John O'Hara

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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.)

Arthur Voss

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[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, degenerates, unfaithful wives, philanderers, and worse are held up to view, though usually with more subtlety and restraint than in the often heavily ironic and sardonic exposés of such persons in the earlier stories. (pp. 281-82)

But O'Hara is probably consistently at his best in the many stories which are primarily character studies…. He made them seem very real, not so much through penetrating deeply into them psychologically as by showing in detail what they say and do in relation to their environments and to the other characters in the story. Often he restricted himself to a minimum of auctorial exposition and description, relying heavily on dialogue instead to tell his story, and he had a very fine ear for the speech of his characters, no matter what their occupation or social station. (p. 282)

The general [critical] indictment against O'Hara contains a number of specific charges: He was a limited writer who was too flatly and literally realistic, too preoccupied with social distinctions and trivial details, and unable to transcend his realism as Hemingway did. He wrote too rapidly and discursively; he ought to have revised and polished more. His stories need more of such elements as humor, emotion, symbolism, imagery, mystery, and often they need more point. They may be vivid and plausible, but they do not have enough truth. There is undoubtedly some basis for these criticisms, but taken altogether they perhaps asked O'Hara to be something he was not…. [O'Hara is praised] more for short stories than for his novels, in recognition that he possessed not inconsiderable talents … as a literary craftsman and social historian. (p. 283)

Arthur Voss, in his The American Short Story: A Critical Survey (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

Malcolm Bradbury

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[O'Hara's work is] a fiction of...

(This entire section contains 696 words.)

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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, as with Fitzgerald, deep into the tenor of his writing. Perhaps the most striking difference from the rest of his rather incestuous generation is in the rhythm of the career. O'Hara was the writer as worker, and the work intensified as time went on….

O'Hara's is not an unexamined realism…. [He] became increasingly concerned with speculation about technique, and particularly about his modes of outward presentation of inward states; the result is a careful realism, in special and singular economy, one that O'Hara perfected long before he commented on it….

O'Hara at his best depended on tight lines of control. He never possessed technique in any Jamesian or experimental sense; his claim was to "craft" in a journalistically professional form.

But he could write with an extraordinary, clear purity, which is most articulate as a tone. It comes out as a mode of apparent indifference, a hard surface given to the text through a predominance of dialogue or a continuous functionality of scene, through the abstraction of psychological inwardness from the characters, through a particular way of spatializing the public and the private, the narrative overview and the inward moves of being. This offended critics who made humanism a requisite of a fictional text …, but of course compassion or involvement is not necessarily absent from the mode. We feel that O'Hara's characters are both given substance and drained of it by living in a world that is solid and harsh; we feel him creating to suppress, to limit what might be said in order to reveal this. The famous oblique endings of the stories work in this way….

O'Hara worked best with a very special marriage of accumulated, dense social detail, a given wealth of society, and a sparse and limited mode of writing; this is why he so frequently succeeds most in the short stories…. O'Hara's refusal to overdress, to go for metaphor in style, or for a total logic in narrative, and his insistence on distilling a precision from a story, are the essential notes [in his best stories]. The social surface is solid; the narrative presses continuously with a deducible logic; the anxieties underlying the experience are elicited; the text stays cool. Reality is both there and not there, as in all good realism; and if we want to judge that realism still has a stylistic currency, that there is an appropriate balance still to be won from this form of anxious social reconciliation, then we do well to look hard at O'Hara.

Malcolm Bradbury, "A Respectable Reprobate," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 28, 1976, p. 633.

John Updike

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"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, if anything, his art lacked. Love of language might be an answer—language as a semi-opaque medium whose colors and connotations can be worked into a supernatural, supermimetic bliss…. Tuned to less than highest pitch, his prose and dialogue just run on…. But the interest of the human life in his mind's eye was so self-evident to him he saw no need to make it interesting. A thing was itself, and rarely reminded him of another. He is resolutely un-metaphorical, and language seldom led him with its own music deeper into the matter at hand. Hemingway's flatness had about it a willed point, a philosophical denial of depth; O'Hara's was serenely post-philosophical. His best short stories have a terrific delicacy, and the calm compositional weirdness of a Degas or an Oriental print…. O'Hara was crazy about writing, and his writing has the innocence of enthusiasm…. What innovations his art contains—including his once scandalous sexual frankness—were forced upon him, one feels, by his reverence before the facts of life. (pp. 213-14)

John Updike, "The Doctor's Son," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 6, 1978, pp. 200-14.


O'Hara, John (Vol. 1)


O'Hara, John (Vol. 2)