Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ten North Frederick was both a critical and a popular success for John O’Hara. After its appearance in 1955, it sold 65,703 copies in its first two weeks and remained on the best-seller list for thirty-two weeks. In 1956, Ten North Frederick received the National Book Award for fiction, and a film version of the novel was eventually produced.

John O’Hara wanted to be ranked with the greatest American writers of his time, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he believed that he deserved such stature. O’Hara was, in fact, able to manipulate several of the literary techniques that characterize the novels of the great modernists, and one of the strengths of Ten North Frederick is its presentation of modernist techniques (stripped-down dialogue, nonlinear shifts of time and focus) in a context that is accessible to a wide popular audience. The basically negative perception of progress that is presented in Ten North Frederick also associates O’Hara with the bleak modernist themes of his contemporaries.

Unlike the established masters of American literature, though, O’Hara was never able to develop a genuinely individual style. All of the literary techniques that can be found in Ten North Frederick—its realistic details, its naturalistic portrait of individuals coping with forces they cannot fully control, its modernist techniques and themes—had been developed by writers before O’Hara. The often sensational and gratuitous sexual content of a novel such as Ten North Frederick also precludes O’Hara’s fiction from a first ranking in American literature. Yet John O’Hara did make his own special contribution to American literature through his explorations of the complex interactions of human sexuality and psychology, set against realistic backgrounds such as the Gibbsville environment in Ten North Frederick. By continuing in the twentieth century, O’Hara established himself as an important, if not a great, American writer.