James MacDonald on John O'Hara

John O'Hara Society member James MacDonald,Research Fellow in Drama at the University of Exeter, UK, contributed this essay to PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide, and we are pleased to have permission to reprint it here:

Chapter 7: John O'Hara (1905-1970)

John O'Hara's reputation as a major novelist and short story writer has suffered greatly for a variety of reasons. As the title of the most recent biography of him implies, O'Hara was a past master at making permanent enemies, and his commensurate inability to make friends in literary circles may well have cost him supremely, in as much as he was very outspoken in his pursuit of the highest accolades. But the fact that so many people have gone to such lengths to explain why he should not be placed among the top rank does say something about his gift for getting under people's skins. This may also provide vital clues to his rare ability to document social distinctions among the broadest cross-section of Americans over a wide period of history. 
      O'Hara was born, the eldest of eight children, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His parents were prominently upper-middle class, father Patrick a gifted surgeon. But the family was also Irish Catholic, which at the time precluded them from real distinction in a highly stratified community. John was further denied access when the sudden death of his father in 1925 meant that he had to abandon ambitions to attend an Ivy League university and work to help support the large family. 
       This work took the form of journalism, first locally and eventually in New York City, where O'Hara worked for many of the major dailies, which also fired him for tardy habits due to his late-night drinking in speakeasies. This also fuelled his earliest literary efforts, including an impressive series of short stories for the burgeoning New Yorker magazine and the ground-breaking novel, Appointment in Samarra, reckoned by many to be a Great Gatsby for the 1930s and still included on many a best-novel list. The story of Julian English's three-day descent toward suicide represented something entirely new in fictional verisimilitude. Brand names were used to an unprecedented degree, and the dialogue was some of the most intimately accurate ever recorded. Indeed, the amount of dialogue in an O'Hara novel far exceeds that of most novels, a feature which eventually led detractors to dismiss O'Hara's talent to mere "writing by ear". A related complaint was that he pays too much attention to social detail, without sufficient in-depth analysis of character or of society. 

       O'Hara defended himself by saying that the human being's relationship to society is crucial to our understanding of society and that what may be generally observed is the only definite source of the truth. As his career progressed, he would take increasing pride in being able to give the impression of going inside a character's mind even though everything could be observed and overheard. 

       O'Hara's career (spanning more than 40 years) can be divided into three distinct phases. The pre-World War II phase produced Samarra, Butterfield 8 and enough New Yorker stories that he was said to have invented the magazine's cryptic, detached style. This period also saw the creation of Pal Joey from a series of inter-related stories which O'Hara later developed into the libretto for the Rogers and Hart musical, starring Gene Kelly. 

       After the war, O'Hara embarked on his major novel-writing period, with a series of four Pennsylvania-set tomes that exceeded anything else he wrote. These novels are A Rage to Live (1949), Ten North Frederick (1956), From the Terrace (1958) and Ourselves to Know (1960). These feature upper middle class protagonists in pursuit of wealth and influence over a substantial period of American history and can be likened favourably to Theodore Dreiser's Cowperwood novels and to the work of James Gould Cozzens, though detractors would now point to an absence of social critique coupled with a preoccupation with sex to dismiss O'Hara as a commercial blockbuster, a title he always reviled. 

     During the final decade of his life, O'Hara combined a return to medium-length novels with a prodigious amount of often-novella length stories, which he collected in seven bestselling volumes, including the stunning trilogy Sermons and Soda-Water (1960). His aim was always expansive social history allied to an acute atomisation of relations between men and women. In this respect, his theme is more love than crude sex, an ambition he shares with D.H. Lawrence, among others. There is nary a sex scene described; but the consequences of love and betrayal are rendered exhaustively in the most intimate dialogue ever published. In an age when other authors were placing monumental store in our inability to communicate, O'Hara recorded a whole generation of people communicating with blistering honesty. The frankness that made Samarra and Butterfield 8 daring innovations sustained their author to the end of his career in work that remained nationally popular, despite a growing taste for anti-naturalism and a politically iconoclast viewpoint.
      Though O'Hara has fallen into general neglect, he was esteemed in his day, sharing the editorial services of Albert Erskine with William Faulkner and enjoying the endorsement of authors like John Updike, Tom Wolfe and the historian Shelby Foote.
                                          Contributed to PAL by James MacDonald, Research Fellow in Drama, University of Exeter, UK  

