Friday, September 16, 2016


John O’Hara (1905–1970)
From John O’Hara: Stories

John O’Hara in 1962. (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
In March 1959 James Thurber wrote to a New York Post reporter writing a profile on fellow New Yorker colleague John O’Hara, who had been a friend for “thirty years, off and on, but mostly on”:
John O’Hara being Irish and artist is doubly interesting, twice as complicated, and maybe three times as difficult as he would be if he were only one of those volatile beings. . . . He can always tolerate a major aggression, but takes fire about minor misunderstandings, and thus gained the name of being “Master of the Fancied Slight.” . . . I guess a man cannot have an ear and eye and mind as sensitive as O’Hara’s without also having feelings that are hypersensitive. He is, of course, one of the major talents in American literature.
Read as a whole, Thurber’s letter was probably meant as a humorous encomium for a fellow writer and friend, but O’Hara’s reputation for orneriness seeps through. The irony, perhaps, was that such characterizations came from Thurber’s pen; as Charles McGrath recalls, “At The New Yorker in the mid-1970's, it was still possible to hear editors debating which of the magazine's illustrious contributors had been the bigger jerk and the more impossible to deal with—James Thurber or John O'Hara.” McGrath also writes that “in his later years O'Hara mellowed considerably,” particularly after he give up drinking in the mid-1950s.

O’Hara’s propensity for feelings of betrayal and for grudges led, in part, to his absence from the pages of The New Yorker for more than a decade. In August 1949 his latest novel, A Rage to Live, was published to extraordinary sales and generally good reviews. One of the least favorable notices, however, appeared in The New Yorker itself, where Brendan Gill called it “sprawling” and “discursive” and compared the sexual content of the novel to the Kinsey Report. O’Hara felt betrayed, and a decade later bitterly complained to Thurber that “the most dramatic event in my association with magazine was a review written by a snotnose.” Compounding O’Hara’s resentment toward the magazine, according to John Updike, was its refusal to pony up a “kill fee” for each story it declined to publish: “O’Hara felt that New Yorker short stories were so specialized that a writer could not sell elsewhere a story written with its pages in mind.” For the next eleven years, O’Hara boycotted the magazine and wrote virtually no short fiction at all, focusing instead on long blockbuster novels.

Finally, in the summer of 1960, O’Hara offered to submit his work to The New Yorker again—but only if an editor came out to his home in Quogue and accepted a story on the spot. William Maxwell, an editor who had worked well with O’Hara before the break, agreed to spend the night. After reading two novellas not up to the magazine’s standards, he was delighted to realize that the third, “Imagine Kissing Pete,” was good enough to publish in its entirety, and O’Hara received a reported ten thousand dollars. One of the longest works of fiction ever published in The New Yorker, “Imagine Kissing Pete” is widely regarded as among his best works of fiction.

The breach repaired, O’Hara would write almost thirty stories for the magazine over the next three years. Between 1930 and 1967 he published 247 stories in The New Yorker alone—the all-time record for any fiction writer—and dozens more in other magazines and in book collections. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of this body of work on American letters. McGrath writes that O’Hara “liberated the story from the formulas of popular magazine fiction of the ’20s—the reliance on surprise climaxes; the elaborately articulated structure of beginning, middle and end. . . . Hemingway typically gets credit for this revolution in story writing, but among practitioners O’Hara was probably more influential.” In his editor’s note for a new Library of America edition collecting sixty of O’Hara’s stories and novellas (including “Imagine Kissing Pete”), McGrath adds:
He was a gifted and sensitive writer, with talents quite different from those of his more highly regarded contemporaries: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. His strength and his limitation was that he was stubbornly earthbound. There are no similes in his work, no flights of lyricism or fancy writing, no hints of a deeper meaning beyond the moment. Nothing in O’Hara is “like” anything else. Things are vibrant and valuable for their own sake, and he described them—the make of a car, the cut of a suit, the song on the radio, the brand of cigarette, the sound of a broken tire chain on a snowy morning—with a scrupulousness that bordered on devotion. . . .

He became, among other things, one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper’s secret—how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.
The stories from O’Hara’s later period, says McGrath, “were longer and plottier. . . . He was easier in his own skin, and it shows a little in the writing: there are fewer stories about loneliness, isolation, or exclusion.” In celebration of the release of the new Library of America edition, we present here one of those later stories, about a wealthy woman who “had had three husbands and an undetermined number of gentleman friends” and who is navigating the challenges of growing older.

Notes: O’Hara includes several references (pages 466–67) to various mid-century haunts of the upper crust. Pine Valley is a golf club in southern New Jersey, generally considered among the best golf courses in America, with highly restricted access; the resort town of Thomasville, Georgia, is the home of the Glen Arven Country Club. Canoe Place, built in 1923 was an upscale inn and dance pavilion in Hampton Bays, New York, legendary for attracting bootleggers and gangsters, as well as the sons and daughters of the wealthy; six miles away in Southampton were the tennis courts and facilities of the ultra-exclusive Meadow Club (founded in 1887 and still in operation). The course at Elizabeth Arden (page 470) was hosted at the health retreat of cosmetics and beauty entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden (pseud. Florence Graham, 1878–1966) on her Maine Chance Farm estate in Maine.

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