John O’Hara died in April 1970, and was buried in the old Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey, a burial ground that holds the remains of Grover Cleveland, Aaron Burr, the pollster George Gallup, and the parents of the murdering Menendez brothers of Beverly Hills. The governor of New Jersey attended the service, as did John Hay Whitney, Donald Klopfer of Random House, the cartoonist Charles Addams, and the wives of Bennett Cerf and John Steinbeck. There was a small herd of limousines, and O’Hara’s own dark green Rolls, for family use.
O’Hara’s widow, known as Sister, had two simple headstones erected, on one of which John O’Hara’s epitaph is engraved. And there, for this reviewer, certainty ends. His four biographers (Finis Farr, Matthew J. Bruccoli, Frank MacShane, and, now, Geoffrey Wolff) manage to record three versions of this self-composed epitaph. The one that is on the gravestone, I assume, is this rendering by Frank MacShane:
JANUARY 31, 1905
APRIL 11, 1970
BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE
HE TOLD THE TRUTH
ABOUT HIS TIME HE
WAS A PROFESSIONAL HE WROTE
HONESTLY AND WELL
In his short report of the funeral Geoffrey Wolff leaves off the final “He wrote honestly and well”; but Wolff, along with Finis Farr and Matthew J. Bruccoli, includes a sig-nificant addition: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century” (emphasis mine).
What can have happened here? Matthew Bruccoli says that Sister—who seemed to have good judgment—“selected” the epitaph. Perhaps she left the twentieth century line off because she realized that it would be regarded as an obnoxious boast; perhaps she left it off because it meant cramming too many words onto a gravestone, a correct call, in my view.
Four biographers of a contentious cuss such as John O’Hara are of course likely to come up with variants of many incidents in his life, particularly his many fights and disputes. It may not matter much whether Robert Benchley said to O’Hara, “You’ll always be a shit but you’re our shit,” or instead attempted to discourage O’Hara from apologizing for being a shit by assuring him that one needn’t apologize for being what one could not help being: in his case, a shit.
But the variation in the epitaph is more serious. O’Hara hungered for praise all his life; when he couldn’t get anyone else to praise him he had little compunction about praising himself. He let it be known that he deserved the Nobel Prize, but he didn’t get it. His New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs, whose last name O’Hara borrowed when he got around to creating his fictional town Gibbsville, claimed that O’Hara had always been a master of the fancied slight, which may be, but did he really believe that he had told more truth about the first half of the twentieth century than Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck, not to mention such distant masters as M. Proust, Mrs. Woolf, Herr Kafka, or Mr. Joyce? That would be hubris compounded.
O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which many consider his best book, appeals because of a kind of clumsy zest: a young man of talent has latched onto his proper material and is bursting to show what he can do. His hero, Julian English, a car dealer who never for a moment seems like a car dealer—of course the cars were Cadillacs—is not as likable as O’Hara evidently supposes he is: it’s the problem with most of his main characters, male or female. They are, to steal a phrase from O’Hara’s arch-tormentor, Brendan Gill, “fatally uninteresting.” Compare Appointment in Samarra with such masterpieces of unappeasable longing as The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, or The Sun Also Rises and O’Hara’s book seems slight and patchy.
But it’s not his only book—far from it: there are more than thirty more. The secret of reading O’Hara may be to strictly refrain from reading anything about him. He was the worst possible ambassador to his own talent. I seem to be in the minority of readers who think O’Hara’s eye superb but his ear merely so-so. In defense of his eye consider this description of the arrivals at the Fourth of July festival at the old Caldwell place, off the Nesquehela Pike, in 1917:
It would have been impossible for anyone on the Nesquehela Pike that day to miss the place, no matter what name he knew it by. The real farmers, of course, had not been deceived by the light rainfall of the morning, and they began arriving as early as ten o’clock, while the committeemen still were deciding about a postponement. The early ones came in spring wagons and hay wagons and truck wagons, some drawn by draft horses, some by teams of mules, some by mixed teams of horse-and-mule; and the next to arrive were farmers more prosperous than the earliest, and they came in buggies and buckboards and democrats and surreys and barouches and cut-unders. There was even a team of goats from a neighboring farm, a nice turn-out with real leather, not web, harness and a small-size truck wagon. Then a little later came the trucks and automobiles: Ford cars and Maxwells and Chevrolets and Partin-Palmers and Buicks and Hahn trucks and Maccars and Garfords and Autocars and Vims, and a few Cadillacs, Franklins and one Locomobile and one Winton. And all this time there would be farm boys on horseback—some with English saddles, some with stock saddles, some with Kentucky saddles, some with blanket-and-surcingle, and some bareback—and among those were a few fine saddle horses, but mostly they were work horses and mules, with one-piece ear-loop bridles and work-harness bridles with laundry rope for reins. And all day long too were the farm boys with their bicycles, singly and in pairs, but most often in groups as big as twenty in number, causing their own particular sound, which was the hum of the wire wheels, and the sound of one bell quickly followed by twenty other bells. They were the grim ones, these boys, not quite of draft age, breaking the silence in their ranks to call out words in Pennsylvania Dutch, but ironically resembling the Belgian army cyclists, whose cousins the farm boys’ cousins had beaten in war. The boys on horseback laughed; the boys on the bicycles had no laughter. Everything was clean and shining: the Dietz lamps on the wagons and trucks and buggies, and the nickel studding on the work harness, and the silver conchos on the stock saddles, and the automobile radiators, and the sprockets on the bicycles, and the snaffle bits and curb chains and the ferrules on the buggy whips and the painted hooves of the horses and the yellow felloes on the wheels of the cut-unders and the black leather dashboards and the white painted canvas tops of the spring wagons and the brass-bound hose of the bulb horns and the three-by-six-inch windows on the barouches and the Prest-o-lite tanks and hub-caps of the automobiles, and the scrubbed faces and foreheads of the men and the women and the boys and the girls.
