John O'Hara Essay - O'Hara, John (Vol. 2)

John O’Hara

O'Hara, John (Vol. 2)

O'Hara, John 1905–1970

An American award-winning novelist and short story writer, O'Hara chronicled the people of "Gibbsville," a Pennsylvania town modeled on his own home town. His works include Appointment in Samarra, Pal Joey, and Elizabeth Appleton. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Mr. O'Hara, for all his faults, is a reliable witness to our self-regard, boredom, and terror of not being. Nor is he without literary virtues. For one thing, he possesses that rare thing, the narrative gift. For another, he has complete integrity. What he says he sees, he sees. Though his concern with sex used to trouble many of the Good Gray Geese of the press, it is a legitimate concern. Also, his treatment of sexual matters is seldom irrelevant, though touchingly old-fashioned by today's standards, proving once again how dangerous it is for a writer to rely too heavily on contemporary sexual mores for his effects…. But despite Mr. O'Hara's passionate desire to show things as they are, he is necessarily limited by the things he must look at. Lacking a moral imagination and not interested in the exercise of mind or in the exploration of what really goes on beneath that Harris tweed suit from J. Press, he is doomed to go on being a writer of gossip who is read with the same mechanical attention any newspaper column of familiar or near-familiar names and places is apt to evoke. His work, finally, cannot be taken seriously as literature, but as an unconscious record of the superstitions and assumptions of his time, his writing is "pertinent" in Santayana's sense, and even "true."

Gore Vidal, "John O'Hara's Old Novels" (1964), in his Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Gore Vidal; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little, Brown, 1969.

To put the matter in the simplest possible terms, the middlebrows like O'Hara because his books remind them of the life they imagine themselves to be leading. Hence, he is a perfect antidote to those other writers who keep reminding them either of the life they actually are leading, or of a life they can imagine nobody leading….

On the surface O'Hara's favorite locale, Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, is an American Dream community straight out of Nostalgia by way of The Saturday Evening Post. It is everybody's Our Town raised to a higher income bracket and gone sophisticated, a good, solid, red-blooded, church-going sort of place where the people seem both prosperous and nice, and the best families have been best friends of the best families for generations. There appear to be no Jews, Negroes, or homosexuals in Gibbsville, but if there are any, they would certainly be tolerated, although just as certainly not admitted to the clubs or invited to the parties. Gibbsville is, in fact, just about the only fictional community in current American literature where the middlebrow reader can escape the prevailing obsession with minority groups and perverts, and be sure that, if deviations from right conduct do occur, they will at least occur among the right sort of people. That, at any rate, is the assurance that O'Hara seems to provide. That is the sop he tosses to middlebrow snobbery and moral hypocrisy, and, as it turns out, it is absolutely vital to the success of his appeal to the middlebrow mind….

To put the matter with typical O'Haraish directness, whatever else his characters may piously appear to be doing with their time, what they are actually doing is sleeping or trying to sleep with everybody else's wife or daughter or sister or mistress or mother. The pursuit of the Good Life, when reduced, as O'Hara persistently reduces it, to its symbiotic essence, becomes the pursuit of the Good Lay. Our Town is magically transformed—one might almost say, overnight—into the Kinsey Report; The Saturday Evening Post image fades into something with green covers out of Olympia Press; and bed emerges at last as the natural social habitat of the solid citizens of Gibbsville, a kind of fornicatory home-away-from-home where everybody sooner or later gets acquainted and settles down to the enjoyment of real togetherness.

John W. Aldridge, "The Pious Pornography of John O'Hara" (1964), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 24-9.

