It is getting near 35 years since John O’Hara, the drunken American writer, staggered up to the Big Bartender in the sky, and yet he is still able to spark tremendous hate mail; more than anyone else ever it seems.
I came upon this curious literary scandal when I bought three O’Hara books published by Vintage Classics and looked O’Hara up on the memory machine.
The books were his first two novels, Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Butterfield 8 (1935) and a book of Selected Stories from 1933 to 1947.
It seems the critics didn’t like his politics. He was not a fashionable leftwing liberal. He backed Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. This was like having a good word for old blue eyes himself, Adolph Hitler. O’Hara also thought Martin Luther King shouldn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe O’Hara, born an Irish Catholic, remembered that Martin Luther King was not going to vote for Jack Kennedy because he was a Catholic.
Or maybe O’Hara, who was writing a weekly column for Newsday, thought he would write something that would stir them up.
His first Newsday column opened with “Let’s get off to a really bad start.”
In the early 1950s he also wrote a weekly book column called “Sweet and Sour” for the Trenton (New Jersey) Times Advertiser and a bi-weekly column called “Appointment with O’Hara” for Collier’s Magazine. They were, one critic said, “garrulous and outspoken.” O’Hara’s biographer Sheldon Grebstein said O’Hara was “Simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating in his vaingloriousness, vindictiveness, and general bellicosity.”
Grebstein probably never had to come up with the goods writing columns. You’ve got to keep them awake and not turning to the sports page.
Also: what novels and short stories have these critics written? Nothing that I’d want to read.
“A minor writer and a well-known lout” said Michiko Kakutani (Who he?) of the New York Times.
Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in March 2000, Benjamin and Christina Schwarz claimed: “So widespread is the literary world’s scorn for John O’Hara that the inclusion of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century was used to ridicule the entire project.”
O’Hara’s short stories don’t seem to be so subject to attack by the morons. He had 200 of them published in the New Yorker, more than any other writer. John Updike, another short story champion of the New Yorker, said O’Hara was as good as Chekhov.
E.L.Doctorow said O’Hara took over the classic short story form developed by James Joyce (Dubliners) and perfected by Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time). In these stories there is some sort of revelation, what Joyce called an epiphany. The start of the action is also close in time to the denouement.
That’s the mark of the great short story writer; nowadays the wannabes have regressed in time to the rambling yarns of the 19th Century.
His enemies also make fun of the way O’Hara was bitter about not going to Yale. What happened was his father died and there was no money. O’Hara had to go to work. He became a journalist, first on a small-town paper in his native Pennsylvania and then for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1928 he broke into the New Yorker. Then his first novel made him rich and famous and this continued through fourteen further novels.
One of them was Pal Joey which was turned into a hit musical with Gene Kelly and later into a movie with Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra.
O’Hara should have forgotten Yale. He couldn’t, it was an obsession. All his life he kept going on about it. It coloured his writing, but it made him the best writer about Ivy League characters. One critic said “he was F.Scott Fitzgerald.”
Ernest Hemingway said, “Someone should take up a collection to send John O’Hara to Yale.”
This is my blog so what has this got to do with me?
Well, I didn’t got to Yale although three of my friends did. I also didn’t go to Harvard although two of my friends did, or to Princeton although four of my friends did. Some are dead and the others are all dead drunk.
I worked on a newspaper and went to night school. The hero of my crime novels, Death Dyed Blonde and Murder In A Cold Climate, is like me, a guy with a two dollar education. The Prologue to Murder In A Cold Climate is intended to be like one of the short stories by Joyce, Hemingway and O’Hara that I’ve been talking about.
Unless you get the wrong idea I should perhaps mention that in a sober moment I applied to Harvard. Turned down, I returned to the bar-room and my collection of scarab-cartouches of the Ptolemaic dynasties. They were dulcet years although I recall a bleak time when Bone, my father’s man, who had a cruel mouth something like Bronzino’s portrait of Cosimo de Medici when it wasn’t like Vasari’s medallion portrait of Lorenzo de Medici in the Vecchio Palazzi in Florence, came up from the wine cellar with a bottle of 1878 port and we had to cut the bottle open because the old fool forgot to have it re-corked in 1918.
Murder In A Cold Climate contains no tragedies like these. It is writing from the hip. I keep my monocle in my waistcoat pocket while dictating it to my factotum.