IN THE LATE 1930s in New York and Hollywood, John O'Hara was known as a hard drinker, often coarse and violent, whose dead-pan Irish face "made you think of a young trooper in the coal and iron police" of the Pennsylvania region where he had grown up. His blue eyes stared resentfully. He had achieved neither the professional success to which his talents entitled him, nor personal happiness. Yet he had produced a fine first novel. "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and writes marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra," Hemingway advised. Fitzgerald gave similar praise. Yet such support had questionable value in 1934 when these masters were a little out of fashion in favor of a new literature of social message.
O'Hara was actually keenly aware of the meaning of class, but he wrote about the rich and the idle rather than the poor and unemployed. The praise of his fellow writers did help with some readers, of course, but these might also have too carelessly seen him as an imitator. It was generally not observed that this story of the last three days in the life of a member of the "hangover generation" was better in many ways, less falsely poetic and more precisely evocative of the world about the characters than either Hemingway or Fitzgerald were apt to be. Appointment in Samarra had sold, but for the wrong reason. Its sexual explicitness, which seems unremarkable today, caused even Sinclair Lewis to call it "the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn" -- which was all some readers needed to hear.
Since then, O'Hara had written nothing quite so good. Butterfield 8, a weaker novel, was also attacked for its attention to sex and for its "irrelevant" subject, the shallow lives of residents of New York's Upper East Side. In 1938 he published a third, Hope of Heaven, also a partial failure, and again concerned with people who seemed trivial at a grim national moment. His personal life, moreover, as Frank MacShane relates it in this full biography, had been characterized till then by disorder and misspent energy.
He had both loved and hated the world that made him -- Pottsville in the anthracite, a place of social contrasts and even violence since the days of the Mollie Maquires. His family was "lace-curtain Irish," but they lived on lower Mahantongo Street on whose upper reaches dwelt the WASP aristocracy. And O'Hara felt for a lifetime what he put into the mouth of James Malloy in Butterfield 8: "I want to tell you something about myself that will help to explain a lot of things about me. First of all, I am a Mick. I wear Brooks clothes and I don't eat salad with a spoon and I probably could play five-goal polo in two years, but I am a Mick."
The eldest of eight children, O'Hara was his father's favorite -- and his antagonist. Patrick O'Hara, an extremely devoted and able doctor, was a man of powerful will who could not accept that his son refused to follow in his footsteps. John refused absolutely. He also lost his faith early, and started drinking early. As a boy acolyte he was caught tippling the communion wine and at 14 he was a regular at the local bar; his father once found him drunk at home and beat him with a chair until he bled. At "Fordham Prep" he considered his Jesuit teachers to be hypocrites; he flunked out, was expelled from another school for paying more attention to girls than to his studies, and was sentenced by his father to punitive exile from school.
For a year he worked as a "call boy" for a scab miners' camp, as a porter at the railway express office, and in the yards as a switchman or in the roundhouse, swabbing grease under locomotives. He thus knew the lives of the workingmen whose hopeless toil sustained the economy of Pottsville, and when he started to go out with girls it was with the mill girls as well as the daughters of the country club set. Though his writing rarely reflects the proletarian experience, his work may be informed by the sense of fatalism he learned from these non-participants in the American Dream. And there was such an experience as the occasion when he was unjustly accused of stealing at the country club -- he adapted the episode in a good story, "Do You Like It Here?," a title vastly significant.
O'Hara never really got back on the track that would have taken him to Yale, where he later wished he had been, and when he did complete the course at another Catholic prep school, he ruined all by being delivered, dead drunk, to the Fathers by the local police the night before graduation. All his life he liked to play the role of a roughneck, a Jack London among middle-class intellectuals, but he was at the same time eager to acquire every appurtenance and familiarity that belonged to the privileged. The story goes that once Hemingway and a couple of other writers started a fund, as a gag, "to send John O'Hara to Yale." His studied cultivation of every sort of code-signal of Yale men or their equivalents was satirized by S. J. Perelman in "Waldo Hogan" of "The Rape of the Drape," whose "knowledge of the Social Register was Koranic." When he finally became rich, as MacShane relates, he enjoyed getting himself elected to as many prestigious clubs as possible and lived the life of a suburban squire in the university community of Princeton, owning both an MG and a Rolls-Royce.
All that lay long ahead when he drifted into newspaper work after his father lost interest in sending him to college, and when, soon after, his father died suddenly, there was no money anyhow. But deprivation and envy may have helped his art. He possessed through a watchful imagination what he did not actually own; he could marvellously reproduce in his fiction the speech and gestures of others. There is really no one like him in this faculty to transcrible the American scene of which his knowledge became "koranic." His final aim, which he expressed at 55, was "to get it all down on paper while I can," and he had some right to claim "the United States in this century is what I know." In the end, I believe, his realistic thoroughness became obsessive, and one can agree with Alfred Kazin who wrote after reading the 897 pages of From the Terrace (1958), "We are deluged, suffocated, drowned in facts, facts, facts." MacShane thinks better of this novel, but I confess to sharing Kazin's response. Appointment in Samarra, with its particularity compressed to the point of symbolism, is better.
