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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 16th, 2003


The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara

by Geoffrey Wolff

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

John O'Hara wrote more short stories for The New Yorker (more than 200) than any other writer in the magazine's history. Nearly all of his total 402 are first-rate. Two dozen or so — "Imagine Kissing Pete," "Graven Image," and "Bread Alone" among them — are masterpieces. (The ever hostile Richard Wright pronounced "Bread Alone" "the only story about Negroes by a white author" that he liked.) In his first book, Appointment in Samarra, O'Hara managed to write one of the most precise and subtle novels of manners — and one of the most unbearably taut depictions of social, psychological, and moral collapse — in modern American literature. But O'Hara was in some sense, and in his own eyes, a failure. He never won the literary world's admiration, for which he so pugnaciously hankered, and his work — especially the fat and sprawling novels, with their relentless accumulations of social minutiae, to which he dedicated the second half of his professional life — is now essentially forgotten. In this keen, stylish, and often acerbic portrait Geoffrey Wolff accounts unsparingly yet sympathetically for O'Hara's (mostly self-induced) disappointments. O'Hara has been the recipient of three previous biographers' exhaustive scrutiny, and Wolff has wisely chosen to rely greatly on their research in writing his far more impressionistic and imaginative life study. He is especially perceptive, and wickedly funny, regarding O'Hara's obsessive fascination with the local and national WASP aristocracy (even if he at times too crudely conflates the two) and his attendant and perpetual sense of exclusion. And he makes clear just how social insecurity fueled O'Hara as an artist even though it hobbled him as a man. More than any other writer of the second half of the twentieth century, O'Hara was acutely sensitive to subtle social distinctions and to how these define — in fact, determine — character: "To read him on a fashionable bar," Edmund Wilson wrote, "is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware." But O'Hara masked that profound insecurity with an aggressive vanity that made him at once contemptible, risible, and pitiable. It's impossible not to cringe at Wolff's exquisite accounts of O'Hara's efforts to buoy his ego (when A Rage to Live sold 100,000 copies, O'Hara insisted that Random House give him a cigarette box engraved with the words "... FROM HIS GRATEFUL PUBLISHERS AND THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND PURCHASERS ... ," which he had dictated himself), even as it's impossible not to feel sorry for a writer consistently "dismissed, mocked, scolded, and almost always patronized," as Wolff notes, by the magazine whose style he helped define. Just as readers begin to commiserate with O'Hara, though, Wolff forces them to remember that he was a famously mean drunk, in a world replete with mean drunks, who hit women and at least one midget (really). (In self-extenuation O'Hara offered an all too typical explanation: "Although I may often have felt like belting a woman, I have never actually taken a poke at one except in anger.") But Wolff fails to emphasize sufficiently O'Hara's stand-up renunciation in middle age of his drunken ways, a turnaround that permitted him to keep the regular schedule needed for the production of his ceaseless social chronicles. Wolff offers a remarkably sure and nuanced reading of O'Hara's best work, and he's obviously, and more or less justifiably, exasperated by such novels as Ten North Frederick, From the Terrace, and Ourselves to Know (to which he refers collectively and dismissively as "the tomes"). But in eschewing a considered discussion of the tomes, Wolff misses the one heroic aspect of O'Hara's failure: O'Hara stubbornly shunned his gifts in pursuit of a genre that suited his ambitions and his interests. With the important exceptions of his choice of wives and his devotion to his daughter, he was a compulsively self-destructive man.

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