John O'Hara had a long and distinguished literary career, most notably as a novelist and as a writer of short stories. In the three and a half decades following the publication of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, O'Hara wrote twelve novels, five novellas, 15 collections of short stories (with many of the stories selected for republication in five other substantial and highly regarded collections), nine published or produced plays, three credited screenplays (along with several unproduced screenplays and uncredited work on a half-dozen other films), and three collections of essays.
More than 400 of his stories were published in magazines, including some 300 in The New Yorker, and for extended periods he was also a regular columnist for Newsweek, Collier's, and Holiday. His novel Ten North Frederick received a National Book Award; his short stories were recognized with O. Henry Awards and included in Best American Short Stories; the stage adaptation of his short story collection Pal Joey received a New York Critics Circle Award; and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Thirty years after his death Appointment in Samarra was ranked 22nd on Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.
Despite occasional assertions of his significance, however, O'Hara's achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now typically considered a novelist of the second or even the third rank. Undoubtedly O'Hara's own public persona very much contributed to a number of misconceptions about his work.
First, O'Hara had a reputation as a flamboyant social climber, collecting expensive cars and memberships in exclusive social clubs. As a result, the big novels of his later period Ten North Frederick (1955), From the Terrace (1958), Ourselves to Know (1960), and The Lockwood Concern (1966) have been misread as self-indulgent portraits of prominent but essentially uninteresting characters rather than as exhaustive explorations of the acute emptiness at the center of many privileged lives.
Second, O'Hara was a shameless self-promoter, openly angling for literary awards (including even the Nobel Prize for Literature) on the basis of his great productivity and the literary and historical range of his big novels. Some critics responded to his over-reaching ambitions and his seemingly oversized novels by attempting to group him among with other popular and undisciplined novelists with literary pretensions such as Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, and James Michener. His narratives seemed old-fashioned in their plotting and overwhelmed by a mass of social and material detail.
Moreover, his often-stated admiration for the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis prompted critics to view his big novels as very uncontrolled efforts in comparison to Fitzgerald's and Lewis' most acclaimed novels, the relatively compressed The Great Gatsby and Main Street. O'Hara seemed incapable of sustaining Fitzgerald's jaded romanticism or Lewis' progressive satire. Indeed, Appointment in Samarra has been praised for being so very different from O'Hara's later novels and so much more like Fitzgerald's and Lewis' work. Yet, precisely because O'Hara is neither a romantic realist nor a social satirist, but more accurately an unsparing naturalist, he should be regarded as Dreiser's descendent. Positioned in that literary line he stands out as a rather inventive storyteller and accomplished prose stylist.
Furthermore, because O'Hara is preoccupied with the material and linguistic markers by which spiritually adrift characters struggle to define themselves, he seems, in this core interest, to look forward to the postmodernists. Despite some very obvious contrasts in their novels' surfaces, there is an underlying, if almost universally unacknowledged, linkage between O'Hara and novelists such as William Gaddis and Joseph MacElroy.
Third, O'Hara's work as a columnist, in which he addressed a broad range of social phenomena and political issues, seemed to many observers to amount to self-caricature, leading them to dismiss him as a reactionary railing against a revolutionary age. Ironically, even as the political pendulum has subsequently swung back and forth, O'Hara's literary reputation has remained that of a man who is not only old-fashioned but belligerently and wrong-headedly so. This characterization ignores many aspects of his work, most pointedly the fact that in his novels and short stories O'Hara was always pushing the limits of frankness, especially in the treatment of sexuality.
Because he was breaking much new ground his efforts were sometimes awkward and may seem especially so looking back on them from this side of the sexual revolution. But even in such an ill-conceived late effort as Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story (1969) it is clear that O'Hara has a genuinely sympathetic interest in characters socially compromised by their promiscuity or lesbianism even granting that he sometimes drifts into an almost prurient attention to the physical particulars.
There is much evidence that O'Hara deeply alienated a great many people in the literary establishment, from Ernest Hemingway to Alfred Kazin. Certainly, very few students of contemporary American fiction would bother reading O'Hara after reading Kazin's Bright Book of Life or, in fact, almost any of Kazin's books. Compounding the fact that he was either dismissed or ignored in the most widely read critical surveys, O'Hara failed to realise that anthologizing his stories would reduce the sales of his story collections. Given that some critics who have denigrated O'Hara's novels have expressed a grudging admiration for his stories, the lack of any broad exposure to the best of those stories among professors and students alike has very much contributed to the current lack of interest in reconsidering his standing.
Martin Kich, Wright State University First published 25 October 2002