John Henry O'Hara (31 January 1905 - 11 April 1970) was an American writer who was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, United States.
He initially made a name for himself with his short stories and later became a best-selling novelist. He was particularly known for an uncannily accurate ear for dialogue. He also a keen eye for, and wrote about, social status and class differences, particularly among the well-to-do.
O'Hara was the son of a prosperous doctor but his father died when O'Hara was nineteen, leaving him unable to afford college. By all accounts, this lack of a university education, particularly at a prestigious Ivy League school, affected O'Hara deeply for the rest of his life and served to hone the keen sense of social awareness that characterizes his work. He worked as a reporter for various newspapers before moving to New York City, where he began to write short stories for magazines. In his early days he was also a film critic, a radio commentator, and a press agent; later, with his reputation established, he became a newspaper columnist. O'Hara received much critical acclaim for his short stories, more than 200 of which, beginning in 1928, appeared in The New Yorker. Many of these stories (and his later novels) were set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a fictionalized version of Pottsville.
In 1934 O'Hara published his first novel, Appointment In Samarra, which was acclaimed on publication. This is the O'Hara novel that is most consistently praised by critics. Of it, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra." On the other hand, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in March, 2000, critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz said: "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 twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project."
This successful work was followed by several other novels such as Ten North Frederick, for which he won the 1955 National Book Award. But his books became increasingly wordy and his critical reputation suffered, although his shorter work was still esteemed. He was also attacked by some for the blunt and unromantic emphasis (for his era) with which he depicted sex in his novels.
Despite his obvious writing skill, most of O'Hara's longer work was not highly esteemed by the literary establishment. Some of this may have been due to extra-literary factors, such as his social climbing, his vigorous self-promotion, and his politically conservative newspaper columns. Martin Kich of Wright State University states that "O'Hara's achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now typically considered a novelist of the second or even the third rank."
His 1939 epistolary novel, Pal Joey, led to the notable musical of the same name, with libretto by O'Hara and songs by Rodgers and Hart. The 1940 production starred Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal; it was successfully revived in 1952, and became a 1957 motion picture starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.
Brendan Gill, who worked with him at The New Yorker, ranks him as "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story."
"Oh," writes Gill, "but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons." Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college. "People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters." Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale."
According to biographer Frank MacShane, O'Hara thought that Hemingway's death made him the leading candidate for the Nobel prize for literature. He wrote to his daughter "I really think I will get it," and "I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it." MacShane says that T. S. Eliot told O'Hara that he had, in fact, been nominated twice. When Steinbeck won the prize in 1962, O'Hara wired "Congratulations. I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it."
In the early 1950s, O'Hara wrote a weekly book column, "Sweet and Sour," for the Trenton Times-Advertiser, and a biweekly column, "Appointment with O'Hara," for Colliers magazine. MacShane calls them "garrulous and outspoken" and says neither "added much of importance to O'Hara's work." Biographer Shelden Grebstein wrote that in these columns, O'Hara was "simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating in his vaingloriousness, vindictiveness, and general bellicosity." Woolf says these earlier columns anticipated "his disastrous 'My Turn' in Newsday, which endured fifty-three weeks ... beginning in late 1964... of his dismissive and contemptuous worst."
His first Newsday column opened with the line "Let's get off to a really bad start." His second complained that "the same hysteria that afflicted the Prohibitionists is now evident among the anti-cigarettists." His third espoused Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President, by identifying his cause with those people who liked the music of the accordionist Lawrence Welk, who was considered unsophisticated 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." His fifth argued that Martin Luther King should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The syndicated column was not a success, running in a continuously decreasing number of newspapers, and did not endear him to the politically liberal New York literary establishment.
Several of the columns directly exhibit his knowledge of trivia about, and yearning for association with, Ivy League colleges. As he says himself, "through the years I have acquired a vast amount of information about colleges and universities." The May 8th, 1965 column takes as its ostensible topic the fact that Yale owns stock in American Broadcasting and thus
is a beneficiary of the television program Peyton Place... in that Yale Blue Heaven Up Above, where William Lyon Phelps* and Henry Seidel Canby** may meet every afternoon for tea, there must be some embarrassment. Assuming that Harvard men also go to heaven (Princeton men go back to Old Nassau***), I fancy that they are having a little fun with Dr. Phelps and Dr. Canby on the subject of Peyton Place.
The jocular references to Phelps, Canby, and Old Nassau could only have amused a microscopic (if elite) fraction of his readership, and thus give an impression that O'Hara is showing off his insider-like knowledge of these institutions. Later, he notes that James Gould Cozzens is a "genuine Harvard alumnus" and speculates that Harvard should broker a television serialization of a Cozzens novel.
But Cozzens makes his home in Williamstown, Mass., and they have a college there. When Sinclair Lewis lived in Williamstown the college ignored him, possibly because Lewis was a Yale man, although I am only guessing on that. I live in Princeton, N. J. and am not a Yale man, but official Princeton University has ignored me as Williams did Lewis.
His September 4th, 1965 deals entirely with his failure to have received any honorary degrees, going into detail about three honorary degrees he was actually offered but, for various reasons, did not accept. In column he lists the awards he has received:
In a long and (I believe) useful literary career I have received five major honors. Not to be bashful about it, they are: the National Book Award; membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Gold Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters; the Critics Circle Award; and the Donaldson award. You will note that among them is no recognition by the institutions of higher learning.
He complains that the colleges write him "highly complimentary" letters asking him to perform "chores" such as officating as writer-in-residence, judging literary contests, and give lectures, yet do not give him degree citations. "The five major distinctions," he notes, "were awarded me by other writers, not by [academia]." The column closes with the comment
If Yale had given me a degree, I could have joined the Yale Club, where the food is pretty good, the library is ample and restful, the location convenient, and I could go there when I felt like it without sponging off friends. They also have a nice-looking necktie.
John O'Hara died in Princeton, New Jersey and is interred there in the Princeton Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone, written by himself, reads: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." Of this piece of literally monumental egotism, Gill commented: "From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing. Better than anyone else? Not merely better than any other writer of fiction but better than any dramatist, any poet, any biographer, any historian? It is an astonishing claim.