Thursday, April 9, 2009

This Day in Literary History (John O’Hara Completes “Appointment in Samarra”)

April 9, 1934—It was a week late, but John O’Hara mailed out to his publisher the saga of desperation that reflected his own battle with alcoholism and despair in the middle of the Great Depression: Appointment in Samarra.

The best account you’ll likely read of his feverish attempt to finish his first—and, in the minds of many, still best—novel would be an article called “The Road to Samarra,” in the August 2003 issue of Vanity Fair. It’s an excerpt from Geoffrey Wolff’s The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara.

The narrative of O’Hara’s headlong race to finish the book was so compelling that I bought this biography as soon as it was available. Upon finishing it, I thought that I hadn’t experienced such a sense of anti-climax since I saw Alan Alda’s comedy Sweet Liberty in the 1980s. After some further reflection, I realized the source of my chagrin: not just the best stuff of both works was in their “sneak previews,” but all the good stuff in it.

I wish I could recommend the whole biography, but it’s maddening. Evidently, dealing with such an ornery subject was too much for Wolff, who pretty much threw up his hands at even dealing with the last two decades of his subject’s life, when O’Hara gave up the booze and concentrated on the short stories and novellas that constitute the greatest part of his literary reputation.

In a prior post, I dealt with Robert Montgomery’s TV adaptation of the book often judged O’Hara’s best, but the story behind the novel’s creation deserves its own space. I suspect readers—mine and O’Hara’s—know a good deal already about the writer’s life, but they might not know so much about the crucible in which this book was forged.

First, a few words about some artistic influences:

* Sinclair Lewis hated—just hated—this book, starting with the title (which I love because of its almost Calvinistic sense of foreboding, even predestination). But in its anatomy of a small community and its constrictive social norms, its ear for dialogue, and its reporter’s eye for the telling detail, O’Hara shows the impact of the creator of Main Street.

* O’Hara was generous—perhaps, given his subsequent reputation, too much so—in crediting F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose Tender Is the Night he read in galleys. The original title of Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Drunkard’s Holiday,” might have been even more appropriate, given the Yuletide setting, in O’Hara’s tale. Both novels are concerned with the power of money, slow and steady moral corruption, the dissolution of a marriage, and the sorrows of gin.

Since coming to New York City in 1928, O’Hara had hurtled through a string of the finest writing jobs, ones his peers would have killed for: Time Magazine factchecker, Editor & Publisher reporter, Daily Mirror night rewrite man, movie critic-radio columnist for the Morning Telegraph, and contributor to Colliers and The New Yorker.

When he wasn’t getting fired, the money was slipping through O’Hara’s fingers—the situation not helped by his penchant for cashing checks at the bar, not to mention spending money on plays, post-show dinners, nightclub-hopping, and late-night/early-morning taxis.

Worse, his marriage to an aspiring Broadway ingénue, Helen Pettit, was unraveling because of his jealousy. O’Hara’s improvidence, unreliability and boozing belligerence led his wife to have an abortion, then seek a divorce after only two years of marriage.

At the beginning of 1934, a desperate O’Hara called three publishers simultaneously one afternoon, showing them the early chapters of his book and giving them overnight to decide whether they would advance his living expenses while he completed the project. The winning offer--$50 per week for eight weeks, from publisher Alfred Harcourt—was just enough to ward off privation.

For the next several weeks, O’Hara wrote like a man possessed—his typewriter propped up on his bed instead of a desk, dispensing with carbon copies. In March, he hauled his typewriter aboard a cruise ship, where he could scramble for additional dollars as editor of a cruise newsletter while he hovered fruitlessly around a lady friend.

On April 9, with much regret, O’Hara shipped off his first novel. It echoed with its steeplechase origins, never letting up from the first scene. From the initial social mishap—car salesman Julian English’s drink flung in the face of an Irish social climber—the furies gather, pursue and destroy this charmer with a weak will and overextended credit.

Set in one small community in eastern Pennsylvania over three days during the Christmas season, Appointment in Samarra possesses the classical unities of time and setting spelled out in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. That concentrated artistic impact might reflect, in part, O’Hara’s white-hot intensity in meeting his short deadline, not to mention the real-life sodden anguish over the breakup of his marriage and his declining personal prospects.

Recent critical polls—including one by Time reviewers Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo—have listed O’Hara’s first novel as among the 100 best of the last century. O’Hara would be deeply chagrined that his overall popularity has dropped off since his death, but most writers aren’t even this well remembered by posterity.

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