The Hat On The Bed
In 1938, writing to a friend, George Santayana described his first (and presumably last) encounter with the writing of Somerset Maugham. “I could read these [stories], enticed by the familiarity he shows with Spain, and with Spanish Americans, in whose moral complexion I feel a certain interest; but on the whole I felt…wonder at anybody wishing to write such stories. They are not pleasing, they are not pertinent to one’s real interests, they are not true: they are simply graphic or plausible, like a bit of a dream that one might drop into in an afternoon nap. Why record it? I suppose it is to make money, because writing stories is a profession…” In just such a way, the Greek philosophers condemned the novels of the Milesian school. Unpleasing, impertinent, untruthful, what else can one say about these fictions? except to speculate idly on why grown men see fit to write them. Money? There seems nothing more to be said.
Yet there is at least one good reason for a serious consideration of popular writing. “When you are criticising the Philosophy of an epoch,” wrote Alfred Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas, “do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the various systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose.” Writers of fiction, even more than systematic philosophers, tend to reveal unconscious presuppositions. One might even say that those writers who are the most popular are the ones who share the largest number of common assumptions with their audience, reflecting, subliminally, as it were, prejudices and aspirations so obvious that they are never stated and, never stated, never precisely understood or even recognized. John O’Hara is an excellent example of this kind of writer, and useful to any examination of what we are.
Over the last three decades, Mr. O’Hara has published close to thirty volumes of stories, plays, essays, novels. Since 1955 he has had a remarkable burst of activity: twelve books. His most recent novel, Elizabeth Appleton, was written in 1960 but kept off the market until 1963 while five other books were published. His latest collection of short stories, The Hat on the Bed, is currently a best seller and apparently gives pleasure to the public. In many ways, O’Hara’s writing is precisely the sort Santayana condemned: graphic and plausible, impertinent and untrue. But one must disagree with Santayana as to why this sort of work is done (an irrelevant speculation, in any case). Money is hardly the motive. No man who devotes a lifetime to writing can ever be entirely cynical if only because no one could sustain for a lifetime the pose of being other than himself. Either the self changes or the writing changes. One cannot have it both ways. O’Hara uses himself quite as fully and obsessively as William Faulkner. The difference between them lies in capacity, and the …