In 1941, Edmund Wilson published a small book of pieces about several contemporary writers, tied together under the tide, The Boys in the Back Room. It was a typical Wilsonian production—insightful, wrongheaded, and regal—synthesizing as “Hollywood writers” James M. Cain, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and others now forgotten, along with John O’Hara. That this linkage was gratuitous and artificial was based almost exclusively on the single fact that these writers had spent some time moiling in the Hollywood studios. Only Cain had any significant relationship with films and their makers, and John O’Hara very little, though two novels, Hope of Heaven and The Big Laugh, dealt with the Hollywood scene. To so categorize him was equivalent to calling Ernest Hemingway a Spanish product because of For Whom the Bell Tolls or the scenes in Spain in The Sun Also Rises.

John O’Hara’s intellectual and emotional roots were East Coast throughout. He had been a newspaperman in New York, his short stories appeared mostly in the New Yorker, and the locale of his writings ranged from Gibbsville, the Pennsylvania city he created, to the Ivy League colleges, to a New York milieu—with their polloi/aristoi, their sights and sounds and smells. He was a jazz buff, but of the strictly Eastern conviction—that is, of the jazz that thrived in Manhattan’s boites.

O’Hara burst on the literary scene with Appointment in Samarra, a novel which had the editing of Charles A. Pearce at Harcourt, Brace—the best O’Hara ever received because it was so light the pencil never appeared. The charge of “Hemingway influence” was immediately made by the critics—true only insofar as any serious novelist at the time paid a debt to Hemingway. That influence was only to a very small degree stylistic. For Hemingway was, for all his “realism” and occasional brutality, a romantic—involved with his plots and his characters, living and suffering with them. His romanticism, particularly in his view of women, was basically adolescent, as were his political views. For Hemingway, an orgasm could make the earth shake, whereas O’Hara could write of sex that “it’s better with your shoes off.”

The Hemingway influence, seemingly, was to write it clean—what made O’Hara turn away from Proust as “heavy, dull, overrated, and sometimes ludicrous,” a judgment he might have tempered had he read the Temps Perdu in French. But with the publication of Butterfield 8, O’Hara’s second novel, no one could reasonably mark him as Hemingwayan. The novels that followed ratified this point. And the disparity in styles and approach was even greater in the short stories. For nowhere did O’Hara display Hemingway’s call on machismo, the in-turned emotionalism, or the compulsion to muscle-flexing. O’Hara had the highest respect for Hemingway as a writer, though not so much as a person, but that respect did not move him into Hemingway’s genre.

O’Hara was always an observer and a depicter—aloof, sometimes slightly superior, and seldom judgmental in probing the social and cultural scene and the motivation, speech, and attitude of those on whom he focused. There is almost no relationship between the violence and high drama of Hemingway’s world and O’Hara’s upwardly and downwardly mobile middle-class with its upper-class pretensions. He wrote with an objectivity and irony in its classical definition that you find in Balzac—and his novels, short stories, and other pieces are a continuous flow of an America-style comédie humaine, akin to Balzac’s gallic oeuvre. No single O’Hara novel or short story can be judged alone. They are all part of a gestalt, a broader and inclusive picture and hard to sort out—Ten North Frederick, A Rage to Live (which it was said he wrote as a vehicle for Joan Crawford), The Lockwood Concern, or From the Terrace.

“I write fast, and do not rewrite, so why pretend,” he wrote in a letter—and the collection of his letters which was published in 1978 is a far better guide to his thinking and his achievement than anything written by his critics. But this was not an accurate statement, for John O’Hara was one of those writers who edits as he goes along, emending, modifying, and deleting—a gift bestowed on the better newspaper-trained writers. He had a sense of typography, of blocking out a paragraph so that it would make his point without directional arrows. And he was a master of indirect character delineation. Of a character in A Rage to Live, one of his more extended and allegedly “commercial” novels, he could write with justice, “At no time do I, the novelist, enter her mind. At no time am I the omniscient, ubiquitous novelist. The God.” That takes a high form of craftsmanship.

For those of us who have had the fortune or misfortune of being writers—writers as more than those who sit down at the typewriter to turn out a best-seller and win a Pulitzer—John O’Hara moves us as one who never took his metier for granted. He was a serieux who not only worked at his craft but examined both it and himself á tout vent. Edmund Wilson and others hold forth on O’Hara’s way of inserting long passages into, say, Appointment in Samarra or Hope of Heaven about a minor character who hardly advances the story. What they do not understand is that the story line be damned; the cameo appearance advances the portrait of the times and the novel. An editor could take a blue pencil to this, bat the loss would be the reader’s. And consider, O’Hara once remarked that he had invented Frank Sinatra in Pal Joey, written when Sinatra was 18, and Elizabeth Taylor as the Gloria Wandrous of Butterfield 8 when she was two.

