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O’Hara, Cheever & Updike

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 in America totally preoccupied with their material progress. O’Hara was a novelist of manners crushingly interested only in manners, a documentarian whose characters were equivalents for the same social process. But he was never as monotonous as he might have been—he was merely discouraging. He had an old-fashioned avidity for what he never ceased to think, of as the (especially woman’s) Dirty Little Secret.

O’Hara’s world is one of total ambitiousness (an abstract idea) humanized only by extreme lust. The lust is as predictable as the ambitiousness, but shameful. O’Hara’s respect for the American game that produces only winners and losers is so great that the people in his later novels are entirely exchangeable; they seem to get their characters only from their competence in the social process. The lust, the dirty little secret—always treated as one of those sneakinesses that explain the ascendancy of certain people—is the most glaring example of the scarcity of motive that dominates O’Hara’s mind. O’Hara finds human beings as easy to explain as the profit-and-loss system for which they live; thus they repeat themselves to the point of reproducing themselves from novel to novel as they did from story to story.

What makes O’Hara’s world exciting is the terror of social displacement never far from the surface. We have reason to identify with that terror; America is a rich country in which many people feel poor. The social soil is still too thin to hold anything of people but their ambition. O’Hara’s corner of America seems more “lived in” than most, but it is not human personality that makes it interesting, it is O’Hara’s personal excitement, the outsider concentrating on every detail of the world in which he is making his way up. O’Hara’s is one old-fashioned class saga in which the value of position or great wealth is never doubted. The contention for it is everything. “Society” always comes out on top. Never again, in the work of an American novelist, would there be so much faith in the Establishment.

In February, 1968, O’Hara wrote in the preface to And Other Stories that although he loved to write short stories and did them easily, “…the writing of short stories is becoming an expensive luxury at my age. No one writes them any better than I do, but in energy and time they have become costly because the energy and time come from sources that I must budget for a long novel….” The overgrown novels that O’Hara now published were in fact pointlessly extended biographies of American careers. The only real interest of these absurdly swollen histories was his command of any immediate social situation. The short story was indeed his form, his imaginative model.

O’Hara had begun as a reporter probably because he was a natural writer of “pieces.” He became a prodigiously expert and expectable writer of stories out of the particular sense of social differences and the pride in his sense of fact that for him were synonymous with the practice of fiction. But he could think of fiction as endless stories, could collect them into book after book because, though this society stirred in O’Hara a fear like Kafka’s, O’Hara devoutly believed in the American system itself, never questioned its reality to his characters, and thought of his many casualties as inevitable. As he said, “The development of the United States in the first half of the 20th century is the most important subject for a novelist.”

This trust in the circumstances attending one’s own riches would have seemed parvenu to Scott Fitzgerald—a writer whose subtle tragedies meant less to O’Hara than Fitzgerald’s “glamorous” characters.3 To the new virtuosi of short stories in The New Yorker—Cheever, Salinger, Updike—the next practitioners of an art form that was a way of making points about American society, and that was eventually to disappear from The New Yorker as from everywhere else, O’Hara’s trust in American capitalism as exclusive reality must have seemed baffling.

John Cheever found in suburbsville almost as many cruel social differences as O’Hara had always known in Gibbsville. But the overwhelming sensation that a reader got from Cheever’s special performance of the short story was of a form that no longer spoke for itself. It was not even a “slice of life,” as O’Hara’s stories were, but had become a demonstration of the amazing sadness, futility, and evanescence of life among the settled, moneyed, seemingly altogether domesticated people in Proxmire Manor. As Cheever said in two different pieces of fiction, Why, in this “half-finished civilization, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?” It is a question that earlier writers of “The New Yorker story” would not have asked openly, with so much expectation of being agreed with, and twice. But Cheever’s brightly comic, charming, heartbreaking performances always came out as direct points made about “the quality of life in the United States,” or “How We Live Now.”

Cheever—Salinger and Updike were to be like him in this respect—began and somehow has remained a startlingly precocious, provocatively “youthful” writer. But unlike Salinger and Updike, he was to seem more identifiable with the rest of The New Yorker, just as his complaint about American life was more concrete and his fiction more expectable. As I’ve written before, his stories regularly became a form of social lament—writing never hard to take. What they said, and Cheever openly said it, was that America was still a dream, a fantasy; America did not look lived in, Americans were not really settled in. In their own minds they were still on their way to the Promised Land. In story after story Cheever’s characters, guiltily, secretly disillusioned and disabused with their famous “way of life” (always something that could be put into words and therefore promised, advertised, and demonstrated), suddenly acted out their inner subversion. They became “eccentrics,” crazily swimming from pool to pool, good husbands who fell in love with the baby sitter. Sometimes, like “Aunt Justina,” they even died in the living room and could not be moved because of the health laws and restriction by the zoning law on any funeral parlors in the neighborhood.

