O'Hara, John (Vol. 1)
O'Hara, John 1905–1970
An American novelist and short story writer, O'Hara won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick. Among his other well-known novels are Appointment in Samarra, Butterfield 8, Pal Joey, and From the Terrace. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-6, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
O'Hara is a realist; that is, he considers his principal duty to be the creation of a plausible likeness of the world. His care and skill in achieving accuracy of detail are truly astonishing, so much so that if a vivid surface were all that mattered O'Hara would be a very great novelist. But his details are more than merely accurate. He is endowed with the kind of shrewdness that can derive the world from a brand label, and the whole universe from a fraternity pin. Sharing O'Hara's angle of vision, one begins to believe that to learn where a man was born, educated, and buys his clothes is to know virtually all there is to know about him.
The brilliant surface makes O'Hara's world immediately recognizable. The moment you step into it, you feel at home and at the same time excited by all the bustle around you. O'Hara's prose style, casual and tweedy in texture, contributes to the relaxed, informal atmosphere of the visit. Only after you have been there for a while, when you pause and reflect, do you realize what a strange place you have come to….
To put all this another way, O'Hara appears to conceive that a man is exhaustively defined by his observable behavior—by what is usually called his manners—and beyond that, by his sexual habits. There is nothing else, either implied or specified. But it must be understood that O'Hara is not a "novelist of manners" in the sense in which literary critics have used that term. Manners in O'Hara refer to nothing outside themselves or deeper than themselves. They are neither an index of sensibility nor the expression of moral impulses.
Norman Podhoretz, "Gibbsville and New Leeds" (1956), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhortez), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 76-87.
Mr. O'Hara's mimetic talent for fiction, which is considerable, has never been accompanied by a point of view that is anything but surly. So long as he wrote in his early novels as a social sorehead from the wrong side of the tracks in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, his fiction still had wit and organization. But for some time now Mr. O'Hara has been as vain and oracular as any Broadway celebrity in "21," and with the disappearance from his fiction of any real point of view, his books have become overgrown and meaningless in the vanity of their documentation, to the point where someone whose talent was always for the ironic social fact, for the thrust and bite of the short story, no longer knows how to keep a book under control. He pointlessly brings in characters from his other books; he even coyly refers to himself, in a way that makes us realize that he has substituted his own creative vanity for an imagined subject. But he can do this because the form of the "big" novel, the "greal American novel," is one that Americans identify with their history.
Alfred Kazin, "The Great American Bore" (1958), in his Contemporaries, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 161-68.
Appointment in Samarra is probably the best and most illuminating account we have of the class system of a white American town. It also—and here there is a real parallel with The Great Gatsby—catches exactly the feel and quality of life at a specific time in a specific place. On the evidence of Appointment in Samarra O'Hara ought, one feels, to have developed into a great novelist.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 183.
[By] the early 1940's, despite the great merit of his first novel and his admirable accomplishments in the short-story form, including the Pal Joey sequence, [John] O'Hara's reputation had been firmly nailed in place among the lower rungs on the ladder of literary prestige. His frequent concern with vivid but not very profound characters and situations of the Broadway-Hollywood world; the quiet, unspectacular manner of his short fiction; his association with the New Yorker magazine; his candid, even brutally frank treatment of sexuality; his lack of obvious commitment to a particular social or political standpoint—these and like factors combined to fix O'Hara in a predicament he has never quite surmounted. (pp. 18-19)
