John O’Hara: The Novelist Whose Conservatism Robbed Him of Fame
John O’Hara published 374 short stories, 14 novels (seven of them bestsellers), and five plays in his four-decade writing career. It was, according to his biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, “a body of work unsurpassed in American literature in scope and fidelity to American Life.” A master social writer, O’Hara influenced the writing of his contemporaries, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, as well as future authors like John Updike, Tom Wolfe, and J.D. Salinger. He advanced the development of the American short story, and had an extensive career as a reporter and screenplay writer. Five of his novels were adapted into major motion pictures headlined by stars.
At the apex of his popularity in the mid-’60s, his books had sold 15 million copies and been translated into 20 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 to political conservatism have anything to do with it?
Scholars note that O’Hara hasn’t been widely studied at the university level for half a century now. They fault O’Hara himself, who refused to have his work anthologized, believing it would cannibalize the sales of his novels. They also postulate that his focus on his characters’ sexuality coupled with his prosaic descriptions kept him from achieving the respect of the literary community that 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.” Yet 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 caught my eye. I was so taken by 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 and Ten North Frederick, as well as his “Gibbsville” stories.
While O’Hara was a prolific novelist, he received the lion’s 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 stories. 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 use 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.” O’Hara was especially adept at creating authentic female characters from all walks of life.
So how did O’Hara fall out of fashion? Politics and timing. O’Hara, a lifelong Democrat, became a Republican when he cast his vote for Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election. This gave the liberal literati a reason to despise him. But it was his full-throated support in 1964 of Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid that exposed his relationship with conservatism as more than just a flirtation. O’Hara, who had once described himself as “to the left of Fitzgerald,” found himself at loggerheads with the elite gatekeepers, including family foundations, magazine and book publishers, universities, and Hollywood, at just the time when he should have been currying favor with them. By contrast, academia’s and Hollywood’s posthumous affection for Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, and Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961, has persisted to the present day, and both authors’ indirect romance with socialism was no doubt a contributing factor.
O’Hara also lost the support of some of his fiction fans with the October 1964 launch of his daily, Guggenheim Family-funded Newsday column, in which he took jabs at President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, even John F. Kennedy (a very unpopular choice of target so soon after his assassination). Not surprisingly, the appropriately titled column, “My Turn,” lasted exactly one year. When it began “turning off” readers, the syndicates started dropping it, which made it too expensive a venture for Newsday. 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 honors, including the National Book Award, 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 passing of his father, who died intestate. This tragedy, which transformed O’Hara’s middle-class life 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 bestselling author, O’Hara so aggressively campaigned for an honorary degree from Yale that Kingman Brewster, the university’s president from 1963 to 1977, when asked why he never acquiesced to O’Hara, replied, “Because he asked for it.”
Most scholars interpret Brewster’s brushoff as O’Hara’s comeuppance for being a conspicuous recognition seeker with a frequently alcohol-infused temper. What is not emphasized is Brewster’s role as one of the most influential university presidents of the 20th century. 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, and Cyrus Vance—as the team that 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 through the window of an ivy-decorated tower.
O’Hara also faced regime change in Hollywood. The author who had worked on and off in Tinseltown as a screenplay writer witnessed the adaptation of four of his novels for the silver screen: Pal Joey, a musical starring Frank Sinatra; Ten North Frederick, with Gary Cooper; From The Terrace, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and BUtterfield8, for which Elizabeth Taylor received a best actress Oscar. By the time A Rage to Live was released in 1965, the previously conservative studio leadership had also shifted left, largely as a reaction against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and associated blacklistings.
The death of a prominent writer usually generates renewed interest in his life’s work, yet that didn’t happen 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 he passed. Next year will mark 50 years since his death, and there would be no better time for O’Hara to be rediscovered. His passionate depiction of the struggle between elites and the self-made is tailored to our current political climate. Moreover, the moral boundaries that existed during O’Hara’s lifetime have been eliminated, enabling today’s readers to fully appreciate his richly nuanced characters without being shocked by their sexuality. His 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 at O’Hara’s hubris, his candor is refreshing.
Leonora Cravotta is the director of operations for The American Conservative.