This was not a boast or a pat on a prescient back, for O’Hara had synthesized a category of individual which perforce had to exist—and would have existed whether or not he had imposed his literary cookie-cutter. He never put himself among the immortal, though he was not modest about what he believed was his rise to the top. And he had some humor about it—humor tinged with deprecation for those who judged him. So he could, in a letter to Charles Poore, the New York Times literary dumpster, state: “Ah, but I do write like Kafka. Somewhere in those 24 volumes of scrapbooks that [my wife] has collected since we were married . . . there is a high-toned think-piece that groups me with Kafka, Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre. Somewhere else, of course, I am in the company of Cain, Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane. And somewhere else, Zola and Sinclair Lewis. I am a sort of utility outfielder, an all-purpose for-instancer. . . . Knuckle ball, slider, high hard one, letup ball, I do it that way to sustain my own interest” and to write it as he saw it, with a tremendous consistency that other writers superior to him did not have.

John O’Hara was not a “great” writer, and he wrote too much in order to sustain a lifestyle he had learned from those he satirized. But he was an important and a significant one. His style was deceptively clean, deceptively simple, which is the essence of good writing. He might have remained the toast of the makers and breakers who congregated at the Algonquin, gave their all for the Liberal Establishment and Dorothy Parker, and treasured their invitations to a Camelot which had forgotten that Guinevere and Lancelot were adulterers. From a tacit acceptance of the Popular Front idolatry and opiniatry, he moved under the prodding of his keen apperceptions of social mores to what we now call a conservative tradition. So he could write in 1962 to a friend at the New Yorker: “I am bothered by Bobby and by his brother . . . I am revolted by the filthy treatment they are giving [General Edwin] Walker”—charged with insurrection and sedition for giving his troops anti-Communist indoctrination. “I have known men like Walker, and some are dead and some are wearing high medals for valor. I’m sure I wouldn’t get along with Walker, but I hate what they are doing to him. The ultimate discreditation, the brand of the psycho . . .

“I condemned McCarthy . . . but they disgusted me with their effort (which they couldn’t make stick) to make lovers of him and [Roy Cohn]. . . . There is nothing too vile for their enemies—but what about Sumner Welles? Acheson? Hiss? What did Truman, no less, call Stevenson. . . . No matter what happens, we have already seen the Kennedy brand of fascism, and there will be more. Watch [Bobby]. I am told he is something. Watch John reaching for more executive power. . . . I was too New Deal to realize it at the time, but it all began with FDR This tribe will make FDR seem like an ardent democrat.”

By 1964, O’Hara had moved further to the right. “The thought that [Barry Goldwater] has been chosen to run on a conservative ticket has the liberals sweating as though the first thing he plans to do is disconnect the hot line and push the bomb button It is already a cliche of this campaign that the incited Negro, led by the irresponsible, blood-thirsty Negro racists, may [decide the election]. . . . [Sixty-five words dropped by a politically correct editor from O’Hara’s text.] I maintain that much of the guilt for the evil race situation must go to the liberals, whose conventional, strictly conformist view is that anything the Negro does is right, and everything that white man does is wrong. . . . But whether [Goldwater] gets it or not, the liberal movement is going to have a setback. And why not? The word [liberalism] has lost its meaning, the movement has lost its usefulness.” And he was also going after the liberal reviewers. “Most of the people who are given books to review are as intolerant as any Ku Kluxer who ever lived. You go along with them, or by Christ they will try to destroy you.”

That was the beginning of the end of John O’Hara, chronicler of the American middle class. Suddenly he was depicted as a Catholic trying to be a Yale-Princeton WASP and a darting of Wall Street. It became a high crime that he wore Charvet ties, drove an MG, and had his jackets tailored at Burberry’s in London. His “bad manners” and “arrogance” were deplored, though never those of Gore Vidal. Whatever fruits of success had come to him were described as a payoff for his support of America’s rich malefactors. He had sold out, sold out. Nothing had changed in his work, and the good, clear writing, the great ear for speech, which had been praised to the skies, were somehow evidence of his loss of literary talent—much as communist critics turned on Malraux’s early communist novels after he had deserted Marx.

John O’Hara went, as John Dos Passos had gone. But the shelf of books he had written was still there. High school teachers, paying their union dues, might not put them on reading lists. And after his death, posthumous sales would not project him onto the New York Times best-seller list. But the books will not disappear, for they are a record which the liblabs would destroy of a period in American life. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn may be a no-no to the NAACP, Oliver Twist and The Merchant of Venice ditto to the Anti-Defamation League which sought to have them banned by the public schools, and John O’Hara to Americans for Democratic Action. But the “proletarian” fiction which preceded him and which passed for “art” during the Depression, the wrathful grapes of John Steinbeck and the others who dominated critical attention in the 40’s and 50’s, and the Grub Street novelists of later decades will be forgotten—as they are now to all but the high school faculties who offer their fealty only to the National Education Association, while they defecate on the learning process. I have more than a suspicion that John O’Hara’s novels and stories will persist, if only because they have something to say about the commedia that is life and death, and his record of what part of America was like in the 20th century, even after we are into the 21st. I still reread him, and so do others who are not concerned with the flim-flam of the Literary Establishment or John O’Hara’s place in the pantheon of American writers, but in what he wrote.