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In his novels and short stories, John O’Hara explored America’s obsession with power, status, and sex in the early and mid-twentieth century. His chosen milieu was often the small town, and the fictitious community of Gibbsville, the county seat of Lantenengo County, Pennsylvania, which recurs in much of his work. O’Hara’s fiction depicts the intense and destructive rivalry between the wealthy establishment and the upwardly mobile ethnic classes. o’Hara never received the critical recognition awarded some of his contemporaries, though his popularity with readers remained consistent throughout his career.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born on January 31, 1905, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, o’Hara was the son of Patrick Henry O’Hara and his wife Katherine Elizabeth. His father was a physician and surgeon, and o’Hara was the eldest of eight children born into this prominent Irish family. His hometown of Pottsville was a small industrial town which would later inspire his fictional creation of Gibbsville. He was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and was observant of the town’s Protestant elite and their disdain of the Irish Catholic community. An unruly but gifted student who enjoyed drinking alcohol from an early age, O’Hara was expelled from Fordham Preparatory School and the Keystone State Normal School. He eventually graduated as valedictorian from the Niagara Preparatory School in New York in 1924.
Because of his father’s unexpected death in March 1925, O’Hara was unable to attend Yale as he had planned, and the family was reduced to genteel poverty. For the next ten years, O’Hara worked as a ship steward, railroad freight clerk, gas meter reader, amusement park guard, soda jerk, and press agent. Among his most important positions was that of journalist. O’Hara began his journalism career writing for newspapers in Pottsville. in 1925, he was hired as a reporter for The Pottsville Journal, where he worked for two years. After spending a year working as a waiter on an ocean liner bound for Europe, he then moved to Chicago in an unsuccessful attempt to find work as a journalist.
A Journalist and Fiction Writer
O’Hara eventually moved to New York City when he was hired as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in 1928. That same year, he sold his first short story, ”Alumnae Bulletin,” to The New Yorker. Though he lost his Herald job because of his drinking, O’Hara soon had other journalism jobs and became a regular contributor to the magazine. He later wrote for such periodicals as Newsweek and Time. O’Hara also worked briefly as a literary secretary and as a press agent.
As O’Hara’s career was taking off, the United States, was in the midst of the Great Depression. The stock market crashed in 1929, effectively causing this economic crisis. The stock market crashed because an investment boom which began in 1924 was fueled by investors buying stocks on margin (in which investors took out loans to buy stocks for as little as a ten percent down payment) and with purely speculative money. The stocks became wildly overvalued, and their value plummeted as the American economy took a downturn. The failure of the stock market caused the economy first in the United States and then around the world to fall into a dramatic and sustained depression which lasted through the 1930s.
Published First Novel
In this environment, O’Hara published his first successful novel in 1934, Appointment in Samarra. Like much of his best work, it is an ironic picture of the members of a country club in a fictional Pennsylvania town, and a study of status in Pennsylvania society. The novel focuses on the tragedy of Julian English, who initiates his own downfall by throwing a drink into the face of a social superior. O’Hara’s next novel, BUtterfield 8 (1935), was also a popular bestseller. In 1935, O’Hara also published one of his first highly respected short story collections, The Doctor’s Son.
By the time BUtterfield 8 and The Doctor’s Son were published, O’Hara had begun working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for Paramount Studios. He spent nearly a decade writing scripts as his primary occupation, though he continued to produce fiction on the side. While his works from the late 1930s—including the Hollywood-based novel Hope of Heaven (1938) and short story collection Files on Parade (1939)—were not as popular, he found greater success in 1940.
That year, O’Hara published his well-respected short story collection Pal Joey, which consisted of loosely connected vignettes about a small-time nightclub entertainer and his attempts to gain professional and social respectability. He later collaborated with Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart to turn the collection into what became the hit musical comedy of the 1941 theater season. Pal Joey was also later made into a movie.
In 1944, O’Hara left Hollywood to work as a war correspondent for Liberty magazine. By this time, World War II had been raging for five years. The war had begun in September 1939 when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead.
Popular Success, Critical Failure
After World War II, O’Hara returned to writing novels and short stories. While he remained commercially successful, his works became less appreciated by critics. For example, the novel A Rage to Live (1949) had huge sales but mixed reviews. Ten North Frederick (1955) and From the Terrace (1958) were both best-selling novels that were made into movies. Ten North Frederick deals with the contrast between the public and private lives of Joe Chapin, an aspiring politician who becomes an alcoholic, while From the Terrace details the life of a wealthy man. While Frederick was critically acclaimed, Terrace received especially bad reviews.
Despite such negative reviews, O’Hara continued a prodigious output in the last decade of his life. He wrote several novels, including Elizabeth Appleton (1963), which focuses on the life of a privileged woman, and The Lockwood Concern (1965). O’Hara also put out seven short story and novella collections, including Sermons and Soda Water (1960) and The O’Hara Generation (1969). The stories collected in The Cape Cod Lighter (1962), The Hat on the Bed (1963), and The Horse Knows the Way (1964), demonstrate his mastery of the short story form and are considered to be his best later works.
After suffering a heart attack at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, O’Hara died there on April 11, 1970. Two multi-generational sagas that he wrote in his last years were published after his death: The Ewings (1972) and its sequel The Second Ewings (1977).
