The American novelist and short-story writer John O'Hara (1905-1970) had an extraordinary ability to reproduce the look and sound of contemporary America.
John O'Hara was born on Jan. 31, 1905, in Pottsville, Pa., the eldest of eight children. He was brought up as a Catholic. Expelled from Fordham Preparatory School and the Keystone State Normal School, he graduated, as class valedictorian, from the Niagara, N.Y., Preparatory School in 1924, but his father's death prevented his entering college.
For the next 10 years O'Hara worked as ship steward, railroad freight clerk, gas meter reader, amusement park guard, soda jerk, and press agent but, more importantly, as a journalist, first in Pottsville and then in New York City. He also wrote magazine pieces for Time and the New Yorker and worked briefly as a literary secretary and as a press agent.
Appointment in Samarra (1934), O'Hara's first and best novel, is the tragedy of Julian English, who initiates his own downfall by throwing a drink into the face of a social superior. A compelling study of status in Pennsylvania society, it illustrates what critic Lionel Trilling describes as O'Hara's dominant theme: "the imagination of society as some strange sentient organism which acts by laws of its own being which are not to be understood." Upon the success of the novel, O'Hara began work as a Hollywood film writer, his chief occupation until the mid-1940s.
O'Hara's association with the New Yorker, dating from 1928, is the source of his story collections. The first, The Doctor's Son and Other Stories (1935), was followed by a best-selling novel, Butterfield 8 (1935), based on a famous murder case and remarkable for its accurate nightclub-underworld argot.
A novel, Hope of Heaven (1938), and a story collection, Files on Parade (1939), were less significant than O'Hara's series of sketches collected as Pal Joey (1940). Adapted by O'Hara in 1941 for the stage, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, it was the season's hit.
In 1944 O'Hara worked as war correspondent for Liberty magazine. The following year his only child, his daughter Wylie, was born. After World War II O'Hara's career remained commercially successful but became critically uncertain. A Rage to Live (1949) had huge sales but mixed reviews. Ten North Frederick (1955) and From the Terrace (1958) were both best-selling novels made into movies, but Terrace received especially bad reviews.
O'Hara continued a prodigious output; in addition to two novels, Elizabeth Appleton (1963) and The Lockwood Concern (1965), seven story and novella collections appeared: Sermons and Soda Water (1960), Assembly (1961), The Cape Cod Lighter (1962), The Hat on the Bed (1963), The Horse Knows the Way (1964), And Other Stories (1968), and The O'Hara Generation (1969). He died in Princeton, N.J., on April 11, 1970.
Apart from reviews, O'Hara has received scant critical attention. Sheldon Norman Grebstein, John O'Hara (1966), is an excellent short critical biography.
Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph, The O'Hara concern: a biography of John O'Hara, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Universtiy of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
MacShane, Frank, The life of John O'Hara, New York: Dutton, 1980.
O'Hara, John, A cub tells his story, Iowa City: Windhover Press; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Bruccoli Clark, 1974. □