What is lost when the work of a writer once broadly popular and critically esteemed falls out of fashion? In some cases, very little. Critical fashion and deft publicity can foist upon us writers who are briefly everywhere and then swiftly forgotten. In the case of John O’Hara, however, the loss is real—a deprivation less of aesthetic experience than of social history and shared memory.
O’Hara counts among his admirers John Updike (“a sensitive and productive literary artist”); Fran Lebowitz (“the real Fitzgerald”); Tom Wolfe (who ranked O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra among the books that influenced him most); and Gay Talese (“He got inside the political back rooms and the parlors and told us what Americans said, how they lived, the details of the clothing, the shoes, the cars.”). If friends like these haven’t been able to rescue O’Hara’s reputation, perhaps nothing can.
O’Hara’s body of work is enormous and includes Appointment in Samarra, dozens of short stories for the New Yorker, and a number of loose, baggy, late-career novels that brought him great wealth but not critical praise. One is reminded of the medal another New Yorker writer, A.J. Liebling, pinned to his own chest: that he wrote more than anyone who wrote as well, and wrote better than anyone who wrote as much.
O’Hara’s 1935 New Yorker short story, “The Doctor’s Son,” about a Spanish flu outbreak in the coal mining camps outside Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where O’Hara was raised, is the one to read now, as we seek to loosen the grip of another pandemic. Only a teenager in 1918, O’Hara served as a driver and assistant to his father, a leading physician in the community. Patrick O’Hara worked around the clock for months fighting influenza among his often desperately poor patients, leaving a lasting impression on his oldest son. “The Doctor’s Son” is based closely on the younger O’Hara’s experiences, but it may also be read as social history, as pandemic literature, as coming-of-age story, or as a morality play about the human cost of carelessness.
All the action of “The Doctor’s Son” takes place over several days in “Gibbsville,” O’Hara’s stand-in for Pottsville. The narrator, Jimmy Malloy, is 15 years old. His father, Dr. Malloy, is one of Gibbsville’s leading physicians. Jimmy drives his father to see patients, which, at the height of the influenza pandemic in fall 1918, when it killed almost 700,000 Americans, means almost constant work. Their relationship is a fractious one because Malloy is impatient and something of a bully.
Finally, after several nearly sleepless weeks, Malloy must rest. A graduating medical student, Dr. Myers, comes out from Philadelphia to fill in. Myers is slight (“he was almost tiny”), over-refined, and very young, and at first Jimmy doubts that he can effectively treat patients in the “patches,” the rough coal company camps on the outskirts of town that are home to illiterate immigrant miners and their large families.
Jimmy and Dr. Myers are first called to the home of the coal company superintendent, Evans, whose daughter, Edith, is Jimmy’s girlfriend. Jimmy notices that Myers is especially solicitous of Mrs. Evans (“there was nothing protesting in what he saw of Mrs. Evans”) and that his interest appears to be returned. (“Mrs. Evans had changed her dress to one that I thought was a little too dressy for the occasion.”)
After leaving the Evans house, Jimmy and Myers visit a saloon in the Irish immigrant district, where the saloonkeeper manages an impatient and hostile crowd. It is evident that the disease is likely to continue to spread quickly among the immigrants, who must continue to work in the mines to feed their large families and who suffer from long-term respiratory conditions from breathing coal dust. Death will come for many of them, and Jimmy and Myers are there mostly to bear witness.
A Slavic woman at the saloon convinces Myers and Jimmy to follow her home, where several family members have fallen ill. They find the father of the family already dead in his bed. Another family member, a young girl, dies while they are there: “The woman . . . did not need the English language to know that the child was dead.” Jimmy and Myers appear almost to have reached the end of civilization. Myers attempts to distract the younger children with the coins in his pocket, but they “do not know what money is.” Since Jimmy has been exposed, Myers sends him to the hospital to get treatment, but Myers gamely remains behind to treat anyone who needs him. “I suddenly had a lot of respect for him,” Jimmy reflects.
The next morning, Jimmy and Myers return to the Evans home because the family maid is unwell. When Jimmy sees Edith outside the home and tells her this news, she is alarmed and rushes inside. Jimmy follows her, and they come across Myers and Mrs. Evans kissing. It is apparent that Mrs. Evans suffers from some degree of mental instability and that this not her first affair.
The next day, Jimmy and Myers go to a saloon in the Polish district, where dozens of patients are waiting. The saloonkeeper is very ill with influenza, but he continues to drink from a bottle of whiskey passed around among the men, ignoring Jimmy’s warnings. Mr. Evans appears suddenly at the saloon, looking visibly agitated and demanding to speak to Myers. Jimmy is certain that Myers is going to get a beating from the sturdy Evans, but it turns out that the mine manager is only concerned about his wife, having heard that Myers paid a visit to his house. Myers assures Evans that Mrs. Evans is all right, only tired, and in no danger from influenza. Relieved, Evans accepts a drink from the bottle that the Polish men have been passing around, and he apologizes to Myers for his abrupt manner.
