Thursday, August 22, 2013

John O'Hara by Lorin Stein from The New Yorker


“To me, O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald.”

—Fran Lebowitz, The Paris Review, 1993

Ed here: Fine as Fran Lebowitz's piece on John O'Hara is I can't agree with her that O'Hara was Fitzgerald's equal. He wasn't nearly as good a stylist, he lacked the range of skills Fitzgerald brought to the page and his work rarely had the echoes found in even some of Fitzgerald's magazine stories. But how O'Hara has slipped from view, I dunno.  His gifts were extraordinary. He understood America's class system in a way not even Fitzgerald did and despite his braggadocio he did indeed get his time and his generation down without peer. He can still move and delight me over and over; shabby as some of his bestsellers might have been his enormous body of work belongs on the same shelf as Steinbeck, with Appointment in Samarra its masterpiece.
Born in 1905 in Pennsylvania coal country, the son of a small-town doctor, John O’Hara leapt to prominence with his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), about the downfall of a car dealer in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pa. With his second novel, BUtterfield 8 (1935), O’Hara turned his sights on Manhattan and produced one of the great novels of New York in the Depression. For the next three decades, his fiction shuttled back and forth between Gibbsville and New York. Many of his short stories have stood the test of time, but as a novelist he never surpassed his first efforts. His novels of the mid-thirties are his classics, and they deserve to be much more famous than they are.

According to Fran Lebowitz, O’Hara is underrated “because every single person who knew him hated him.” This is an exaggeration, as O’Hara’s biographers (most notably Geoffrey Wolff) have shown, but he could be unpleasant, and his personality sometimes overshadowed his genius. When he was drinking (roughly, from 1919 to 1954), he was notorious for picking fights with whoever had the bad luck to be standing at the other end of a bar. Sobriety curbed his temper, but not his violent yearning for recognition or his self-punishing snobbery. In later life, O’Hara still cadged matchbooks from clubs that wouldn’t have him as a member, and he demanded from his publishers not just high advances but also gifts and lunches at the Ritz. He was addicted to the tokens of success. O’Hara spent particular energy lobbying Yale for an honorary degree, in vain: as then president Kingman Brewster explained, “He wanted it too much.”

Yale comes up a lot in BUtterfield 8 and in much of O’Hara’s later fiction. It was a sort of obsession of his. (Ernest Hemingway once took up a collection “to send O’Hara to New Haven”: O’Hara was in his thirties at the time.) To his lasting chagrin, he never attended college. When he was still in high school, his father died suddenly, leaving the family penniless. From the time he was a teenager, O’Hara supported himself with his typewriter, first as a reporter in Pennsylvania, then in New York, later by writing fiction. Over the years he published 247 stories in The New Yorker (still a record) and a string of best sellers, but he never got over the change in his family’s fortunes, for the O’Haras had lived well when he was a boy, and he never stopped feeling locked out of the upper class. He was morbidly conscious of being Irish American. As his alter ego in BUtterfield 8, the beat reporter Jimmy Malloy explains to the debutante Isabel Stannard: “I am a Mick. I wear Brooks clothes and I don’t eat salad with a spoon and I could probably play five-goal polo in two years, but I am a Mick. Still a Mick … The people who think I am a Yale man aren’t very observing about people.” For O’Hara, this was an ultimate condemnation, both of the unobserving people and of himself.

for the rest go here:


pattinase (abbott) said...

Totally agree. Love O'Hara but not quite in the same category. But he does deserve to be remembered more. I will include this as a forgotten author if I may.

Todd Mason said...

Ha. While the US President might still be a few years older than I (even if he did almost overlap me at the high school from which we were both graduated), I am now, I see, older than the author of this piece, and the editor of THE PARIS REVIEW, Lorin Stein. Oh, well, at least I was editing HAWAII REVIEW at age 18...if not for long...

Anonymous said...

To me his short stories are his best work - although some of them are 50 pages or more, hardly short. He was a fascinating if often unlikeable character.

Jeff M.

George said...

I'm with Jeff: love O'Hara's short stories. I enjoyed O'Hara's novels but all of them are problematic. The reports that O'Hara was hated by everyone might be exaggerated, but clearly he had a troubled personal life.

Kelly Robinson said...

I recently read an article in the New York Review of Books that convinced me to pick up Appointment in Samarra.

It's here, if anyone is interested:

Anonymous said...

I wrote about O'Hara's short stories several years ago for an FFB. He is primarily responsible for the development if what we now refer to as a "New Yorker short story." I've said it before, but I think if you read the works of O'Hara side-by-side with the works of John P. Marquand, you have the American old-world WASP versus brash second-generation Catholic immigrant saga writ large. And now both of them are almost entirely forgotten.