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John Henry O'Hara (January 31, 1905 – April 11, 1970) was an American writer who earned his early literary reputation for short stories and later became a best-selling novelist before the age of 30 with Appointment in Samarra and BUtterfield 8. His work stands out among that of contemporaries for its unvarnished realism. While O'Hara's legacy as a writer is mixed, his champions rank him among the underappreciated and unjustly neglected major American writers of the 20th century. Few college students educated after O'Hara's death in 1970 have discovered him because he refused to allow his work to be reprinted in anthologies used to teach literature at a college level.
"O’Hara may not have been the best story writer of the twentieth century, but he is the most addictive," wrote Lorin Stein, editor in chief of the Paris Review, in a 2013 appreciation of O'Hara's work, adding, "You can binge on his collections the way some people binge on Mad Men, and for some of the same reasons. On the topics of class, sex, and alcohol—that is, the topics that mattered to him—his novels amount to a secret history of American life." Five of his stories were adapted into popular films in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet during his lifetime, O'Hara's literary reputation was damaged by the detractors he accumulated due to his outsized and easily bruised ego, alcoholic crankiness, long held resentments and by politically conservative columns he wrote in the 1960s, all of which at times overshadowed his gift for story telling. Fellow Pennsylvanian John Updike, a fan of O'Hara's writing, said that the prolific author "outproduced our capacity for appreciation; maybe now we can settle down and marvel at him all over again."
O'Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania to an affluent Irish-American family. Though his family lived among the gentry of eastern Pennsylvania during his childhood, O'Hara's Irish-Catholic background gave him the perspective of an outsider on the inside of polite WASP society, a theme he returned to in his writing again and again. He attended the secondary school Niagara Prep in Lewiston, New York, where he was named Class Poet for Class of 1924. His father died about that time, leaving him unable to afford Yale, the college of his dreams. By all accounts, this fall in social status from a privileged life of a well-heeled doctor's family (including club memberships, riding and dance lessons, fancy cars in the barn, domestic servants in the house) to overnight insolvency afflicted O'Hara with status anxiety for the rest of his life, honing the cutting social class awareness that characterizes his work.
Career and Reputation
Initially, O'Hara worked as a reporter for various newspapers. Moving to New York City, he began to write short stories for magazines. During the early part of his career, he was also a film critic, a radio commentator and a press agent.
In 1934, O'Hara published his first novel Appointment in Samarra. Endorsing the novel, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra." O'Hara followed Samarra with BUtterfield 8, his roman à clef based upon the tragic, short life of flapper Starr Faithfull, whose mysterious death in 1931 became a tabloid sensation. Over four decades, O'Hara published novels, novellas, plays, screenplays and more than 400 short stories, the majority of them in The New Yorker. During World War II, he was a correspondent in the Pacific theater. After the war, he wrote screenplays and more novels, including Ten North Frederick, for which he won the 1956 National Book Award and From the Terrace (1958), which he considered his "greatest achievement as a novelist." Late in life, with his reputation established, he became a newspaper columnist. In his last decade, O'Hara created "a body of work of magnificent dimensions," wrote George V. Higgins, noting, "Between 1960 and 1968, he published six novels, seven collections of short fiction, and some 137 terse and extended stories that all by themselves would supply credentials for a towering reputation in the world of perfect justice that he never did quite find."
Many of his stories (and his later novels written in the 1950s) are set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a barely fictionalized version of his home town of Pottsville, a small city in the anthracite region of the northeastern United States. (Gibbsville was named for his friend and frequent editor at The New Yorker Wolcott Gibbs.) In his novella Pat Collins, O'Hara observed that few ever have the vantage point to see, let alone know intimately, all sides of a town's business, the interior of every home, and the lives of their denizens -- save a physician, deliveryman or local reporter. Having followed his doctor father on house calls as an impressionable boy, O'Hara was able to fill his stories with convincing characters from all social strata: from wealthy matrons and Ivy League legacies reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels to immigrant laborers, saloon keepers and shadowy underworld figures found in Damon Runyon stories.
