John O'Hara Remembered
Norman Mailer almost killed one of his wives. John O'Hara, when besotted by drink, was no gentleman. But in today's lit'ry circles, Mailer often gets a pass. O'Hara never does. Get to meet 'the Master of the Fancied Slight,' as O'Hara was known, in the following brilliant new dissection of the author's life by Charles F. McElwee III.
By Charles F. McElwee III
John O'Hara wanted acceptance, but acceptance required penance. The author's acerbic, self-destructive personality limited the accolades and tributes he demanded. O'Hara had too many enemies, and he added many in his exhausting life. An Olympian grudge holder, O'Hara routinely blacklisted friends for no particular reason.
He was a brawler, a boozer and a blowhard - the holy trinity of a jerk. Bars were O'Hara's boxing rings, and he slugged and rumbled at negligible or imagined provocations. He threw fists at a dwarf in New York's "21" Club, only to be knocked down by another dwarf who joined the fight. He even smacked a woman for a tardy lunch arrival. The high society O'Hara craved loathed him for his alcohol-soaked brutality. Everyone knew him as "a master of the fancied slight."
But hiding beneath that famously belligerent persona was a man capable of charm and compassion. Katharine White, The New Yorker's fiction editor, considered O'Hara a "lovable man," declaring that he "cared about people and was essentially a kind man and a real friend, which few egotists are." Close friends noted his fierce loyalty and generosity. Such memories conflict with his reputable temper, but sobriety mellowed O'Hara in later life. He was a "sensitive and productive literary artist, with some alcohol and anger problems," wrote John Updike, who credits O'Hara as a major influence.
O'Hara's prickly character conflicted with his often-sentimental works. He chronicled the malaise, tension and confusion of middle-class American life with empathy and candor. His reportorial writing captured ordinary 20th-century lives with Polaroid-level accuracy. O'Hara's works were equitable in tone, and he accorded all characters - regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity - an honest place in stories filled with stunningly real dialogue and precise period details. But critics remained dissatisfied. "O'Hara is about the most brutal, insensitive, tricked-up, sensational novelist we have, at least above the Mickey Spillane level," snorted Dwight Macdonald. Other critics panned his novels as "sprawling" or "over-documented." The bouquets were few from New York's literati, and O'Hara hated it.
Almost 45 years after his death, O'Hara has a loyal, but small, following, which includes the journalist Gay Talese and essayist Fran Leibowitz. His influence is detected as early as Irwin Shaw's '"Girls in their Summer Dresses," a 1930s short tale of smoldering marital strife; mid-century with Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," a legendary Esquire profile, and in the 1990s with Philip Roth's numbing "American Pastoral." And yet O'Hara remains untaught in most English departments. He never received the posthumous idolatry of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. O'Hara's notoriously thin skin spoiled his legacy, but the editor William Maxwell said it best: "Good writers deserve to be remembered."
O'Hara's insecurities and snobbery stemmed from a youth shattered by immaturity, poor judgment, and bad luck. Born in Pottsville, O'Hara entered a small-scale world enraptured by its wealth and industrial might. In the early 1900s, the third-class, compact city had more than 20,000 people. Nestled in a soup bowl of rich anthracite, Pottsville and its surrounding patch towns teemed with immigrant laborers, Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, and an established Welsh and English aristocracy. The entire region was dizzying in its diversity. The O'Haras and fellow Irish Catholics added to this local medley. But they stood out in the tribe: the O'Haras were lace-curtain Irish.
The patriarch, Dr. Patrick O'Hara, was Pottsville Hospital's first resident surgeon and specialized in operating on injuries sustained in mining accidents. He was among the first to treat pneumonia with oxygen and may have performed America's first tracheotomy. In a story par for his region and culture, Dr. O'Hara skipped attribution and let another doctor take credit. Surgeons across the country also referred to "the O'Hara method" for gall bladder removal.
