Novelist of Manners

By Benjamin Schwarz


048The Modern Library’s decision to issue John O’Hara’s 1949 novel, “A Rage to Live,” seems nothing short of perverse. Readers may want a new hardcover of, say, Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” with that golden dust jacket to replace their dog-eared college paperback, or they may want to display a handsome edition of Hawthorne’s novels. Or they may be happy to discover a neglected gem, like A.J. Liebling’s “Between Meals.” But O’Hara’s work seems old without being “classic.” To a generation of readers who haven’t read him, who vaguely remember his hefty bestsellers on their parents’–or grandparents’–night stands, he just seems out of date. O’Hara even seemed out of date when their elders were lugging his books around. In 1955 he acknowledged that, “in the context of present day writing, I’m regarded as obsolescent–and rightly so.”

Actually, the Modern Library’s decision is even more perverse than it would first appear. The received wisdom on O’Hara is that he was a gifted short story writer who squandered his talent on extraordinarily long novels. “A Rage to Live,” which was O’Hara’s first bestseller and the fastest-selling Random House title up to the time, had a direct influence on putting O’Hara on what is regarded as the wrong track.

For nearly two decades O’Hara had been the most prolific contributor of stories to the New Yorker. But New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, reflecting the critical consensus, panned “A Rage to Live,” objecting to the novel’s sexual explicitness (criticism that now seems quaint) and judging it “a catastrophe.” Furious, O’Hara refused for 11 years to write for the only magazine that he considered to be an appropriate outlet for his stories. Consequently, throughout the 1950s he gave up the short story altogether and concentrated on the very form that, in the eyes of his critics, brought about his artistic downfall.

But “A Rage to Live” and his subsequent novels followed the form that best suited O’Hara’s obsessions and interests, if not his talents. O’Hara, the son of an Irish Catholic doctor, was born in 1905. He grew up among the WASP “anthracite aristocracy” of Pottsville, a town in the hard-coal region of southeastern Pennsylvania, and his background gave him an acute sensitivity to social distinctions. From his earliest stories he was fascinated with precise surfaces–the pattern of a necktie, the make of a car, the size of a monogram, the brand of Scotch, the gesture of courtesy and the way it was received, the club joined, the college attended–and what they tell us about, in fact how they determine, character. “To read him on a fashionable bar or the Biggsville [the simulacrum of Pottsville] country club,” Edmund Wilson wrote early in O’Hara’s career, “is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one before had not been aware.”

In O’Hara’s first and best novel, “Appointment in Samarra” (published 15 years before “A Rage to Live” and reissued by the Modern Library three years ago), he used his eye for detail and his ability to dissect the subtle social distinctions and cruel snobberies of the provincial upper class to paint a hard and unsparing portrait of the careless Julian English and the forces that drive him to suicide. It is an extraordinary achievement. The pace of the novel, which takes place over three days, is taut and inexorable, and each finely observed detail is fitted to the overall pattern as tightly as a mosaic.

But beginning with “A Rage to Live,” O’Hara’s novels changed. The details still exist, but there are so many more of them. A reader who shares the current infatuation with minimalist fiction can still appreciate “Appointment in Samarra,” even if he or she is puzzled by the enormous significance that O’Hara places on the differences between the drivers of the comparably priced Buick and Franklin. Such a reader is at a loss, though, with “A Rage to Live” and the novels that follow it.

In place of the spare prose and precisely chosen details of “Appointment in Samarra” are relentless descriptions and accumulations of social detail–what prep schools served for lunch, how weddings and funerals were orchestrated, how real estate deals were made, what sort of gifts the elite gave to each other–all set, as O’Hara bragged, in “great blocks of type.” These books are filled with lengthy and meticulously researched disquisitions on the relationship among population changes; political power and public works projects; the workings of small city journalism; the social implications of a new hotel. Although Julian English suffers a rapid and final fall, in “A Rage to Live” and the later novels the protagonists’ declines are attenuated through decades of futility and private misery. Most significant, with “A Rage to Live” O’Hara began a pattern of integrating a full-length biography of a character into the social history of a town–with the former often in service to the latter–a technique that for O’Hara required taking the story back several generations.

But to compare “Appointment in Samarra” with those later novels isn’t really fair because beginning with “A Rage to Live,” O’Hara was, with dogged determination, attempting to do something very different, even if the effort meant betraying in important ways his large talent. In 1960 O’Hara defined his ambition: “I want to get it all down on paper. . . . The United States in this century is what I know, and it is my business to write about it to the best of my ability. The ’20s, the ’30s, and the ’40s are already history, but cannot be content to leave their story in the hands of the historians and the editors of picture books. I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and to do it with complete honesty and variety.” In fact, O’Hara’s purpose seems a good deal narrower than that. John Dos Passos, for instance, aimed to define and chronicle the national experience in his USA trilogy. But O’Hara’s concerns and vision were more parochial.

“A Rage to Live,” which is set in the years between the turn of the century and the period immediately following World War I, chronicles the life of Grace Caldwell Tate, the only daughter of the supreme family of Fort Penn (the simulacrum of Harrisburg), Penn. In writing what could be called his first sociological novel–a form that was then at least 30 years out of date–O’Hara was obviously influenced by Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington. But his greatest influence by far (and one that eluded all his contemporary critics) was the French novelist Jules Romains, author of “Men of Goodwill,” a 27-volume novel of Parisian life between 1908 and 1933. O’Hara wrote before the publication of “A Rage to Live” that “if I thought I had time I would go on writing about Fort Penn as Romains did about Paris.”

