O'Hara in 1945
January 31, 1905|
Pottsville, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||April 11, 1970
Princeton, New Jersey, US
|Genre||novel, short story, drama, script, essay|
John Henry O'Hara (January 31, 1905 – April 11, 1970) was an Irish American writer. He earned a reputation first for short stories and became a best-selling novelist by the age of thirty with Appointment in Samarra and BUtterfield 8. He was particularly known for an unparalleled and shockingly accurate ear for dialogue. O'Hara was a keen observer of social status and class differences, and wrote frequently about the socially ambitious.
A controversial figure, O'Hara had a reputation for personal irascibility and for cataloging social ephemera, both of which frequently overshadowed his gifts as a storyteller. Writer Fran Lebowitz called him "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." John Updike, one of his consistent supporters, grouped him with Chekhov in a C-SPAN interview. By contrast, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times dismissed him as a "minor writer" and a "well-known lout."
O'Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His childhood home, the John O'Hara House, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. He attended the secondary school Niagara Prep in Lewiston, New York, where he was named Class Poet for Class of 1924. His father died at that time, leaving him unable to afford Yale, the college of his choice. By all accounts, this disappointment affected O'Hara deeply for the rest of his life and served to hone the keen sense of social awareness that characterizes his work. He worked as a reporter for various newspapers. Among other things he covered his hometown Pottsville Maroons of the National Football League.
Moving to New York City, O'Hara began to write short stories for magazines. In his early days he was also a film critic, a radio commentator and a press agent; later, with his reputation established, he became a newspaper columnist. He garnered much critical acclaim for his short stories, more than 200 of which, beginning in 1928, appeared in The New Yorker. Many of them (and some later novels) were set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a barely fictionalized version of Pottsville, which is a small city in the coal region of the United States.
In 1934, O'Hara published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which was acclaimed on publication. This is the O'Hara novel that is most consistently praised by critics. Ernest Hemingway wrote: "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra." On the other hand, critics of today, writing in the Atlantic Monthly of March 2000, are not as complimentary. Critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz claimed: "So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion ... of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best [English-language] novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project."
During World War II, he was a correspondent in the Pacific theater. After the war, he wrote screenplays and more novels including Ten North Frederick, for which he won the 1956 National Book Award. However, his books became increasingly wordy, thereby affecting his critical reputation. Nonetheless, his shorter works remained esteemed. He was also attacked by some for his open acceptance of all sexualities, which at least approached what was impermissible in the 1930s (Appointment and BUtterfield). BUtterfield 8 was banned in Australia until 1963.
Despite his obvious writing skill, most of O'Hara's longer work was not highly regarded by the literary establishment. Some of this may have been due to extra-literary factors, such as his social climbing, his vigorous self-promotion, and his politically conservative newspaper columns. Martin Kich of Wright State University says, "O'Hara's achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now typically considered a novelist of the second, or even the third, rank."
Brendan Gill, who worked with him at The New Yorker, ranks him as "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story."
"Oh," writes Gill, "but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons." Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college. "People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters." Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale." O'Hara also yearned for an honorary degree from Yale. According to Gill, Yale was unwilling to award the honor because O'Hara "asked for it."
According to biographer Frank MacShane, O'Hara thought that Hemingway's death made him (O'Hara) the leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote to his daughter "I really think I will get it," and "I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it." MacShane says that T. S. Eliot told O'Hara that he had, in fact, been nominated twice. When Steinbeck won the prize in 1962, O'Hara wired, "Congratulations, I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it."
John O'Hara died from cardiovascular disease in Princeton, New Jersey, and is interred there in the Princeton Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone, which he wrote himself, reads: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." Of this, Gill commented: "From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing. Better than anyone else? Not merely better than any other writer of fiction but better than any dramatist, any poet, any biographer, any historian? It is an astonishing claim."
In the early 1950s, O'Hara wrote a weekly book column, "Sweet and Sour", for the Trenton Times-Advertiser, and a biweekly column, "Appointment with O'Hara", for Collier's magazine. MacShane calls them "garrulous and outspoken" and says neither "added much of importance to O'Hara's work." Biographer Shelden Grebstein says that O'Hara in these columns was "simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating in his vaingloriousness, vindictiveness, and general bellicosity." Woolf says these earlier columns anticipated "his disastrous 'My Turn' in Newsday, which endured fifty-three weeks ... beginning in late 1964... of his dismissive and contemptuous worst."
His first Newsday column opened with the line, "Let's get off to a really bad start." His second complained, "the same hysteria that afflicted the Prohibitionists is now evident among the anti-cigarettists." His third nominally supported the Republican Party nominee Barry Goldwater for U.S. President, by identifying his cause with people who liked the music of Lawrence Welk, an accordionist who was considered unsophisticated and "square". "I think it's time the Lawrence Welk people had their say," wrote O'Hara. "The Lester Lanin and Dizzy Gillespie people have been on too long. When the country is in trouble, like war kind of trouble, man, it is the Lawrence Welk people who can be depended upon, all the way." In his fifth column, he argued that Martin Luther King should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The syndicated column was not a success, running in a continuously decreasing number of newspapers, and did not endear him to the politically liberal New York literary establishment.
Several of the columns directly exhibit his knowledge of trivia about and yearning for association with Ivy League colleges, as he noted, "Through the years I have acquired a vast amount of information about colleges and universities." The May 8, 1965 column takes as its ostensible topic the fact that Yale owns stock in American Broadcasting and thus
- is a beneficiary of the television program Peyton Place... in that Yale Blue Heaven Up Above, where William Lyon Phelps and Henry Seidel Canby may meet every afternoon for tea, there must be some embarrassment. Assuming that Harvard men also go to heaven (Princeton men go back to Old Nassau), I fancy that they are having a little fun with Dr. Phelps and Dr. Canby on the subject of Peyton Place.