Almost everyone agrees in almost every review that O'Hara has an unsurpassed acuity of vision for the insignia of social station, for the objects which fill or clutter our lives, and for the clothes, cars, houses, which comprise the surface and much of the texture of American life. Reviewers also concur that he hears American speech with such unparalleled accuracy and authenticity that his dialogue seems to have been recorded from life rather than written. One inspired reviewer summarized these faculties in the term "phono-photographic." Commingled with the praise of these virtues, and usually growing out of them, is the general respect for O'Hara as a social historian and social analyst: for his skill in depicting the tensions between classes, or between members of slightly different rank within the same class, or between one generation and another…. [Hostile critics, however, believe that] (1) O'Hara is at best a superb reporter who raises journalism to an extraordinarily high level but falls short as an artist because he subordinates theme, character, and action to a massive verisimilitude in physical detail. (2) His objectivity is either a disguise for his mindlessness or the expression of his essential callousness and moral indifference. (3) He writes clearly but also flatly and transparently. (4) Obsessed with the bedroom antics of his characters, O'Hara regales the reader endlessly and pointlessly with them. (5) He has failed to develop; his first work, Appointment in Samarra, remains his best. (6) His portrayal of the rich, often vivid but unconvincing, is chiefly significant for its reflection of the writer's enmity toward his imagined people. (7) He is little more than a skillful hack whose main motivation for writing, and for writing so much, is lust for gold. (pp. 21-2)
Failure, defeat, loss, pain, misfortune, cruelty are the themes dominant in O'Hara's better stories. Occasionally one finds … a tale … that is rich with comic humor. And … humor is rarely absent from the satirical portraits and sketches so prominent in O'Hara's early work, although the comic and satiric stories do not lodge most firmly in the memory. The others—those dealing with the terrors of aging, or the conflict between the old and the young, with the tribulations of love, with the lot of the lonely, the outcast, and the suffering—are the tales which affect the reader most deeply…. In accord with the predominantly ironic view of his earlier story collections, O'Hara's inquiries into human nature are more likely to sadden than exhilarate. Most frequently he uncovers some wickedness, some depravity, some buried sin, often where one least expects it. (pp. 121-22)
Even when O'Hara employs, as he often does, the editorial omniscient, one has the sense of listening to a story rather than seeing it on the page. Description and narration are at a minimum; dialogue is virtually all. Thus, O'Hara's method is the dramatic rather than the panoramic. What we learn from these stories we learn as in life: by watching people behave and listening to them speak. Further, O'Hara has the marvelous gift of constructing exactly the sort of dramatic scene, of catching precisely the tones and shadings and inflections which enable, indeed which require, the reader to grasp the truth. At his best he gives us an unsurpassed sense of reality, of life happening now, as if spontaneously.
Another of O'Hara's fundamental and characteristic methods, undoubtedly developed in the short story before being employed in the novels, is … the delayed revelation. In the stories O'Hara makes it serve as the uncovering, usually at the last moment, of some essential fact or happening (often in the character's past) which completes the reader's knowledge of the protagonist and permits him to distinguish between the character's version of reality and reality itself. We watch and listen, learning as the story (and the speaking voice) proceed. We suspect, conjecture, infer until at last we know. (p. 125)
To put [the] major criticism of O'Hara in a phrase, I miss in his works at least one touchstone of greatness: the religious or philosophical dimension, not in the sense of any theology or doctrine, but in the sense of the obsession with ultimates, the quest for fundamental verities—even though those verities sound the everlasting No. O'Hara's special talent has been for the applied, not the theoretical, for the process, not the discovery. He does not ask the most searching questions of all: What are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? What does it all mean? (p. 144)
[The] absence of metaphor also signifies a salient defect in O'Hara's style, his use of language. There is too rarely beauty in it. One admires his language, rightly so, as a tool which he adapted from his Realistic-Naturalistic predecessors, shaped to his own grasp, and honed to a fine edge to carve out his own kind of slices of life…. His prose at its best represents craftsmanship of the highest competence, language deployed with intelligence, expertness, authority, and accuracy, but only occasionally does it surpass competence…. Taut, astonishingly clear, suggestive, right, even resonant—his language is all that and more when he is in good form. Yet it does not move. Rather, the reader is affected by the probity of the insight, the truth of the portrayal, the vividness with which the writer has visualized his people and situations and breathed them into life. (p. 146)
Few have written about sexuality more candidly than he. And although he has portrayed men and women in their most intimate actions, he has avoided with unusual success—considering the dangers attendant upon such incendiary subject matter—pandering to the audience's lascivious impulses. (p. 148)
Sheldon Norman Grebstein, in his John O'Hara, Twayne, 1966.