Acting out one’s loneliness, one’s death wish—any sudden eccentricity embarrassing everybody in the neighborhood—these make for situation comedy. Life is turning one’s “normal” self inside out at a party. The subject of Cheever’s stories is regularly a situation that betrays the basic “unreality” of some character’s life. It is a trying-out of freedom in the shape of the extreme, the unmentionable. Crossing the social line is one aspect of comedy, and Cheever demonstrates it by giving a social shape to the most insubstantial and private longings. Loneliness is the dirty little secret, a personal drive so urgent and confusing that it comes out a vice. But the pathetic escapade never lasts very long. We are not at home here, says Cheever. But there is no other place for us to feel that we are not at home.

In these terms the short story becomes not the compression of an actual defeat but the anecdote of a temporary crisis. The crisis is the trying-out of sin, escape, the abyss, and is described by Cheever with radiant attention: there is the only new world his characters ever reach.

…They flew into a white cloud of such density that it reflected the exhaust fires. The color of the cloud darkened to gray, and the plane began to rock…. The stewardess announced that they were going to make an emergency landing. All but the children saw in their minds the spreading wings of the Angel of Death. The pilot could be heard singing faintly, “I’ve got sixpence, jolly jolly sixpence. I’ve got sixpence to last me all my life….”

The “country husband” in this most brilliant of Cheever’s stories returns home to find that his brush with death is not of the slightest interest to his family, so he falls in love with the baby sitter. He does not get very far with the baby sitter, so he goes to a therapist who prescribes woodworking. The story ends derisively on the brain-washed husband who will no longer stray from home.

But who cares about this fellow? It is Cheever’s clever, showy handling of the husband’s “craziness,” sentence by sentence, that engages us. Each sentence is a miniature of Cheever’s narrative style, and each sentence makes the point that Cheever is mastering his material, and comes back to the mystery of why, in this half-finished civilization, this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world, everyone should seem so disappointed. So there is no mastery in Cheever’s story except Cheever’s. It is Cheever one watches in the story, Cheever who moves us, literally, by the shape of his effort in every line, by the significance he gives to every inflection, and finally by the cruel lucidity he brings to this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world as a breaking of the heart.

My deepest feeling about Cheever is that his marvelous brightness is an effort to cheer himself up. His is the only impressive energy in a perhaps too equitable and prosperous suburban world whose subject is internal depression, the Saturday night party, and the post-martini bitterness. Feeling alone is the air his characters breathe. Just as his characters have no feeling of achievement in their work, so they never collide with or have to fight a society which is actually America in allegory. All conflict is in the head. People just disappear, as from a party. Cheever’s novels—The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park—tend to muffle his characters in meaning even more than the short stories do. Cheever is such an accomplished performer of the short story that the foreshortening of effect has become second nature with him. There is the shortest possible bridge between cause and effect. The New Yorker column is still the inch of ivory on which he writes. Cheever always writes about “America.” He is an intellectual. The Wapshot novels are wholly allegories of place showing the degeneration of the old New England village, “St. Botolph’s,” into the symbolic (but spreading) suburb that is “Proxmire Manor.”

John Updike writes as if there were no greater pleasure than reconstituting the world by writing—writing is mind exercising itself, rejoicing in its gifts. Reading him one is always conscious of Updike the Gifted, Updike the Stylist, Updike the Concerned Roguish Novelist. Updike is always so much Updike that it is the highest tribute to this gifted and serious writer that the omnipresence of Updike in all his writing finally seems not a hindrance but a trademark, youth’s charming flourish of itself. This is a writer confidently personal but not subjective—who indeed pleases his busy imagination, his sense of play, by looking steadily at the contradiction within every human display.

