Discussion Topics

What merits and what defects of John O’Hara’s fiction can be traced to his journalistic training?

Snobbery is far less often a theme of the American novel than it is of European novel. How do you account for its being a prominent theme in O’Hara’s works?

What characteristic of Gibbsville makes it a microcosm of American society?

Why was the title Appointment in Samarra so important to O’Hara?

What is distinctive about O’Hara’s dialogue in his short stories? What part does it play in O’Hara’s success in that form?

O’Hara’s works are little studied in American colleges. Should they be studied more?

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111201262-Ohara.jpg John O’Hara Published by Salem Press, Inc.

John O’Hara is probably best known to American readers for his long, complex novels of manners, liberally spiced with sex and seasoned with class conflict. Most of his stories are set in that coal-mining region of Pennsylvania known as The Region by its inhabitants, an O’Hara domain which was ruled, at least fictionally, by the city of Gibbsville. He also wrote seven plays, five of them included in Five Plays (1961). From 1934 to 1957, he worked on treatments, adapted other fictions, and wrote original screenplays for Hollywood. He received sole credit for Moontide (1942) and credit in varying degrees for I Was an Adventuress (1939), He Married His Wife (1939), Down Argentine Way (1940), and Best Things in Life Are Free (1955). For the last title he wrote the original story. He also wrote a series of political columns for national syndication later collected and published as My Turn (1966).

Achievements

Although John O’Hara was perhaps best known during his lifetime as a novelist, his growing posthumous reputation appears to rest upon his shorter fiction, particularly upon the tales issued in collections nearly every Thanksgiving holiday during the last decade of the author’s life; significantly, relatively few of the stories in such volumes as Assembly, The Cape Cod Lighter, The Horse Knows the Way, or Waiting for Winter had seen prior publication in magazines.

Following his rupture with The New Yorker at the end of the 1940’s, O’Hara poured most of his prodigious energies into the longer fictional form, sometimes approaching but never really matching or surpassing the accomplishment of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934). Around 1960, with a distinct—and often expressed—premonition that time was running out, O’Hara returned to the shorter form with a vengeance, often returning for the setting of his stories to the 1920’s and 1930’s—as if to make good use of his vivid memory while it still served him. Following a reconciliation of sorts with The New Yorker on the occasion of Sermons and Soda Water, O’Hara resumed publication there and elsewhere, particularly in the declining Saturday Evening Post. It was, however, in published collections quickly reissued in paperback that O’Hara’s later stories would reach their widest audiences and exercise their greatest impact. Although he continued to write and publish novels, it is clear that the best of his energies—and memories—were reserved for the stories, which accounted in large measure for the Award of Merit bestowed upon him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Other literary forms

John O’Hara was a prolific writer of short stories, and eleven volumes of stories were published during his lifetime. After O’Hara’s death, Random House, his publisher since 1947, brought out two additional collections: The Time Element, and Other Stories (1972) and Good Samaritan, and Other Stories (1974). Scattered throughout the short-story collections are most of O’Hara’s works in the novella form; the only novellas to be published separately are the three in Sermons and Soda Water. His libretto for the musical play Pal Joey was not published until 1952, although the show was produced in 1940; in 1961, it was reissued with four others works for the stage in Five Plays. O’Hara’s last complete play, Far from Heaven (1962), was first published posthumously in 1979, along with an unproduced original screenplay, The Man Who Could Not Lose (1959), under the title Two by O’Hara.

Like many other writers of his period, O’Hara wrote and collaborated on film scripts from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, and several of his novels were made into films during his lifetime. O’Hara began his writing career as a journalist, and he was several times a newspaper columnist. Two collections of his columns were published: Sweet and Sour (1954)—columns written for the Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser—and My Turn (1966), a series of syndicated columns written for Newsday. A collection of O’Hara’s speeches, essays, and interviews, titled An Artist Is His Own Fault, was edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and published in 1977.

Achievements

Often dismissed as a popular novelist with tendencies toward sensationalism, or as a “social historian,” John O’Hara nevertheless secured a faithful following among many literary critics for his skill at storytelling and his evocation of times, places, and manners in American society in the first half of the twentieth century. O’Hara himself was equivocal about the label “social historian.” In a speech in 1961, he said, “I deny that I am a social historian”; yet he went on to say that “before deciding to write a novel, I consider what opportunities a story offers for my comments on my times.” Bruccoli is probably most accurate in calling O’Hara a “novelist of manners,” in the sense that he was primarily concerned with the accurate depiction of a social matrix and its effect on human behavior and potential. As did William Faulkner and other twentieth century American novelists, O’Hara turned the realities of his hometown experience into a fictional world; unlike Faulkner, he probed this milieu with a dedication to social realism rather than elevating it to mythic status. In addition to his native eastern Pennsylvania, O’Hara used New York and Hollywood as frequent settings for his fiction. Although he lived and worked in both places, he is most clearly identified with the “Region” of Pennsylvania, on which he could bring to bear an insider’s perceptions.

The fact that O’Hara was a realistic storyteller rather than an...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

John O’Hara

Author Profile

O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), was praised by many reviewers but castigated by others for its sexual outspokenness. Because the novel’s setting, “Gibbsville,” was clearly modeled on O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, O’Hara was also criticized by his former neighbors for presenting the town in an unflattering light. The book was subsequently declared unmailable by the U.S. Post Office, although it continued to be sold openly in bookstores.

O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick (1955) drew more censorship attempts than any of his other works. Detroit’s police commissioner banned it from the city in early 1957, but O’Hara’s publishers obtained a permanent injunction against the ban. That same year the book’s paperback publisher, Bantam Books, was indicted for distributing obscene material in Albany, New York, O’Hara himself was also indicted, but the indictment was dismissed in circuit court the following year because jurors had been presented with only isolated passages of the book for consideration. This court ruling was an early application of the standard articulated in Roth v. United States in 1957. Meanwhile, the novel was also a target of legal challenges in Cleveland, Ohio, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Bibliography

Bruccoli, Matthew J. The O’Hara Concern. New York: Random House, 1975. A carefully researched scholarly biography that reconstructs O’Hara’s life and career in scrupulous detail, showing the evolution of his talent and thematic interests. Particularly authoritative in its account of O’Hara’s break—and eventual reconciliation—with The New Yorker, and the impact of both events on his approach to short fiction. Bruccoli’s biography is useful also for its exhaustive primary and secondary bibliography.

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(The entire section is 781 words.)

Bibliography

Bruccoli, Matthew J. The O’Hara Concern. New York: Random House, 1975. A carefully researched scholarly biography that reconstructs O’Hara’s life and career in scrupulous detail, showing the evolution of his talent and thematic interests. Particularly authoritative in its account of O’Hara’s break—and eventual reconciliation—with The New Yorker, and the impact of both events on his approach to short fiction. Bruccoli’s biography is useful also for its exhaustive primary and secondary bibliography.

Eppard, Philip B., ed. Critical Essays on John O’Hara. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Divided into sections on...

(The entire section is 578 words.)