Balzac of the Fishbowl
Writer John O’Hara chronicled life in an industrial city—the kind that has almost vanished from the American landscape.
John O’Hara’s novels and stories are one of those fashions, like wing collars or Bermuda shorts, that never quite come around again. Prominent between roughly World War II and the Great Society, O’Hara’s enormous output of fiction, which literary critics never really liked, almost immediately sank into obscurity. Every few decades, one of O’Hara’s admirers, usually a literary miner of the same sociological vein, tries to revive the writer’s reputation with biographies, glossy new editions, or appreciative essays. None of these efforts has succeeded. O’Hara’s name usually draws a blank among even well-read people younger than 60 or so.
The obstacle probably isn’t the material per se. Though he enjoyed his biggest sales in the Eisenhower era, much of O’Hara’s work is set in the 1920s. Associations with the Lost Generation, Prohibition, and the New York nightclub scene have done little to undermine, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s status. And while O’Hara never reaches Fitzgerald’s heights of lyricism, his characters, their actions, and their speech are more plausible than the laconic caricatures and contrived plots of Ernest Hemingway’s mid-career.
O’Hara is relentlessly specific about details of dress and slang in a way his more famous contemporaries were not, but it’s no harder to understand what O’Hara means by a “cake-eater” suit and what that signifies about the characters who wear them than it is to appreciate the significance of Gatsby’s cascade of beautifully colored shirts. If anything, the obscurity of the references should make them less obtrusive now than they were to readers with their own memories of those times. Because the social and economic implications are clear from the context, we don’t need to worry about the specific difference in price between Cadillac, Packard, and Pierce-Arrow automobiles.
Nor is the problem necessarily style. In a 2000 article for The Atlantic, journalist Benjamin Schwarz argued that O’Hara’s greatness had been obscured by the then-current preference for minimalism. For audiences accustomed to the kind of compressed, exquisitely wrought structure that’s sometimes treated as the essence of literary craft, O’Hara’s sprawling novels might be an unfamiliar, and unwelcome, experience. O’Hara’s earliest books, especially his 1934 debut, Appointment in Samarra, include experiments with stream-of-consciousness and other classic modernist techniques. Yet the most obvious influences on O’Hara’s postwar efforts include Booth Tarkington and perhaps Sinclair Lewis, who also offered panoramas of provincial American life. Though they’re sometimes classed together as fellow realists, O’Hara was never so gritty, as we’d say now, as Theodore Dreiser. This was not a problem for a contemporary public that loved big narrative fiction, including the works of the even-less-appreciated James Gould Cozzens. But it’s no recipe for twenty-first-century popularity.
Yet it’s possible to appreciate an author without admiring everything he wrote. Thomas Hardy, with whom O’Hara is occasionally compared, went to his grave believing that he’d be remembered as a poet, but it’s the prose work he regarded as secondary that sustains his reputation today. And while O’Hara’s novels became increasingly conventional as he grew older, his short stories grew, if anything, more challenging and elliptical. If not minimalist in the Raymond Carver sense, many of O’Hara’s stories are extremely compressed, sometimes consisting of a single conversation presented almost entirely as dialogue. The 1960 story “It’s Mental Work,” for example, is composed of nothing more than a chat between two bartenders closing up for the night.
Reliance on dialogue over description is easy to dismiss as a trick of the stage and screen (genres in which O’Hara dabbled). Used carefully, though, the technique is effective in revealing more than the characters actually say, or even than they know. Though more expansive in both style and length, “We’re Friends Again” revolves around the mutual incomprehension of two old friends who actually don’t understand each other. In fact, O’Hara’s approach doesn’t work especially well on film. Despite his success in print, feature films based on O’Hara’s work were artistic, if not commercial, failures. It didn’t help that O’Hara was unlucky in the casting of the productions he inspired. The 1960 production of Butterfield 8, O’Hara’s 1935 novel, features a lead performance by Laurence Harvey, an actor so wooden that it’s been quipped that his only convincing role was as the titular brainwashed puppet in The Manchurian Candidate.
The revelations that emerge from O’Hara’s work aren’t so old-fashioned as readers might expect, either. Though he drifted to the political right in the postwar years, O’Hara is nonjudgmental in his presentation of sex, alcoholism, and the petty and not-so-petty lies that pervade real life. The plot of Butterfield 8, set in New York café society during Prohibition, includes hardly less partying than the latest HBO miniseries. “The General,” published in 1966, culminates in the revelation that the story’s military officer, a pillar of his small-town community, is, with the acceptance—if not encouragement—of his wife, a habitual cross-dresser. O’Hara presents this as an unusual but essentially trivial quirk of an otherwise successful marriage. His lack of prudery even extended to language. O’Hara is credited as the first writer to use the phrase “fuck up” in print.
