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

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 specific use each makes of a common obsession to tell what it is like to be alive. But where Faulkner recreated his society through a gifted imagination, O’Hara reflects his, making him, of the two, rather more interesting for our immediate purpose, which is to examine through his books the way we live now.

O’Hara’s work is in the naturalistic tradition. “I want to get it all down on paper while I can. The U.S. in this century, what I know, and it is my business to write about it to the best of my ability with the sometimes special knowledge that I have.” He also wants “to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and to do it with complete honesty and variety.” In this, he echoes Sinclair Lewis, Emile Zola, and (rather dangerously) the brothers Goncourt.

The Hat on the Bed is a collection of twenty-four short stories. They are much like O’Hara’s other short stories, although admirers seem to prefer them to earlier collections. Right off, one is aware of a passionate interest in social distinctions. Invariably we are told not only what university a character attended but also what prep school. Clothes, houses, luggage (by Vuitton), prestigious restaurants are all carefully noted, including brand-names. With the zest of an Internal Revenue man examining deductions for entertainment, O’Hara investigates the subtle difference between the spending of old middle-class money and new middle-class money. Of course, social distinctions have always been an important aspect of the traditional novel, but what disturbs one in reading O’Hara is that he does so little with these details once he has noted them. If a writer goes to the trouble to say that someone went to St. Paul’s and to Yale and played squash, then surely there is something about St. Paul’s and Yale and squash which would make him into a certain kind of person so that, given a few more details, the reader is then able to make up his mind as to just what that triad of experience means, and why it is different from Exeter-Harvard-lacrosse. But O’Hara is content merely to list schools and sports and the makes of cars and the labels on clothes and he fails to do his own job in his own terms, which is to show us why a character who went to Andover is not like one who went to Groton, and how the two schools, in some way, contributed to the difference. O’Hara is excited by fashionable schools in much the same way that Balzac was by money, and perhaps for the same reason, a cruel deprivation. Ernest Hemingway (whose malice was always profound) once announced that he intended to take up a collection to send John O’Hara through Yale. In his own defense, O’Hara has said that his generation did care passionately about colleges. Granting him this, one must then note that the children and grandchildren of his contemporaries do not care in the same way, a fact he seems unaware of, and one which undermines his claim to be putting it all down just the way it is.


The technique of the short stories does not vary much. The prose is plain and rather garrulous; the dialogue tends to run on, and he writes most of his stories and novels in dialogue because not only is that the easiest kind of writing to read but the easiest to do. In a short story like “The Mayor” one sees his technique at its barest. Two characters meet after three pages of setting up the scene (describing a hangout for the town’s politicians and setting up the personality of the mayor, who often drops in). Then two characters start to talk about a third character (the mayor) and his relationship with a fourth, and after some four pages of dialogue—and one small uninteresting revelation—the story is over; in Santayana’s image, a davdream. One has learned nothing. Felt nothing. Why record it?

Another short story, “How Can I Tell You?,” is purest reverie. We are shown a car salesman who by all worldly standards is a success; he even gets on well with his wife. All things conspire to make him happy. But he suffers from accidie, as the latins say. The story begins in mediasres. He is making an important sale. The woman buying the car talks to him at great length about this and that. Nothing particularly relevant to the story is said. The dialogue wanders aimlessly in imitation of actual speech as it sounds to Mr. O’Hara’s ear, which is good but unselective, with a tendency to use arcane slang (“plenty of glue”) and phonetic spellings (“wuddia”). Yet despite this long conversation, the two characters remain vague and undefined. Incidentally, Mr. O’Hara almost never gives a physical description of his characters, a startling continence for a naturalistic writer, and more to be admired than not.

The woman departs. The salesman goes to a bar where the bartender immediately senses that “You got sumpn eatin’ you, boy.” The salesman then goes home. He looks at his sleeping wife who wakes up and wants to know if something is wrong. “How the hell can I tell you when I don’t know myself?” he says. She goes back to sleep. He takes down his gun. He seems about to kill himself when his wife joins him and says, “Don’t, please?” and he says, “I won’t.” And there the story ends. What has gone wrong is that one could not care less about this Richard Cory (at least we were told that the original was full of light and that people envied him), because O’Hara’s creation has no face; no history. What the author has shown us is not a character but an event, and though a certain kind of writing can be most successful dealing only with events, this particular story required character shown from the inside, not a situation described from the outside, through dialogue.