In a way he did, for taken as a whole, O’Hara’s “Pennsylvania novels”–“Appointment in Samarra” (1934), “A Rage to Live” (1949), “Ten North Frederick” (1955), “From the Terrace” (1958), “Ourselves to Know” (1960), “The Lockwood Concern” (1965), “Elizabeth Appleton” (1963)–create, with their common setting and their interconnected families and characters, a thorough portrait of southeastern Pennsylvania, and specifically the ruling class of that region, between the 1890s and the Depression. No American writer has so thoroughly delineated a particular society in a particular place at a particular time. To read O’Hara’s Pennsylvania novels is to enter an entire world, which accounted for their enormous readability and popularity. They work upon the reader through an unspectacular, cumulative, absorbing power.

Most of his critics regarded O’Hara the novelist as an important social chronicler, but they missed what he was trying to say in his chronicle. Behind his dissection of the delicate social gradations and class antagonisms and how these developed and changed in the first three decades of the 20th century, O’Hara was elucidating a profound transformation in America’s economic and social structure. Alfred Kazin wrote that the subject of O’Hara’s novels was the “American Establishment.” But this is a mistaken notion, and the mistake itself helps illuminate what O’Hara was up to. The “establishment”–the web of national and multinational corporations, investment banks and nationally and internationally oriented commercial banks, the law firms that served them, the great research universities and the high federal bureaucracy–was only just emerging in the period in which the main action of “A Rage to Live” and the other Pennsylvania novels takes place. And, of course, it did not even exist at that time in the small cities of southeastern Pennsylvania.

The “establishment,” or what historian Robert Weibe more precisely calls the “national class,” began its march to power after 1897 on a crest of corporate consolidations and the expansive financial arrangements that accompanied them. It really only consolidated its hold on the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, when O’Hara started to write his Pennsylvania novels. The true subject of O’Hara’s chronicle is in fact the triumph of the “national class” and the forces that engendered it over the provincial ruling class, which was O’Hara’s cynosure.

The world O’Hara summoned in his Pennsylvania novels is extraordinarily foreign to modern readers. In O’Hara’s Pennsylvania a few families, through carefully wrought, personally sustained networks, control the economic, political, social and cultural life of their localities. The scions of these families may attend local prep schools and colleges, or they go off to, say, Lawrenceville and Princeton, but they all return to run the real estate concerns, mills, banks and firms that are at the center of the local economy and from which their families derive their power, prestige and wealth. (Significantly, when at the end of the historical period with which he is concerned, two of O’Hara’s local nabobs–Joe Chapin in “Ten North Frederick” and Alfred Eaton in “From the Terrace”–seek to make their mark in the world of national politics and business, they fail miserably.) What stands out clearly from O’Hara’s chronicle–and what is so difficult for readers today to grasp–is the autonomy and separateness of local communities and of the elites that controlled them. (Even time, after all, was locally determined, and the crazy-quilt pattern of local time zones was changed to a more uniform system only when the budding national market required it.)

Beginning with “A Rage to Live,” O’Hara drew a portrait of the provincial elite under assault by nationally based business, financial and political forces; by the concomitant rising economic and political power of “new money” that sought to destroy what he called the “spurious democracy” over which that elite presided; and by the values engendered by consumerism and mass culture–values which, as O’Hara recorded, the provincial elite came to embrace by the 1920s, even though those values destroyed the very social institutions that sustained their class. As O’Hara almost obsessively detailed, this series of assaults also brought the class antagonisms between the local elite and the lower classes to the surface and, especially in “A Rage to Live,” he depicts the class war as one in which real blood is shed.

As a novelist concerned with social conventions as they impinge upon character, O’Hara is sometimes compared with Edith Wharton and Henry James. In such a comparison, O’Hara’s limitations become immediately apparent. His eye for social detail is as keen, but he cannot approach their penetrating understanding of character and motivation and their grasp of what Joan Didion calls the “irreducible ambiguities” of the human condition that are at bottom the source of fiction. With the exception of “Appointment in Samarra,” O’Hara’s attempts at psychological insight were clumsy, broad and predictable. Even his universally praised ear for dialogue turned wooden the moment he attempted to grasp what lay beneath the social surface. He remains, however, the greatest American social novelist of the second half of the century (admittedly not a vast field, given current literary fashion and the quality of his rivals–John P. Marquand and James Gould Cozzens, for instance), who captured one of the most far-reaching social transformations in American history. In this sense, of course, one can argue that O’Hara’s significance is largely historical. This assessment would neglect his subtle and exact eye for detail and his voice–which John Cheever called “a splendid and perfectly pitched organ.” That voice was flat, prosaic and authoritative and thus exquisitely suited to the task he assigned himself.

Moreover, O’Hara was probably the most serious popular writer of his time. Even his severest critics refused to classify this writer of colossal bestsellers as a hack because he was intensely serious about his craft. “The way I feel about writing, which is practically a religious feeling,” he said, “would not permit me to ‘dash off’ a story.” Yet he wrote a staggering 13 novels, five novellas, 402 short stories (most of which are gathered in 13 collections), eight plays and two books of essays. He was a careful and meticulous writer and a relentless toiler. Artistic greatness eluded him, but he consistently achieved high competence. And he created a body of work all the more admirable in a time when more and more novelists write less and less.

O’Hara was quite correct in his own assessment of his obsolescence: an unbridgeable gap seems to separate him from the novelists of our day. But that obsolescence tells us less about O’Hara than it does about our own cramped vision of literature. Albeit with mixed results, O’Hara indefatigably pursued Henry James’ understanding of character, a quarry few contemporary writers even recognize: “We know a man imperfectly until we know his society, and we but half know a society until we know his manners.”

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