Appointment in Samarra (O'Hara)

Author Bio
Birth—January 31, 1905
Where—Pottsville, Pennsylvania, USA
Death—April 11, 1970
Where—Princeton, New Jersey
Education—Niagara University
Awards—National Book Award for Ten North Frederick

John O’Hara received instant acclaim for Appointment in Samarra, his first novel, and quickly came to be regarded as one of the most prominent writers in America. He won the National Book Award for his novel Ten North Frederick and had more stories published in The New Yorker than anyone in the history of the magazine. His fourteen novels include A Rage to Live, Pal Joey, Butterfield 8, and From the Terrace, and his more than four hundred short stories have been collected in twelve volumes. (From the publishers.)

John O'Hara was the son of a prosperous doctor, but his father had died when O'Hara was 19, leaving him unable to afford the college of his choice, Yale. He did attend Niagara University in New York State. By all accounts, this disappointment affected O'Hara deeply for the rest of his life and served to hone the keen sense of social awareness that characterizes his work. He worked as a reporter for various newspapers before moving to New York City, where he began to write short stories for magazines.

In his early days he was also a film critic, a radio commentator and a press agent; later, with his reputation established, he became a newspaper columnist. O'Hara received much critical acclaim for his short stories, more than 200 of which, beginning in 1928, appeared in The New Yorker. Many of these stories (and his later novels) were set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a fictionalized version of Pottsville, a small city in the coal region of the United States.

In 1934 O'Hara published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which was acclaimed on publication. This is the O'Hara novel that is most consistently praised by critics. Ernest Hemingway wrote: "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra." On the other hand, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in March, 2000, critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz claimed: "So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion... of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best [English-language] novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project."

Harold Bloom included Appointment in Samarra as one of the works in the Western canon. This successful work was followed by several other novels such as BUtterfield 8. During World War II O'Hara was a correspondent in the Pacific theater. After the war, he wrote screenplays and more novels including Ten North Frederick, for which he won the 1955 National Book Award. But his books became increasingly wordy and his critical reputation suffered, although his shorter work was still esteemed. He was also attacked by some for his frank treatment of sexuality, which approached the boundaries of what was then permissible; Butterfield 8 was considered particularly shocking and was banned in Australia until 1963.

Despite his obvious writing skill, most of O'Hara's longer work was not highly esteemed by the literary establishment. Some of this may have been due to extra-literary factors, such as his social climbing, his vigorous self-promotion and his politically conservative newspaper columns. Martin Kich of Wright State University states, "O'Hara's achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now typically considered a novelist of the second or even the third rank."

His 1939 epistolary novel, Pal Joey, led to the notable musical of the same name, with libretto by O'Hara and songs by Rodgers and Hart. The 1940 production starred Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal; it was successfully revived in 1952 and became a 1957 motion picture starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.

Brendan Gill, who worked with him at The New Yorker, ranks him as "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story."

Oh, but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons.

Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college.

People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters.

Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale." O'Hara also yearned for an honorary degree from Yale. According to Gill, Yale was unwilling to award the honor because O'Hara "asked for it."

According to biographer Frank MacShane, O'Hara thought that Hemingway's death made him the leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote to his daughter "I really think I will get it," and "I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it." MacShane says that T. S. Eliot told O'Hara that he had, in fact, been nominated twice. When Steinbeck won the prize in 1962, O'Hara wired, "Congratulations I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it."

John O'Hara died from cardiovascular disease in Princeton, New Jersey and is interred there in the Princeton Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone, which he wrote himself, 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." Of this, Gill commented:

From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing. Better than anyone else? Not merely better than any other writer of fiction but better than any dramatist, any poet, any biographer, any historian? It is an astonishing claim. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

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