O'Hara received the highest critical acclaim for his short stories. He contributed more of them to The New Yorker than anyone. He published seven volumes of stories in the final decade of his career while complaining that they took his time away from writing novels. O'Hara once wrote, "I had an apparently inexhaustible urge to express an unlimited supply of short story ideas. No writing has ever come more easily to me." In Library of America's collection of 60 of O'Hara's best stories, editor Charles McGrath praises them for their "sketchlike lightness and brevity... in which nothing necessarily 'happens' in the old-fashioned sense, but in which some crucial loss or discovery is revealed just by implication... a sense of speed and economy is just what makes the best of these stories so thrilling." Brendan Gill, who worked with O'Hara at The New Yorker, ranks him "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call The New Yorker short story." In the forward to a collection of his short stories published four years before his death in 1970, O'Hara declared in his own immodest way, "No one writes them any better than I do." Two more volumes of his stories were published soon after his death.
Despite his popular success as a best-selling author, most of O'Hara's longer work is not held in as high regard by the literary establishment. Critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz claimed: "So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project." The endings of some of O'Hara's novels and stories are clumsy, hasty conclusions. Some of the criticism of O'Hara's writing is attributed to dislike of O'Hara personally because of his abrasive ego and lack of humility in dealing with others, his vigorous self-promotion, his obsession with his social status, and the politically conservative columns he wrote late in his career. Contemporary critics disparaged his novels for their blunt and non-judgmental depictions of loose women and homosexuals, yet critics writing after the sexual revolution see in O'Hara a pioneer in depicting female sexuality in frank, realistic ways. His most biting critics regard his novels to be shallow and overly concerned with sexual desire, drinking and surface details at the expense of deeper meaning. Many leading characters in O'Hara's novels are alcoholics who live as emotional zombies, anesthetized by alcohol and unable to ponder the human heart in conflict with itself. As his contemporary William Faulkner said of such writers in his Nobel Prize address of 1949, "He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
O'Hara's legacy has many literary heavyweight champions, including authors Updike and Shelby Foote. Fans admire O'Hara for his deft ability to depict realistic dialogue, his mastery of the telling detail and his sharp eye for the way humans communicate in nonverbal ways—from subtle glances to telling gestures. McGrath, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, has called O'Hara "one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper's secret--how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.". O'Hara said he learned from reading Ring Lardner "that if you wrote down speech as it is spoken truly, you produce true characters," and added, "Sometimes I almost feel that I ought to apologize for having the ability to write good dialog, and yet it's the attribute most lacking in American writers and almost totally lacking in the British."
According to biographer Frank MacShane, O'Hara thought that Hemingway's death made O'Hara the leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. O'Hara wrote to his daughter "I really think I will get it," and "I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it." MacShane says that T.S. Eliot told O'Hara that he had, in fact, been nominated twice. When John Steinbeck won the prize in 1962, O'Hara wired, "Congratulations, I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it." In a letter to Steinbeck two years before that, O'Hara placed himself with Steinbeck in the pantheon of great 20th century American writers, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, singling out Faulkner among them as "the one, the genius."
O'Hara died from cardiovascular disease in Princeton, New Jersey, and is interred in the Princeton Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone, which he wrote himself, reads: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." Of this, Gill commented: "From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing. Better than anyone else? Not merely better than any other writer of fiction but better than any dramatist, any poet, any biographer, any historian? It is an astonishing claim."
After his death, O'Hara's study and its contents were reconstructed in 1974 for display at Penn State University, where his papers are held. His childhood home, the John O'Hara House in Pottsville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
O'Hara's epistolary novel Pal Joey (1940) led to the successful Broadway musical, with libretto by O'Hara and songs by Rodgers and Hart. In 1957, Pal Joey was made into a musical film starring Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, and Kim Novak.
