End Notes: Poison Ivy

The joke about the man who offered his body to science and was refused has an odd analogue in the life of John O’Hara. Raised a Catholic, O’Hara seems to have shuffled off his youthful faith without anguish or even regret. His last brush with it was at Niagara Prep, from which, as had become customary with him so far as schools went, he was ejected. From that point on, he seems never to have looked back. Not that one will find any light cast on this in Geoffrey Wolff’s annoying recent biography (despite a title that promises otherwise), The Art of Burning Bridges (Knopf, 2003). Wolff dwells on the pathetic efforts of the writer to become a WASP, but the vantage point from which he views this lifelong quest is inadequate. The great irony of O’Hara’s life was that, as a minor Faust, he offered his soul for sale, and there were no takers.

O’Hara prided himself on his knowledge of the fine calibrations of trivia that establish status. Throughout his life, he defined himself as an outsider by seeking to ape the tone and mien of an Ivy Leaguer. He knew all the minute details of clubs to which he had not belonged and never would. His attempted snobbery made him the target of snobs whom he held in craven admiration. Even the recognition he had earned as a writer was for the most part withheld—Wolff’s preface is called “The One Who Didn’t Win the Nobel Prize”—but he continued to lobby shamelessly for the tinsels of his trade.

For all that, he was undoubtedly one of the great masters of the short story, possessing a Chekhovian knack for suggesting as much as he told so that seeming vignettes are pregnant with a significance all out of proportion to their length. A late collection he called Waiting for Winter to suggest that in the milder seasons he produced short fiction as he readied himself for the Herculean task of writing increasingly longer and duller novels. The novels trade on the minutiae of status, class, and pecking order and become veritable encyclopedias of transient lore. The atmosphere of all his fiction is defined by the alien outlook he sought to master.

O’Hara was as faithless to his Irishness as he was to his abandoned faith. As a boy, he asked his father, who was a doctor, of the significance of “No Irish Need Apply.” “But we’re Irish,” he replied. His father assured him that the sign did not refer to them but only to the impoverished recent immigrants. Perhaps he learned his snobbery from his father. It is true that he was Irish enough to consider himself the descendant of kings and imagined that other Irish people were in awe of him because of his family name. It was in Hollywood that he met F. Scott Fitzgerald and the two writers got together. Here was an event that a biographer other than Wolff might have dug into: two lapsed Catholics of Irish descent in a mood to confide in one another. How one wishes to know more of that episode.

However it was with his practice, Catholicism clung to Fitzgerald’s imagination, and arcane bits of Catholic lore—for example, the dark night of the soul—crop up in the essays that make up The Crack-Up, in which he tried to understand what had happened to him as a man and as a writer. There is no similar self-reflection in O’Hara. He allowed himself to be defined by externals that were not his own, and in so doing, he defined his own failure in the only terms that seemed real to him. He was far more eager to imagine himself a product of the Ivy League than to enjoy literary recognition, though he also hungered for the latter.

The great redeeming fact of O’Hara the man was his love for his daughter, Wylie, which reminds one of Fitzgerald’s love for his daughter, Scottie. Vain and prickly, a mean drunk until he got off the sauce for good at 50, the master of the imagined slight, in the phrase, John O’Hara emerged as a better and happier man in his relations with his daughter. Children, of course, jolt us out of our egoism and remind us of our debt to the next generation. Fitzgerald now lies in hallowed ground in Maryland. O’Hara molders in the Princeton to which he gravitated. One wants to hope that O’Hara’s magnanimous paternal love covered a multitude of superficial faults.

Ralph McInerny


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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