O'Hara, John 1905–1970
O'Hara was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic. His chosen milieu is often small town America, which he has recreated in the fictional Gibbsville. The protagonists of O'Hara's novels are depicted in their struggle for financial and social dominance in prose noted for its objective and understated style. His short story collection Pal Joey was made into a successful Broadway musical. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
[John O'Hara] was concerned mainly with depicting manners and customs in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis, Lardner, and Fitzgerald. (p. 279)
[The stories of Pal Joey, with] their malapropisms, bad grammar and spelling, and slang,… would seem to derive most immediately from Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al. Joey, although perhaps somewhat more sophisticated, possesses much the same quality of egotism, vulgarity, brashness, and naïveté, despite a certain shrewdness in small things, as Lardner's baseball protagonist. If he is not an altogether admirable character, Joey is not contemptible either. (p. 280)
[The stories he wrote in the 1960's, late in his life, are] better, on the whole, than [his] earlier ones. By and large they have more substance, more story quality, more interesting characters, more penetrating social observation, and more significant implications. Like O'Hara himself, many of his characters have grown older, and there is more concern than in the earlier short fiction with rendering thoughts and feelings, particularly those having to do with how a character has lived his life and what he has or has not made of it. These characters, especially when they suffer disappointment, deterioration, or defeat, are often presented so as to evoke our sympathy, but it should also be noted that the number of unsympathetic characters in the later stories is not inconsiderable—vulgarians, scoundrels,...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
[O'Hara's work is] a fiction of social absurdity.
For O'Hara's fiction was deeply consistent with the man, as it must be: it is a materialistic fiction, built on the patent solidity of society, the weight of things, the detailed appurtenances of possession, the measure and symbolic value of goods. O'Hara, in correspondence with Fitzgerald, once noted that they were both parvenu authors, and it is of course to the parvenu that social substance is most substantial, class and rank most real….
O'Hara's novels and stories, found excessively frank in their time, postulate a coordinated, respectable and essentially monogamous society, held by code and habit and desire, and struggling within it an essentially adulterous humanity. His first novel starts in an unsatisfactory marital bed, and so, in a sense, does all life in the O'Hara universe. Caught between the two—substantial, virtuous society and practical sexuality and angst—is that recurrent O'Hara type, the respectable reprobate….
His work shares the dominant literary attitudes of his time; it is touched with that mixture of radicalism and nostalgia central to the mood of the early to mid-century American novel, and something of the self-made intellectuality also characteristic of the period. His temper was shorter than that of many of his peers, and his anti-intellectuality … more assertive, leading to stronger declarations that what he possessed was, well, ultimate craft: the gift of getting dialogue right, observation precise, structure under control. Even his sense of grievance was reasonably typical; there was arrogance and defiance as well as social aspiration that passed,...
(The entire section is 696 words.)
"Selected Letters of John O'Hara" … cannot but sweeten the reputation of a notoriously irascible and hypersensitive author. (p. 200)
These letters, even when they scold and complain, turn outward, toward the social envelope. Though he strikes an egotistical pose, it is hard to think of another significant twentieth-century fiction writer who was less of an egoist, less of an autobiographical self-celebrator. His interest in other people and their lives is so unfeignedly keen that anything about them, any window-glimpse into their psychologies and social predicaments, will serve him for a story. The action in his stories is often surprisingly slight; he considerately refuses to manipulate characters beyond what their systems will naturally stand. (p. 204)
O'Hara's ability and willingness to portray women has not been often enough complimented. Compared to the women of his fiction, Hemingway's are mere dolls. Indeed, if there is an American male author who has set a greater variety of believable women on the page, or as effortlessly projected himself into a female point of view, I haven't read him. Their disadvantaged position and the strength of the strategies with which they seek advantages are comprehended without doctrine, and without a loss of heterosexual warmth. (p. 213)
Humanity in all its divisions was present to him; his gifts of curiosity and empathy were so strong that one must ask what,...
(The entire section is 411 words.)