Americans

Stephen Fender

  • The Life of John O’Hara by Frank MacShane
    Cape, 274 pp, £10.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 224 01885 X

The longest-lived and most persistent generalisation about American literature is that it could never produce a realistic novel set in contemporary society. De Tocqueville predicted that the theme of American fiction would be ‘man himself, taken aloof from his country and age, and standing in the presence of Nature and of God’. Even before that was written – indeed, before much American literature had been produced – Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828) had posed a long list of institutions, prerogatives, titles and signs of rank missing from the American scene, without which the novel of manners could never emerge: ‘There is no costume for the peasant … no wig for the judge, no baton for the general, no diadem for the chief magistrate … ’

This kind of negative catalogue became something of a fashion among American writers, usually when resident in or recently returned from Europe. Henry James’s long list of negatives applied to Hawthorne’s America (‘no sovereign, no court ... no church, no clergy ... no palaces, no castles ... no Epsom nor Ascot’) is only the most famous instance of the trope. But competing with this theory of deprivation was another of plenty, celebrated in a corresponding rhetoric of positive catalogues going back at least to Emerson’s essay, ‘The Poet’. Indigenous occupations, political institutions and patterns of social behaviour were waiting for the attentive American artist, if only he could be persuaded to turn to his native soil. But this development always lay in the future: native American realism was always just bulging to be born. Thus James (again) on the fictional possibilities of the American business-man ‘whom the novelist and the dramatist have scarcely touched, whose song has still to be sung and his picture still to be painted. He is often an obscure, but not less often an epic, hero, seamed all over with the wounds of the market and the dangers of the field ... The romance of fact, indeed, has touched him in a way that quite puts to shame the romance of fiction.’

Even as late as 1961, apparently, the native American type was awaiting fulfilment in fiction. Take a gangster, wrote Mary McCarthy in an essay called ‘Characters in Fiction’, ‘who was in the slot-machine racket, decided to go straight and became a laundromat king, sent his daughter to Bennington, where she married a poet-in-residence or a professor of modern linguistic philosophy ... People speak of the lack of tradition or of manners as having a bad effect on the American novel, but the self-made man is a far richer figure, from the novelist’s point of view, than the man of inherited wealth.’

These theories, while disagreeing about the possibility of the American novel of manners, agree that it has yet to happen. Yet whatever the theories say, the fact is that alongside the classic American novel of desperate individuals confronting an alien universe, of accommodations never to be effected even in a palinode, runs a long history of close social observation in American fiction. Even businessmen, from W.D.Howell’s Silas Lapham down to Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood (of The Financier and The Titan) and John O’Hara’s Alfred Eaton (From the Terrace), have been studied in their native habitat. The question is: why has fiction in this vein been commonly ignored by academic formulators of the tradition in American literature? Or why, to come down to particulars, has the American academic machine managed to produce only one small (though admittedly good) book of criticism on O’Hara and two pamphlets – all three published as parts of series – when Frank MacShane’s book is the third full-scale biography to appear within eight years? Is the life so much richer than the work? What can MacShane hope to add to the full documentation of Finnish Farr (O’Hara, 1974) and Matthew Bruccoli (The O’Hara Concern, 1975)?

Certainly a degree of neutrality. Professor Bruccoli’s book is a ‘critical biography’ dedicated to proving that O’Hara was a great artist shamefully ignored by the academic establishment, and Mr Farr’s a life study of an old friend. MacShane’s contribution is not as well written as Farr’s and lacks (among other things) the bibliographical completeness of Bruccoli’s. MacShane is cooler than Bruccoli and sets down the facts with less shaping than Farr. Perhaps his work on Raymond Chandler has taught him how to be laconic amidst a plethora of uncompleted plots. Not that there is anything light or slipshod in his research. The facts are here all right, painstakingly assembled from a myriad printed sources and interviews to which the modest endnotes are a quietly dramatic testimony. It is just that it is up to MacShane’s readers to make up their own shape from all this disparate data.

What is the story? That O’Hara was born into a comfortably well-off but socially insecure Irish-American family in Pennsylvania? That he was a restless scholar who never stayed long in one school, disappointed his stern father, and never went to college? That he became a journalist (again, seldom remaining long in one job), held several writing jobs in Hollywood, wrote stories for the New Yorker, with which he broke after they published an unfavourable review of A Rage to Live? That he was fascinated by the arcana of the upper classes – the Brooks Brothers clothing, the fancy cars, the right way to order a meal (‘You don’t say “cantaloupe” and you don’t say “please” to a waiter’)? That he joined more exclusive clubs than he could ever enjoy – or even keep track of? Or finally, that he made scenes in restaurants and bore a grudge for not getting the Nobel Prize?

