—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.