When Politics and Morality Mixed in Print

By Roberts, Rex | Insight on the News, December 12, 1994 | Go to article overview

When Politics and Morality Mixed in Print


Roberts, Rex, Insight on the News


An artist is his own fault, John O'Hara said, and O'Hara delivered himself into literary oblivion. An arrogant and immodest man, he proclaimed himself the best writer of his time, and critics rightly rejected such self-aggrandizement. Anyway, his books didn't need their explications. While William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were reinvent" the novel, O'Hara stuck to stolid realism and prided himself on his plain, metaphorless prose.

Then there was O'Hara's exasperating obsession with fraternities, honor societies and clubs. O'Hara's characters fretted constantly about the differences between a Pierce-Arrow and a Packard, and whether someone summered on the Cape or in Narragansett. They spent pages discussing whether "Phi Betes" were more likely to wear vests. O'Hara himself could not choose among details - at least not in his novels. If he staged a scene in a den, for example, we would learn that it had been referred to at one time as the back sitting room, "and which was so indicated on the signal box in the pantry, with the letters BSR."

As for his own character, O'Hara was a bit of a boor. He played the rogue, brawling and bragging about his sexual conquests, until he almost killed himself with drink. Then he adopted the pose of country squire, motoring from his home in Princeton, N.J., to his publisher in New York, who might arrange to have his Rolls-Royce blessed by the cardinal. During his later years, he sealed his literary fate by promoting himself for the Nobel Prize and embracing unfashionable, reactionary politics.

Nevertheless, O'Hara deserved a better fate, on the strength of his short stories alone - he published more fiction in the New Yorker than any other author. "In a just - and thus unrecognizable - world, John O'Hara would need no introduction," writes Fran Lebowitz in her introduction to a new edition of Appointment to Samarra (Modern Library, 290 pp), O'Hara's first and most famous book, published in 1934. "But despite the publication of 14 novels and 402 short stories he is almost entirely unknown to American readers under forty."

Even I, at 40 one of O'Hara's staunchest defenders, ignored him until circumstances forced us together - despite the fact that I was born and raised just outside of Pottsville, Pa., the city that would gain notoriety as Gibbsville in his fiction. What's more, my mother once dated O'Hara when she was in college. She remembered little about him - there is a photograph of them posing awkwardly at a county fair - except to say she thought he was stuck on himself. My mother was part Dutch, and as one of O'Hara's biographers once noted about his school days, "Some of the `Dutch' students [seemed] to have been annoyed by the confidence displayed by an Irish Catholic."

During my own college days as an English major at Penn State, O'Hara was not read, let alone discussed, in my literature classes. I was unaware that his study was reconstructed inside Pattee Library. While in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I noted that BUtterfield 8 made the reading list for a course titled "American Literature of the Thirties. …

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