John O’Hara Wrote about the Things Rich People Do. Why Isn’t He Still Famous?

Library of America releases a volume of O'Hara's acclaimed short stories.

HUMANITIES, Summer 2016, Volume 37, Number 3

The shift in John O’Hara’s reputation offers a case study in how the market forces of literary opinion can make yesterday’s Treasury bill look like today’s junk bond.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, O’Hara was at the top of his game. In 1955, he published his sixth novel, Ten North Frederick, which was honored with the National Book Award; and in 1958, he published his seventh, From the Terrace, which he considered his pièce de résistance—and readers agreed. According to Matthew J. Bruccoli’s The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara, over 100,000 copies of From the Terrace were sold in cloth, with another 2.5 million in paperback.

Both books, like the bulk of O’Hara’s fiction, concerned the American upper class: graduates of the Ivy League, white-shoe lawyers, country club patrons. Quoted in a 1996 New York Times article on the “O’Hara cult,” journalist Gay Talese noted: “He got inside the political back rooms and the parlors and told us what Americans said, how they lived, the details of the clothing, the shoes, the cars.” In Ten North Frederick, O’Hara sketched an attorney with presidential dreams; in From the Terrace, a family whose fortune was acquired in steel. His characters belonged to the American elite, yet O’Hara did not.

Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, O’Hara and his seven siblings were raised in an Irish Catholic household headed by his father, Patrick, a physician, and his mother, Katharine. In The O’Hara Concern, Bruccoli quotes O’Hara boasting of his youthful proclivity for words. “I took to reading, and writing, as the child Mozart took to music,” O’Hara said. “When I was about six someone gave me a hand-printing set, and I had my introduction to moveable type.”

The question for O’Hara was not whether his family had standing in Pottsville, but whether they had enough of it. In the New York Times, critic Charles McGrath summarized the situation. “The O’Haras lived on Mahantongo Street, the town’s fanciest address, in a mansion that formerly belonged to the Yuengling brewing family; they owned five automobiles, a show farm, and a string of horses; they were members of the Pottsville Club and the Schuylkill Country Club.” But, on the other hand, “they were Irish and they were Catholic, and this—in O’Hara’s mind, anyway—meant that they never quite belonged.”

O’Hara’s social ambitions found potent expression in his pipe dream of being admitted to Yale University (in spite of his spotty record as a student). In another biography, Geoffrey Wolff wrote: “O’Hara was mesmerized by Yale, a virtual lifelong prisoner of that institution’s imagined graces and advantages.” But the family’s finances took a hit when Patrick died in 1925. So long, New Haven.

“The dream of Yale finally ended with his father’s death,” Wolff wrote. “Not because there was no money left to pay the modest tuition, but because there wasn’t enough to support those bright college years in the style that was to have been the point of the enterprise.”

O’Hara’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land persisted, but by the time of Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace he certainly had enjoyed his share of success. Within a few years of their publication, both books were turned into major feature films, joining a wave of O’Hara adaptations in Hollywood at that time. In 1957, Frank Sinatra starred in Pal Joey, a Rodgers and Hart musical that had its roots in a string of short stories O’Hara wrote about a nightclub impresario; and, in 1960, Elizabeth Taylor starred in—and won an Oscar for—an adaptation of BUtterfield 8.

Although these films were not entirely faithful to their source material, each traded on the audience’s familiarity with O’Hara. In the opening moments of the trailer for From the Terrace, for example, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are seen embracing in a convertible. Then, suddenly, the cover of the book is superimposed on the screen, temporarily blotting out the stars. To fill seats, the makers of the film relied not only on the fireworks between Newman and Woodward, but also on the power of those intoxicating words: “A NOVEL BY JOHN O’HARA.”

All through this period of visibility and acclaim, O’Hara remained true to his typewriter, continuing to produce novels and short stories at a prodigious clip. Yet something soured in the years leading up to his death in 1970; his work was less acclaimed, and Hollywood—after an unsuccessful filming of O’Hara’s 1949 novel A Rage to Live in 1965—stopped calling. Concomitant with O’Hara’s fall from grace, his books fell out of print. In recent years, new editions of Ten North Frederick and Pal Joey have been issued by Penguin Classics, but a number of impressive books are unavailable except on the secondary market, including Hope of Heaven (1938), A Family Party (1956), and Ourselves to Know (1959).

Maybe O’Hara was a casualty of changing times. The swanky milieu covered by this former reporter for the Pottsville Journal was a long, long way from the territory staked out by, say, James Dickey in Deliverance or Donald Barthelme in City Life—to name two major works of fiction that came out during the year of O’Hara’s death.

Or maybe the mixture of behemoth best-sellers and star-driven movies witnessed in the late ’50s and early ’60s caused critics to start holding their noses. After all, is Ten North Frederick remembered today as a National Book Award winner or as a vehicle for Gary Cooper? In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, writer Jonathan Dee observed that “in the fifteen years between this novel’s publication and his death in 1970, O’Hara arguably wrote too much too quickly.”

