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Slings and Arrows
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
The novelist and short story writer John O'Hara (1905-1970) was one of the most famous American writers of the 20th century, though you'd hardly know it now — his literary "star" has so completely faded in the four decades since his death that he's mainly remembered for his contributions to two non-literary successes, the Broadway musical Pal Joey (1940) and the Elizabeth Taylor movie BUtterfield 8 (1960) both of which were based on O'Hara novels. For someone once considered for the Nobel Prize, for someone often lumped in with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, it's a stunning fall out of popular favor in just a few generations. Along with the other two "Johns" of the time — Updike and Cheever — O'Hara was instrumental in establishing the style of writing so popularly associated with The New Yorker magazine: urbane, nuanced fiction that dealt with big city ennui and upper middle class angst in the pre- and post-war era. But while Updike and Cheever are still read and taught and debated, O'Hara's stories have virtually vanished into oblivion.
One of the main reasons for O'Hara's plunge into irrelevancy is the nature of the man himself — O'Hara was such an impossible, bellicose, raging a-hole that nobody could bear him. He had, hands down, the worst reputation imaginable from a major writer of the last century. O'Hara was the kind of guy who took offense at everything — "The Master of the Fancied Slight" was the common sobriquet that other writers had for him. Any mildly negative review, any perceived exclusion, any tiny, nit-picking offense caused the writer to erupt into Old Testament furies. The writer Fran Lebowitz, who thinks that O'Hara was great and believes that his critical reputation deserves some rehabilitation, once stated that O'Hara "is an underrated writer because every single person who knew him hated him." She said: "As soon as all the people who knew him die off, people will come to share my opinion."
O'Hara had a lot of horrible attributes but it was the Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder that gave him such a fantastically sour disposition. O'Hara's father died when John was 19, leaving the family in terrible straits, and consequently O'Hara wasn't able to attend Yale, the college of his choice. It was a disappointment that he never got over, and he seemed to always bitterly resent the dandies and rich scions who were able to go to the school that he couldn't afford. He nurtured this resentment as he got older, always feeling that he never was allowed into the upper-class, exclusive clubs that the fine-boned aristocrats were given free access to. It was a slight that constantly burned at his core.
For most of his professional life, O'Hara was fanatical about being accepted into literary societies, about receiving honorary degrees, about being feted with awards. Anytime he was denied some prized citation he was convinced it was because of his exclusion from Yale when he was a teenager, which caused a lifelong affliction of never being considered "high class" enough. (It's not surprising that O'Hara was a terrible, graceless loser: When his friend, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, O'Hara, who was up for the award as well, sent him a telegram that said "Congratulations. I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it.")
It's quite easy, from a distance, to ridicule O'Hara's obsessive resentments — during his lifetime the guy had fame, wealth, achievement, distinction — why should he care that he never got into "Skull and Bones" when he was 20? One would think that at some point an adult would relinquish such childish grudges and get on with things, but O'Hara never did. He maintained a ridiculous, rancorous, lifelong disdain for anyone that he thought had ever belittled him.
It's a beguiling notion to think that most artists create their work in a state of tranquil, ennobled spirituality, but I'm willing to bet that a lot operate like O'Hara did — they want to succeed in their field merely as cosmic payback for some long-ago criticism from a now forgotten source. They want to trumpet their latest achievement, they want to hunt down that voice from the past and wave it in their face, saying, "See? See? I did amount to something. I did something great and you were wrong!" They want to keep that chip on their shoulder as long as possible, they want to use it as the impetus for them to accomplish all they can. No matter how much fame, acceptance, positive reinforcements you may receive, it's always the negative blasts that linger in the ear the longest.
I'm such a conceited so-and-so that I always imagined I was sort of above that kind of behavior, that I was immune to such abject pettiness. I've always believed that I had a totally realistic approach to criticisms and personal attacks, that I was even-keeled and mildly amused by people who didn't like something I had come up with. I never believed that I would need an animus to get me started on a project, some negative force that I could focus on with a cold-hearted fury. But then, this year, I started a major project and after a few frustrating stops-and-starts I discovered that the only thing that would get me going — that would really get me going — was to think of the people who've hated what I've done in the past. Suddenly, my resolve to start and see the project through doubled and then tripled in intensity — I got off to a flying start, grimly thinking about the people who've doubted if I have anything to offer at all. It was ridiculous, to be so bound to such a childish method, but I simply had to use it.
In my heart of hearts, I know that the people that I've perceived to have "wronged" me probably did nothing of the sort — they might have uttered some mild put-down or offered a half-thought out criticism, but nothing like the great cosmic insult that I've imagined. It's a willful deception to believe that people have it in for you, when in most cases, they simply don't care enough to hold any opinion whatsoever. But when you're at the drawing board, when you're at the starting block, you'll need something — anything — to nudge you forward. Hopefully it won't turn you into a raging jerk like John O'Hara, but when you choose a life in the arts, anything is possible.