When they are finished treating the saloon patients, Myers and Jimmy follow Evans back to his home. Dr. Malloy has left a message for Jimmy there: Myers is not to see any more patients. Jimmy is to bring him back to town immediately. Having rested for two days, Malloy announces that he is ready to resume work and dismisses Myers. Jimmy assists his father through two more grueling days of treating patients in the patches. They aggravate each other and almost come to blows.
The next morning, Jimmy finds his father seated at the breakfast table, looking hollow and bereft. Malloy’s close friend, Evans, has died of influenza, contracted by drinking from the shared bottle at the saloon. Jimmy attempts several times to visit Edith, but she will not see him; the association with her father’s death is too strong. “The Doctor’s Son” ends with a dying fall: “I fell in love with another girl and was surprised, but only surprised, when Edith eloped. Now I never can remember her married name.”
“The Doctor’s Son” seems to expand in memory. Over its 7,500 words, O’Hara describes every stratum of class in the community; lays out the occupational hierarchy among the men; establishes the dominance of the coal company; renders dialects of three immigrant groups; and distinguishes the main city, Gibbsville, from the mining “patches” that surround it. He does all this without seeming to write in an expository register and renders the tale convincingly through the eyes of a teenager.
Complex patterning lies beneath O’Hara’s unadorned prose style. This patterning, in which behavior emerges from an intricate web of social and psychological circumstance, is his tribute to the inexhaustible variety he encountered as a journalist. Every aspect of society was interesting to him; his avidity for experience was his founding strength. He was famously blunt about sex, gave as much space to cynical human motives as to lofty ones, and usually wrote for money. He was, however, a naturalist of peculiar temperament, a man both famously bellicose and deeply sympathetic. His choice of subject matter and his coarse personal manner tend to obscure the subtlety of his art.
Critics sometimes read “The Doctor’s Son” through the lens of Jimmy’s relationship with his remote, workaholic father. It’s not quite right to say that Jimmy’s love for his father is unrequited. Rather, the tragedy is that Malloy can only express his love for his son within a limited emotional range available to him by virtue of his station and temperament. He has high hopes for Jimmy (“I want him to study in Vienna”), but like many domineering men, he can’t quite take Jimmy’s own hopes seriously.
Readers have often missed the story’s subtle suggestion that Malloy has himself been carrying on with Mrs. Evans. The circumstantial evidence is strong. Myers is not Mrs. Evans’s first affair. (“Oh my God,” Edith says, “Now it’s him.”) Mrs. Evans has been a patient of Malloy; and she takes up with the man who comes to town to replace him. Edith declines to tell Jimmy the identity of her mother’s prior paramour, and she will not consent to see Jimmy after the death of her father. Malloy’s brusque instruction that Myers, a competent young physician, is to cease work immediately may indicate that he thinks something is amiss. It is hard to see how he would have come to suspect the affair other than by recognizing the pattern of his own seduction of his friend’s wife.
O’Hara must have wanted to leave the possibility that Malloy was sleeping with Mrs. Evans at almost the level of a subliminal message, because making it an open fact would have tilted the story in ways he did not intend. Among other things, “The Doctor’s Son” is a story about the burden of adult knowledge. Jimmy feels that he is a man in all but age (“What do you mean, grow up? I’m almost six feet”), and there is a strong suggestion that he and Edith have had sex. (“We know something that fellows and girls our age, they only guess at.”) Through his work with his father, he has witnessed death up close. By story’s end, he knows even more about sex and death than he did before, and he feels somehow both older and younger as a result. Jimmy learns that his father, and the adult world itself, are not entirely what they seem.
O’Hara had an inexhaustible interest in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania where he was raised, but all that local color in “The Doctor’s Son” serves narrative as well as sociological purposes. For O’Hara, the behavior of his characters would be meaningless if not situated within the airless social world they inhabit. In a sense, “The Doctor’s Son” is a variant on the ancient theme of a stranger coming to town. Myers is from Philadelphia, not Gibbsville; he is refined where the local men are blunt or even brutal in manner; and he is, against all expectation, sexually avid. That avidity and the pathogenic carelessness it engenders in him is what drives the story’s action, mirroring the influenza that invades and devastates the community.
The coronavirus-stalked reader of today will find plenty of echoes in “The Doctor’s Son”: the vulnerability of those with underlying medical conditions (“Men who for years had been drilling rock and had chronic miner’s disease never had a chance against the mysterious new disease”); medical students pressed into service as practicing physicians become overwhelmed (“when a doctor got sick or exhausted . . . they would send young men from the graduating class of one of the Philadelphia medical schools to take over the older man’s practice”); the eerie emptiness where once there was teeming life (“There was little traffic in the streets, but the few cars tore madly”); the question of when to wear a mask (“Doctor Myers at first wore a mask over his nose and mouth when making calls, and so did I, but the gauze stuck to my lips and I stopped wearing it and so did the doctor . . . it was rather insulting to walk in on a group of people with a mask on your face when nobody in the group was wearing one”); the loss of social equilibrium (the anxious crowds at the saloons); and more than anything, the differing effects of the disease on individual behavior. The specter of death induces heroic action in Malloy and Meyers, who risk their health to treat patients; raw terror in Mr. Evans, an otherwise able man who loses his composure on hearing that the doctor has visited his wife; and false bravado in the Polish saloonkeeper, who feigns indifference to his fate.
