Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

John O'Hara--Columnist (and not a good one)

As I wrote yesterday, John O'Hara had several gigs as a columnist--and with some major publications.  Newsweek ("Entertainment Week," 1940-1942), Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser ("Sweet and Sour," 1953-1954--collected in a book with the same title), Collier's ("Appointment with O'Hara," 1954-1956), Newsday ("My Turn," 1964-1965--collected in a book with the same title), and Holiday ("The Whistle Stop," 1966-1967).

O'Hara began as a journalist back in his hometown of Pottsville, PA, where he was fired--as he was from numerous other newspaper jobs--for drunkenness and failing to appear before noon.  All his editors knew he could write--and quickly, too (a good thing in that profession), but they all soon tired of his habits and canned him.  (After he'd already bottled himself!)

Later on, he dried himself out--stopped drinking altogether and became a far more reliable fellow.  But by then, he was self-employed, churning out novels and short stories that earned him (and Random House) a fortune.

So ... it's no mystery why a magazine would employ him.  He had a journalism background; he could write quickly and on deadline; he was a popular writer ... what could go wrong?


O'Hara had ... issues.  Because he'd never been to college, he had a sort of a volcanic truculence that bubbled away below the surface--what used to be called (let's mix a metaphor) "a chip on the shoulder." (In his earlier days, he'd been in bar fights.)   He constantly wrote about characters who had Phi Beta Kappa keys, characters who were often assholes.  He had obnoxious characters correct other characters' usage and grammar.  He professed, in his columns, to dislike Shakespeare and other "establishment" literary figures.  And on and on.

Throughout his columns, this attitude emerged as a sort of I'm-right-everyone-else-is-wrong certitude that was excessive, even for a columnist, who, of course, is supposed to be opinionated.

He also brayed occasionally about how much money he made as a writer, about the awards (not that many) he'd won, about how many millions of books he'd sold.

He also had a sense of humor that few shared.  When he tried to be funny (not often), he just wasn't funny.  It was forced.  Clumsy.

And another real problem: He refused to be edited.  After he became a bestseller, he typed one draft of his stories and novels, made a tiny handful of corrections (mostly typos), and insisted that his text go to press as it was.  He was publishing what you and I would call a rough draft.  This bespeaks a towering confidence--but a sad foolishness, too.  Editors could have helped him--a lot.  But he would rather pull a story--not have it published at all--than have an editor make changes.

In his columns for Collier's, which I just finished reading the other day (an act of determination, not affection), are some real gems ...

3 Sept 1954: says he smokes "because I like to smoke" (note--his death was smoking related ... oh well)

1 Oct 1954: "If I'd had my choice, I'd have gone to Yale."  Well, he did have the choice.  He was number one in his high school class and was set to go--then he got in drinking trouble at graduation and his father pulled the plug on Yale plans until he settled down.  Which he didn't do.

29 Oct 1954: O'Hara liked and admired Hemingway but advised him against acting in a film (which he was apparently thinking of doing) ... If it doesn't work out, wrote O'Hara, "he will have nobody to shoot but himself."  Oops.

4 Feb 1955: "I feel ashamed of myself for liking money as much as I do."

2 Sept 1955 (about the new Stratford Festival in Ontario): "I would not drive fifty miles to see an all-star cast in Hamlet or any other play by the Bard ...."

Laurence Olivier as Richard III
25 Nov 1955 (about the Olivier RICHARD III on TV): "Production too often seems to have been placed in the hands of educated illiterates."

You get the idea.

O'Hara did have some good things to say now and then--some sensitive things.  Once, writing about all the books in his study, he said: "It also makes me sad to realize that I can never know all that is in print in just this one small room" (11 May 1956).  I like that.  It shows a flash of humility--and humanity.

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