O'Hara's fascination with their wealth often verges on servility. (p. 6)

O'Hara was perhaps the most class-conscious writer since James, and certainly one of the most accurate chroniclers of manners in America. (p. 7)

James Atlas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 26, 1975.