“The Doctor’s Son,” like other stories of the Spanish flu—Hemingway’s “In Another Country,” Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Maxwell’s “They Came Like Swallows”—seeks universality through the particular. The death of one person in a pandemic is a literary subject; the deaths of 100,000 or 800,000 belong to journalism and to history. Perhaps every pandemic story going back to “The Decameron” is fundamentally the same, yielding the same hoary verities: “There is nothing new under the sun” and “Death is the great equalizer.”
“The Doctor’s Son” is shadowed by our knowledge of the central wound of O’Hara’s life, his father’s premature death from Bright’s Disease a few years after the real events of 1918. Dr. O’Hara lived beyond his means and left no estate; his final, deathbed words reportedly were, “Poor John.” John therefore didn’t go to Yale, as he had long hoped. Instead, he drifted, often drunk, through a series of small newspaper jobs, a reluctant apprenticeship that provided the training in disciplined observation that would yield the dozens of naturalistic short stories he published in the New Yorker.
O’Hara’s personality was almost comically Irish. Like his father, he was touchy about his ethnic background even as he sometimes seemed eager to embody its worst stereotypes. Even his eventual break with the New Yorker, the magazine that published much of his best work, seems traceable to the early loss of his father, the bad temper and sense of perpetual grievance mingled with an underlying sensitivity. No matter how much success he had—owning Rolls-Royces, winning a National Book Award, and cultivating celebrated friends—he was haunted by a shadow life he could never achieve: Yale; gentlemen’s clubs; the Social Register. Those grievances gave him the energy and drive to achieve but not the equanimity to enjoy his achievements. Poor John indeed.
That readers still wish to visit Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County but not O’Hara’s Gibbsville tells us much about the drift of American literary culture in the decades since both writers were on magazine covers. Richly explicable, Faulkner’s work seems made for academic criticism. O’Hara’s stories, on the other hand, mostly speak for themselves, in plain language and about Americans lacking in mythopoetic grandeur. Faulkner dealt directly with the South’s bloody racial history, even as O’Hara fussed over shirt collars and club memberships. Perhaps most importantly, Faulkner lies squarely within the modernist tradition and can be packaged with Fitzgerald and Hemingway for three-credit consumption, while O’Hara, especially in his shapeless, best-selling later novels, aligned himself with aesthetic quietism. Over time, O’Hara’s documentary, journalistic approach to prose fiction has become an anachronism. Penn State University holds 23 cubic feet of O’Hara’s papers, including correspondence with Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bennet Cerf, and William Maxwell, but probably not one in 100 students on that campus is aware that he ever lived.
O’Hara has no successor in recent American fiction, simply because it would not occur now to a writer of talent to write as O’Hara did. The outward symbols of wealth and social aspiration belong to trash fiction, and the social world that O’Hara depicted, often that of secondary and tertiary American cities and their local dynasties, did not fade away so much as it collapsed. Indeed, Americans’ relation to social class, O’Hara’s essential subject, has shifted decisively. O’Hara knew that his readers were eager to signal whatever social status they had achieved and perhaps to suggest more distinction than they actually possessed. That’s what all those club ties and signet rings were for. Now, we disclaim social class, pretending not to take notice of clothes and cars and accents and—rather hypocritically—asserting moral superiority over those who do.
This is no improvement in our manners. Of course, petty social snobbery is not attractive, and possession of a tasteful home or marriage to an elegant spouse does not reliably indicate character. But inevitably we take note of such things. Making a pretense of indifference must, in the long run, make the world a more difficult and inscrutable place for those born at the bottom. To deny the power of money and social capital is insulting to those who lack it.
The world that O’Hara depicted is gone now, along with some of the American optimism that gave it life. Pottsville, Pennsylvania once had nine hotels, three country clubs, a red light district, and a booster spirit, along with snobbery, class envy, and racial and religious prejudice, all of which O’Hara stared down in dozens of stories. He gave “The Region” a notoriety that generated mostly bitterness and resentment among the locals. Towns like Pottsville have a habit of eating their young, which may be why later generations have been so eager to leave them.
O’Hara sometimes satirized the provincial place he came from, but it would never have occurred to him that what happened in that place and time was not important. He returned to Gibbsville over and over in his late stories, writing with increasing warmth and generosity. He was a large figure on the mid-century New York literary scene and something of a social climber. As a writer, though, he stayed close to home.
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