Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 310

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 310


This the grave of John O’Hara.

Born in 1905 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania to a well-off Irish-American family, O’Hara was a bit of an outsider in the elite circles his family allowed him to move in, due to being an Irish-Catholic in a very WASPy time. He went to fancy prep schools. But then his father died without a will and with lots of outstanding debts and the family’s fortunes plummeted, meaning O’Hara couldn’t attend Yale, his lifelong goal. His disappointment and the experience of being a slight outsider and the downwardly mobile rich guy were themes that dominated his life’s work.

Needing to work, O’Hara tried to get a job with a local bootlegger in 1926, who told him “You’re too good for this.” Instead, O’Hara started writing and boy did he. First, he worked for a newspaper in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania and then the New York Herald Tribune. He also started writing his own material. The Herald-Tribune fired him in 1928 for his constant drunkenness but he also published in The New Yorker for the first time that year. He became a master of both the short story and the novel. His 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra made his reputation. But he consistently churned out material, much of it great, nearly all of it good, in his frequent stories in The New Yorker. I believe he is the most published fiction writer in that magazine ever. He wrote over 400 pieces for that magazine. I’ve only discovered O’Hara relatively recently and haven’t read his novels yet. But I do have the Library of America short story collection that came out a couple of years ago (and thanks to the LGM reader who bought it for me!!!) and was completely blown away. The stories aren’t that exciting in the description. Someone may drink too much, have affairs, blow their money. Someone is bitter about not getting into Yale or Princeton and has to live with it. Someone feels an outsider in the elite northeastern circles where he wants to operate. Within these themes so clearly drawn from O’Hara’s life, it might seem boring or repetitive, but like many of the great writers (or filmmakers), subtle changes on the same topic can reveal tremendous insights into life.

O’Hara’s first short-story collection, The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories, was published in book form in 1935. Butterfield 8 was the next novel, also very well-received. A lifetime of story collections and novels followed, including Ten North Frederick, which won the National Book Award in 1956 and his own favorite, 1958’s From the Terrace. During World War II, he also was a war correspondent in the Pacific. Moreover, O’Hara was prodigiously productive, especially after he finally kicked the bottle for good in 1954 after his wife died. Between 1960 and 1968, he published six novels, seven short story collections, and 137 stories in magazines. That’s astounding, especially for someone whose work remained on such a high level. Of course, there is some inconsistency in quality, as one would expect. And O’Hara has never been seen as one of the great American writers, although the Library of America inclusion may signal a change in that, as it should. He certainly had his admirers–Hemingway and Fitzgerald especially–but because of his production, the literary establishment sometimes saw him as a hack and that reputation continued after his death. Some of this came out of the fact that O’Hara was a very difficult person to deal with and so a lot of people disliked him. But some of this came from his frank and non-judgmental discussion of sexuality at a time when that was still very unusual. A big part of O’Hara’s fiction deals with people struggling to live with homosexuality, illegal abortions, tawdry affairs, etc, in a very judgmental society, all presented as matter of fact parts of life. In fact, the state of New York charged him with conspiring to distribute obscene literature for daring to sell Ten North Frederick in their state, which was dismissed in 1958, but the city of Cleveland also banned the book because of their fear minors would read it.

O’Hara also shows up as a reporter in the 1935 film The General Died at Dawn, with Gary Cooper.

John O’Hara died in 1970 of a heart attack. He is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey. The flag obscures the inscription on the headstone, written by O’Hara himself, reading “BETTER/THAN ANYONE ELSE/HE TOLD THE TRUTH/ABOUT HIS TIME/HE WAS/A PROFESSIONAL/HE WROTE/HONESTLY AND WELL.” No one claimed O’Hara didn’t have plenty of self-regard, which included his belief he would win the Nobel Prize.

If you would like this series to visit more 20th century writers, you can donate to cover the required travel expenses here. Mary McCarthy is buried in Castine, Maine and Zora Neale Hurston is in Fort Pierce, Florida. Let’s make these visits happen! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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