It’s true that O’Hara wrote a lot—maybe more than was good for him. This was partly to earn money, but mostly because he believed that writing was what a writer should do. The result, though, is that it can be hard to know where to look for the good stuff, especially after reading Appointment in Samarra. Onetime popularity has advantages: it’s not hard to find many O’Hara titles on the shelves of used bookstores and, of course, the Internet. But some of O’Hara’s best work is not in print, and it helps to have an idea about which of the many titles are worth acquiring and which can be skipped.
The main reason for O’Hara’s continued neglect is neither stylistic, nor moral, nor practical. It’s that his principal subject is so absent from American life today that it seems to belong not just to another century but to another planet. John O’Hara was at his best as a literary sociologist of the kind of industrial city that has almost vanished from the American landscape. He was drawn to the big ponds of Broadway and Hollywood, and he swam in them with success, but he found his place in American letters as the Balzac of a fishbowl.
O’Hara’s fishbowl is called Gibbsville, and it is a lightly fictionalized version of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. As he explains in a famous passage of Appointment in Samarra, “Gibbsville people, when they went away, always had trouble explaining where they lived. They would say: ‘I live in the coal regions,’ and people would say, ‘Oh yes, near Pittsburgh.’ Then Gibbsvillians would have to go into detail.” In fact, Gibbsville (like Pottsville) is in the eastern third of the state, north of Reading but west of Allentown. As O’Hara goes on to explain, it is the heart of the region devoted to mining anthracite, the hard coal that was a popular fuel for running railroads and heating homes and buildings until the mid-twentieth century.
Coal is the source of Gibbsville’s (temporary) prosperity, the axis around which its social structure revolves, and ultimately the cause of its decline. Coal is the reason that a region inhabited by perhaps 50,000 people (the population of Pottsville proper peaked around 20,000 soon after World War I) could boast the regional gentry, rising middle class, active local press, variety of immigrants, and local mafia that O’Hara depicted in such lavish detail. As social critics note, the magnificent illusion that O’Hara pulls off in the novels and stories that bring Gibbsville to life is to make you think that a place so complicated must also be big. But it’s a trick: as with a model train set, the smallness highlights subtle differences that would get lost at a larger scale.
O’Hara’s readers aren’t the only ones perplexed by the deceiving character of Gibbsville. His characters also struggle to place their little world in the large one that surrounds it. For some, Gibbsville is, if not a metropolis, then a big-enough city. In O’Hara’s short story “The Mayor,” Lester Flickinger begins life as a Pennsylvania Dutch farm boy, speaking a German dialect that has now almost entirely vanished. Eventually, Flickinger rises to become a real-estate investor and mayor. His greatest ambition—and greatest pleasure—is making use of an official car with an attached siren, a miniaturized version of the motorcades that transport greater officials.
Other characters chafe against Gibbsville’s restrictions but cannot escape. O’Hara’s most fully realized creation, the subject of the 1955 novel Ten North Frederick (portrayed by a miscast Gary Cooper in the film version), is Joe Chapin, a rich lawyer and the acknowledged head of Gibbsville aristocracy. Unlike Flickinger, Chapin dreams of reaching yet higher status outside Gibbsville’s orbit, perhaps as a senator or even, absurdly, president. The comedy of Chapin’s aspirations is that he can’t quite fathom why his ascent to national prominence shouldn’t come as easily as his leading role in Gibbsville. He knows Gibbsville is just a small city, of course. But why would its political and social mechanisms work in a fundamentally different manner from those of the wider world?
Some of O’Hara’s people even make it out of Gibbsville—more or less. His alter ego, Jimmy Malloy, who appears in many of the novels and stories, manages to turn jobs in local journalism into a position at a New York paper, which leads, as it did for O’Hara, to fame and fortune as a writer of novels, plays, and films. Yet even Malloy is unwilling or unable to cut ties entirely. In “Imagine Kissing Pete,” one of O’Hara’s late and longest Gibbsville stories, Malloy returns home to discover the different trajectory of early friends, who have moved downward in roughly opposite proportion to his ascent. For Malloy, Gibbsville is a point of departure that continues to orient him in his journey. For his old acquaintance Pete McCrea and his wife, Bobbie Hammersmith, it’s more like a black hole. Yet somehow, they reach equilibrium, rejoicing together in the graduation from Princeton of Pete and Bobbie’s son.