Dr. O'Hara's wife, Katharine Delaney of Lykens, descended from a prominent Catholic convert in Dauphin County. John was their oldest son, and he lived at a time when the Irish were struggling between poverty and assimilation. Anti-Catholicism marginalized their culture in Ireland and America, and the Pottsville Irish - like most tribes - only retained their religion, diluted fraternity, and St. Patrick's Day. Their parish, the monumental St. Patrick's, was located next to the Yuengling Brewery on Mahantongo Street. The street defined power and class in Pottsville. O'Hara's family joined the club in 1913, moving into the original Yuengling homestead - a New York-modeled townhouse - across from the brewery and church.
Their tony address didn't mean ascendance into nobility. They were incurably Irish. The upper crust derisively labeled Dr. O'Hara "the Irish doctor." Religious bias also necessitated his move to A.C. Milliken, the Catholic hospital. In their tribe, the doctor and his family didn't find cultural respite. Catholics resented the O'Haras for their social position and poorer Protestants scoffed at their success.
Pottsville's caste system imbued in young O'Hara a heightened sense of societal order. From an early age, O'Hara photographed all observations in his expansive memory. "It was a time when eccentricity flourished," wrote his biographer, Matthew Bruccoli. And the young boy took note of the culture's characters. This versed knowledge partially defined his writing career. He peeled away the contrived meaning behind WASP customs, and yet as a man identified with the rich. He emulated Sinclair Lewis, but behaved like George F. Babbitt.
What O'Hara wrote and how he acted seemed contradictory, but an embittered Irishness always lingered in his stories. In Butterfield 8, Jimmy Malloy, a fictionalized version of O'Hara, comments on his tribe, declaring that, "We're Micks, we're non-assailable, we Micks." As a boy, Malloy's creator understood his family's dubious place in Pottsville. He tried to ignore it, and maintained an image of entitled gentry. Locals remembered O'Hara for his horse, fine clothes, and arrogance. Dr. O'Hara shared his son's self-regard and bitterness, but both father and son knew their place in town. They were eerily similar, which caused mutual disappointment.
John's poor behavior resulted in a disastrous school record. The doctor sent John to Fordham Prep, where he lost his faith because, "The priests ruined it for me." After an honorable dismissal, father sent son to Keystone State Normal School in Kutztown. The mostly Pennsylvania Dutch student body disliked this Irish Catholic addition. During St. Patrick's Day, a friend sported an orange peel only to meet O'Hara's fists upon discovery. He was soon kicked out on academic and disciplinary grounds.
The despondent father transferred O'Hara to Niagara University Prep, where his son seemed to finally excel. He made friends, became semi-disciplined, and was class valedictorian. John yearned for a slot in the Yale class of 1928, and now it seemed possible. This possibility was quickly shattered by a wild, drunken night with friends on graduation eve. The school learned of his partying and he was immediately dismissed. No Yale for John.
Returning to Pottsville humiliated, John somehow received his father's permission to become an apprentice at the Pottsville Journal. John realized his gift, and a dynastic medical career wasn't possible for the aspiring writer. John found inspiration in Franklin Pierce Adams' popular columns, and his budding smugness revealed itself in his own writing, once declaring that he'd write "The Great American Novel."
His talent showed, but excessive tardiness and drinking spoiled his early stint as a journalist. Misfortune reinforced his conduct, especially with his father's early death from kidney failure in 1925. On his deathbed, Dr. O'Hara warned his son of a lung spot. Among his last words were, "poor John." His father's warning tormented O'Hara for the rest of his life, and he predicted his own untimely death. Dr. O'Hara's medical brilliance didn't translate into financial acumen. He died without a will, leaving his family with almost no money. So much for lace-curtain.
On to New York
John's newspaper career in Pottsville and Tamaqua faltered, and he unsuccessfully searched for jobs in Chicago. He soon followed his sister to New York City, where he imagined himself as another member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table. O'Hara, now 23, was finally free of the region. He was invigorated by youth and determined to write. He corresponded with his idol Adams, who published his contributing items and landed O'Hara with a cub-reporting job at the New York Herald-Tribune.
Borderline impoverished and increasingly alcohol-dependent, O'Hara managed to steadily move up the city's literary ladder. He befriended Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Wolcott Gibbs of the Algonquin Round Table and New Yorker circles. He became a reporter at Time, covering sports and theater. But his carousing accelerated his self-destructive behavior. Time's legendary editor, Henry Luce, warned O'Hara that his magazine had no time for a man who stayed in bed.