Of the serious writers of contemporary American fiction, John O'Hara is perhaps the most prolific. Yet, despite the torrent of short stories, motion-picture scripts, plays, and novels which cascades from his typewriter, O'Hara maintains always the sure hand of a master craftsman….
O'Hara has concentrated his multiple interests on depicting in detail the world of the very rich in the eastern United States in the first half of this century….
A brief, tightly constructed, fast-paced novel, Appointment in Samarra has the virtues that have characterized O'Hara's work ever since: the direct, colloquial prose, unadorned by metaphor or simile, faultless touch with dialogue, and an uncanny eye for detail.
Bernard Dekle, "John O'Hara: Smooth Surface, with Depths," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 173-78.
[In] my opinion, O'Hara is an extraordinarily good and important writer of short stories and an inferior novelist…. The weakness of O'Hara's novels is related to the excellence of his short stories: America lacks the manners to sustain what Aristotle called a "significant action of some magnitude"—not that there is no cultural tradition or social context of manners, values, and customs; but that our writers have generally not been willing to assume a position of acceptance within it and create from its values an action that dramatizes its typical problems…. O'Hara has written well over 350 short stories, and in this impressive gathering he has hardly repeated himself. He has brilliantly explored the manners of America on many levels.
More than with most of our outstanding novelists, in fact, O'Hara's subject is that of the novel of manners, but a number of qualities in his novels limit his achievement in the genre. First, the range of conduct that O'Hara records is enormous. All degrees of violence, scoundrelism, selfishness, cruelty, pride, ruthlessness, and decency appear. Second, such conduct is boldly unpredictable….
Third, O'Hara records all such conduct with the detachment of a photographer. He does not establish a moral frame of reference, and hence there is no pattern of rewards or punishments, no ideal scale, whether moral, philosophical, or religious…. Fourth, O'Hara does not dramatize a substantial action in which various life patterns are enacted, with developed problems and conflicts resolved by crucial decisions leading to serious consequences. Instead, he surrounds his dramatic action with great tracts of historical exposition and discussion, plus tireless descriptions of How It Was in style, fashion, travel, politics, saloons, rackets, houses, servants, clubs, food, horses, automobiles, and so on. Fifth, his tone is often so cold, sardonic, hostile, or contemptuous as to reduce his people to absurd or malignant monsters. Sixth, he is, paradoxically, so involved with the rich in his stories that he loses sight of the large patterns in which they move. He shows the nuances of power, of one-upmanship, and of arrogance among them without showing the general social frame that defines their significance. Rather, he is himself present talking to them with insightful questions or demonstrating that he knows what makes them tick better than anybody, including themselves, so that his own display of insight reduces their freedom and subordinates their problems—problems already reduced by the confinement of O'Hara's preoccupation with sex, power, and status. The qualities listed here, nevertheless, constitute a special and remarkable contribution to modern American literature. (pp. 5-9)
In disclosing character, O'Hara often relies on surprise, or what I call the instant insight, rather than using the considered choices that reveal a character in a significant action. Surprise comes when a character reacts unforeseeably. It is often made plausible by O'Hara's remarkable ear for language. In his dramatic scenes the voices of the characters resonate with the banalities of life, and we cannot doubt their reality. If we are surprised by their conduct, we are not therefore incredulous; rather, we suspect that they act from pent-up emotions or an habitual violence more than from conscious choice. (p. 39)
O'Hara's special characteristic surely is the violent, bitter, abrasive quality of human relations in his books. Drunk, aimless, socially insecure, morally adrift, his people are equally violent and unexpected—except when they are depraved and cynical. In the latter event they do not surprise us so much. (pp. 45-6)
[The] secret of O'Hara's tremendous interest … [is perhaps] that the characters come alive because the reader is completely involved in the living instant when he sees them responding—often surprisingly—to the problem and the situation through which they exist and grow. (p. 46)
Charles Child Walcutt, in his John O'Hara ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 80), University of Minnesota Press, © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).