John O’Hara’s Protectorate

By Benjamin and Christina Schwarz

March 2000 ATLANTIC


So widespread is the literary world’s scorn for John O’Hara that the inclusion two years ago of his Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project. Although a number of writers — John Updike, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Louis Begley, Geoffrey Wolff, James Dickey, Guy Davenport, Fran Lebowitz, and Shelby Foote among them — have admitted to admiring O’Hara, many writers and critics have long delighted in disdaining him and seem to resurrect this “middlebrow” author only for the sport of cutting him down again.

As a self-consciously “big-picture” social novelist, O’Hara has been an easy mark ever since minimalist fiction became the vogue, but his novels, though immensely popular (not to mention immense), were out of critical fashion even in their time, as O’Hara himself was all too aware. Today he is so passé that although he holds the record for number of short stories published in The New Yorker, the magazine’s books editor confessed in 1993, when asked about an assault on O’Hara by Harold Brodkey in her pages, that she didn’t know enough about O’Hara’s work to comment.

Still, timing alone didn’t make O’Hara the Rodney Dangerfield of American letters. In part his critics’ response is personal, driven by an urge to take down a peg a man who masked his profound insecurity with aggressive vanity. O’Hara was desperate for praise, but sullied his chances for a sympathetic reading by chronically overinflating his achievements. For years he “hanker[ed] noisily,” as Updike has written, after the Nobel Prize, an honor obviously beyond his reach. A comment he once made about himself (which his wife chose as his epitaph) encapsulates his strengths as a writer and also the way he consistently ensured that they would be undervalued: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” As Malcolm Cowley observed, all but the first phrase is “an accurate summation of his career,” but the initial claim provokes such exasperation that critics might be forgiven for dismissing the whole.

It’s hard not to cringe when reading accounts of O’Hara’s efforts to buoy his ego. He hounded friends and acquaintances to put him up for clubs and had the seals of those that accepted him embossed on a gold cigarette case, which he casually left on his coffee table to impress visitors. Blackballed by the ultra-exclusive Racquet Club, he ordered playing cards with the club’s insignia through a friend and used them for bridge games at home. A Bentley was too understated; he bought himself a Rolls-Royce. At this remove such displays seem pathetic; at the time they must have appeared risible to many and contemptible to some.

Indeed, he allowed his failure to attend Yale — to him the ultimate club — to rankle so conspicuously that Ernest Hemingway, on receipt of a windfall, famously remarked that the money should be used to “start a bloody fund to send John O’Hara to Yale.” “A mean little story, but it shows what my friends think of me,” O’Hara commented bitterly, and very much in character. Years later he complained to Yale’s alumni magazine about the school’s refusal to grant him an honorary degree. When Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president, was asked why he never gave O’Hara that degree, he replied, “Because he asked for it.”

O‘Hara was born in 1905 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the banking, trading, and professional hub of the richest hard-coal fields in the world. An extraordinarily prosperous small city (its population reached a high of 22,000 in 1920), Pottsville boasted two daily newspapers and a reputation among the prep-school and Ivy League set as a great party town during the Christmas holidays. Like other cities of its class — Canton, Ohio, and Green Bay, Wisconsin — it supported an NFL team; Pottsville’s even won the league championship in 1925. But “the Region,” as the city and its surrounding southeastern-Pennsylvania towns are locally known, was also the site of some of the most prolonged and violent labor struggles in American history, which set mine owners and operators, mostly Episcopalians and Presbyterians, against Irish Catholic miners (among them the violent secret society the Molly Maguires).

As the son of a prominent surgeon, O’Hara held a social position far above that of almost all other Irish Catholics. But in a world in which “‘foreigner’ meant anyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon,” as one longtime Pottsville resident told us when we recently visited the town, O’Hara could never quite attain the status of his friends, members of the WASP “anthracite aristocracy.” This predestined immobility gave O’Hara an acute sensitivity to minute yet telling social distinctions. 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.”

O’Hara’s fascination with these details led him to falter as a writer. The received wisdom is that he was a gifted short-story writer who squandered his talent on long novels. In 1949 he published A Rage to Live, a sprawling chronicle of the supreme family of Fort Penn, the simulacrum of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This was O’Hara’s first best seller and the fastest-selling Random House title up to that time, and it put O’Hara on what is regarded as the wrong track. The New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, reflecting the critical consensus, panned the novel, objecting to its sexual explicitness (criticism that now seems prim) and judging it “a catastrophe.” O’Hara, never judicious in his response to slights either real or perceived (although it is true that The New Yorker ill-used him astonishingly), refused for eleven years to write for the only magazine he deemed worthy of his stories. Throughout the 1950s he gave up the short story, sacrificing what came easily to him for the very genre that, in the eyes of his critics, had brought about his artistic downfall. Nevertheless, A Rage to Live and his subsequent novels followed the form that best suited O’Hara’s ambitions and interests, if not his gifts.