It stands to reason that Appointment in Samarra is still spoken of but The Lockwood Concern (1965) or Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian’s Story (1969) are seldom remembered. In an interview with The Paris Review, Fran Lebowitz mentioned discussing the latter novel with editor Joseph M. Fox at Random House, its publisher. “I called up Joe and asked if he’d ever heard of this book,” Lebowitz recalled, and Fox insisted such a book did not exist. “Joe’s worked for Random House his whole life and he didn’t even know that they had published it.”

In the same interview, Lebowitz—one of O’Hara’s most vocal fans—offered her own take on the eclipse of O’Hara: “I think O’Hara is an underrated writer because every single person who knew him hated him,” she said. “Everyone tells you stories about what a jerk he was, what an idiot, what a social climber, how awful he was—O’Hara. Did you know O’Hara? Uck—O’Hara. He was also an extremely popular writer and that probably hurt him, but mostly it was the fact that everyone hated him.”

In taking stock of O’Hara, then, it is probably best to set aside both the prizes and popularity that greeted the author at midcentury and the disregard and derisiveness he was subjected to in subsequent years. What is in order is a return to first principles. A new volume from the Library of America offers readers a chance to do just that, not by collecting O’Hara’s novels, but by repackaging his short stories, which are as nimble, surprising, and devastating as anything in American literature.

From The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories in 1935 and continuing through And Other Stories in 1968, O’Hara frequently placed his short stories between covers. The most notable assembly, perhaps, came in 1956, in the midst of his mid ’50s heyday, when the Modern Library published Selected Short Stories of John O’Hara. The introduction was written by no less than Lionel Trilling, just six years removed from the publication of his classic book, The Liberal Imagination.

Trilling began with praise for O’Hara’s feeling for social strata. “The work of no other American writer,” he wrote, “tells us so precisely, and with such a sense of the importance of the communication, how people look and how they want to look, . . . how they speak and how they think they ought to speak.” Such an emphasis on superficial differences was not healthy for society, Trilling thought, but this “is the social fact and O’Hara is faithful to it.”

In “No Mistakes” (1938)—an especially brilliant and brittle specimen from Selected Short Stories of John O’Hara—the author ingeniously illustrates the strains imposed by differing backgrounds on a happily married couple. The Catholic protagonist, called only McDonald, persuades his Protestant wife, Jean, to accompany him to the inaugural Mass presided over by a college chum turned priest, Father Gerald O’Connor. Over the course of the story, McDonald worries over Jean, who is pregnant and—owing to their delayed arrival—seated in a pew far from her husband. At every turn, O’Hara emphasizes Jean’s status as a fish out of water. Those around her—such as the “hard-faced Irishwoman” who looks daggers at her in the pew—are faintly menacing.

The real suspense of the story is found in McDonald’s nervousness over Jean’s impressions of his faith (and, by extension, him). “He was afraid he knew what she was thinking,” O’Hara writes. “In her church a man who wore a tie and a business suit would get up and read, and then preach, and hymns would be sung in English. . . .” By contrast, Father O’Connor is decked out in elaborate vestments, and the words are in the imposing language of Latin. Yet, once the Mass has ended, McDonald is surprised to find Jean interested in, and inquisitive about, what she has just experienced. She asks him to explain the part of the service “when everybody got very quiet and O’Connor leaned over and sort of kissed the altar,” and when he identifies it as the Consecration, she replies with polite enthusiasm. “Oh, that was the Consecration,” Jean says. “I liked that part. I liked some of the singing, but I guess I’d have liked it better if I knew Latin.”

The story, alas, does not end with Jean’s sweet sentiments. McDonald and Jean drop in on a reception at Father O’Connor’s house, and magnanimity gives way to divisiveness. After being introduced to Jean, the priest jokes that McDonald should have waited until his ordination to marry, before quickly adding: “Or could I?” McDonald admits that this union probably could not have occurred in the Catholic Church, and Father O’Connor too hastily excuses himself to greet friends, family, and parishioners. Jean’s sincere attempt at appreciating her husband’s faith has gone unrewarded, and the two agree to go.

Throughout his stories, O’Hara zeroes in on marks of status or its absence. In “Summer’s Day” (1942)—which Trilling called “one of O’Hara’s most striking stories”—elderly marrieds Mr. and Mrs. Attrell while away an afternoon at a beach club. By way of introduction, O’Hara describes the car in which they arrive (“a shiny black 1932 Buick with fairly good rubber and only about thirty thousand miles on it”) and the bench on which Mr. Attrell’s name is emblazoned, “placed a few feet from the boardwalk.” Then O’Hara slips in another, more meaningful detail: the hatband worn by Mr. Attrell, which bears the name of the Yale society of which he was a member, is noticed by a younger man, Henry O’Donnell. This fellow had gone to Yale, too, but—O’Hara pointedly observes—“he had not made it [into Mr. Attrell’s society] or any other.”