The jocular references to Phelps, Canby, and Old Nassau could only have amused a microscopic (if elite) fraction of his readership, and thus give an impression that O'Hara is showing off his insider-like knowledge of these institutions.
Later, he notes that James Gould Cozzens is a "genuine Harvard alumnus" and speculates that Harvard should broker a television serialization of a Cozzens novel:
- But Cozzens makes his home in Williamstown, Mass., and they have a college there. When Sinclair Lewis lived in Williamstown the college ignored him, possibly because Lewis was a Yale man, although I am only guessing on that. I live in Princeton, N. J. and am not a Yale man, but official Princeton University has ignored me as Williams did Lewis.
His September 4, 1965 column deals entirely with his failure to have received any honorary degrees, going into detail about three honorary degrees he was actually offered but, for various reasons, did not accept. In the column he lists the awards he has received:
- In a long and (I believe) useful literary career I have received five major honors. Not to be bashful about it, they are: the National Book Award; membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Gold Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters; the Critics Circle Award; and the Donaldson award. You will note that among them is no recognition by the institutions of higher learning.
He complains that the colleges write him "highly complimentary" letters asking him to perform "chores" such as officiating as writer-in-residence, judging literary contests, and give lectures, yet do not give him degree citations. "The five major distinctions," he notes, "were awarded me by other writers, not by [academia]." The column closes with the comment
- If Yale had given me a degree, I could have joined the Yale Club, where the food is pretty good, the library is ample and restful, the location convenient, and I could go there when I felt like it without sponging off friends. They also have a nice-looking necktie.
From the Terrace was adapted into a 1960 film of the same name for which O'Hara himself helped write the screenplay. The film starred Paul Newman as disenchanted Alfred Eaton, son of a wealthy but indifferent father who has driven his mother to alcoholism; Newman's real-life wife; Joanne Woodward, as his socially-ambitious but self-pitying and unfaithful wife, Mary St. John; and, Ina Balin---who received a Golden Globe Award nomination for the role---as Natalie Benziger, a compassionate and family-oriented young lady who wins Alfred's love as he makes a crucial decision about his career and his life.
Pal Joey (1940) was immediately adapted as a musical of the same name, with libretto by O'Hara and songs by Rodgers and Hart. The 1940 production starred Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal. The musical was successfully revived in 1952 and later, most recently for a 2008–2009 run on Broadway. It was also re-adapted as the 1957 motion picture Pal Joey starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.
O'Hara's short stories about Gibbsville were used as the basis for the 1975 NBC television movie John O'Hara's Gibbsville (also known as The Turning Point of Jim Malloy) and for the short-lived 1976 NBC dramatic television series Gibbsville.
- Appointment in Samarra (1934)
- BUtterfield 8 (1935)
- Hope of Heaven (1938)
- Pal Joey (1940)
- A Rage to Live (1949)
- The Farmers Hotel (1951)
- Ten North Frederick (1955) — winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
- A Family Party (1956)
- From the Terrace (1958)
- Ourselves to Know (1960)
- The Big Laugh (1962)
- Elizabeth Appleton (1963)
- The Lockwood Concern (1965)
- The Instrument (1967)
- Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story (1969)
- The Ewings (1970)
- The Second Ewings (1972)
Short story collections
- The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories (1935)
- Files on Parade 1939)
- Pipe Night (1945)
- Hellbox (1947)
- Sermons and Soda Water: A Trilogy of Three Novellas (1960)
- Assembly (1961)
- The Cape Cod Lighter (1962)
- The Hat on the Bed (1963)
- The Horse Knows the Way (1964)
- Waiting for Winter (1966)
- And Other Stories 1968)
- The Time Element and Other Stories (1972)
- Good Samaritan and Other Stories (1974)
- Five Plays (1961)
(The Farmers Hotel, The Searching Sun, The Champagne Pool, Veronique, The Way It Was)
- Two by O'Hara (1979)
(The Man Who Could Not Lose [screen treatment] and Far from Heaven [play])
- Sweet and Sour (1954) Assorted columns on books and authors
- My Turn (1966). Fifty-three weekly columns written for Newsday
- Letters (1978).
- "A panel on the year in books". Charlie Rose. June 25, 1997. 14 minutes in. PBS. http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/5490. Retrieved 2011-05-11.
- Kakutani, Michiko (2003-08-19). "Bending Over Backward For a Well-Known Lout". New York Times. pp. 12–27. Retrieved 2014-04-15.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09.
- Matthew Broccoli, The O'Hara Concern. 1975.
- Professional Football Researchers Association.
- Flyleaf endorsement to Appointment in Samarra, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1934.
- "National Book Awards – 1956". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-31. With essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.
- Gill, Brendan. Here at The New Yorker. Random House, 1975. Da Capo Press, 1997, ISBN 0-306-80810-2. (O'Hara desperately wanting to attend Yale, p. 117. Failure to get honorary Yale degree, p. 268.)
- O'Hara, John (1966), My Turn: Fifty-three Pieces by John O'Hara (collected newspaper columns), Random House.
- Farr, Finis (1973): O'Hara: A Biography. Boston: Little Brown.
- Bruccoli, Matthew J. (1975): The O'Hara Concern: A Biography of John O'Hara. New York: Random House.
- MacShane, Frank (1980): The Life of John O'Hara. New York: Dutton.
- Woolf, Geoffrey (2003): The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara. New York: Knopf.
- The Western Canon: Appointment in Samarra included by Harold Bloom.
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