Today’s reader can still appreciate the taut Appointment in Samarra (1934), even if he or she is puzzled by the enormous significance O’Hara placed on the differences between drivers of the comparably priced Buick and Franklin. But a reader accustomed to minimalist fiction is at a loss with A Rage to Live and the later novels, with their relentless accumulations of social minutiae — what prep schools served for lunch, how weddings and funerals were orchestrated, how real-estate deals were made, the social implications of a new hotel — all set, as O’Hara bragged, in “great blocks of type.”

In writing what could be called his sociological novels — a form by then at least thirty 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, the author of Men of Good Will, a twenty-seven-volume novel of Parisian life from 1908 to 1933. Before the publication of A Rage to Live, O’Hara wrote, “If I thought I had the time I would go on writing about Fort Penn as Romains did about Paris.”

t100_novels_appointment-in-samarra01In a way he did. The works O’Hara set in what he called “my Pennsylvania Protectorate” — his fifty-three Gibbsville stories and eight of his novels — create, with their common settings and their interconnected families and characters, a thorough portrait of southeastern Pennsylvania, and specifically of the area’s ruling class, from the 1880s to the Second World War. Although O’Hara left the Region when he was twenty-two and never lived there again, to read these novels is to enter an entire world. They work on the reader with an unspectacular but cumulative power.

Alfred Kazin wrote in one of his harsh assessments of the author that O’Hara’s novels portray the “American Establishment.” This was a view shared by many critics, but it is a mistaken notion, and the mistake itself is illuminating. What we now think of as the establishment — the web of national and multinational corporations and banks and the law firms that serve them, the great research universities, the national media, and the high federal bureaucracy — was just emerging in the period, 1880 to the 1930s, in which the main action of most of the novels takes place. And, of course, it bypassed the small cities of southeastern Pennsylvania entirely.

The world O’Hara summoned is extraordinarily foreign to modern readers. A few families control the economic, political, social, and cultural life of their localities. Their sons may attend nearby prep schools and colleges, or they may go off to, say, Lawrenceville and Princeton, but most return to run the real-estate concerns, banks, law firms, factories, and mills that are at the center of the economy and from which their families derive power and prestige. (Even time in this era was locally determined; a crazy-quilt pattern of miniature time zones was changed to a uniform system only when the budding national market required it.)

The true subject of O’Hara’s chronicle is this provincial ruling class while it was being gradually supplanted by the “national class,” as the historian Robert Wiebe has more precisely called the establishment. By the 1930s the local elite had lost so much ground that in Appointment in Samarra the aptly named Julian English’s rash compulsion to put the Irish arriviste Harry Reilly in his place leads to English’s demise rather than reinforcing his position in society. And significantly, in O’Hara’s later novels provincial nabobs fail pathetically when they seek to make their mark in the emerging world of national politics and business.

Pottsville’s economy today, with its prominent prison and several nursing and retirement homes, is emblematic of this shift in power. Old class antagonisms have mostly dissipated, according to Mimi O’Hara, John O’Hara’s niece, who still lives in Pottsville. But so has the vitality of the city, as O’Hara anticipated. In “The Man on the Tractor,” a Gibbsville story unusual in being set in the early sixties, long after the period that normally commanded O’Hara’s attention, one of his characters comments to another:

There’s no money here, George. Not the way we knew it…. A few of our old friends have made some money in the stock market, but that’s not here. That’s New York and Philadelphia, and representing industries as far away as California.

Not slummy but certainly seedy, Pottsville is old without being “preserved.” Although local boosters express hopes of transforming the city into a charming mecca for antiques hounds, this is almost impossible to imagine. The city that once burgeoned with four furriers, five department stores, seven jewelry shops, nine shoe stores, eleven furniture stores, thirty-seven clothing shops, three movie palaces, twenty lunchrooms and restaurants, and nine hotels (and also a red-light district that drew high rollers from New York and Philadelphia) is now neither thriving nor quite dead. Many of the storefronts are empty, and the agencies and enterprises housed by the others — an office-supply store, a center for maternal and family health services, a rape crisis center, a temp agency, a luncheonette — are hardly the sort to attract the strollers who used to crowd Pottsville on Friday and Saturday nights. A sign in the window of the Army recruitment center announces that it has moved to the mall. “People even buy their Halloween candy in Reading,” one resident, who remembers Pottsville’s heyday, says. After a stint as the Moose Lodge, one downtown nineteenth-century mansion is now derelict, and another, Cloud Home, a little farther up the mountain, is a home for “at risk” boys. Pottsville’s grand Necho Allen Hotel (O’Hara’s John Gibb Hotel) houses a senior citizens’ residence. “‘Gibbsville’ doesn’t exist anymore,” Paul Connors, an O’Hara family friend who has lived in Pottsville most of his life, told us.

O’Hara’s habit of dissecting Gibbsville gives the impression that the place is fairly extensive, even when he states outright that it is not. His description of the downward trajectory of the protagonists in the story “Imagine Kissing Pete,” for instance, shows how a small place can seem large.

