The epitaph on John O'Hara's gravestone in Princeton Cemetery reads: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well."
The prolific novelist, playwright and short story writer did not compose those lines specifically for his headstone, as others have somewhat snidely suggested, but O'Hara would have accepted them as a valid summation of his work. Throughout his 40 odd years on the American literary scene, O'Hara lobbied openly for the critical acclaim he felt was due him, and watched in frustration as he was passed over, time and time again, for Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Steinbeck.
This doctor's son from Pottsville, Pa. was never known for sobriety or modesty. He had reason to be confident. Although he arrived in New York in 1928 without a college education (something the socially insecure O'Hara would worry about the rest of his life), he landed a job with the Herald Tribune almost immediately, and soon began contributing to the New Yorker. In 1934, after one divorce and a string of lost newspaper jobs, O'Hara's first novel, Appointment in Samarra, appeared. The story of Julian English, a well-to-do Cadillac dealer in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pa., whose life collapses over one Christmas vacation, launched O'Hara on an extended and profitable career in writing fiction.
From the start, he was certain he was destined for greatness. When the young O'Hara boasted he would be in Who's Who by the age of thirty, his father, who always disapproved of his son's recklessness, predicted that by then John would be dead. But the brash young Irishman's prophesy turned out to be correct; he was 29 when the form for Who's Who arrived. Little had changed decades later, when O'Hara wrote to Bennett Cerf at Random House: "It's no secret that I am working to get the Nobel. I am constantly at work, not only quantitatively but also maintaining as high standards as are within my powers, and this has been going on for some time."
But John O'Hara's confidence in his own abilities as a writer was never supported by reviewers or academics, before or after his death. Now, six years after his death, Matthew J. Bruccoli, professor of English at the University of South Carolina, offers a reassessment of the controversial author's work. In a critical biography called The O'Hara Concern (Random House, 417 pp., $15.00), Bruccoli argues that O'Hara must rank as one of America's best novelists and our greatest writer of short stories. In a final chapter, Bruccoli details his reasons. He lists what he considers O'Hara's strongpoints: the "American-ness" of O'Hara's fiction; his ability to create memorable characters; his mastery of dialogue; moral basis of his writing.
While Bruccoli deliberately overstates his case, he certainly touches upon aspects of O'Hara's fiction that have previously been ignored. In comparison to some of his contemporaries, though, O'Hara does not fare as well as Bruccoli would have us think.
There is a distinctly American flavor to O'Hara's fictional world. His best writing deals with his roots--the section of northeastern Pennsylvania called "The Region," where anthracite coal is mined. But in all fairness, O'Hara's evocation of life in Latenengo County cannot match up to Faulkner's treatment of Yoknapatawpha County or Hemingway's States-based fiction about the Florida Keys.
O'Hara does manage to capture twentieth century culture in this country. He has an artist's eye for detail: clothing, automobiles, popular music, slang--all are carefully described in his books. And it is for a purpose. When an O'Hara character drives a Buick or adopts dated slang, it tells something about his personality and social standing.
O'Hara's preoccupation with the upper class and its foibles (George Frazier of the Boston Globe commented after O'Hara's death that "he knows about court tennis and custom tailoring and chic clubs...") narrowed his literary scope. Some characters do stand out: Julian English is well drawn, and the recurring figure of Jimmy Malloy, an autobiographical character, is quite believable. But O'Hara the novelist was content to write about a social order that, in the words of the critic Conrad Knickerbocker, "began to flake away in the 1920's."
Perhaps the worst flaw in O'Hara's writing, despite Bruccoli's disclaimers, is its lack of a compelling intellectual or moral framework. O'Hara conveys emotion and action as well as anyone, but it is hard to discern any overriding vision beneath his surface realism. As a result, O'Hara's world seems almost too simple, his characters living and dying in a near moral vacuum. O'Hara's fiction describes how his characters live but we are left wondering why they do so.
O'Hara's forte is his almost magical way of writing dialogue that transcends the printed medium. He believed firmly that a writer who couldn't handle dialogue could never be considered first-rate. His ear for the nuance of speech is unsurpassed at times; he makes the reader feel like an eavesdropper. O'Hara does not just record speech patterns--his role is a vital one, he controls even the most intimate conversations to further plot and character development. Some of his short stories rely almost exclusively on the spoken word. In "Two Turtledoves," the brief story of two lovers meeting in a deserted New Jersey bar on Christmas Eve, he employs this technique masterfully. O'Hara describes the lovers completely through the conversation of the bartender and his friend, and turns what could have been predictable into an unusual and striking story.
O'Hara worked hard at his craft. He retained a keen interest in current slang, and the 1972 supplement to The Oxford English Dictionary credits him as the source of 11 words, including the now familiar "fuck-up." He was particularly concerned with the visual composition of the printed paragraph. As a young writer, he spent hours over A Farewell to Arms, using Hemingway's paragraphing as a model for his own work.
In 1945, O'Hara began to fear that he would be "remembered as a short story writer, if at all." He was aware of the irony; he considered himself a novelist first, and regarded his shorter fiction only as a profitable distraction. He own attempts to secure lasting recognition had taken the form of a series of overblown novels, most of them well over 400 pages long.
But even a partisan like Bruccoli will admit that O'Hara's novels never quite measure up to his short stories. He had matured as a short story writer. By the 1960's, the early wandering sketches he had published in the New Yorker had gradually evolved into well-plotted and elegant short stories. If, as Norman Mailer (another Nobel-chaser) once wrote, the real short story writer is a jeweler, then O'Hara's best short fiction has the brilliance of carefully polished jewelry. O'Hara's later short story style depends on a clean, taut prose that unobtrusively serves to carry his plot and dialogue to conclusion. And as he grew older, despite his commercial success, O'Hara became more and more concerned with his place in American literature (donating numerous manuscripts to Harvard, Yale and Penn State). His writing often reflected this preoccupation as can be seen in the first lines of "We'll Have Fun," the second to last short story published during O'Hara's lifetime:
It was often said of Tony Costello that there was nothing he did not know about horses. No matter whom he happened to be working for--as coach-man, as hostler, as blacksmith--he would stop whatever he was doing and have a look at an ailing horse and give advice to the owner who had brought the horse to Tony.
Like Tony Costello, O'Hara felt he had gained a complete mastery over his own craft. "I saw and felt and heard the world around me and within my limitations and within my prejudices, I wrote down what I saw and felt and heard," he said in an interview. "I tried to keep it mine and where I was most successful it was mine."
John O'Hara is rarely included in reading lists of American literature courses, nor do graduate students burn to write dissertations on him. But Bruccoli's biography is the first step in the right direction. O'Hara deserves more attention. He was not the best of those who wrote about his time, but no one could deny that he was a professional, or that he wrote honestly and well.