Just as i was scribbling again and trying to revive this blog, high-value local LA Times bookman David Ulin wrote out a latter-day assessment of John O’Hara, occasioned by a reissue of Appointment at Samarra. And I thought it was interesting that I had just been reading and thinking about John P. Marquand, who seems to be a writer from (roughly) the same generation, with a (somewhat) similar reputation. So I’m going to work through some backgrounds and do a little comparison, throwing a few other 20th century novelists into the mix as well, perhaps.
O’Hara had at least been on my radar through all these decades, but he was just a faint blip on the outer reaches. As I started gulping down literature and styled myself as an English major at the end of the 70s, one of my principal cronies, part of the Poli Sci-to-Law School herd, who did posses a serious bent for political philosophy, was in a pitched battle with his colorful parents about the development of reading habits. His mother was a dynamic entrepreneur-producer contrarian, given to broad pronouncements such as saying that Picasso was a massive fraud, and modern art is all a waste of time. His father was a sober and concerned physician, a man of fastidious habits who was a voracious reader. He had started by trying to get his son, my friend, to read Darwin back in high school, and my friend’s forays into Hobbes and Rousseau were probably belated responses to this early, overly ambitious prompt.
As I read Shakespeare and Milton and Boswell and all or most of the rest, aside from diving into Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy all together my friends and I worked through Kerouac and Kesey and Barth and Hawkes and Pynchon, along with other sidemen (yes, so many men). Our realists were Updike and Cheever and Roth I suppose. As this was going on and evolving into the early 80s, when I began to explore 18th and 19th century waters more deeply, my friend’s father was ploughing through 20th century and contemporary fiction at a strong, steady pace, reading everything, basically, although he wasn’t much interested in the experimental and postmodern posturing that we were chasing. As I moved from George Eliot to the obscure recesses of Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf, my friend studied law and his patience for literary hijinx dissipated quickly–he began to adopt an amalgam of his parents’ attitude towards books and fiction, past and present. He became a good reader, with a well-developed nose for contemporary literature.
All of which is the long way around to John O’Hara. Perhaps it started with my friend’s father saying, if you guys are reading Updike, you should read John O’Hara. O’Hara became a touchstone between me and my friend for the divide between an important threshold in contemporary literature, even though O’Hara wasn’t contemporary. I thought of this divide when I was reading some initial background materials on Marquand, as it was mentioned that after Apley his critical reputation was always solid enough and his work was embraced by Hollywood (like O’Hara’s), but he was ignored by academics. Edmund Wilson gave him short shrift. It was shortly after this moment, when I was starting to write about Apley, that Ulin’s O’Hara article appeared.
Obviously there are dozens of worthy writers in any given period, and we pick and choose. Marquand and O’Hara were part of the firmament as my friend’s father (b. 1917) came of age just as books like Butterfield 8 (1935) and H.M. Pulham Esq. (1941) came out. Looking at the Pulitzer winners that bookend Apley (all of them major films), the ultimate pre-war blockbuster text Gone With The Wind (1936) is little read, if at all. It was sprawling enough that getting through the even more blockbusting movie seemed like a good bit of work to the next generation (my own, roughly), and the book was ignored. By now, going on 75 years, even the film has slipped markedly as a part of the culture, becoming the province of film history students. The Yearling is a dated kids book and film, something I vaguely remember seeing in my own 60s childhood, but it was passed over when I powered through kidlit and film with my children from 95 to 2010, approximately. Maybe The Yearling is something I should read, and there’s something there I should know about–and maybe not. The next one, The Grapes of Wrath, is more interesting and significant, and more lasting. I was never a Steinbeck man myself, but the combination of book and film in this case seems superb, and it’s easy to see that Steinbeck rose above the Marquands and O’Hara’s and made it to the next rung, elbowing his way into a seat on the bench with Hemingway and Faulkner and the other major leaguers.
Ulin guides us towards O’Hara’s curmudgeonly grandiosity and 60s conservatism, which marred his standing somewhat. Even more interesting is the chip on his shoulder that he carried around to the bitter end about not attending college. This is rather intensely reminiscent of Richard Yates, who might have had a more fundamental insecurity and less abrasive complex about it, although drunken Yates must have had plenty of hostile moments. And Yates made a precarious living, as he was much more obscure and unsuccessful, teaching on college campuses, while O’Hara had more financial security and spent his time trolling around for honorary degrees.
The difference here is that Marquand was a college man, and indeed a Harvard man, of a sort. As was Walter Edmonds, another writer I wanted to mention in this context. Marquand had Boston brahmin roots and connections, which very much come into play in George Apley, but his own family was poor. He was sent to live with his aunts in a crumbling Newburyport mansion, and went to Harvard on a scholarship. Marquand gravitated toward wealth and privilege, slowly making his way, while satirizing its old guard at the same time. I’m not sure what any of this really means, except that it serves as background to the maturity shown in Marquand’s relatively late run of novels, and it’s a strong contrast, I would imagine, to the early, youthful success of John O’Hara. It also points to a fundamental difference between Fitzgerald, the Princeton collegian, and Hemingway, who went to the Italian front.
Birth-years also play a role here. Marquand Nov 93 was able to finish Harvard in 1915 and join the army in 1916, going to Mexico with Pershing (as does John Apley in TLGP); FSF Sept 96 dropped out of Princeton in 1917 and went into the army in Alabama; EH July ’99 graduated high school in 1917 and worked in Kansas City before joining the Red Cross ambulance corps. John O’Hara was born in Jan 05, and published Appointment in 1934, when he was 29. With Edmonds July 03 we want to add another Harvard man, James Gould Cozzens Aug 03 (close!). Marquand, O’Hara, and James Gould Cozzens are lumped together fairly often. It seems like they were all popular novelists writing good books, but they were obscured by giants like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, along with Fitzgerald’s post WW2 recovery. So they were already aging second tier guys, a bit out of step in the 50s with Norman Mailer and other Young Turks on the rise, but the cultural change in the 60s was pretty much a complete wipeout for them. By the time my friends and I came around, in the late 70s, they were off the map, and their books looked dated and uninteresting. I do remember reading more recently–only 20 years ago, rather than almost 40–that Cozzens’ Guard of Honor should be in the running as one of the best WW2 books. But he was apparently just as big a grouch as O’Hara. His own surprise bestseller is By Love Possessed, which gave his career a significant boost in 1957.
Walter Edmonds is even more obscure than the O’Hara-Marquand-Cozzens trio, perhaps because he was a regionalist who returned to Central New York after his college years. Regionalist writings seem like a 19th century literary phenomenon, but it must have been a viable tradition and approach that carried over well into the 20th century, and probably up to today. Edmunds’ big book Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was a strong and steady bestseller, a classic silver medalist that was completely overshadowed by runaway hit Gone With The Wind. I really liked Drums, and would happily read more Edmonds–and now this is a really beefy stack of books from this group, even if you’re selective and only read the best two or three or four by each of these authors.
Summing up, what’s interesting to me is the way that the 20th century is coming into sharper focus all the time now. Tolkein turns out to be one of the most important writers of the century (go look at his academic library shelf), perhaps even vying for a Dickens slot. It makes sense, of course, but it’s a bit jarring for a reader whose taste started forming in the 70s. Books come and go, and there’s still a significant amount of shoving and jockeying for position. These midcentury guys, grouchy or not, will try to hold their spots as well as they can, even as latecomers like John Williams and Richard Yates make a somewhat surprising grab for position.