They continued to live in Gibbsville, but in parts of the town that were out of the way for their old friends. There is no town so small that that cannot happen, and Gibbsville, a third-class city, was large enough to have all the grades of poverty and wealth and the many half grades in between in which $10 a month in the husband’s income could make a difference in the kind and location of the house in which he lived.

Pottsville, surrounded by fog-trapping mountains and pinched by a jumble of hills, is compressed by its geography. Wooden row houses, packed tightly against one another, march up two slopes that rise from the declivity that is Centre Street (what O’Hara calls Main Street). The commercial district along that thoroughfare is only about six blocks long. Gibbsville’s tony Lantenengo Street, on which townhouses give way to mansions, seems to extend for miles — something like Lake Drive in Milwaukee, Summit Avenue in St. Paul, or Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. But the grand stretch of Pottsville’s Mahantongo Street covers only about a dozen blocks. The back yards of Mahantongo houses meet the back yards of the houses on middle-class Norwegian Street (O’Hara’s Christiana Street), and the working-class neighborhood is no more distant than the next block down the hill.

Physically, Pottsville has changed little from the Gibbsville that O’Hara chronicled. The 1921 Colonial Revival Schuylkill Country Club is still surrounded by farmland, just as O’Hara’s Lantenengo Country Club was. The house at 10 North George, one of two grand old houses standing side by side in whatPottsville_Maroons was an upper-crust neighborhood, was the model for 10 North Frederick, in the Gibbsville novel of the same name. “O’Hara took all the dirty laundry [of Pottsville’s people], barely changed names and addresses, and wrote about them,” Bill O’Reilly, whose uncle was the model for Harry Reilly, told us. “People didn’t like him.” (O’Hara, seeming both proud and defensive, reported similar reactions in a story: by writing that “tripe,” a character declares, Dr. Malloy’s son — O’Hara’s fictionalized self — “gave the town a black eye.”) Although some Pottsvillians continue the old game of trying to match real people with O’Hara’s characters, almost all those he offended are dead, so no one really cares much, and the loss of those grudges seems sad. Those who knew O’Hara remember him as a truculent young man with a chip on his shoulder. “John had a prickly personality,” Paul Connors says. And they judge his work objectively, agreeing with the critical consensus that, as James Kevlin, the editor ofThe Pottsville Republican & Evening Herald, says, he was “an astute reporter” but a novelist of the second rank. For a community obsessed with its past — amateur local historians are thick on the ground here — Pottsville seems strangely uninterested in the writer who is to outsiders plainly the most famous figure the Region has produced. We were bemused to find Pottsvillians embracing General George Joulwan, a recent NATO commander, as their favorite son.

To be sure, O’Hara must have been hard to tolerate. As one of his biographers, Matthew Bruccoli, has written, he “was regarded as a difficult drinker at a time when inebriety was a national pastime.” His first love, Margaretta Archbald, from one of Pottsville’s leading families, refused to marry him because he was a mean drunk and inclined to brawl. Eventually, however, fear for his health and dedication to his craft drove O’Hara to give up alcohol. Drinking, he declared, hampered his writing of the long novels that had become his ambition. O’Hara’s perpetual sense of exclusion may have made him an obnoxious show-off, but it also allowed him to understand things that those secure in their societal groove often could not. As a young man, for instance, he wrote to his younger brother,

Never forget that your girl or your wife is every damn bit as much a person as you are…. She thinks the world revolves around her just as you do around yourself, just as anyone does … and for you to attempt to dominate her, to pinch her personality, is some kind of sin.

“Rare advice,” as Updike said, “for one man to be giving another in 1934.”

Yet with the exception of Appointment in Samarra,O’Hara’s attempts at psychological insight are clumsy and broad. Even his universally praised dialogue turns wooden the moment he attempts to grasp what lies beneath the social surface. But O’Hara remains one of America’s greatest social novelists of the twentieth century, clearly surpassing his contemporary rivals, such as John P. Marquand and James Gould Cozzens. He captured one of the most far-reaching social transformations in American history.

Moreover, O’Hara was probably the most serious popular writer of his time. Even his severest critics refused to classify him as a hack. He was a meticulous writer and a relentless toiler who produced fourteen novels, six plays and a musical, 402 short stories, and a novella. Artistic greatness eluded him, but he consistently achieved high competence.

O’Hara was 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 him than about our own cramped vision of literature. Albeit with mixed results, he indefatigably pursued Henry James’s understanding of character: “We know a man imperfectly until we know his society, and we but half know a society until we know its manners.”

Pottsville’s neglect of O’Hara is poignant, considering his attachment to the place. He must have felt that “he owned the town, the town was his, because he possessed so many of the facts of its life,” as he wrote of his character Claude Emerson — like O’Hara, a local reporter. Joan Didion has written, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively … loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Clearly, O’Hara’s devotion to the Region constitutes a kind of love, however unromantic and unadmiring — but in that he claimed the place so much more fiercely than it claims him, it is a love unrequited.



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