Some of these stories are conveyed in a kind of linear narration that seems staid today. But the real action—the influence of Gibbsville’s social structure on individual choices and the closed circuit of locations and institutions that brings them together—is shown indirectly, with different stories and reappearing characters revealing different sides of the same events. The whole picture emerges only gradually and somewhat dimly, without the benefit of the omniscient narrator who dominates nineteenth-century social novels. Though he dealt with a very different place and milieu, O’Hara’s approach—in the stories, if not the novels—has surprising similarities to the method of Anthony Powell. Powell was a more profound psychologist and a more self-conscious stylist, but he, too, relied on dialogue, reminiscence, and partial observation to develop a whole world. The haute bohemia of interwar London was a long way from Pennsylvania. But it’s not fundamentally a much bigger stage than Gibbsville.
For all his personal crankiness, which generated a whole genre of anecdotes, O’Hara is also more humane than Powell. It’s remarkable that the thousands of words he devoted to Gibbsville not only fail to depict any outstanding heroes but also lack recognizable villains. There is no counterpart here to Powell’s unforgettably loathsome Widmerpool. O’Hara’s people hurt one another due to ignorance (maybe willful), selfishness, and sometimes sheer despair. But there’s little malice to be found, except perhaps in patrician marriages enforced by unquestioned social expectations. Unusually for a twentieth-century writer, O’Hara consistently presents the nuclear family as a stable and rewarding arrangement. Even when it comes to sex, members of the stolid middle class like the Flieglers of Appointment at Samarra turn out to be more satisfied than the rich party animals with whom their lives overlap.
If they’re no longer so prominent, the yearnings and limitations of extra-metropolitan life remain familiar themes in American culture. But the peculiarities of big-little Gibbsville make it unfamiliar in ways that the archetypal small town is not.
The most obvious difference is the clearly delineated economic structure. Everyone knows not only who’s got money but when, where, and how they got it. The big fortunes come from coal or other heavy industries. But the professions, real estate, and financial speculation all produce their own share of wealth. Like few fiction writers today, O’Hara sees business as a fit subject for literature. The result is a precisely graded hierarchy, reflected in interactions as subtle as the varied receptions characters receive at local banks.
Yet the most important divisions in Gibbsville don’t rest on money alone. Like the rest of the country in the 1920s and 1930s, the anthracite region is informally ruled by an Anglo-Protestant elite that is rapidly, if unwittingly, approaching its eclipse. The best thing is to be an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian with New England origins. The next best is to have antecedents among the assimilated German-Americans—not the rural Pennsylvania Dutch—of the colonial era. This fine distinction is illustrated by differences of pronunciation. The inhabitants of Lantenengo Street, Gibbsville’s tiny Park Avenue, pronounce the name Laubach, which belongs to one recurring character, “Law-back.” Their déclassé neighbors use the Germanic pronunciation “Lau-bock.” Irish Catholics, like O’Hara and his stand-in Malloy, are placed somewhere in the middle. Jews, Italians, and central European “hunkies” are outsiders, though they can win conditional acceptance with sufficient wealth and cultural assimilation.
Even more than economic hierarchy, these ethnic and religious distinctions obsessed O’Hara. His disappointment that he couldn’t go to Yale because of his physician father’s untimely death was legendary. The combination of resentment and fascination led him to accumulate a supply of collegiate lore that astonished contemporaries who had actually attended the Ivy League. In Butterfield 8, Malloy laments that “I wear Brooks [Brothers] clothes and I don’t eat salad with a spoon and I could probably play five-goal polo in two years, but I am still a Mick.” In Gibbsville, and not only in Gibbsville, the descendants of immigrants and members of religious minorities were not considered fully American, in ways that have become hard to fathom today.