Elizabeth Appleton, O’Hara’s latest novel, takes place in a Pennsylvania university town. Will the dean, Elizabeth’s husband, be made president of the college? That is the donné. He is in line for the post and a popular choice. Elizabeth has been a conscientious faculty wife, in spite of being “aristocratic” (her family used to go to Southampton in the summer). Elizabeth also has money, a fact which her patrician good taste insists she hide from her husband’s world. But hidden or not, for those who know true quality Elizabeth is the real thing. She even inspires the reverence of a former New York policeman who happens to be sitting next to her during a plane trip. There has been had weather. Danger Each is brave. The danger passes. Then they talk of…what else do O’Hara people talk of in a pinch? Schools. “You’re a New York girl, even if you did get on at Pittsburgh.” Elizabeth allows that this is so. Then with that uncanny shrewdness the lower orders often demonstrate when they are in the presence of their betters, the flat-foot asks, “Did you ever go to Miss Spence’s Finishing School? I used to help them cross the street when I was in that precinct.” No P.S. 6 for him. “I went to Miss Chapin’s,” says Elizabeth quietly, as if declaring, very simply, that she is Plantagenet. Needless to say, the fuzz knows all about Chapin, too. He is even more overcome when he learns her maiden name. He knows exactly who her father was. He even recalls her family house “on the north side of Fifty-Sixth between Madison and Park. Iron grillwork on the ground floor windows…Those were the good days, Mrs. Appleton, no matter what they say,’ he declares in an ecstasy of social inferiority.


Like so many of O’Hara’s novels, the book seems improvised. The situation is a simple one. Appleton is expected to become Spring Valley’s next president. He wants the job, or nearly, (Readers of the late John P. Marquand will recognize with delight that hesitancy and melancholy which inevitably attend near-success in middle age: was this all there was to it? Where are my dreams, my hopes, my love?) Elizabeth wants it, too, partly for her husband’s sake, partly because she is guilty because she has had an affair. It is over now, of course. The lover has taken to drink. But with the aid of flashbacks we can savor the quality of their passion, which turns out to have been mostly talk. Sometimes they talked about schools, sometimes about games, occasionally they discussed the guilt they felt toward her husband, and the possibility of their own marriage one day. But aside from talk nothing happens. In fact, there is almost no action in O’Hara’s recent work. Everything of consequence takes place offstage, to be reported later in conversation: perhaps his only resemblance to classical literature.

The dialogue is more than usually copious. One is reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ attempt to capture the flat trivia of American speech. But Lewis at his mimetic best was able to seize upon that one detail which illuminates character in a phrase and moves the narrative forward. Lewis also had a savage sense of humor. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about O’Hara is that for one who is in many ways a typical American writer, both in his virtues and faults, he has practically no sense of humor, the one gift our culture most liberally bestows on its sons. He is never anything but dead-serious about his adulterers and their schools and their clubs and their cars. Now one does not mind the absence of wit in his writing. He is not that sort of writer. Yet accepting him for what he is, a reliable recorder, one still longs for a flash of humor, of irony, of the sense that the preoccupations of his characters (and himself) might just possibly be absurd if only in the sight of eternity.

To be effective, naturalistic detail must be not only accurate but relevant. This is a tiresomely obvious thing to say, but repetition does not seem to spoil the novelty of it as criticism. Each small fact must be fitted to the overall pattern as tightly as mosaic. Yet the temptation to add more details than are needed is irresistible. And O’Hara seldom resists. His recent work is over-loaded with names, places, prices, brand-names, reflecting his own pleasure in getting them down simply for their own sake. If he can come up with the exact name of the jazz singer who sang in a certain club of a certain city in a particular year he seems to feel that his work as recorder has been justified. This might do for a social historian or magazine profile writer, but in a novelist it is a deadly preoccupation which, paradoxically, can make for great popularity, and that brings us to the audience and its unconscious presuppositions.

Right off, one is struck by the collective narcissism of his readers. Until our day, popular writers wrote of kings and queens, of exotic countries and desperate adventures, of worlds totally unlike the common experience. No longer. Today’s reader wants to look at himself, to find out who he is, with an occasional glimpse of his next door neighbor. Now, at best, fiction is an extension of actual life, an alternative world in which a reader may find out things he did not know before and live in imagination a life he may not live in fact. But I suggest that never before has the alternative world been so close to the actual one as it is in the novels of John O’Hara and his fellow commercialites. Journalism and popular fiction have merged, and the graphic and the plausible have become an end in themselves. The contemporary public prefers mirrors to windows.

