Magazine | October 24, 2016, Issue

Class Act

John O’Hara: Stories, edited by Charles McGrath (Library of America, 880 pp., $40)

First famous, then forgotten: Such is the melancholy fate of most best-selling writers. Saddest of all, though, is the permanent eclipse of the popular novelist with pretensions to literary distinction. No one ever thought that Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon would do anything other than go up the spout as soon as he died, save (perhaps) for Messrs. Robbins and Sheldon themselves. Not so John O’Hara, who was so sure of himself that he actually thought he had a shot at the Nobel Prize. When he died in 1970, he left instructions that the following epitaph be carved on his Princeton tombstone: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”

That, of course, was O’Hara’s malignant vanity talking, but there had once been a time when serious critics took him very seriously indeed. Edmund Wilson called him “original and interesting” in 1941, and Lionel Trilling was sufficiently admiring of his work to write the introduction to the Modern Library’s 1956 collection of his short stories. But O’Hara had long since stopped writing the cool, crisp New Yorker sketches that Trilling and Wilson admired, setting up shop as a full-time purveyor of blockbuster novels. Though he resumed writing stories in 1960, his reputation never recovered from his success. Today he is no better remembered, or regarded, than Edna Ferber or John P. Marquand.

Why, then, has the Library of America, the self-appointed, semi-official keeper of the keys of American literary réclame, now seen fit to publish an 880-page anthology of O’Hara’s short stories, a hefty volume to which a sequel is already in the works? It isn’t as though a revival is under way, nor does O’Hara fit into any of the now-privileged pigeonholes that have lately inspired the LOA to undertake such ventures as a multi-volume edition of the selected works of Ursula Le Guin. The only possible conclusion is that someone at the LOA thinks he was a writer of high quality — and that someone, it turns out, was dead right.

It’s easy to make fun of John O’Hara, for he went well out of his way to be unintentionally ludicrous. He was, among many other disagreeable things, so touchy that one of his friends dubbed him “master of the fancied slight.” The nickname stuck, with good reason. To read a biography (there are three) is to be stupefied by his self-regard. When an editor queried his use in a manuscript of an unusual slang term, pointing out that it was nowhere to be found in The Dictionary of American Slang, he shot back, “Don’t cite dictionaries to me, on dialog or the vernacular. Dictionary people consult me, not I them.”

Perhaps they did — he had a near-perfect ear. And O’Hara’s preternaturally thin skin was so clearly a product of his unhappy youth that it’s hard not to sympathize with his belligerence. Born in 1905 in a smallish town in the coal country of Pennsylvania, he was the first-born child of a socially prominent Catholic doctor who worked hard, lived high, didn’t have much use for his oldest son, and died without having provided for his large family. Abruptly thrust into shabby gentility as a result of his father’s improvidence, O’Hara was forced to give up his long-cherished dream of going to Yale, which wounded him so deeply and lastingly that Ernest Hemingway once proposed with malice aforethought to a group of his fellow writers that they “start a bloody fund to send John O’Hara to Yale.” Instead O’Hara became a hard-drinking newspaperman who knocked out short stories on the side to augment his salary. He started publishing in The New Yorker in 1928, and his largely plotless, tersely elliptical life studies, most of them written in a single sitting, did much to shape the now-celebrated house style of fiction that would be summed up to splendidly testy effect by Somerset Maugham: “Ah, yes, those wonderful New Yorker stories which always end when the hero goes away, but he doesn’t really go away, does he?”

Most of the best of these stories are beautifully nuanced tales of ambition, exclusion, and resentment, written in a plain style (O’Hara never used metaphors) that verges on outright baldness, in which all is shown and nothing told. Fascinated to the point of obsession by matters of class, O’Hara wrote like an outsider who had spent a lifetime peering through the window of privilege and remembered everything that he had seen on the other side of the glass. While he freely acknowledged Ring Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald as influences and hinted at having also learned from Chekhov and Kipling, he gleaned at least as much from his work as a reporter and the meticulous editing of Wolcott Gibbs and Katharine White of The New Yorker. Whatever the ultimate sources of his style, it soon became wholly personal, and by the early Thirties he was turning out first-rate stories. Twenty-eight of the 60 chosen by Charles McGrath for inclusion in John O’Hara: Stories predate his 1949 break with The New Yorker, and each one ranks high among his best work.