A prime fact about Updike is that he was born in 1932, went to Harvard when there was still a great literary tradition for an undergraduate to join himself to, then felt himself the most fortunate of men when he became part of The New Yorker and its still debonair literary tradition. Precocious, original, distinctly not a loner, a writer in the postwar suburban style who associated himself with families, townships, churches, citizens’ committees, Updike became a novelist of “society” in the Fifties, the age of postwar plenty and unchallenged domesticity for both sexes when many once-poor Americans, moving to the suburbs, felt they were at last coming into their reward.

Domesticity is a dominant subject of Updike’s world—and so is the unavailing struggle against it, as in one of his best novels, Rabbit, Run. But there is in even the lucid emotions of Rabbit, Run, in the filial tenderness of The Centaur, a kind of brilliant actionlessness, a wholly mental atmosphere. Updike, thanks not least to the marvelous movement within postwar society and its unprecedented interchange of classes, backgrounds, social information, is an extremely adroit and knowledgeable observer of society and its customs. He likes to put Presidents into his work as a way of showing that President Buchanan (ancient history) and President Kennedy (the Sixties) are real landmarks.4 But such historic moments just serve to date the personal mythology in his characters’ minds; they are never forces. There is no struggle with American society; its character is fixed, though nothing else is.

Updike’s characters represent many things to him; he glosses all his own novels. And because Updike fancies them as many-sided and intellectual designs, they are unusually distinct and memorable among characters in contemporary fiction. They always mean. Updike’s fiction is distinguished by an unusually close interest in every character he writes about. But these characters who represent so much never struggle with anything except the reflections in their minds of a circumscribing reality that seems unalterable. Updike is a novelist of society who sees society entirely as a fable. It stands still for him to paint its picture; it never starts anything. On the other hand, it is always there to say “American,” now and in the future—Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, started with the future as tyranny, institutions that are there to say that institutions always take over.

The older American novelists of society were not this much used to it. Scott Fitzgerald, who loved its color, its prodigality, profoundly distrusted it and thought it would revenge itself on its critics. Updike, who persistently recalls Fitzgerald’s ability to show society as a dream, has accommodated himself to its dominating possessiveness. Where there are no alternatives, even in one’s memory, the proliferating surfaces encourage myths, transferable symbols—a sense of situation, not opposition. Updike is in the best sense of the word an intellectual novelist, a novelist of paradox, tension, and complexity who as a college wit in the Fifties learned that we are all symbols and inhabit symbols. His easy mastery of social detail never includes any sense of American society as itself a peculiar institution, itself the dynamo, the aggressor, the maker of other people’s lives. Society is just a set of characteristics. Society—our present fate!—shows itself in marvelously shifting mental colors and shapes. Brightness falls from the air, thanks to the God on whose absence we sharpen our minds. But Updike’s own bright images of human perception fall along a horizontal line, metaphors of observation that connect only with each other. The world is all metaphor. We are not sure who is thinking these brilliant images in Rabbit, Run. Need Updike’s fine mind be so much in evidence?

His day had been bothered by God: Ruth mocking, Eccles blinking—why did they teach you such things if no one believed them? It seems plain, standing here, that if there is this floor there is a ceiling, that the true space in which we live is upward space. Someone is dying. In this great stretch of bridge someone is dying. The thought comes from nowhere: simple percentages. Someone in some house along these streets, if not this minute then the next, dies; and in that suddenly stone chest the heart of this flat prostrate rose seems to him to be. He moves his eyes to find the spot; perhaps he can see a cancer-blackened soul of an old man mount through the blue like a monkey on a spring….

Updike is indeed a great mental traveler through the many lands of American possibility. Though The Poorhouse Fair, Ollinger Stories, The Centaur, and others of his best works deal with the southeasternmost corner of Pennsylvania he comes from, he no more judges the rest of America by it than puts America into it—as O’Hara put everything he knew into his corner of Pennsylvania. Updike has nothing of the primitive attachment to early beginnings that made a whole generation of American realists once describe the big city as a total dislodgement. As a believer in tradition rediscovered, he can weave a surpassingly tender novel about his father, The Centaur, into a set of mythological associations and identifications that in other hands would have academicized the novel to death. The Centaur is one of his best books. In Rabbit, Run he wrote the marriage novel of a period marked by an increasing disbelief in marriage as the foundation of everything. At the end of Rabbit, Run the oversize Harry Angstrom ran away from his mopey wife Janice, who while drunk had accidentally drowned their baby, and from the unfathomable insatiable domesticity of the “tranquilized Fifties,” as Robert Lowell calls them.