O'Hara later commented that Luce always gave him "that Protestant look." This sense of anti-Catholic prejudice, hatched in Pottsville, stuck with O'Hara. One evening in New York, O'Hara passed a newsboy, grabbed a paper, and began shouting, "Extra! Extra! Herbert Hoover turns Catholic!" The prejudice likely existed, but O'Hara's lifelong dilution of his own Irish identity made his outrage a comical paradox.
Perceived injustices didn't impede O'Hara's literary trajectory. He wrote when sober, and his short stories captured the region that continued to haunt his psyche. "Gibbsville," named in honor of his friend Wolcott, became his fictional Pottsville. Lantenengo Street (i.e. Mahantongo) incubated the plotlines of a miniature elite, and O'Hara exposed their hypocrisy and vulnerability. No matter the setting or character's social status, O'Hara's stories curiously lacked Depression themes. Perhaps this absence stemmed from his advancement. He began a long, turbulent relationship with The New Yorker, spent time in Hollywood writing dialogue and screenplays, and established himself as a semi-celebrity.
O'Hara's 1934 masterpiece, Appointment in Samarra, made him famous. The short novel deconstructs the pointless vanity of Gibbsville's social order. O'Hara's victim is Julian English, and the story follows his three-day dance with death. English, a well-heeled WASP, is a car salesman and member of the "Lantenengo Street crowd." Drunk and disgruntled late Christmas Eve in 1930, English throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a boorish, social-climbing Irish Catholic. Beholden to Reilly for a $20,000 loan, English's reckless compulsion contributes to his own social degradation and quick demise. He alienates his wife, friends, and the Lantenengo Country Club set. He insults Catholics through his disrespect of Reilly: "There was no other reason why he should throw a drink at Reilly, so it must be because he was an unattractive Irish Catholic whom he could insult freely. He did not believe they were quite right. But one thing he knew; if the Catholics had declared war on him, he was in a tough spot."
English's life breaks down amidst futile apologies, drunken fights, angry mobsters and imminent bankruptcy. He cannot face judgment before Gibbsville. Intoxicated and defeated, English retreats to his garage, taking his life in his sealed Cadillac. His death leaves the reader puzzled and disturbed, for an otherwise likeable character worthy of compassion, needlessly dies young. Critics praised the realism, but were also disturbed by the tale of abrupt failure and rejection. The Irish/WASP rivalry hinted at O'Hara's own social torment. Like English, O'Hara was always willing to put people in their place. It usually required fists or denigration. After visiting the revered expats Gerald and Sara Murphy, O'Hara boasted that, "I had the pleasure of watching first one dog, then another taking a squirt on Mrs. Murphy's expensive rugs." He had English's damaging pride and Reilly's guarded inferiority.
It was while writing Appointment that O'Hara found friendship and cultural kinship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a gentler version of O'Hara. They were drinkers, reluctantly Irish, and products of comfortable childhoods. They shared a hyper-awareness of social mores and fondness for upscale lifestyles. O'Hara fell in love with Fitzgerald's debut, This Side of Paradise, a wistful tale of Princeton life. He admitted replicating Fitzgerald in his own writing, and they maintained their friendship until Fitzgerald's early death in 1940.
Alcohol shortened the lives of Fitzgerald and other period writers. Liquor precariously signaled a similar route for O'Hara. His first wife left him, enemies continued to stack, and poor reviews intensified his rage. Pal Joey brought Broadway (and later cinematic) success, but he couldn't forgive critics for negative book reviews. A bad review in The New Yorker for O'Hara's Harrisburg-set "A Rage to Live" ignited a cold war, and he boycotted the magazine for over a decade. The breaking point seemed near in the 1950s, until an ulcer hemorrhage and his second wife's death forced O'Hara to quit the bottle.
The teetotal O'Hara was a calmer alternative to his past. He resided in Princeton with his third wife and daughter, entering the creative peak of his career. He won a National Book Award for "Ten North Frederick," became a senior member of a fading literary elite, and enjoyed wealth and status. The gentleman scholar remained defensive, but his novels sold and his short stories masterfully illustrated America's class consciousness. He died without a diploma, among his greatest regrets. Hemingway once jokingly proposed raising money to send O'Hara to Yale. The school's president later remarked that O'Hara wasn't granted an honorary degree "because he asked for it."