That’s from A Rage to Live; similar scene-settings or social panoramas can be found in most of O’Hara’s novels. The catalog or the long perspective he could do; the intimate moment confounded him. Here, also from A Rage to Live, is an embarrassing account of his heroine Grace Caldwell Tate’s nuptial raptures:
The moment he touched her the rage began. “Do everything! Kiss me? Kiss me here? Let me—no. No! Go in me. Quickly, Sidney, please. I’m going, I’m going. Don’t do anything else, go in me. Oh, you’re in me and I’m all around you, just in time, time, time. Oh, such wonderful, exquisite.
Jackie Collins can do better, and has. It’s hard to believe the two passages came from the same pen, and yet there are many passages just as good as the first quote and just as bad as the second in From the Terrace, Ten North Frederick, Ourselves to Know, and the other endlessly self-repetitive late fictions.
It was A Rage to Live, though, that provoked the famously scathing New Yorker review by Brendan Gill that caused O’Hara to stop writing for that magazine for eleven years. By 1949, when A Rage to Live was published, O’Hara had published 197 stories in The New Yorker; another source mentions 215 pieces. He had been squabbling with the famous editor Harold Ross over payment issues anyway, and the mocking Gill review was the last straw. The fact that Brendan Gill was a Yale man and even a member of the famous collegiate society Skull and Bones must have made the salt of that review sting all the more, for Yale, for much of O’Hara’s life, was the most glittering of glittering prizes, and one that—like the Nobel—eluded him.
And yet, according to Geoffrey Wolff’s biography, The Art of Burning Bridges, had young John O’Hara managed to resist just one bender, the night before he was to graduate from his prep school in Niagara—he was even to give the graduation address—he might, with his father’s blessings, have gone in style to Yale. His parents came to hear him in what would have been his finest hour: but in the event, he was too drunk and muddied even to get out of bed. He neither made the speech nor graduated; the damage to his relationship with his father was, in his own opinion, total. Even after his father died he could have gone to Yale if he’d been willing to work his way through; but that, in John O’Hara’s mind, was not how glittering prizes were supposed to work. He wanted to go to Yale in style, not as a plebe, and it was his way or the highway, as Geoffrey Wolff remarks.
Instead of attending Yale the young man began his zigzag progress through the journalistic world, beginning humbly with the Pottsville Journal, and proceeding, still humbly, to the Tamaqua Courier; he got to New York and worked briefly for some big city papers, but, at this point in his life, punctuality was his bugbear. He liked to drink a lot and sleep late. Editors mostly liked him, but few could afford him for long.
Geoffrey Wolff’s biography is patient and graceful. He duly but lightly reports on O’Hara’s endless truculence and boorishness, while managing to leave him his dignity; when he can he slips in evidence of O’Hara’s good side: decent husband, excellent father, loyal friend.
When I accepted this biography for review I had not read any O’Hara for a very long time: I don’t think my neglect was the result of a particularly torturous car breakdown I had in O’Hara’s hometown, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, a long time ago. It was a circumstance in which I would gladly have depended on the kindness of strangers, had the strangers had any kindness, which they didn’t, and which—had I been reading my O’Hara—I would have known they didn’t. What else has he been saying, in more than thirty books, but that the milk of human kindness, when one can find it at all in east-central Pennsylvania, is likely to be in a somewhat curdled state? (I’ve since short-listed Pottsville, along with Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Chama, New Mexico, as places where I would least enjoy having a car breakdown.)