Primary Works
Appointment in Samarra, a novel. NY: Harcourt, Brace 1934. PS3529.H29 .A7
A rage to live. NY: Random House, 1949. PS3529.H29 R3
Ten North Frederick. NY: Random House, 1955. PS3529.H29 T4
A family party. NY: Random House, 1956. PS3529 .H29 F3
From the terrace, a novel. NY: Random House, 1958. PS3529.H29 .F7
Sermons and soda-water. 3 vols. NY: Random House, 1960. PS3529 .H29 S4
Appointment in Samarra ; BUtterfield 8 ; Hope of heaven. NY: Random House, 1960? PS3529 .H29 A7
Ourselves to know, a novel. NY: Random House, 1960. PS3529 .H29 09
Assembly. NY: Random House, 1961. PS3529.H29 .A8
Five plays. NY: Random House, 1961. PS3529.H29 A19
The Cape Cod (lighter stories). NY: Random House, 1962. PS3529.H29 .C3
The big laugh, a novel. NY: Random House, 1962. PS3529.H29 .B5
The hat on the bed. NY: Random House, 1963. PR3529.H29 .H3
Elizabeth Appleton, a novel. NY: Random House, 1963. PS3529.H29 .E4
The horse knows the way. NY: Random House, 1964. PS3529.H29 .H65
The instrument; a novel. NY: Random House, 1967. PS3529.H29 I5
And other stories. NY: Random House, 1968. PS3529 H29 A15 (Barred.--The broken giraffe.--The farmer.--A few trips and some poetry.--The gangster.--The gunboat and Madge.--How old, how young.--A man on a porch.--Papa Gibraltar.--The private people.--The strong man.--We'll have fun.)
The O'Hara generation. NY: Random House, 1969. PS3529 H29 O35
Lovey Childs: a Philadelphian's Story, 1969.
The Ewings, 1972 and the mimeographed 80-page, unfinished "Ewings" sequel (date unknown).
The time element, and other stories. NY: Random House, 1972. PS3529 .H29 T5
John O'Hara: a checklist. Compiled by Matthew J. Bruccoli. NY: Random House, 1972. Z8642.32 B7
Good Samaritan, and other stories. NY: Random House, 1974. PS3529 H29 G6 (The gentry.--The sun room.--Sound View.--Good Samaritan.--A man to be trusted.--Malibu from the sky.--Harrington and Whitehill.--Noblesse oblige.--Heather Hill.--Tuesday's as good as any.--George Munson.--The journey to Mount Clemens.--The mechanical man.--Christmas poem.)
Selected letters of John O'Hara. edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Random House, 1978. PS3529 .H29 Z48 1978
Two by O'Hara. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. PS3529.H29 M36 (The man who could not lose.--Far from heaven.)
Pal Joey sound recording: highlights from the original 1980 London cast recording / music by Richard Rodgers ; lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Showstoppers ; St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada: Distributed by Madacy Music Group, 1995], p1991. Compact Disc K PAL PJ P58

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
Bruccoli, Matthew J. ed. John O'Hara: A Documentary Volume. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Cahill, Christopher. ed. There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History. NY: New York Review, 2004.
Eppard, Philip B. ed. Critical essays on John O'Hara. NY: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. PS3529 .H29 Z63
Goldleaf, Steven. John O'Hara: a study of the short fiction. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1999. PS3529 .H29 Z69
Long, Robert E. John O'Hara. NY: Ungar, 1983. PS3529 .H29 Z75
MacShane, Frank. The life of John O'Hara. NY: Dutton, 1980. PS3529.H29 Z76
Wolff, Geoffrey. The art of burning bridges: a life of John O'Hara. NY: Knopf, 2003. PS3529 .H29 Z93 (NY Times Review)

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: John O'Hara." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/ohara.html (provide page date or date of your login).