The payoff occurs in the story’s denouement, when Mr. Attrell decides to go swimming. While changing in his booth in the bathhouse—a booth labeled, like the bench, “A. T. Attrell”—he overhears one “young voice” after another in an adjoining booth. Then, in a bolt from the blue, Mr. and Mrs. Attrell’s names are mentioned. “They’re the local tragedy,” one of the voices says. “They had a daughter, or, I don’t know, maybe it was a son. Anyway, whichever it was, he or she hung himself.” Other voices confirm that Mr. and Mrs. Attrell’s daughter had killed herself in the aftermath of “an unfortunate love affair.” Crucially, O’Hara withholds the reaction of Mr. Attrell until the appearance of Mr. O’Donnell, who sternly admonishes the boys to stop gossiping. But Mr. O’Donnell is no knight errant defending the honor of Mr. and Mrs. Attrell’s daughter; instead, he demeans the boys, saying they “oughta be over on the girls’ side” before slapping one of them. Meanwhile Mr. Attrell is paralyzed at having overheard his acquaintance; he sits in silence, “wondering how he could ever again face Henry O’Donnell, worrying about how he could face his wife.” It is bad enough to be thought of as “the local tragedy,” but even worse—in the eyes of Mr. Attrell and his creator—to be acknowledged as such by the somewhat brutish Mr. O’Donnell. O’Hara seems to be asking: Who is this man—one without membership in a society at Yale!—to know of the family misfortune of one of his betters?

At times, O’Hara’s main gift seems to be for inducing embarrassment. In “Over the River and Through the Wood” (1934), 65-year-old Mr. Winfield takes a car ride to his daughter’s house along with his granddaughter and a pair of female friends. The trip is a comic nightmare during which the girls alternately ignore and disrespect Mr. Winfield. Yet, in the story’s cringe-worthy finish, Mr. Winfield turns out to be an active, if unwitting, participant in his own mortification. Having arrived with the others at his daughter’s house, Mr. Winfield walks into the room of one of his granddaughter’s cohorts at an inopportune moment. “Get out of here, you dirty old man,” the girl says. Mr. Winfield does not argue, reckoning that this faux pas represents “the end of any worthwhile life he had left”—a confirmation of both his senility and, more worryingly, the impression of his senility among his kith and kin.

The weight gaffes can carry is also central to the O’Hara novel that most closely approximates the fleetness and perception of his short stories: Appointment in Samarra, in which the shabby behavior of the protagonist serves as a prelude to his suicide.

As the novel begins, high-born husband and wife Julian and Caroline English are among those attending Christmas Eve festivities at the Lantenengo Country Club. Although O’Hara writes that the young couple belongs to a set “who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families,” the novel’s course does not bear this out. In the midst of the party, Julian finds himself put off by the sight of rich but rough-hewn Harry Reilly, “whose social climbing was a sight to behold” and whose manner does indeed come across as unusually irritating. While regaling partygoers, Reilly “whistled faintly,” due to shoddy bridgework, and “his white tie was daintily soiled from his habit of touching it between gestures of the story.” Some readers may be amused (or at least not horrified) when Julian launches a highball in the direction of Harry. In a masterstroke, the deed is presented as a cruel daydream (“He could just see Reilly, not knowing what to do the second after the drink hit him”), which has the effect of warming us up to the idea. Still, when it is clarified that Julian has followed through on his fantasy, its enormity is obvious. “Julian English,” a club member comments incredulously. “He just threw a highball in Harry Reilly’s face. Jeest!”

Upon waking on Christmas Day, a hungover Julian has to clear the cobwebs before he can summon to mind his transgression: “It took him a little while, but eventually he remembered the worst thing he had done, and it was plenty bad.” And, in a famous section midway through, Caroline cajoles Julian into attempting an apology, agreeing to spend the afternoon in bed with him afterward. But the episode is used to showcase his gentle side. “Ah, you’re my sweet girl,” he tells his wife. “I love you more than tongue can tell.”

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, McGrath wrote of O’Hara’s “sympathy” for Julian—a strange word but worth pondering especially in light of a chilling episode in which Julian snaps at his cook, Mrs. Grady: “There it was again: servants, cops, waiters in restaurants, ushers in theaters—he could hate them more than persons who threatened him with real harm. He hated himself for his outbursts against them, but why in the name of God, when they had so little to do, couldn’t they do it right and move on out of his life?”

The subtlety here is impressive. We are appalled at a worldview so judgmental and self-serving, but glad that Julian at least recognizes, fleetingly, the wrongness of his own train of thought. The important thing, however, is that O’Hara aims to make Julian understandable. The author, McGrath wrote, “resists the temptation to satirize or revenge himself on people like Julian’s parents or Caroline’s mother—social types he must have loathed in real life.” Often, O'Hara seems to be asking: Are not the rich as deserving as the poor of our sympathy—or is it our pity?

While O’Hara’s career would traverse peaks and valleys, his intuitive grasp of “the social distinctions among people,” as Lionel Trilling put it, was never sharper or surer than in Appointment in Samarra and the stories that surround it.