So what else is new? I mean, what does this kind of information, however carefully researched, however plentifully and dispassionately presented, really tell us about a novelist? Reviews of MacShane’s book have made much of O’Hara’s underdoggery (‘Chip on the Shoulder’, ‘The Horror of Being O’Hara’, run two typical headlines), but since when have novelists blanched themselves in the milk of humility? And did not many Americans of that class and generation make scenes in restaurants? (I know many friends of my parents did; it seems almost to have been a fashion peculiar to the time, like swallowing goldfish; O’Hara, on the other hand, seems not to have swallowed a single goldfish.)

The real story is what a supreme advantage all this deprivation was for the novelist of manners. To be Irish and Catholic in a land of Wasps is to be on the outside; to be on the outside means to want to get in, and to want to get in means to study the behaviour of the insideers very carefully. For O’Hara, working in Hollywood meant, not languishing in bitter idleness (the fate of his more profound, sensitive and symbolical brother novelists), but being called in as an expert in dialogue to ‘fix’ film scripts that had gone wooden. To be a journalist meant, as it did for Defoe, Dickens and Mark Twain, going for the salient external markers of a human dilemma, ‘telling a story’, getting your copy in on time, and becoming accustomed to living by your writing without fellowships or chairs of creative writing. To break with the New Yorker meant abandoning those wry, sidelong, coyly ironic, vaguely allusive short stories and committing yourself to long fiction.

It is significant that A Rage to Live, O’Hara’s first long novel, and his first panoramic study of a whole family in its social and economic environment, should have been the issue to divide O’Hara and the New Yorker. Brendan Gill’s review called the book ‘discursive and prolix’. Respectable critical opinion has since endorsed the view that O’Hara’s best works are his shortest ones – that is to say, that most of what he wrote during the last twenty years of his life can be discounted.

Although he claims that O’Hara ‘wrote too much’, MacShane does not share this fashion for dismissing the late, large novels. His descriptions of From the Terrace and The Lockwood Concern are both just and sanely appreciative. Even so, his few critical comments call for the occasional rebuttal, especially when he addresses the problem of ‘character’ in O’Hara’s long fiction. A Rage to Live he thinks is flawed because ‘Sidney Tate is too important a character to kill off half-way through’ and his wife ‘is not strong enough to carry the rest of the book by herself’. Similarly, a ‘great disadvantage in From the Terrace ... is the shallowness of the central character, Alfred Eaton.’

Similar complaints have been made about characters in novels by other journalists, such as Defoe, Dickens and Dreiser. The reason, surely is that all four authors were more interested in plotting the meeting point of conflicting forces in a complex field of action than they were in the subtle perceptions and moral development of an individual sensibility. That is, they had little to do with the ‘Great Tradition’ notion of character. There is no central character in A Rage to Live, partly because, as O’Hara wrote to the Newsweek critic Frank Norris, ‘I have ... let you know how [Grace Tate] thinks and feels, and yet at no time do I, the novelist, enter her mind,’ but also because the real focus of interest, the real point of development, is the place where the Tates live. At first, the Tate farm is a sort of Pennsylvania-Dutch equivalent of the ideal English country house: a meeting point of private and public concerns and a focus of the community’s moral and economic values. Then, as the Tates grow estranged through business, adultery and the death of a beloved child, the farm ceases to earn its living through agriculture and becomes, first a country retreat, and finally a piece of property on the rental market.

As for From the Terrace, its whole point is the very emptying of Alfred Eaton’ character of which MacShane complains. Eaton is a man of affairs, absorbed in a hundred projects and material concerns, who winds up with nothing to do. The subject is the irony of busy-ness. Yet when an American novelist, by no means ‘aloof from his country and his age’, treats this great American subject, when he interests himself in all the markers of class and profession said to be missing from the American social scene, yet surmounts his personal obsession with these things to work them into a critique both of their dangerous power over the lives of ordinary people and of their ultimate emptiness – when he does all these things, he simply disappears from the radar screen of American literature, like a flight of TBFs in the Bermuda Triangle. ‘Does anyone, other than Mr John Braine, read John O’Hara these days?’ asks Anthony Burgess in the Observer, without staying for an answer. Well, I guess someone does, even here, since Panther Books, not famous for reckless commercial ventures motivated exclusively by nostalgia, reprinted his six best (and biggest) novels last year. But Burgess means anyone who’s anyone, of course, and in that respect he is right: the British critical establishment has forgotten O’Hara, and their American counterparts, probably because the antennae of their sensibilities were misaligned from the start by those persuasive early predictions about the inevitable course of American literature, never picked him up in the first place.