O'Hara's career really divided itself into several compartments, several achievements, several disappointments. Even the most churlish of his detractors—which is to say most of the contemporary literary Mafia usually paid glad tribute to the marvelous pace and thrust of O'Hara's first novel, "Appointment in Samarra," and of scores of the best of his short stories, including those about the unkillable Pal Joey. The same critics, however, were generally bored and exasperated by the huge, sweeping, time-spanning social panoramas—"From the Terrace," "A Rage to Live," "Ourselves to Know"—that O'Hara secretly cherished above all his works. Similarly, O'Hara was a hugely successful author, dominating the best-seller lists for more than three decades and earning about $100,000 a year for the last two decades of his life, yet he felt cheated by the absolute dismissal of his strangely bloodless plays and by his failure to win any of the major literary prizes except the National Book Award (for "Ten North Frederick")….

O'Hara was no seer, but he saw. A suspicious and observant man with a fetishistic eye for social and verbal detail, he had what he once described as "sometimes special knowledge" of certain arenas of American life in the '20s, '30s and '40s—Hollywood in its heyday, for example, and New York speakeasies and Philadelphia boardrooms, and above all the tight, gossipy, pretentious Pennsylvania towns that he made into microcosms of America. He was a calm and precise observer of the lives of the very rich, and some of his insights came like little epiphanies. In middle-class marriages, for example, wives have traditionally been expected to display a strict fidelity or pay a massive price. Among the very rich, as O'Hara noted, it works differently. The men are disinclined to break up their capital in expensive divorce settlements, and wives are generally permitted all but the most flagrant indiscretions….

[He] wrote—one after another of the huge social histories setting forth his "sometimes special knowledge" of the Eastern U.S. in the aftermath of World War I. The details remained as flawless as ever (he checked them in old newspapers, playbills, catalogues and timetables) and a few of the big novels, especially "From the Terrace," achieved a kind of long-viewed, fatalistic force that the much sharper-edged short stories had never hinted at. O'Hara died on no crest of achievement—his recent novels seemed hasty and mechanical, and his stabs at contemporaneity were uninformed and ludicrous—but taken all in all he was our best literary re-creator of things past since Edith Wharton, and a lot more fun to read.

Richard Boeth, "Appointment in Samarra," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1970; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1970, p. 129.

It is my personal opinion that John O'Hara in his lifetime was the most generally unappreciated author in American literary history. I think he belongs right on top, along with such contemporaries as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. John O'Hara personally revered these three authors. He also had a special regard for John Steinbeck, Wolcott Gibbs, and Frank Sullivan—another proof of his impeccable literary taste. Critics denied him proper recognition—not because they underrated his talent, but because of his thorny black-Irish belligerence, sometimes a put-on by John just to fool the customers. Underneath that grouchy exterior was a man of rare understanding and loyalty.

Bennett Cerf, in Publishers' Weekly (reprinted from June 22, 1970, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R.R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1970 by Xerox Corporation), June 22, 1970, pp. 21-3.

Lovey Childs, the last novel to be published before [O'Hara's] death in 1970, a scummy exercise in small-minded viciousness that cast away every trace of literary merit if not pretension and laid bare an authorial spirit measurably less broad than the width of a needle…. Taken all in all, it was a mean and shabby epitaph to a career that had promised so much and delivered so little. One realized at last what the problem with O'Hara had always been. He had style, but he had no imagination whatever.

By comparison, this first posthumously published novel [The Ewings] (one senses that there will be more) is almost a temperate, amiable piece of work. It is also an utterly hollow one, and after due reflection I can think of no reason why anyone but the most dedicated O'Hara scholar would conceivably want to read it…. It is as though O'Hara had deliberately sat down to write an "O'Hara novel," without a single idea in his head. Self-parody was the only possible result, self-parody of the very bleakest sort.

L. J. Davis, "Bill and Edna's Bank Account," in Book World (© The Washington Post), February 20, 1972, p. 11.

Through most of his career, even those who disliked O'Hara's work conceded that he was a sharp social historian, a ruthless investigator of sexual mores and a connoisseur of cultural data. Many, including myself, then went on to say that he was in effect merely an aggrandized stenographer with narrative skills, an enervated tag-end of naturalism being maintained for its own exploitative sake….

