Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Birthday: "An artist is his own fault."

John Henry O’Hara (1905-1970)

Someone should write a book on how Prohibition created a couple of generations of drunken American writers. Making booze hard to get made getting it all some seemed to think about, and a shorthand for social status and hypocrisy.

John O’Hara, who pretty much stayed tanked from 1919 to 1954, had three great themes; status, sex, and booze, and he made a remarkable career chronicling their roles in the lives of big people in lesser American cities.

Texas Governor Ann Richards once commented, of the first President Bush, that he was born on third and thought he’d hit a triple. John O’Hara, born on third too, thought he’d been benched from the game, and spent his life complaining about it.

His father was a successful surgeon in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, one of the small cities that dried up and blew away as thousands of small, regional economies were knitted into one national one in the twentieth century. The O’Haras lived in a mansion, had horses and five cars, and sent him to prep school. But the O’Haras were Catholic, and in the castes of Pottstown, that made John an outsider for life. When his father died, without a will but with a mountain of debt, young John’s pole star- Yale- vanished like a dream dispatched by the morning alarm clock.

He held all kinds of jobs, working on an ocean liner, in a hotel, and in journalism, working his way from the Pottstown paper to the New York Herald Tribune.  He got fired regularly for his boozing, but he had an eye for detail. Once in New York, he nosed his stories into some of the better magazines. His big break came in 1928, when The New Yorker, then three years old, bought one.

They bought more, and more. Success, however, simply made O'Hara want more success, and more of the bright shining objects it could buy. Old New Yorker hands, well into the 1970s, debated over who was the biggest bastard at the magazine, ever: O’Hara, or James Thurber? Editor Harold Ross loathed him; Katherine White condescended.

O’Hara wrote well when angry, and angry was what drinking made him. He would settle up the score, being better at everything than everybody. For a while, he seemed to be right. His early novels- Appointment in Samarra (1934), Butterfield 8 (1935) and Pal Joey (1940) were big hits: scandals, even, for what was, at the time, remarkably candid, and plentiful, sexual activity (Appointment and Butterfield were both banned in Australia until 1963).

In The New York Review of Books, Charles McGrath wrote,

What also makes Appointment seem like a young man’s book is the way it tries to pack in almost everything O’Hara knew about the world, which was quite a lot for a twenty-eight-year-old. He is well informed about sex, speakeasies and roadhouses, college fraternities and sororities, country clubs, coal mining, small-town journalism, big bands, the latest dance steps, Broadway shows, books, records, gangster slang, the right way to mix a high-ball, and cars—cars especially. O’Hara notices cars, and what they reveal about their owners, as carefully as does Irma Fliegler, who, lying in bed on that Christmas morning, can identify the cars out on the snowy street just from the sound each one makes driving by. Cars in this novel, where almost a dozen different brands are named, everything from a Stutz Bearcat to a Baker electric, are status symbols and emblems of progress but also trysting places, nests of refuge, and invitations to danger and recklessness.

Another writer, in The Atlantic, added,

He was fascinated by the pattern of a necktie, the make of a car, the brand of Scotch, the choice of collar pin, the misuse of a pronoun, the club joined, the college attended, and how these define -- in fact, determine -- character. "To read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club," Edmund Wilson wrote of O'Hara's fictionalized Pottsville, "is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware."

A 2013 profile- in his old home base, The New Yorker, says O’Hara’s preoccupations made him a different writer than his contemporaries:

This demystifying attitude—this realism in matters of class—sets O’Hara apart from his great hero and fellow Irish American, F. Scott Fitzgerald. If O’Hara had written a Gatsby, or Wolfsheim, it would be from the inside, not through the innocent WASP eyes of Nick Carraway. We’d know exactly where the money came from and how it got laundered. With O’Hara there’s no Vaseline on the lens. If he had written The Great Gatsby, we’d see Gatsby and Daisy sharing a cigarette in bed.

O’Hara’s obsessions with the symbols of status reflected his own preoccupation with them. He never got over the disappointment of being a Yale man, and was a fount of knowledge about the university, its people, its ways. He went on about it so much that, in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway proposed taking up a collection to send O’Hara to Yale.

When World War II came, O’Hara worked as a correspondent in the Pacific. After the war, he resumed his prolific pace at the typewriter, cementing his reputation as the preeminent short-story writer of the day. He holds the record for stories printed in The New Yorker, 247. But after the magazine’s book critic, Brendan Gill, savaged O’Hara’s 1949 novel, A Rage to Live, as an oversexed catastrophe, O’Hara boycotted The New Yorker for eleven years.

He turned to increasingly baggy, overlong novels, and got worse results. That just fueled his insecurities. He insisted on his editors launching him at the most exclusive New York clubs, then left with a pocket full of embossed matchbooks or a folio of stationery. He set up as a country squire, first on Long Island, then in Princeton, where his Rolls-Royce was considered a little over the top.

He wheedled Yale for an honorary degree for years. Kingman Brewster, the president, told a friend the reason O’Hara never got it was because he wanted it so badly. Through the 1950s, he campaigned for the Nobel Prize, egged on by T.S. Eliot, who told him he'd been nominated twice. He was sure, after Hemingway died in 1961, he was next in line. When John Steinbeck won in 1962, O’Hara wired him congratulations, adding that there was only one person he’d have been more pleased to see win.

In the late Fifties, O’Hara returned to journalism, as a columnist for several magazines and a newspaper syndicator. The results were disastrous. His vainglory, score-settling and increasingly reactionary politics were on full display. 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.

He finally gave up drinking, under doctor’s orders, and settled down a bit in a happy third marriage. But he had to have the last word, and when he died, he had his tombstone inscribed,

Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.

Malcolm Cowley observed that all but the first phrase is "an accurate summation of his career.” In Here At The New Yorker (1975), Brendan Gill eviscerated O’Hara all over again.

For so prodigious a writer- 17 novels, five plays, 402 short stories- O’Hara’s reputation was bound to fade in death. The firehose, once turned off, no longer impresses. But by 1998, when the Library of America announced a new O’Hara volume, critics used the choice to deride the point of the entire series: not an unfair point, as another seventeen years’ worth of volumes have demonstrated more than once.


Still, O’Hara at his best is damned good. He made Pottstown- Gibbsville in his imagination- into the Yoknapatawpha County of coal country in eight novels and 53 short stories.

The locals did not reward his attentions with kindness; like Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville, Gibbsville and its residents were easy to match up with their real-life counterparts (Look Homeward, Angel was banned by the Asheville Public Library well into the 1970s). But, like many a town cast on hard times, Pottstown has embraced the prodigal who never returned. His home is a National Register site, and some time back, a $50,000 statue of the author was unveiled.
He probably would have sulked that they skimped on getting a first-rate sculptor, but let it pass.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #JohnOHara #Charlotte

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