Rabbit Redux of course opens on the day in 1969 that saw the first manned American flight to the moon, “leaving the rest of us here.” Harry was once too young and is now mysteriously too old. He is now a decaying man in an American city typically running down, is proud to support the Vietnam war when so many others have seen through it, and in order to provide the reader with a glibly topical symposium, suddenly finds himself sharing his house with Jill, a wild young hippie runaway from her family, and her sometime lover and drug supplier Skeeter, a young black Vietnam veteran who has jumped bail. All their clever conversations do not coalesce.

Yet even an inferior novel, Couples, the book of suburban marriage and its now conventional adulteries that shows Updike exercising his gifts and putting up his usual intellectual-religious scaffolding with somewhat too bountiful ease, is not a document, for Updike is happily a novelist excited by his characters. And in Bech Updike not only takes on the Jew, the Jewish novelist, a subject that has long fascinated and provoked him because “the Jewish novelist” is so much a fact of our times, so important a social category and rival, the most striking sudden success in a society of sudden successes—he even manages to show the comedy in Bech, a failure.

Everything seems possible to Updike; everything has been possible. He knows his way around, in every sense, without being superficial about it. His real subject—the omnipresence of “society,” the deadness of institutions—has gone hand in hand with the only vision of freedom as the individual’s recognition of God. This is a period when, as Updike says, “God has killed the churches.” There is no nemesis: just an empty space between those untouching circles, society and the individual. Updike has managed to be an intellectual without becoming abstract; in an era of boundless personal confusion, he has been a moralist without rejecting the mores. If poise is a gift, Updike is a genius. If to be “cool” is not just a social grace but awareness unlimited, Updike is the best of this cool world. All he lacks is that capacity for making you identify, for summoning up affection in the reader, which Salinger (now “poor Salinger”) expressed when in The Catcher in the Rye he had Holden Caulfield reserve his praise for authors who make you want to call them up.

Letters

Fiction and America May 17, 1973

  1. 1

    If you are an author, and not just a writer, you keep learning all the time. Today, for instance, I was thinking about dialog, listening to dialog of some characters in my mind’s ear, and I learned for the first time in my life that almost no woman who has gone beyond the eighth grade ever calls a fifty-cent piece a half-dollar. A male author, writing dialog carelessly, might easily have a female character say ‘half-a-dollar’ because it sounded vernacularly right to him. But it would be wrong, it would harm his characterization, and he would never know why.” [Foreword to Assembly, 1961]

    Ten years later there were virtually no half-dollars circulating in most parts of the United States.

  2. 2

    Lionel Trilling’s “Manners, Morals and the Novel” was an influential defense at this time of status and privilege as necessary to the social novel, as was Mary McCarthy’s “America the Beautiful.” In his Introduction to the Modern Library edition of O’Hara’s stories (the conjunction of their names was significant) Trilling said that “O’Hara’s peculiar gift is his brilliant awareness of the differences within the national sameness…. The passionate commitment to verisimilitude which is so salient a characteristic of O’Hara’s work is a very important trait in a writer….” Trilling compared O’Hara’s sense of the hardness of society to that of Kafka. There is reason to believe that to Kafka hardness meant not class distinctions but the State. It was not “society” that murdered Kafka’s sisters.

  3. 3

    Before he became his astonishingly important ghost, the Fitzgerald who died in Hollywood, who had depended in Hollywood on John O’Hara’s approbation, seemed a failure and so not calculated to impress O’Hara. Unlike O’Hara, Fitzgerald had a fatalistic despairing love for his own characters (and, of course, constantly put himself and his fatal Zelda into his work). Fitzgerald even identified his most appealing characters with the fate of goodness in our kind of world. O’Hara was a social Darwinist of the most extreme kind, more removed from losers than anybody since the first John D. Rockefeller. He created a whole succession of individuals unrelated to anyone. He wrote about people as social information—which shows how carefully, unlike Fitzgerald, he kept himself apart.

  4. 4

    Interviewer: Let’s turn from myth to history. You have indicated a desire to write about President Buchanan. Yet so far as I can see, American history is normally absent from your work.

    Updike: Not so; quite the contrary. In each of my novels, a precise year is given and a President reigns; The Centaur is distinctly a Truman book, and Rabbit, Run an Eisenhower one. Couples could have taken place only under Kennedy; the social currents it traces are as specific to those years as flowers in a meadow are to their moment of summer.

    [Paris Review, interview, Winter, 1968]

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