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 American writer. He first earned a reputation for short stories and later became a best-selling novelist before the age of thirty with Appointment in Samarra and BUtterfield 8.
O'Hara was an unparalleled observer of social status and class differences. No American author of his era, Fitzgerald included, equal O'Hara for his ability to depict social status at all levels in early to mid 20th century America. O'Hara's reputation as a writer was tarnished by the detractors he accumulated due to his outsized and easily bruised ego, alcoholic crankiness, long held resentments and his focus on social ephemera, all of which at times overshadowed his gift for story telling. While O'Hara's legacy as a writer is mixed, his champions rank him among the most underappreciated and unjustly neglected major American writers of the twentieth century. Ironically, few college students educated after O'Hara's death in 1970 have discovered him because O'Hara himself refused to allow his work to be reprinted in anthologies used to teach literature at a college level.
O'Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania to an affluent Irish American family. Though his family lived among the gentry of eastern Pennsylvania during his childhood, O'Hara's Irish Catholic background gave him the perspective on an outsider on the inside of polite WASP society. He attended the secondary school Niagara Prep in Lewiston, New York, where he was named Class Poet for Class of 1924. His father died about that time, leaving him unable to afford Yale University, the college of his dreams. By all accounts, this fall in social status from a privileged life of a well heeled doctor's family (including club memberships, riding and dance lessons, fancy cars in the barn, domestic servants in the house) to overnight insolvency afflicted O'Hara with status anxiety for the rest of his days. It also gave him an acute social consciousness that distinguishes his work to this day.
Initially, O'Hara 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. During the early part of his career he was also a film critic, a radio commentator and a press agent; later, with his reputation established, he became a newspaper columnist. Many of his stories (and his later novels written in the 1950s) were set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a barely fictionalized version of his home town of Pottsville, a small city in the coal region of the northeastern United States.
In 1934, O'Hara published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which won instant acclaim. His first novel received more praise than any other. 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." O'Hara followed Samarra with BUtterfield 8, his roman a clef based upon the tragic, short life of good time girl Starr Faithfull, whose mysterious death in 1931 became a tabloid sensation. In his lifetime, and over the span of four decades, O'Hara published 14 novels, novellas and more than 400 short stories, the majority of them in The New Yorker. 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 and From the Terrace (1958), which he considered his "greatest achievement as a novelist."
Despite his popular success as a best selling author, most of O'Hara's longer and later work is not held in high regard among the literary establishment. 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." Some of the criticism of O'Hara's writing is attributed to dislike of O'Hara personally, for his abrasive ego and lack of humility in dealing with others, his vigorous self-promotion, his obsession with his social status, and the politically conservative columns he wrote late in his career. Contemporary critics disparaged his novels for their blunt and non-judgmental depictions of loose women and homosexuals; yet critics writing after the sexual revolution see in O'Hara a pioneer in depicting female sexuality in frank, realistic ways. His most biting critics regard his novels to be shallow and overly concerned with booze, sex and surface details at the expense of deeper meaning. (Characters in the American television period drama Mad Men would fit easily into O'Hara's novels.) Many leading characters in O'Hara's novels are alcoholics who live as emotional zombies, too anesthetized by alcohol to ponder the human heart in conflict with itself. As his contemporary William Faulkner said of such writers in his Nobel Prize address of 1949, "He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
At the same time, O'Hara's literary legacy has prominent champions, including authors John Updike and Shelby Foote. O'Hara's fans admire his deft ability to depict realistic dialogue, his mastery of the telling detail and his sharp eye for the way humans communicate in nonverbal ways—from subtle glances to telling gestures. Former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath has called O'Hara "one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the evesdropper's secret--how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.".
O'Hara received the highest critical acclaim for his short stories. He contributed more of them to The New Yorker than anyone. As O'Hara himself once wrote, "I had an apparently inexhaustible urge to express an unlimited supply of short story ideas. No writing has ever come more easily to me." In The Library of America's 2016 collection of 60 of O'Hara's best stories, editor Charles McGrath praises O'Hara's stories for their "sketchlike lightness and brevity... in which nothing necessarily 'happens' in the old-fashioned sense, but in which some crucial loss or discovery is revealed just by implication... a sense of speed and economy is just what makes the best of these stories so thrilling. They seem to skim over the surface before allowing the reader to plunge into moments of unexpected depth and feeling." Brendan Gill, who worked with O'Hara at The New Yorker, ranks him "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." In the forward to a collection of his short stories published four years before his death in 1970, O'Hara declared in his own immodest way, "the writing of short stories is becoming an expensive luxury at my age. No one writes them any better than I do."
According to biographer Frank MacShane, O'Hara thought that Hemingway's death made O'Hara the leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. O'Hara 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 John Steinbeck won the prize in 1962, O'Hara wired, "Congratulations, I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it." In a letter to Steinbeck two years before that, O'Hara placed himself with Steinbeck in the pantheon of great American writers, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, singling out Faulkner among them as "the one, the genius."
John O'Hara died from cardiovascular disease in Princeton, New Jersey, and is interred 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 1974, O'Hara's study and its contents were reconstructed for display at Penn State University, where his papers are held. His childhood home, the John O'Hara House, in Pottsville, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
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 column nominally supported the Republican Party nominee Barry Goldwater for U.S. President, by identifying his cause with fans of Lawrence Welk, an accordionist and bandleader whose TV show and records were commercially popular but often derided as corny 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, published by a continuously decreasing number of newspapers, and did not endear him to the politically liberal New York literary establishment.
Several of his columns show off 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 tiny (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."
Ten North Frederick is a 1958 film based on O'Hara's 1955 novel of the same title. Gary Cooper starred as Joe Chapin, with Diane Varsi, Suzy Parker and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles. O'Hara called Cooper's performance "sensitive, understanding and true."
The 1960 film, From the Terrace, was adapted from O'Hara's 1958 novel of the same title. O'Hara 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.
O'Hara's epistolary novel Pal Joey (1940) led immediately to a successful Broadway musical, 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).
- Introduction by Philip B. Eppard, Critical Essays on John O'Hara, Philip B. Eppard, ed., G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.
- 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.
- The Atlantic, Match 2000
- Editor's Note, John O'Hara: Stories, Charles McGarth, ed., The Library of America, 2016
- Lorin Stein, introduction to BUtterfield 8, Penguin Classics, 2013.
- John O'Hara: Stories, Charles McGrath, ed., The Library of America, 2016.
- Editor's Note, John O'Hara: Stories, Charles McGrath, ed., The Library of America, 2016.
- "And Other Stories," Random House, 1966.
- Selected Letters of John O'Hara, Matthew J. Bruccoli, ed., Random House, 1978.
- National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- Meyers, Jeffrey (1998). Gary Cooper: American Hero, p. 289. HarperCollins, NYC, NY. ISBN 9780688154943.
- 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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- John O'Hara at the Internet Movie Database
- Works by or about John O'Hara at Internet Archive
- Works by John O'Hara at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)