Sunday, August 2, 2020

John O'Hara domesticates Hemingway - It had been a very fine experience

By using such details, O’Hara almost single-handedly invented what came to be known as the New Yorker story.  (Frank MacShane, “Introduction,” Collected Stories of John O’Hara, vii)

I associate John O’Hara with the New Yorker of the 1960s, when he published something like two hundred stories in the last decade of his life, but here we are back in the 1930s, when it took O’Hara all of sixteen years to write his first two hundred short stories, and they were really short, a thousand words or two (the twenty page “Doctor’s Son” is a major exception).  Collected Stories gives a hundred pages to the first period, 1934 to 1947 (I just read this section), and three hundred to the second, 1960 to 1970, but the number of stories are the same in each.  In the middle period, O’Hara was mad at the New Yorker so abandoned short stories.  Literary history is fundamentally comic.

O’Hara is right in that Gertrude Stein – Sherwood Anderson – Ernest Hemingway line.  I will digress on Hemingway.

I’m in “Big Two-Hearted River,” from In Our Times (1925), where Nick Adams is setting up camp after a long hike to his trout stream.

Nick was hungry.  He did not believe he had ever been hungrier.  He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan.

He adds some tomato “catchup,” too.  This is a story famous for its lack of story.  Nick walks, camps, fishes, and thinks, but only about fishing.  Since he is a recurring Hemingway character, and because the story must have some purpose, it must mean something, and much effort has gone into drawing meaning out of the story’s negative space.  It’s about the war, that kind of thing.  Nick was in the war.  Now he’s going to catch some trout.  Meanwhile, his spaghetti is hot.

He was very hungry.  Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.  He looked at the tent once more.  All right.  He took a full spoonful from the plate.

“Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise,” he said happily.

I love that moment.  A lot of feeling is contained in that full-mouthed transliteration of speech.  Nick, alone, only speaks three times in the story, and this is one of them.  “It had been a very fine experience,” he thinks when his meal is over.

O’Hara’s little stories kept reminding me of this moment.  It is as if he built an aesthetic off this moment.  How to take that moment and that man, eating his beans, surprised at how good they are, maybe also how hot, and make that trivial, ordinary incident meaningful.  Turn it into a story.  Not necessarily much of a story, but more of a story than Hemingway does.  O’Hara is no avant-gardist.  He is domesticating Hemingway.  New Yorkerizing him.  The Hemingway of the 1920s, I mean.  The Hemingway of the 1930s is also domesticating the Hemingway of the 1920s.

I should give some examples, of O’Hara’s little details and dialogues, but in these particular stories, at least, they are not as good as that bit of “Big Two-Fisted River.”  How about some last lines?  O’Hara is not Maupassant – I now think that Maupassant (the real one) is not Maupassant (Mr. Trick Ending) – but he is kin.  Remember that these are all two to five page stories.  Not much room to move.

For a while he would just sit there and plan his own terror.  (“Over the River and Through the Wood,” 1934)

Mary looked at him and burst into tears.  (“The Gentleman in the Tan Suit,” 1935)

Over and over, first violently, then weakly, he said it, “The bastard, the dirty bastard.”  (“Do You Like It Here?”, 1939)

He hoped she would say no, but he knew she would say yes.  (“Common Sense Should Tell You,” 1946)

This is what John O’Hara looks like to me, right now.  I should try one of his novels.


  1. "Literary history is fundamentally comic" Great... also life...

  2. I, too, love “literary history is fundamentally comic” (I’ve never thought of that before), but especially this line: “make that trivial, ordinary incident meaningful. Turn it into a story. Not necessarily much of a story, but more of a story than Hemingway does.”

    I never quite understood why Hemingway was required in high school. Nothing he wrote made much of an impact on me. A Farewell to Arms for a seventeen year old girl living a sheltered life in the suburbs? But, as an adult I have come to appreciate his simplicity. “Write just one true line”, and all that.

    How much more would I enjoy John O’Hara now that I’ve read your post. I can just taste the spaghetti and beans.

  3. I just read, last year, Farewell and the The Sun Also Rises for the first time since high school. They must have felt like they were filled with adult mysteries, although I do not exactly remember.

    Now I have come to appreciate his complexity, where appropriate.

    O'Hara is highly readable, easy to enjoy. Character based, but with enough linguistic interest to enhance the pleasure. But these are such little things. I need to read Appointment in Samarra or something, see what an O'Hara novel is like.

  4. “John Updike did it later, but I actually think John O’Hara did it better—dissecting the country club set, the ways everyone interacts with each other, their sex lives and the way men cheat. I can’t think of when I’ve read a book and thought it had such a modern feeling to what he chooses to say about marriage.” —Delia Ephron, The Wall Street Journal

    This, in reference to Appointment in Samarra, immediately furthered my intrigue. Shall we do a read-along in September?

  5. You bet, that sounds great. Samarra in September - it alliterates! And it is not a long novel.

    I do not know Updike that well, but the thought did occur to me that O'Hara must have practically invented John Updike.

  6. I’m thrilled! I love read-alongs, for one thing, as my reading is always enhanced by others’ perspectives...also, I’ve not read John O’Hara, and this novel sounds fascinating to me. Looking forward to it already! Shall I put out an invitation/announcement soon?

  7. Yes, thank you, that would be nice.

    It should not be a hard book for anyone to acquire, but these days, who knows.

  8. The Hemingway of the 1930s is also domesticating the Hemingway of the 1920s.

    Great line (and perceptive observation). I remember loving Appointment in Samarra decades ago; I look forward to the read-along, whether or not I read along.

  9. Some Twitterists also expressed much fondness for Appointment. Very good.