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John O’Hara: The Novelist Whose Conservatism Robbed Him of Fame

John O'Hara was a prolific and recognized author-until his support for Barry Goldwater changed everything.

John O’Hara (1905-1970) published 374 short stories, 14 novels (seven of them best-sellers) and five plays in his four- decade writing career,  “a body of work unsurpassed in American literature in scope and fidelity to American Life”, according to  biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli in The O’Hara Concern (1975). A master social writer, O’Hara influenced the work of his contemporaries including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner and future writers including John Updike, Tom Wolfe and J.D. Salinger; advanced the  development of the American short story; had an extensive career as a reporter and screenplay writer plus five of his novels were adapted into major motion pictures headlined by stars.

At the apex of his popularity in the mid-60’s, his books had sold 15 million copies and been translated into twenty languages. Yet, today he is largely unknown outside of academic circles. How did such a talented, prolific writer fall off our radar? And did his 1964 conversion from liberal to conservative have anything to do with it?

O’Hara scholars have long speculated that he is not as well-known as other 20th Century American writers because he has not been widely studied on the university level for the last half century. And they fault O’Hara who refused to have his work anthologized as he believed it would cannibalize the sales of his novels.  They also postulate that the writer’s focus on his characters’ sexuality coupled with his prosaic descriptions kept him from achieving the respect from the literary community which he so desperately craved.

As Benjamin Schwarz wrote in 2000 for  The Atlantic  “O’Hara  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.” … But it was this “fascination with these details that led him to falter as a writer. “

I first discovered O’Hara in the Denison University library where the jacket of The Lockwood Concern (1965)caught my eye. I was so taken by my first exposure to the complex inhabitants of O’Hara’s “Pennsylvania Protectorate” that I gobbled up that 400+ page book in about two days. The Protectorate also known as the Anthracite coal mining region includes the author’s hometown of Pottsville which under the fictional name Gibbsville is the setting for his two most critically successful novels his debut chef d’oeuvre Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Ten North Frederick (1955) and of course his “Gibbsville” stories.

While O’Hara was a prolific novelist, he received the lion share of his acclaim for his short stories which were predominantly set in Gibbsville, New York and Hollywood. As many of the stories were first published in The New Yorker , he became so associated with the magazine that many believe him to be the creator of its short story. Charles McGrath,  former associate editor for The New Yorker  described O’Hara in a 2016 interview with the Library of America as having rescued the short story from  “the straitjacket of beginning, middle, and end, and often a trick or surprise end at that. In an O’Hara story what happens is most often an internal event—a change in mood or feeling—revealed subtly, sometimes just by implication. “

O’Hara had an unmatched ability to create meticulously descriptive period pieces inhabited by universally relatable characters who transcend their timestamps. He was also a master of dialogue and the deployment of conversation to reveal character. As Daniel Fuchs wrote in The Chicago Tribune “O`Hara`s people have been around. They`re knowing and on the cynical side, but there is a dignity in them and sometimes, now and then, a nobility.” He was also particularly adept at creating authentic female characters from all walks of life.

So how did O’Hara fall out of fashion so quickly after his death? Politics and timing. O’Hara, a life- long Democrat became a Republican when he cast his vote for Dwight-Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election. But it was his full-throated support in 1964 for Arizona Republican Senator Barry’s Goldwater’s presidential bid which exposed the author’s embrace of conservatism as more than a flirtation.

O’Hara who had once described himself as “to the left of Fitzgerald” found himself at loggerheads with all of the elite gatekeepers including family foundations. magazine and book publishers, universities and Hollywood at just the time frame where he should have been currying favor with them. By contrast, academia and Hollywood’s posthumous affection for Fitzgerald who died in 1940 and Hemingway who committed suicide in 1961 has remained healthy to the present day with Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s romance with socialism no doubt a contributing factor.

O’Hara also lost the support of some of his fiction fans with the launch of a daily Guggenheim Family funded Newsday column where he took jabs at President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, even John F, Kennedy, an unpopular choice for a target so soon after his assassination. Not surprisingly, the appropriately titled column My Turn, which debuted in October 1964 lasted exactly one year. As O’Hara put it in his final column “My experience does raise some doubt about the future of a column that so unequivocally supports the conservative side”. He also claimed that once his conservative views became known, reviewers started treating his works as political propaganda instead of literature

O’Hara, the recipient of several major literary awards including The National Book Award for Ten North Frederick was never recognized by a university with an honorary degree least of all the one he most coveted, Yale. The son of a physician, O’Hara had set his sights on attending Yale only to have his dreams dashed by the untimely death of his father who died intestate. This event which transformed O’Hara’s middle-class lifestyle into one of near poverty launched his early career as a newspaper writer and seeded both his ambition and his perception of himself as an Irish Catholic outsider in a WASP world. After he became a best-selling author, O’Hara so aggressively campaigned for an honorary degree from Yale that Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president from 1963 to 1977, when asked why he never awarded O’Hara the degree replied. “Because he asked for it”.

Most scholars interpret Brewster’s brush off as O’Hara’s comeuppance for being a conspicuous recognition seeker with a short-fuse frequently alcohol-infused temper. What is not emphasized is Brewster’s role as one of the most influential university presidents of the 20thcentury. In his 2004 book The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment Geoffrey Kabaservice depicts Brewster and his circle of Yale and Harvard friends which included future political operatives  McGeorge Bundy, Elliott Richardson, Cyrus Vance and others as the core team who bridged the transition from establishment old guard conservatism to a new generation of liberal elitism. By moving right at the same time,  O’Hara all but assured that he would forever be an outsider peering in the window of an ivy decorated tower.

O’Hara, who witnessed the adaption of four of his novels for the silver screen:  Pal Joey (1957), a musical starring Frank Sinatra,  Ten North Frederick (1958) with Gary Cooper, From The Terrace (1960) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and BUTterfield 8 (1960) for which Elizabeth Taylor received a best actress Oscar, also faced a regime change in Hollywood.   By the time the film version of O’Hara’s  A Rage to Live was released in 1965, the previously conservative studio leadership had also shifted to the left, largely as a referendum on The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and associated black listings.

The death of a prominent writer usually generates renewed interest in his life’s work. Not in O’Hara’s case. Apart from Gibbsville, a seven-episode series in 1976, there has been no substantive programming based on his work since his death.

2020 marks fifty years since John O’Hara’s death. There is no better time for a renaissance for this social mores’ chronicler and master storyteller.  His unvarnished passionate depiction of the struggle between the elites and the self-made is tailored for our current political climate. Moreover, the moral boundaries which existed during O’Hara’s lifetime have been eliminated, enabling today’s readers to fully appreciate his rich nuanced characters without being shocked by their sexuality.

O’Hara’s vast canon of work which hasn’t been translated to film since the Johnson administration would keep Netflix streaming for the next five years. However, the most compelling reason to revisit Pottsville’s native son is his authentic storytelling. As his self-prepared tombstone reads: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” While some might take umbrage with O’Hara’s hubris, his candor is refreshing.