The second unconscious presupposition O’Hara reveals is the matter of boredom. Most of the people he describes are bored to death with their lives and one another. Yet they never question this boredom, nor does their author show any great awareness of it. He just puts it all down. Like his peers, he reflects the tedium vitae without seeming to notice it. Yet it lurks continually beneath the surface, much the way a fear of syphilis haunted popular writing in the nineteenth century. One can read O’Hara by the yard without encountering a single character capable of taking pleasure in anything. His creatures are joyless. Neither art nor mind ever impinges on their garrulous absorption in themselves. If they read books, the books are by writers like O’Hara, locked with them in their terrible self-regard. They show little curiosity about other people, which is odd since the convention of each story is almost always someone telling someone else about so-and-so.

Finally, there is the matter of death. A recent survey among young people showed that since almost none believed in the continuation of personality after death, each felt, quite logically, that if this life is all there is, to lose it is the worst that can happen to anyone. Consequently, none was able to think of a single “idea,” political or moral, whose defense might justify no longer existing. This, to put it baldly, is to me the central underlying assumption of our society and one which makes us different from our predecessors. As a result, much of the glumness in our popular writers is that of a first generation set free from an attitude toward death which was as comforting as it was constraining. At his level, O’Hara reflects the fear that death is extinction, particularly in a short story, “The Trip,” from the collection Assembly. Here the method is flawless. An elderly New York clubman is looking forward to a boat trip to England, the scene of many pleasures in his youth (the Kit Kat Club with the Prince of Wales at the drums, etc.). He discusses the trip with his bridge partners, a contented foursome of old men, their pleasant lives shadowed only by the knowledge of death. An original member of the foursome died some years earlier, and there had been some criticism of him for he had collapsed “and died while playing a hand. The criticism was mild enough, but it was voiced, one player to another; it was simply that Charley has been told by his doctor not to play bridge, but he had insisted on playing, with the inevitable, extremely disturbing result.” But there were those who said how much better it was that Charley was able to die among friends rather than in public, with “policemen going through his pockets to find some identification. Taxi drivers pointing to him. Look a dead man.” Skillfully O’Hara weaves his nightmare. Shortly before the ship is to sail for England, one of the foursome misses the afternoon game. Then it is learned that he has died in a taxi cab. Once again the “inevitable, extremely disturbing” thing has happened. The trip is called off because ” ‘I’d be such a damn nuisance if I checked out in a London cab.’ ” This particular story is beautifully made, and completely effective. Yet Boccaccio would have found it unfathomable: isn’t death everywhere? and shouldn’t we crowd all that we can into the moment and hope for Grace? But in O’Hara’s contemporary mirror, there is neither Grace nor God. And despite our society’s nervous, intermittent religiosity, death has been accepted not only as man’s inevitable end, but as the one “extremely disturbing” fact.

In his way, O’Hara reflects our society’s self-regard, boredom, terror of not being. Why our proud Affluency is the way it is does not concern us here. Enough to say that O’Hara, inadvertently, is a reliable witness. Also, he has many virtues. For one thing he possesses the narrative gift, without which nothing. He has complete integrity. What he says he sees he sees. Though his concern with sex has troubled many of the Good Gray Geese of the press, it is a legitimate concern. Also, his treatment of sexual matters is seldom irrelevant, though touchingly old-fashioned by today’s standards, proving once again how dangerous it is for a writer to rely too heavily on contemporary sexual mores for his effects. When those mores change, his moments of high drama become absurd. “Would you marry me if I weren’t a virgin?” asks a girl in one of the early books. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” is the man’s agonized response, neither suspecting that even as they suffer, in literature’s womb Genet and Nabokov, William Burroughs and Mary McCarthy are stirring to be born. But O’Hara, with his passionate desire to show things as they are, is necessarily limited by the things he must look at. Lacking a moral imagination and not interested in the exercise of mind or in the exploration of what really goes on beneath that Harris tweed suit from J. Press, he is doomed to go on being a writer of gossip who is read with the same mechanical attention any newspaper column of familiar or near-familiar names and places is apt to evoke. His work, finally, cannot be taken seriously as literature, but as an unconscious record of the superstitions and assumptions of his time, his writing is “pertinent,” in Santayana’s sense, and even “true.”

This Issue

April 16, 1964