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Books John O'Hara's protectorate

Illustration by Doug Smock

His undisguised longing for acclaim still keeps John O'Hara from being the favorite son of the place he defined

by Benjamin and Christina Schwarz

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion two years ago of his Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project. Although a number of writers -- John Updike, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Louis Begley, Geoffrey Wolff, James Dickey, Guy Davenport, Fran Lebowitz, and Shelby Foote among them -- have admitted to admiring O'Hara, many writers and critics have long delighted in disdaining him and seem to resurrect this "middlebrow" author only for the sport of cutting him down again.

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As a self-consciously "big-picture" social novelist, O'Hara has been an easy mark ever since minimalist fiction became the vogue, but his novels, though immensely popular (not to mention immense), were out of critical fashion even in their time, as O'Hara himself was all too aware. Today he is so passť that although he holds the record for number of short stories published in The New Yorker, the magazine's books editor confessed in 1993, when asked about an assault on O'Hara by Harold Brodkey in her pages, that she didn't know enough about O'Hara's work to comment.

Still, timing alone didn't make O'Hara the Rodney Dangerfield of American letters. In part his critics' response is personal, driven by an urge to take down a peg a man who masked his profound insecurity with aggressive vanity. O'Hara was desperate for praise, but sullied his chances for a sympathetic reading by chronically overinflating his achievements. For years he "hanker[ed] noisily," as Updike has written, after the Nobel Prize, an honor obviously beyond his reach. A comment he once made about himself (which his wife chose as his epitaph) encapsulates his strengths as a writer and also the way he consistently ensured that they would be undervalued: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." As Malcolm Cowley observed, all but the first phrase is "an accurate summation of his career," but the initial claim provokes such exasperation that critics might be forgiven for dismissing the whole.

It's hard not to cringe when reading accounts of O'Hara's efforts to buoy his ego. He hounded friends and acquaintances to put him up for clubs and had the seals of those that accepted him embossed on a gold cigarette case, which he casually left on his coffee table to impress visitors. Blackballed by the ultra-exclusive Racquet Club, he ordered playing cards with the club's insignia through a friend and used them for bridge games at home. A Bentley was too understated; he bought himself a Rolls-Royce. At this remove such displays seem pathetic; at the time they must have appeared risible to many and contemptible to some.

Indeed, he allowed his failure to attend Yale -- to him the ultimate club -- to rankle so conspicuously that Ernest Hemingway, on receipt of a windfall, famously remarked that the money should be used to "start a bloody fund to send John O'Hara to Yale." "A mean little story, but it shows what my friends think of me," O'Hara commented bitterly, and very much in character. Years later he complained to Yale's alumni magazine about the school's refusal to grant him an honorary degree. When Kingman Brewster, Yale's president, was asked why he never gave O'Hara that degree, he replied, "Because he asked for it."

O'Hara was born in 1905 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the banking, trading, and professional hub of the richest hard-coal fields in the world. An extraordinarily prosperous small city (its population reached a high of 22,000 in 1920), Pottsville boasted two daily newspapers and a reputation among the prep-school and Ivy League set as a great party town during the Christmas holidays. Like other cities of its class -- Canton, Ohio, and Green Bay, Wisconsin -- it supported an NFL team; Pottsville's even won the league championship in 1925. But "the Region," as the city and its surrounding southeastern-Pennsylvania towns are locally known, was also the site of some of the most prolonged and violent labor struggles in American history, which set mine owners and operators, mostly Episcopalians and Presbyterians, against Irish Catholic miners (among them the violent secret society the Molly Maguires).

As the son of a prominent surgeon, O'Hara held a social position far above that of almost all other Irish Catholics. But in a world in which "'foreigner' meant anyone who wasn't Anglo-Saxon," as one longtime Pottsville resident told us when we recently visited the town, O'Hara could never quite attain the status of his friends, members of the WASP "anthracite aristocracy." This predestined immobility gave O'Hara an acute sensitivity to minute yet telling social distinctions. He was fascinated by the pattern of a necktie, the make of a car, the brand of Scotch, the choice of collar pin, the misuse of a pronoun, the club joined, the college attended, and how these define -- in fact, determine -- character. "To read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club," Edmund Wilson wrote of O'Hara's fictionalized Pottsville, "is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware."

O'Hara's fascination with these details led him to falter as a writer. The received wisdom is that he was a gifted short-story writer who squandered his talent on long novels. In 1949 he published A Rage to Live, a sprawling chronicle of the supreme family of Fort Penn, the simulacrum of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This was O'Hara's first best seller and the fastest-selling Random House title up to that time, and it put O'Hara on what is regarded as the wrong track. The New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, reflecting the critical consensus, panned the novel, objecting to its sexual explicitness (criticism that now seems prim) and judging it "a catastrophe." O'Hara, never judicious in his response to slights either real or perceived (although it is true that The New Yorker ill-used him astonishingly), refused for eleven years to write for the only magazine he deemed worthy of his stories. Throughout the 1950s he gave up the short story, sacrificing what came easily to him for the very genre that, in the eyes of his critics, had brought about his artistic downfall. Nevertheless, A Rage to Live and his subsequent novels followed the form that best suited O'Hara's ambitions and interests, if not his gifts.

Today's reader can still appreciate the taut Appointment in Samarra (1934), even if he or she is puzzled by the enormous significance O'Hara placed on the differences between drivers of the comparably priced Buick and Franklin. But a reader accustomed to minimalist fiction is at a loss with A Rage to Live and the later novels, with their relentless accumulations of social minutiae -- what prep schools served for lunch, how weddings and funerals were orchestrated, how real-estate deals were made, the social implications of a new hotel -- all set, as O'Hara bragged, in "great blocks of type."

In writing what could be called his sociological novels -- a form by then at least thirty years out of date -- O'Hara was obviously influenced by Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Booth Tarkington. But his greatest influence by far (and one that eluded all his contemporary critics) was the French novelist Jules Romains, the author of Men of Good Will, a twenty-seven-volume novel of Parisian life from 1908 to 1933. Before the publication of A Rage to Live, O'Hara wrote, "If I thought I had the time I would go on writing about Fort Penn as Romains did about Paris."

In a way he did. The works O'Hara set in what he called "my Pennsylvania Protectorate" -- his fifty-three Gibbsville stories and eight of his novels -- create, with their common settings and their interconnected families and characters, a thorough portrait of southeastern Pennsylvania, and specifically of the area's ruling class, from the 1880s to the Second World War. Although O'Hara left the Region when he was twenty-two and never lived there again, to read these novels is to enter an entire world. They work on the reader with an unspectacular but cumulative power.

Alfred Kazin wrote in one of his harsh assessments of the author that O'Hara's novels portray the "American Establishment." This was a view shared by many critics, but it is a mistaken notion, and the mistake itself is illuminating. What we now think of as the establishment -- the web of national and multinational corporations and banks and the law firms that serve them, the great research universities, the national media, and the high federal bureaucracy -- was just emerging in the period, 1880 to the 1930s, in which the main action of most of the novels takes place. And, of course, it bypassed the small cities of southeastern Pennsylvania entirely.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Christina Schwarz's first novel, Drowning Ruth, will be published this fall.

Illustration by Doug Smock.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; John O'Hara's Protectorate - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 108-112.