“Graven Image,” written in 1943, is typical of O’Hara’s method. When Trilling praised him for having “the most precise knowledge of the content of our subtlest snobberies,” he had in mind this story, a five-page vignette in which we meet Charles Browning, a Harvard alumnus and proud member of the elite Porcellian Club, who has gone to Washington to try to land a wartime job at the Pentagon. The Babbittish government official to whom he makes his pitch is also from Harvard, but was passed over by “the Pork” and has never forgotten the slight, though he affects not to care anymore. The interview goes well, but just when it looks like the deal is done, Browning puts a foot wrong:

Browning looked at the drink in his hand. “You know, I was a little afraid. That other stuff, the club stuff.”

“Yes,” said the Under Secretary.

“I don’t know why fellows like you — you never would have made it in a thousand years, but” — then, without looking up, he knew everything had collapsed — “but I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?”

“That’s right, Browning,” said the Under Secretary. “You’ve said exactly the wrong thing. I’ve got to be going.” He stood up and turned and went out, all dignity.

By then O’Hara had published three novels, Appointment in Samarra (1934), BUtterfield 8 (1935), and Hope of Heaven (1938), in which he sought to fill a larger canvas with his closely observed tales of social discontent. Unable to write frankly about sex in The New Yorker, over whose contents the famously prudish Harold Ross wielded absolute control, he let himself go in his novels, and he also shoveled into them a Dreiser-like overflowing of detail that he found fascinating but was in fact superfluous, though it went over with his readers. It’s no coincidence that A Rage to Live (1949), a 600-page doorstopper in which he chronicled the steamy extramarital escapades of a society lady, was his first best-selling novel. Nor is it at all surprising that A Rage to Live was viewed with disfavor at The New Yorker, which published a gratuitously snarky review in which Brendan Gill dismissed it as “discursive and prolix . . . Dr. O’Hara’s handy guide to healthy sex practices.” O’Hara promptly terminated his relationship with the magazine, stopped writing short stories, and spent the next decade churning out one prolix novel after another, all of which sold well and allowed him to live in the style of which he had dreamed ever since his father’s death.

After Ross died, O’Hara and The New Yorker finally buried the hatchet, and he began to appear again in its pages with “Imagine Kissing Pete,” a 1960 novella that is significantly longer than any of his pre-1949 stories but has the taut narrative control absent from his novels. From then on he would divide his time more or less evenly between full-length novels and short fiction, and though the novels never got any better, many of the stories were closely comparable to the ones with which he had made his name. I myself prefer the earlier stories, but McGrath, a longtime New Yorker editor, has made the strongest possible case for O’Hara’s later work, and he has also contributed a sensitive, sympathetic editor’s note that goes a long way toward pinning down his subject’s distinctive qualities:

O’Hara wrote not about what he imagined but about what he knew, which was a lot — more than most writers. He knew about lowlife and high society, nightclubs and newsrooms, Broadway and Hollywood, politicians, bootleggers, and call girls. . . . He knew, probably better than any other American writer, about social class in this country: about all the subtle markers and distinctions used to indicate rungs in the hierarchy, and about how rigid and how fragile the system is, a maze of envy, snobbery, and insecurity.

What O’Hara lacked was the poetry that makes the stories of Chekhov, Fitzgerald, and Kipling powerful in a way that he can never quite manage. His excellence is of a lesser order. But excellent he was, as well as compulsively readable, and I expect that this marvelous collection will do much to rehabilitate the faded reputation of an outstanding craftsman who did indeed write honestly and well — even if he did say so himself.

– Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, has been produced off Broadway and by theater companies from coast to coast.

Terry Teachout — Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

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