O’Hara, Cheever & Updike

John O'Hara
John O'Hara; drawing by David Levine

John O’Hara nursed his grudges with the acumen of a Balzac hero. The more he published and the richer he became, the more he identified himself with the lonely grandeur of the underrated. He published so many books that he virtually ran out of titles—his short story collections were getting called Assembly, The O’Hara Generation, And Other Stories. By the time he died in the spring of 1970, he had published more than thirty books, over 250 short stories, and he was full of riches—his own riches and the lore of the American rich. He now helped them to find names for their race-horses. He was a conspicuous and angry success who in print enumerated the number of cars in his garage with as much passion as he did the number of stories he had written. He even had the square body, totally wary face, and somehow arranged look of propriety that used to be the mark of American managers of industry who had made their way up—seemingly with the force of their faces.

But O’Hara in his riches revealed the same inability to tolerate the existence of other American novelists that the Anglos, Irish, and Polish had felt about each other in O’Hara’s tight and venomous corner of the coal country. So much rancor was now said to be old-fashioned. But O’Hara kept an unrelenting fist on the most trivial signs of social differentiation in an America now much more fluid and hedonistic in the ever-spreading middle class. O’Hara’s earliest images of how people succeed in society made up his capital as a writer; he was never able to understand to what extent many younger writers, especially those also writing for The New Yorker, took for granted the prodigious enriching of all sorts of uninteresting people in the United States. Least of all was he interested in the churchless individual seeking a “religious” life, as were Salinger and Updike. O’Hara, fantastically overspecialized in the social signs, as fanatical about keeping up the class struggle as a nineteenth-century coal baron, finally the prisoner of his own professional pride,1 took the easy way out of so much social change: he wrote the same kind of story over and over. It was easy because he was concerned with minute social antagonisms; the time remained America’s Iron Age.

O’Hara was able to write so much because he finally indulged himself in mapping out social roles. For a moment he even became for some critics a documentation of their heightened concern with social differences.2 He once wrote, with his usual bristle, that the emergence of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century was the greatest possible subject for a novelist. But this “emergence” meant, for O’Hara, not a sense of America the superpower at mid-century, but external evidences of the struggle for existence—the struggle between random samples of humanity…

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