The more serious reason why I hadn’t been reading O’Hara is that to me and, I suspect, to many members of my generation of writers, his was simply not an exciting name. His fate was to be overshadowed, at the beginning of his career, by the old giants, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and likewise overshadowed, during the middle and end of his career, by the young up-and-comers: Salinger, Mailer, Bellow, Vidal, Styron, Heller, Flannery O’Connor, as well as, a little later, Roth, Kerouac, Updike, Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates. His was never the first name you’d think of when talking about contemporary American fiction. It seems to me that he was betrayed, as well, by the tectonic shift in taste that occurred around the middle of the century. He was an old-fashioned realist, holding a clear, Windexed mirror up to nature. How was he to know that readers had begun to want their mir-rors cracked or smudged or oddly angled, as they are in some of Salinger, or Flannery O’Connor, or Donald Barthelme? Edmund Wilson succinctly summarizes what kind of people O’Hara mainly showed in his clear mirror:
There was no longer any hierarchy here, of either cultivation or wealth: the people are all being shuffled about, hardly knowing what they are or where they are headed, but each is clutching some family tradition, some membership in a select organization, some person associated with the famous, from which he tries to draw distinction. But in the meantime they mostly go under. They are snubbed, they are humiliated, they fail. The cruel side of social snobbery is really Mr. O’Hara’s main theme….
O’Hara prided himself on his craftsmanship, which is more evident in the deft early short stories than in the bloated later fictions, most of which would be twice as good if they were half as long. He didn’t like to revise; much of his writing reads like first-draft work, though this improved once he began working with the editor William Maxwell at The New Yorker. And yet even the famous long story “Imagine Kissing Pete” seems to me much too long, as if O’Hara couldn’t decide, for a while, whether his account of the marriage of Bobbie and Pete McCrea was a short story or a novel. By the time he decided the creature had become a novella.
I suspect that John O’Hara is not much read today, though maybe it’s just that he’s not read in the cities where I have had bookshops, which would be Dallas, Houston, Tucson, Archer City, and Washington, D.C.—this last an easy drive from Pottsville, where most of his fiction is set. We have at the moment about forty books by John O’Hara, ten of them duplicates: they are priced $20 and down, and all forty of them, I regret to say, are long-term residents. Our copy of A Rage to Live has been with us since 1978, The Ewings since 1982, and so on. We can sell any Flannery O’Connor book in a day; my old teacher Frank O’Connor’s books sell within three or four months; but we’ve owned more than 90 percent of John O’Hara’s life work for as much as a quarter of a century with no sign of movement at all, which suggests to me a reputation in serious eclipse.
Eclipses, though, need not be permanent. Thirty years ago our Trollopes hugged the shelf resolutely, but then one day they rose up in a flock and flew away, and Arnold Bennett is selling again; it has taken him a mere eighty years to recover from the pasting Virginia Woolf gave him in 1924.
Will John O’Hara’s reputation recover? Will readers once again decide that they want to read about not very nice people who belong to country clubs in Pennsylvania, or on Long Island, or in the environs of Princeton, New Jersey? I doubt it: O’Hara has left us too few sympathetic characters, too few people to root for. Perhaps more damagingly, he has left us no great character, no one who can rise out of a book into the culture: no Huck and no Holden, no Sister Carrie or Ma Joad, no Dean Moriarty or Rabbit Angstrom—in the end, no masterpiece.
O’Hara prided himself on a certain comprehensive knowingness, but his knowingness was of a sort that will make him one of the most heavily footnoted writers of all time, if his reputation does recover. Here’s Frank MacShane, in his introduction to the Collected Stories, which ought to have been called the Selected Stories, since it reprints only thirty-six of O’Hara’s nearly four hundred short stories:
When O’Hara writes about a woman “pounding her Delman heels on the Penn Station floor,” he creates a whole person in the phrase….
Well, perhaps he does for women who happen to be a certain age or members of a certain set, but most of us are going to require a footnote to explain what Delman heels were. And, similarly:
In the years that she had been Mr. Monkton’s secretary Mary had had to learn about Charvet and Peal and those people. She knew how much it cost to have a pair of shoes sent back to Peal for rebuilding….
Charvet sails over me like a wild pitch, but I do know that Peal was a firm of English bootmakers, now defunct; I know that because my agent Irving Lazar, as much a dandy and as much an Anglophile as John O’Hara, once had his shoes made there. I don’t know for a fact that it was his Peal shoes that did Irving in, but it does seem that his refusal to relinquish his tight-fitting, custom-made English shoes began his swift decline. What, be seen on the dance floor without his English shoes?
Those fine shoes proved to be fine killers in fact. They cut off his circulation; he got gangrene, a bad disease for a dandy to have. Eventually it cost him a foot, then his life. The last time he took me to Chasen’s he wept in bitter humiliation because he had to dine in tennis shoes. And that’s a John O’Hara story if I’ve ever read one.
September 25, 2003