John O’Hara: He Wrote Honestly and Well—He Told the Truth About His Time

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer John O’Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to a prosperous family. His father was an esteemed surgeon and the family lived in a mansion on Mahantongo Street, one of the fanciest addresses in Pottsville. They had five automobiles, horses, and a show farm, but when O’Hara’s father died and left the family penniless, the death destroyed the son’s dream of attending Yale University. For the rest of his life he collected matchbooks from clubs that wouldn’t have him as a member. After he got famous he lobbied so hard for an honorary degree from Yale that when Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, was asked why O’Hara never received one, he answered, “Because he asked for it.”

O’Hara wrote the best-selling novels Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Butterfield 8 (1935), and is often credited with creating what is now known as “The New Yorker” story: a short story with no firm ending that mostly hinges on mood and tone. He published over 247 stories in The New Yorker, though Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder, couldn’t stand him. For a long time the magazine’s editors had a running joke: who was more difficult to edit, John O’Hara or James Thurber? Many of his stories are set in the Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, the fictional stand-in for Pottsville.

O’Hara mostly wrote about class, money, and sex in an unsettling way. He had a great ear for dialogue, having worked as a waiter an ocean liner, a hotel night clerk, and as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune and Daily Mirror. O’Hara was an alcoholic and was often fired for being hungover.

John O’Hara died in 1970 and wrote his own epitaph for his tombstone. It reads: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”

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