Vital Signs

John O'Hara and American Conservatism

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...

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