There is a line of American novelists, realistic in tenor but sentimental in gist, of whom O'Hara is the descendant. William Dean Howells may be best of breed, but O'Hara is closer to Booth Tarkington….

The most interesting question raised by O'Hara's death (in 1970) is whether he will be replaced, whether we will get another high-grade popular naturalist pouring out one heavily detailed novel after another, ostensibly giving us the low-down on American society, making his ruthlessness plausible by his commanding technique, his frightening eye and ear, his pleasantly insulting insistence on the dirtiness of sex; and yet for all his Diogenes air, a celebrant of the status quo.

Seventeen novels and eleven volumes of short stories. (Among the latter are some of the best stories ever written about Hollywood, not just a writer's revenge on the studios.) When a man has written that much as well as O'Hara and has been as widely read, his disappearance leaves a gap. My chief curiosity about that gap is to see whether any new author has the energy to fill it—not to mention the professionalism—to patrol that area of the print spectrum; because the popularity of an adroit, nasty, industrious, superficial but intelligent writer like O'Hara was a tribute, in its way, to the very idea of the novel.

Stanley Kauffmann, "A Rage to Write," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 26, 1972, pp. 25-6.

John O'Hara's rank amongst American novelists will be difficult to fix. At last count, I suspect, he will finish just out of the money, but critics will always be mollified by the enormous readability of his novels. He wrote about sophisticated people without ever requiring sophistication in his readers: a nice trick. The Ewings is very much an O'Hara novel….

This, more or less, is all the novel has to say: that there is a tension between inhibition and licentiousness. Other sorts of emotion do not escape that characteristic repression. A young child's death, for instance, is treated by its parents, and perhaps intentionally by O'Hara himself, with superb offhandedness. The Ewings is an entertainment, hardly more than that—but then John O'Hara never made any very outlandish or presumptuous claims for his fiction.

D. Keith Mano, "A Variety of Talents," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), March 3, 1972, pp. 226-27.

Neither by the accumulation of hundreds of sketches nor by the detailing of huge canvases had [O'Hara] "got it all down." One surveys this monstrous effort and its results [seventeen novels and eleven volumes of short stories] with a certain awe. Of course, O'Hara could never have achieved his aim. Inclusiveness is always unrealizable, no matter how many books one writes. What is more, such an intention had a damaging effect upon the inner design of his books, which, too, aimed at an unrealizable inclusiveness. In that compact masterpiece, O'Hara's first novel, Appointment in Samarra, almost nothing is extraneous, but in the longer novels that began with A Rage to Live there are blocks of matter, a clutter of characters, and even essay material which don't stick firmly to the rest; From the Terrace was a notorious case of inclusiveness gone wild, its 900 pages of stuff—often fascinating stuff—submerging any idea of subject. Precisely because they did not attempt an engrossing wholeness O'Hara's short stories were often successful. They exploited the suggestiveness of the fragmentary, the authentic isolated shard, and they were rightly seen as the ultimate of the so-called "New Yorker story."

Millicent Bell, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March 4, 1972; used with permission), March 4, 1972, pp. 80-1.

[John O'Hara] had written too much, as it is easy to say in retrospect; there are in all 32 books…. In the end his output of words outran his considerable powers of invention. Almost any novel by O'Hara—except "Appointment" and "The Farmers Hotel"—is much like almost any of the others. He presented more than a thousand characters … but many of these are O'Hara types, beautifully machined and interchangeable. They could never have justified a Nobel Prize, the honor for which he yearned, and yet he remains a novelist of stature, as well as being a magnificent story writer….

O'Hara's dialogue is as rapid and natural as any that has been written in this century. In his big blocks of narrative, the style is plain, accurate, glassy-clear, and almost without metaphors, which O'Hara avoided on principle. It is the style of a man who wants to remain invisible while at the same time "mesmerizing the reader." The phrase is his own, and he is justified in using it, as one reader can testify. His books are easy not to pick up, but they have a compulsive quality that makes them hard to lay down….

Malcolm Cowley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1973, pp. 3-4.