Yet O’Hara was not a society novelist in the manner of his middlebrow contemporary J. P. Marquand, who covered similar territory in Point of No Return (1949), perhaps the best of his New England novels. For one thing, O’Hara ranges much more widely through the social structure. Rich and poor, Protestants and Catholics, Yale men and immigrants who barely speak English coexist in Gibbsville, and O’Hara frames stories around all their perspectives. In a recent essay, novelist Walter Kirn dismissed O’Hara as yet another chronicler of “the grasping, striving, forward-thinking, white American commuting class.” That isn’t just wrong about O’Hara’s affluent characters, who may have belonged to the provincial gentry or the New York upper crust, but certainly never commuted; it also ignores the saloonkeepers, farm boys, bootleggers, and party girls who appear in his world and make up some of its narrators and central figures.
O’Hara also avoids the nostalgia for decayed glory that pervades Marquand, who burnished the myth of the Boston Brahmins even as he satirized them. His settings just aren’t glamorous enough: as a well-born acquaintance remarks of Joe Chapin while he’s at Yale, “what has he got to be snobbish about? He’s from Pennsylvania.” Gibbsville isn’t a bad place, though it doesn’t work out for some of O’Hara’s characters, and it eventually enters inexorable decline. But it’s far from a paradise lost. As in his depictions of sex, money, and family, O’Hara avoids moralism. Gibbsville was what it was, for better and worse. That lesson, which also applies to people, could describe O’Hara’s entire perspective.
It’s impossible to avoid speaking of Gibbsville in the past tense, and not only because O’Hara died in 1970. Bringing events up to about the Kennedy administration in his fiction, he could not help noticing how the country had changed, pushing Gibbsville to the margins. In his 2000 appreciation, Schwarz notes a passage that captures the shift. In the story “Man on the Tractor,” one character observes: “There’s no money here, George. Not the way we knew it. . . . A few of our old friends have made some money in the stock market, but that’s not here. That’s New York and Philadelphia and representing industries as far away as California.” With the decline of coal and emergence of fully nationalized (and increasingly internationalized) markets, Gibbsville slips from the provinces to being a backwater.
This transformation helps explain the sociological contrast between O’Hara’s Gibbsville and John Updike’s “Brewer,” a fictionalized version of nearby Reading, Pennsylvania. As depicted in the Rabbit Angstrom series that Updike, another O’Hara admirer, published between 1960 and 2001, an increasingly postindustrial Pennsylvania is slowly merged into generic suburbia. This is not yet the “left behind” narrative that dominates more recent explorations of the region. To the contrary, Rabbit and his family and immediate associates are comfortable in material terms. But the region loses the cultural and economic distinctiveness that make Gibbsville so interesting to visit. Brewer could be just about anywhere.
Pottsville itself remains on the map, of course. And it retains some continuities with its glory days and their literary representation, including overwhelming support for the Republican Party. In popular memory, places like Gibbsville were bastions of the New Deal coalition. In fact, their relatively small industries, protected by tariffs and oriented toward regional customers, encouraged support for pro-business Republicans, even among workers. It’s fun to imagine what O’Hara, who began his career as a passionate admirer of FDR and ended it as a Goldwater conservative, would have said about Donald Trump. He probably would have liked him, partly because of his mounting contempt for a cultural establishment that had never granted him the recognition he thought he deserved (including the Nobel Prize). But he also would have noted, with approval, that Trump speaks one of those unaffected American idioms that O’Hara captured more accurately than almost any writer of his generation (or ours).
Still, even the most enthusiastic local booster would likely admit that much of the life has gone out of the place. Even if Pottsville does not suffer outright poverty, the carefully graded residential sections, clubs, hotels, and even barbershops that made it a fully articulated social structure have disappeared. In place of the minute gradations that once separated Pennsylvania from Massachusetts, Gibbsville from Brewer, exclusive Lantenengo Street from fading Frederick Street, we face a starker divide between the few prosperous metro areas that attract rich, talented, or ambitious people and the fading hinterlands that repel them.
The sociological, economic, and electoral implications of this change remain central to debates about America’s future. The work of John O’Hara is a reminder of the cultural damage that they have wrought, as well. For O’Hara, the American provinces and the people who live there are not objects of pity, bewilderment, or caricature. Even if Gibbsville belongs to the past, this basic humanity deserves recognition, and even imitation, today. The self-composed epitaph inscribed on O’Hara’s gravestone in Princeton 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.” At the time, this description was mocked as yet another delusion of grandeur from a small-town boy who believed, like Joe Chapin, that he deserved a place in the big leagues. One day, a generation not yet born may recognize, beneath the characteristic exaggeration, a glimmer of truth.
Top Photo: O’Hara’s literary output was enormous, but his readership has dwindled since his death in 1970. (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)
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