From the Terrace is a 1960 film adapted from O'Hara's 1958 novel of the same title. The film starred Paul Newman as disenchanted Alfred Eaton, son of a wealthy but indifferent father and alcoholic mother as well as Joanne Woodward as his socially ambitious, self-pitying and unfaithful wife Mary St. John.
Also in 1960, O'Hara's best-selling 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 was released as a film under the same name. Elizabeth Taylor won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Gloria Wandrous.
Ten North Frederick is a 1958 film based on O'Hara's 1955 novel of the same title. Gary Cooper starred as Joe Chapin, with Diane Varsi, Suzy Parker and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles. O'Hara called Cooper's performance "sensitive, understanding and true."
A Rage to Live is a 1965 film directed by Walter Grauman and starring Suzanne Pleshette as Grace Caldwell Tate, a well-mannered, uppercrust beauty whose passions wreak havoc on multiple lives. The screenplay by John T. Kelley is based on O'Hara's best-selling 1949 novel of the same name.
O'Hara's short stories about Gibbsville were used as the basis for the 1975 NBC television movie John O'Hara's Gibbsville (also known as The Turning Point of Jim Malloy) and for the short-lived 1976 NBC dramatic television series Gibbsville.
In the early 1950s, O'Hara wrote a weekly book column, "Sweet and Sour" for the Trenton Times-Advertiser and a biweekly column, "Appointment with O'Hara", for Collier's magazine. MacShane calls them "garrulous and outspoken" and says neither "added much of importance to O'Hara's work". Biographer Shelden Grebstein says that O'Hara in these columns was "simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating in his vaingloriousness, vindictiveness, and general bellicosity." Biographer Geoffrey Woolf says these earlier columns anticipated "his disastrous 'My Turn' in Newsday, which endured fifty-three weeks ... beginning in late 1964... of his dismissive and contemptuous worst".
His first Newsday column opened with the line, "Let's get off to a really bad start." His second complained, "the same hysteria that afflicted the Prohibitionists is now evident among the anti-cigarettists." His third column nominally supported the Republican Party nominee Barry Goldwater for U.S. president by identifying his cause with fans of Lawrence Welk, an accordionist and bandleader whose TV show and records were commercially popular but often derided as corny and "square". "I think it's time the Lawrence Welk people had their say," wrote O'Hara. "The Lester Lanin and Dizzy Gillespie people have been on too long. When the country is in trouble, like war kind of trouble, man, it is the Lawrence Welk people who can be depended upon, all the way." In his fifth column, he argued that Martin Luther King should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The syndicated column was not a success, published by a continuously decreasing number of newspapers, and did not endear him to the politically liberal New York literary establishment.
Several of his columns demonstrate his knowledge of trivia about and yearning for association with Ivy League colleges. As he noted, "Through the years I have acquired a vast amount of information about colleges and universities." The May 8, 1965 column takes as its ostensible topic the fact that Yale owns stock in American Broadcasting Company and thus is a beneficiary of the television program Peyton Place...
The jocular references to Phelps, Canby, and Old Nassau only could have amused a tiny (if elite) fraction of his readership, and thus give an impression that O'Hara is showing off his insider-like knowledge of these institutions.
Later, he notes that James Gould Cozzens is a "genuine Harvard alumnus" and speculates that Harvard should broker a television serialization of a Cozzens novel:
His September 4, 1965 column deals entirely with his failure to have received any honorary degrees, going into detail about three honorary degrees he was actually offered but, for various reasons, did not accept. In the column, he lists the awards he has received:
He complains that the colleges write him "highly complimentary" letters asking him to perform "chores" such as officiating as writer-in-residence, judging literary contests, and give lectures, yet do not give him degree citations. "The five major distinctions," he notes, "were awarded me by other writers, not by [academia]."
The column closes with the comment:
Short story collections
(The Farmers Hotel, The Searching Sun, The Champagne Pool, Veronique, The Way It Was)
(The Man Who Could Not Lose [screen treatment] and Far from Heaven [play])