Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1453
O'Hara, John 1905–1970
An award-winning American novelist and short story writer, O'Hara wrote skillful and controlled novels of manners. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
John O'Hara is what he called Hemingway in 1950, "the most important author living today."…
There are more elegant stylists, more profound thinkers, more sensitive spirits. There is no working writer who matches O'Hara's importance as a social historian. When the next century wants to know how Americans lived between 1920 and 1940, it will find what it wants to know in O'Hara. It will find the names of things—the right names—but it will also find accurate analyses of the social structure and characters who are both real and representative. The stories and people may not always fall within the individual reader's experience, but it is difficult to doubt that O'Hara's wide knowledge and deep commitment to the truth would permit him to falsify his material.
There are subjects—such as the labor movement and national politics—O'Hara has never tried to study in depth. Despite the gaps in his coverage, he has a much broader scope than his competitors—think of James T. Farrell, Louis Auchincloss, John P. Marquand. His closest competitor is James Gould Cozzens, whose commitment to history is modified by his philosophical-ethical concerns. Social history has not been widely admired in American literature, and the second-rate practitioners, such as Henry James and Edith Wharton, have been overrated because they were not reliable observers. Indeed, most influential critics seem to feel that social history belongs to a lower order of endeavor called reportage. Note the of-course and to-be-sure way these chaps admit that John O'Hara does have a sharp ear before they move on to his crudeness. Critics like authors who make them look good. Since O'Hara writes fiction that does not require—or permit—brilliant explication, the critics picket him….
Edmund Wilson has stated that the cruel side of social snobbery is O'Hara's main theme (The Boys in the Back Room, 1941). It is one of his themes, but not his chief one. However, snobbery—interpreted as all the machinery of social conduct and social stratification—is his main subject. The main theme within this subject is not the cruelty of exclusion, but the futility and tragedy of the waste of life within the social system….
O'Hara has been tagged a hard-boiled writer partly because of his realistic treatment of the rougher aspects of life, and mostly because of his detachment from his characters—or what has been described as his sardonic attitude toward them. It is said that he is indifferent to their fates and refuses to judge them. It is even said that he hates his rich people, in which case he can not be detached at all….
What has been assumed to be O'Hara's indifference to his characters—his hard-boiled attitude—has been confused with his disciplined authorial point of view. He is not an intrusive author, and he does not get emotionally involved with his characters. This is not to say that he does not approve and disapprove of them. He thinks Dr. William Dilworth English is a choice son-of-a-bitch, and the reader knows that he does. O'Hara's procedure is to tell as much as he can about his characters' histories and then to let them reveal themselves through their behavior and speech while he avoids open judgment on them. That O'Hara offers no open judgment does not mean that there is no judgment. The very acts of selecting material, of inventing characters, of having them act, of creating speech—all involve judgment….
When O'Hara does openly comment, it is clear that his controlled handling of his material conceals the fact that he is a sentimental man who can be very sentimental about sex, love, and marriage. It may be that O'Hara's uninvolved point-of-view is his tactic for disciplining his sentimentality, a sentimentality that has become more apparent in his recent work—"Imagine Kissing Pete," for example….
O'Hara's plain style adds to the impression that he is a hard-boiled writer. His prose moves; it is clear and exceptionally readable—which in some quarters counts against him—but it lacks the grace of Fitzgerald's prose. To be sure, O'Hara has a good ear, and his dialogue includes words that used to upset people. His writing is uncomplicated and notably bare of simile and metaphor. Allegory he eschews along with ambiguity and ambivalence. He creates no white whales; but he has an unsurpassed skill with his kind of symbols, which are the names of things. That Julian [in Appointment in Samarra] is a Cadillac dealer is appropriate and meaningful. The characters may not always understand what their possessions reveal about them, but O'Hara does. He knows what he is talking about.
You may not like what he writes about, but "don't say it never happened."
Matthew J. Bruccoli, "Focus on Appointment in Samarra," in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 129-36.
O'Hara's earliest images of how people succeed in society made up his capital as a writer; he was never able to understand to what extent many younger writers, especially those also writing for The New Yorker, took for granted the prodigious enriching of all sorts of uninteresting people in the United States. Least of all was he interested in the churchless individual seeking a "religious" life, as were Salinger and Updike. O'Hara, fantastically overspecialized in the social signs, as fanatical about keeping up the class struggle as a nineteenth-century coal baron, finally the prisoner of his own professional pride, took the easy way out of so much social change; he wrote the same kind of story over and over. It was easy because he was concerned with minute social antagonisms; the time remained America's Iron Age.
O'Hara was able to write so much because he finally indulged himself in mapping out social roles. For a moment he even became for some critics documentation of their heightened concern with social differences. He once wrote, with his usual bristle, that the emergence of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century was the greatest possible subject for a novelist. But this "emergence" meant, for O'Hara, not a sense of America the superpower at mid-century, but external evidences of the struggle for existence—the struggle between random samples of humanity in America totally preoccupied with their material progress. O'Hara was a novelist of manners crushingly interested only in manners, a documentarian whose characters were equivalents for the same social process. But he was never as monotonous as he might have been—he was merely discouraging. He had an old-fashioned avidity for what he never ceased to think of as (especially woman's) Dirty Little Secret.
O'Hara's world is one of total ambitiousness (an abstract idea) humanized only by extreme lust. The lust is as predictable as the ambitiousness, but shameful. O'Hara's respect for the American game that produces only winners and losers is so great that the people in his later novels are entirely exchangeable; they seem to get their characters only from their competence in the social process. The lust, the dirty little secret—always treated as one of those sneak-inesses that explains the ascendency of certain people—is the most glaring example of the scarcity of motive that dominates O'Hara's mind. O'Hara finds human beings as easy to explain as the profit-and-loss system for which they live; thus they repeat themselves to the point of reproducing themselves from novel to novel as they did from story to story. What does make O'Hara's world exciting is the terror of social displacement never far from the surface. We have reason to identify with that terror; America is a rich country in which many people feel poor. The social soil is still too thin to hold anything of people but their ambition. O'Hara's corner of America seems more "lived in" than most, but it is not human personality that makes it interesting, it is O'Hara's personal excitement, the outsider concentrating on every detail of the world in which he is making his way up. O'Hara's is one old-fashioned class saga in which the value of position or great wealth is never doubted. The contention for it is everything. "Society" always comes out on top. Never again, in the work of an American novelist, would there be so much faith in the Establishment.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 106-08.
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