One would have expected that his observing eye and ear would have made him a superb journalist, but, perhaps fortunately, he was fired from every newsroom -- from the Pottsville Journal to the N.Y. Herald Tribune, Time, and The New Yorker (where he was writing for "Talk of the Town"). His life was simply not compatible with the meeting of deadlines. His relations with women were, too, unfortunate, in those early years. He had been in love, as one might expect, with a girl from upper Mahantongo Street, and after a long time it had come to nothing. His first marriage was a failure, partly because of his drunkenness and ill-temper, partly because of his sense of the attitudes of his wife's family -- New York equivalents of upper Mahantongo. Until his second marriage, which was successful, he had a fatal tendency to take seriously only such women as provided this same expectation of social rejection, as though determined upon his own unhappiness. Meanwhile he was notoriously promiscuous, and obnoxious when rejected -- once he knocked down a girl in a Hollywood bookstore because she refused to make a date with him. He assumed, insultingly, that any women he met was ready to sleep with him, and he was apt to talk about it afterwards if she did.
And so, though O'Hara had a good deal of charm in his better moments, a great many friends of the superficial sort, and got around a lot of the floating New York-Hollywood world of writers, journalists, the theater and the movies, he was a bitter man in 1938. Fitzgerald, who respected him enough to show him the galley proofs of Tender Is the Night, observed that he lived "in a perpetual state of having discovered it's a lousy world."
But this somber vision, unillumined by any trace of metaphysical confidence, is the source, I think, of his best work, the short stories that had begun to pour from his typewriter. In many of these he goes back, as he does in novels, to the Pottsville which was a loved and hated and inescapable part of himself. In the very early "The Doctor's Son" he is autobiographical just as Hemmingway was in "Indian Camp," the story it slightly resembles. But O'Hara is more elaborate and pessimistic; his doctor's son discovers not only death but lust, and sees his own romanticism against a disillusioning background of accident and meaningless impulse. O'hara wrote several hundred more stories and novellas after this one, collected eventually in 15 volumes. They set down every part of the worlds he had explored, men and women of every class, small town and big city people, and particularly the brittle worlds of N.Y. nightclubs and Hollywood (best remembered, though not his best, are the "Pal Joey" stories, because of the musical made of them). Some deserve renewed appreciation. Their severe vision sustains a disciplined elegance of technique, as, for example, in the late novella, "Pat Collins," in which a whole life disintegrates and friendship comes apart. Passion, which figures repeatedly in his fiction as a destructive force, is as much as anything else in this story a representation of the inexplicable in ourselves and our circumstances. In O'Hara's view there is no "explaining" fate.
Most of O'Hara's stories were written for The New Yorker -- indeed he may have created what is often felt to be the form of "the New Yorker story," seemingly plotless, its revelation, implicit only in the event as preceived by the reader and often overlooked by the characters, a negative one. The fragmentariness derives, of course, from O'Hara's sense that life is fragmentary. The stories were, after a while, written for the special New Yorker audience whom O'Hara had trained to appreciate them, and he truthfully declared that they could not be presented elsewhere.
Yet stories seldom make a literary reputation and one does not become rich by writing them. In the 10 years after Hope of Heaven he had written enough for four collections, but he was still considered a minor writer. And he was ambitious now. He took seriously the urging of Lionel Trilling, one of the few academic critics who appreciated him: "For O'Hara's talents the novel is the proper form." He said he had reached the end of a period "when time was cheap and everlasting and you could say it all in 2,000 words." In 1949 he published A Rage to Live , a novel done with elaborate care and effort. To his astonished dismay, the New Yorker reviewer panned it. He refused to write anymore for the magazine, and kept to the resolution for 10 more years during which, of course, he wrote few short stories.
Frank MacShane finds much to praise in O'Hara's longer fiction, as I have noted in the case of From the Terrace , esteemed for its serious, comprehensive realism. He also likes The Lockwood Concern (1965), a family saga which traces continuance, in four American generations, of an upper-class tradition of selfishness and force. But there may be others like myself who still prefer the O'Hara of his best shorter fiction where, perhaps, it may matter less than the author does not have a strong attachment to a moral vision; perhaps a long novel is more difficult to sustain without one. O'Hara himself came back, eventually to the short form after his reconcilement with The New Yorker , and from that time stories continued to flow, some indifferent, some quite perfect, until his death. It was with the sense of recovered ease belonging only to a writer's deepest instincts that he wrote in 1961 of "the pleasure . . . in finding that after 11 years of not writing short stories I could begin again and do it better," and that he "had an apparently inexhaustible urge to express an unlimited supply of short story ideas."
O'Hara felt to the end that the critics had been unfair to him, and though he was often unsure of himself he had moments when he would insist that the next Nobel Prize was due him. MacShane's biography, solid and well-written, gives us the man and some accout of his achievement, and should stimulate a reconsideration of the writer. O'Hara himself kept on his wall the quotation from Conrad: "My task . . . is to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see. That -- and no more, and it is everything." His best work does make one see and feel and compels a view of life beyond all theory.