A writer of old-fashioned fiction


Novelist: John O'Hara, whose books were popular with the masses, if not the critics, prided himself on writing honestly about the times in which he lived.

April 14, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John O'Hara, the prolific American writer who chronicled in his novels, novellas, short stories and plays the foibles and intimate lives of the small-town rich as well as colorful racketeers and underworld punks, died 31 years ago this week at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 65.

"Appointment in Samara," the 1934 blockbuster novel that rocketed him to fame, was oddly enough the only O'Hara work on the shelf at Borders during a recent visit.

The tightly constructed and fast-paced novel, which was an instant success when published, was set in the fictional Eastern Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, based on O'Hara's hometown of Pottsville, Pa. It was a place he would return to often in his fiction and would ultimately be the center of his work.

The work follows the descent into hell and ultimate self-destruction of Julian English, the novel's chief character.

With tough language and intimate knowledge of the narrowness and hypocrisy of small-town society, O'Hara crafted a novel that exposed family life and social life, sexual mores and the drinking habits of Gibbsville's elite.

Because he was a meticulous writer and researcher who loaded his stories with such details as the name of a long-forgotten motor car, a particular type of Brooks Brothers lounge suit from the 1920s, or the name of a Lehigh Valley Railroad passenger train of the time, he earned the sobriquet of being the "Boswell of the post-Fitzgerald generation."

Never the darling of the critics whose views he disdained anyway, O'Hara said, "Being a cheap, ordinary guy, I have an instinct for what an ordinary guy likes."

Many have subsequently come to view O'Hara as an enduring social historian who vividly captured a 30-year slice of American history that spanned the Roaring '20s through the 1950s.

"I want to get it all down on paper while I can," he once said.

"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, with the sometime special knowledge I have. The '20s, the '30s, and the '40s are already history, but I 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," he said.

Influenced by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Owen Johnson and Booth Tarkington, in a revealing comment that almost explains his own angst, O'Hara said, "I was fascinated by the small-town boy in the Ivy League world."

He had struck up a friendship with Fitzgerald, who inscribed his 1934 edition of "Tender is the Night," to O'Hara.

"Dear John:" he wrote, "May we meet soon in equally Celtic but more communicable condition-Scott Fitz."

When Fitzgerald died in Hollywood in 1940 at age 46, O'Hara wrote, "if ever a man was not meant to be 50, he was Fitzgerald."

While driving to Maryland in 1963 for the graduation of his daughter Wylie from St. Timothy's School in Stevenson, O'Hara was overcome with nostalgia as his mind rolled back to an afternoon spent with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald long ago.

In a letter to William Maxwell, an editor at the New Yorker, O'Hara wrote:

"I was so sure I would weep at commencement that I practically didn't. I think I kept telling myself I was better off than Fitzgerald had been in the same area. We stayed in Towson, near the school, and it was one Sunday afternoon in Towson, in 1934, that I had Scott and Zelda in my car and I wanted to kill him. Kill. We were taking her back to the Institution, and he kept making passes at her that could not possibly be consummated. We stopped at a drug store to get him some gin. The druggist would not give it to him. I had to persuade the druggist to relent, and he got the gin. But I wanted to kill him for what he was doing to that crazy woman, who kept telling me she had to be locked up before the moon came up. That was the last time I saw her ... "

Call it arrogance or whatever, O'Hara may have had the last word against the harshest of his critics. His own epitaph is carved into the stone on his grave in Princeton Cemetery: "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."

In a literary appraisal in the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, "O'Hara believed in old-fashioned fiction; he told a good story; and his people appealed to the secret snobs and tough guys and social climbers in all of us. ... But there are those who have observed that the writers whose work endures are not the pathfinders and experimenters, but rather those who stake out their own territories and draw them so accurately as to give them lives of their own. If that is so, then John O'Hara's huge body of work may be around much longer than we had predicted."

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