Works in Literary Context
As a writer, O’Hara favored realism in his prose style, and wrote highly regarded naturalistic dialogue which reveals much about his characters. He often examined the codified class system in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Many of his works take place in the fictional town of Gibbsville, the counterpoint to O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. In his early novels, especially, he explored the jealousy and hostilities between the Protestant elite and ethnic groups, primarily the Irish, struggling for social ascendancy there and in the United States as a whole. While other works were not as concerned with class struggles, O’Hara chronicles the material trappings of success in every social strata as well as the effects of such pursuits on his characters’ lives. Later in his career, his emphasis on the sexual relationships of his characters and its effect on them became an increasing focus of concern. As a writer, O’Hara was greatly influenced by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, and Dorothy Parker.
Status-Driven, Destructive Americans
As an author, O’Hara said he was picturing, as honestly as he could, how twentieth-century Americans were driven by money, sex, and a struggle for status. In pursuit of these goals, many of his characters lead themselves to their own destruction. For example, Appointment in Samarra focuses on the last three days in the life of Julian English, a wealthy but insecure man whose antagonistic behavior towards his family, Gibbsville’s social elite, and the town’s Irish community drives him to suicide. Similarly, BUtterfield 8 is based on a real-life scandal in which a young Manhattan socialite with questionable morals dies under mysterious circumstances. Later novels, novellas, and short stories share this theme. For example, in Ten North Frederick, Joe Chapin earns great wealth and prestige with the help of his family name, a Yale law degree, and considerable intelligence. But Chapin aspires to be president of the United States, so he attempts to buy the lieutenant governorship, is duped by an Irish politician, and drinks himself to death. Such works show O’Hara’s concern with American ambition and desire for social status.
A realist-naturalist writer, O’Hara emphasized complete objectivity in his books, writing frankly about the materialistic aspirations and sexual exploits of his characters. Known for his extraordinary ear for language, O’Hara also was exacting in his depiction of American social customs and the wardrobes of his characters. Such realism was not limited to the upper classes as his characters included workers, shopkeepers, and racketeers whose lives were delineated in authentic detail as well. A Rage to Live was among his first long and elaborately documented novels. Set in Fort Penn from 1900 to 1920, the novel includes a detailed, serious social history. Not all of his works were filled with such an overwhelming amount of detail. O’Hara’s short stories were also realistic, but early on, many were brief. For example, the stories in The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories were distinguished by economy of treatment and close observation of human behavior. Stories in The Doctor’s Son as well as Files on Parade (1939) and Pal Joey were also highly praised for their convincing, realistic dialogue.
Works in Critical Context
When O’Hara originally published his novels and short stories, critics had a mixed reaction to his works and chosen literary style. Some found him to be skillful but cynical, labeling him a post-Jazz Age follower of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Others recognized him as a gifted social commentator. When his novels, published in the 1950s and 1960s, became bestsellers, some critics objected to the simple precision of his dialogue and detail, to the superficial reality of his American scenes, and to the social climbing and sexual conduct of his characters, who some believed were not worth writing about. Though such critics often dismissed him as a hack, his books were widely read and reviewed. Author John Steinbeck even called O’Hara the most underrated writer in America. A number of critics came to acknowledge O’Hara as the master of the short story, publishing at least a dozen highly admired collections. Indeed, some reviewers have called him America’s best short story writer.
Appointment in Samarra
Reviewers in the 1930s were shocked by O’Hara’s frank treatment of sex and social snobbery in his first novel Appointment in Samarra. In the Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby complains of a ”thoroughgoing vulgarity in this book.” Even a literary hero of O’Hara’s, Sinclair Lewis, dismissed the book. Lewis writes in another edition of the Saturday Review of Literature that ”this book, for all the cleverness of its observation, the deftness of its tempo, the courage of its vocabulary, was inherently nothing but infantilism.” Today, critics consider Appointment in Samarra a stronger work than later O’Hara efforts. As Edmund Wilson writes in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the 1940s,” Appointment in Samarra is a memorable picture, both of a provincial snob, a disorganized drinking-man of the twenties, and of the complexities of the social organism in which he flourished and perished.”
A Rage to Live
One of O’Hara’s most ambitious books, A Rage to Live, is a lengthy novel about a marriage that is destroyed after the wife commits adultery. It addresses almost all of the author’s concerns about social stratification, materialism, and the dangers of sexual passion. While extremely popular with readers, many contemporary critics felt the novel was poorly plotted and contained too many unnecessary details. One reviewer, Brendan Gill, writes in The New Yorker that the book is ”discursive and prolix” and remarks that it resembles ”one of those ‘panoramic,’ three-or-four generation novels that writers of the third and fourth magnitude turn out in such disheartening abundance.” Later critics found more to like about the novel. For example, Douglas Robillard in Essays in Arts and Sciences comments that ”novels like ARage to Live (1949) and Ten North Frederick (1955) are fine, strong books, well planned and thoroughly realized.”
- Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
- Long, Robert Emmet. John O’Hara. New York: Ungar, 1983.
- Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties. New York: Farrar, Straus,1950.
- Canby, Henry Seidel. Review of Appointment in Samarra. Saturday Review of Literature (August 18, 1934).
- Gill, Brendan. Review of A Rage to Live. The New Yorker (August 20, 1949).
- Lewis, Sinclair. Review of Appointment in Samarra. Saturday Review of Literature (October 6, 1934).
- Robillard, Douglas. ”’A Great Character Study’: John O’Hara’s Letters and Fiction.” Essays in Arts and Sciences (May 1979): 73-79.
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