An interim status report
John O'Hara is the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: he's never got the proper respect and he spent much of his career complaining about it. At best, he's been called a "first-rate second-rate writer" in a clever phrase that seems to nail his literary reputation.
I'm here to try to change that.
For many critics, O'Hara is part of that twentieth-century, second-quarter, generation of celebrated American authors—including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner—but not in their top ranks. Some rate his short stories among the best but disdain his novels, half-heartedly praising his first, Appointment in Samarra (1934), but seeing degeneration since that early promise. His later long works, his most popular with the public, are dismissed as gaudy bestsellers of upper-crust sex and glamour.
Even his prolific production of short stories, which appeared in magazines over four decades (holding the unbeatable record for appearances in The New Yorker) and were gathered into collections every few years, has been held against him. Especially in his latter career, it is charged, he was just knocking them out. The stories lost focus, meandered and became irrelevant, it is said
Part of the problem may be that O'Hara outlived and out-produced many of his acclaimed contemporaries. In addition to his faltering fiction of the 1960s, his letters and published commentary of that era showed him to be a conservative crank, obsessed with seeking status in the establishment. His major work then was still going over the times and subjects of his earlier work.
He was also known in literary circles—among the fellow writers he praised and idolized and in whose ranks he yearned to be accepted—as quite a piece of work: a mean drunk and a petty, self-promoting sycophant. Even when he wrote a fawning appreciation of Hemingway's otherwise panned novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, the master was offended at what he saw as O'Hara patronizing him.
But surely it's now past the time when the name of John O'Hara should evoke odious comparisons to his contemporaries. Or that mentions of his work should stir discussion of his possible failings as a man. More than forty years after his death, with several of his novels still in print and his best stories still being anthologized, we may be compelled to raise him a notch or two in our canon of great American literary figures.
In his early years, O'Hara was accepted as a leading chronicler of his times. His first novels, Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935), and his first stories, collected in The Doctor's Son and Other Stories (1935) and Files on Parade (1939), were recognized as offering a command of the forms with a conversational style and dispassionate voice that was equal to but distinct from the work of his famous peers. Like Hemingway, he adopted journalistic skills of clear-eyed reporting and clarity of style for fictional subjects and, as with Fitzgerald, his subjects were often the social mores of his times. But O'Hara never became the master of style like the former nor the lyrical poet of prose like the latter.
Moreover, he seemed to deal with lighter-weight themes than the other greats of his time. He focused ever more intently on the ironies of social life, usually—but not always—of the affluent and artistic classes. Like Thackeray, Dreiser and James before him, and Tom Wolfe after him, he examined minutely the unwritten rules and byplay of status and sexual relationships in various levels of society. But his unadorned, colloquial style may have undercut the seriousness of his achievement, so he never received the same credit as those others.
Appointment in Samarra cleverly shows the intertwining of characters from all strata of Gibbsville (stand-in for the real town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania), the analysis disguised in the ironical story of an affluent local Cadillac dealer's self-destruction. BUtterfield 8 delves into the relationship of a proud, promiscuous, lower-class woman with an upper-class businessman.
His first major work to hit a critical and popular snag was Hope of Heaven (1938), taking place in Hollywood to which he was being drawn as a screenwriter. The novella was considered weak and implausible. But today it reads as compressed writing of satirical verve, akin to Nathanael West's similarly themed The Day of the Locusts (1939), albeit less apocalyptic.
But the stories kept coming and O'Hara bounced back in a big way with another novella, cobbled together from a series of short stories taking the form of letters from a self-aggrandizing jazz musician. Throughout his career, O'Hara's worst critics have always given him credit as at least a masterful dialogue writer, though often suggesting this is a minor achievement detracting from his serious writing. Pal Joey (1940) should have squelched that notion. Written entirely in one voice narrating a series of letters, it is usually overlooked as a work of literature, but it's a small gem of subtle, disciplined writing, a lesson in how to have a character say more than he thinks he is, in how to create a colourful milieu through a single prism.
O'Hara also adapted Pal Joey for a stage musical, with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart providing the songs. It was a hit on Broadway with Gene Kelly in the lead and has been continually revived ever since.
After these early artfully compressed works of near-perfect colloquial writing, O'Hara's approach to his craft began to change. His next big work was one of his longest and most controversial: A Rage to Live (1949), about business and personal affairs among the movers and shakers of another Pennsylvania town. It scandalized some critics with its frank (for that time) sexuality. Several found the story superficial. The novel was criticized for its long-windedness and rambling dialogue that sometimes takes up entire chapters.
It has to be admitted the writing in the 700-plus pages of A Rage to Live is somewhat looser than in O'Hara's earlier novels. At times the characterizations become paper thin and the narrative can be disjointed. But a canny reader can discover O'Hara expanding upon his past achievements, experimenting with directions in which to take the modern novel. Most people's stories in real life are not wrapped up in neat ironies, as presented in his early novels. Most of our lives are not shaped by profound motivations. Our personal narratives follow no dramatic arcs; they are rambling and repetitive for the most part, with abrupt breaks of deaths, illnesses, and infidelities. How much of this could O'Hara get across with a minimum of obvious artifice? And using just the language we all speak? And the surface minutiae of life we all experience?
It's not all successful experimenting, but it is interesting if you look at this as a watershed novel in O'Hara's career. And the story does stay with you, as do one or two of the characters. A Rage to Live was a huge success with the public—his biggest to date.
His next few novels generally plough the same territory, though with decreasing effect. Ten North Frederick (1955) and From the Terrace (1958) are both sprawling, thick novels following the travails of dysfunctional families. O'Hara kept going back to the time and place he was determined to record for posterity in detail: the first half of the twentieth century in America.
About this time, Hollywood, which had earlier tried to use O'Hara as screenwriter, caught on to O'Hara's books as material for potboiler movies. Between 1957 and 1965, a slew of uneven cinematic adaptations came out. Frank Sinatra took the lead in a decent film of the musical Pal Joey, Gary Cooper starred in a diminished Ten North Frederick, Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward paired in a middling From the Terrace, and Suzanne Pleshette played the sexually savvy leading lady of a forgettable A Rage to Live. Even BUtterfield 8 was adapted, decades after its publication, as a trashy movie, with an updated story set in 1960, complete with a car chase and with Elizabeth Taylor as the call girl.
Other novels followed in the 1960s, though with decreasing critical and commercial impact. Notable, though seldom mentioned now, is The Big Laugh (1962), called "the greatest Hollywood novel ever written" by O'Hara fan Fran Lebowitz. Its near-complete reliance on dialogue to convey character makes it similar to a movie script, though this (as usual with O'Hara) is generally cited as a criticism.
Another neglected late entry is The Instrument (1966), a likewise dialogue-ridden novel, with a terrifically crafted first chapter—taking one back to Appointment in Samarra—that gives way to a thin, wandering story. It's worth reading though to see the novelist not just still plying his trade but still developing his art, coming up with new ways of using human conversation in fiction.
So where does our re-assessment of John O'Hara's career take us? I'd raise him at least a notch, from best of the second-raters to the second tier of first-raters.
If that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, let's give him time. Keep reading him and you may be tempted—with me—to place his best work among the very best of American writing in the mid-twentieth century. First-rate all the way.