A new appreciation
After his death, much of O'Hara's work gathered dust among literary critics. His stories were unfairly labeled out of date, and newer writers won favor with their abstract musings and experimentation. This view has changed in recent years, and critics and readers have rekindled an appreciation for O'Hara, rediscovering the importance and value of his work. Reading O'Hara's stories are revealing experiences, for no American writer has replicated his ear for dialogue. O'Hara's "musical repetitions and his love of the vernacular, the way he gets you to enjoy the phatic fuzz of American talk - these have never been surpassed," wrote the Paris Review's Lorin Stein.
For a man desperate for membership in exclusive clubs, O'Hara now has his own society. The John O'Hara Society meets regularly in Princeton and New York, and celebrates and analyzes the life and works of the author on its website (oharasociety.blogspot.com).
This past year, Penguin Classics released a collection of The New York Stories. Among the stories is "The Assistant," which portrays Maggie Muldoon, a boozy former jazz singer with Hazleton roots. She goes on a date with a promoter, and after a few drinks discusses her family: "My grandfather was a lush, and my old man was a strict temperance man, but I take after my grandfather. He used to hold up a glass of whiskey in front of him and smile at it and say, 'My assistant.' He always called it his assistant. So do I, but people don't know what I'm talking about â¦ I don't know what I'd do without my assistant."
In a few short sentences, Muldoon masks her pain by revealing the happiness she finds in a drink. Muldoon reflected O'Hara's literary knack for empathy. In other New York stories, O'Hara "teaches us to pay attention to the most casual exchanges between his characters, who are often perilously close to professing deep affection for each other or to voicing their fiercest animosity," wrote Steven Goldleaf, a Pace University professor of English who edited this latest collection.
An antipathy for O'Hara endures, driven by a borderline bias against his period writing. But O'Hara's prose remains refreshing and clear, his declarative sentences timeless in their clarity. His obsessive details of class occasionally become tiresome, but that's the point. No writer better captured a period of our country. Among American novelists, O'Hara remains our best, begrudging social historian. "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 pronoun, the club joined, the college attended, and how these define - in fact, determine - character," wrote The Atlantic's Benjamin and Christina Schwarz.
It's also worth probing why O'Hara remains stuck in literary purgatory when critics embrace Norman Mailer. The late Mailer has advantages. He lived much longer, his personality was larger than life and his works were more contemporary. But these same critics spare the cold shoulder for his antics, often bizarre writing and near murder of his wife. O'Hara was deeply flawed, and his writing wasn't always stellar, but he died a reformed man, doting father and devoted husband to his third wife. O'Hara was simply a self-loathing Irishman, misanthropic sage and frustrating genius. As an author, he was never given the benefit of any doubt, but there could be no doubt that he was an insightful commentator on a time and the people of those times.
O'Hara was a product of his region, and his relationship with the region had all the highs and lows of an abused child with his parent. His Gibbsville stories remain his best and most thoughtful work. The 1962 story, "Pat Collins," is a story of friendship destroyed by an affair. Newly arrived in Gibbsville, Collins becomes a close friend of Whit Hofman, but this friendship implodes when Pat's wife sleeps with Whit. Pat's life falls apart, and he finds refuge in Dick Boylan's speakeasy. Boylan's is frequented by hard drinking, fragile characters, among them an ex-congressional candidate, an ex-cavalry officer, former Ivy Leaguers, and a surgeon who "one day in his early forties stopped in the middle of an operation and had to let his assistant take over, and never performed surgery againâ¦" The bar also includes a wealthy amateur scholar, whose years-long mission was to complete a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"Pat Collins" and other Gibbsville stories remain encyclopedic in their portrayal of the region and its history of complex characters. O'Hara was one of them. The question is: would Boylan serve him? Perhaps, but it's highly unlikely that the second drink would be on the house.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the government relations sector and assists with the Greater Hazleton Historical Society Facebook page. He is pursuing his master's degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org