Tuesday, November 24, 2015

This Day in Literary History (O’Hara’s ’10 North Frederick’ Published)

November 24, 1955—Random House, yielding to the desire of bestselling author John O’Hara to get a decent critical shake for his latest novel, released Ten North Frederick on Thanksgiving. The ploy, aimed squarely at the daily reviewers of The New York Times, worked: the book earned such a favorable review from critic Charles Poore that the publisher released most of O’Hara’s books on the holiday for the remaining 15 years of his life.

It shouldn’t have mattered—since A Rage to Live six years before, O’Hara had been earning enough from his books to live in the affluent style he chronicled in his fiction—but critics had increasingly given him the backs of their hands, and it stung.

Critic Dwight Macdonald referred to The New York Times’ two regular daily reviewers, Poore and Orville Prescott, as “the lead-dust twins,” but at least as far as O’Hara was concerned, significant differences existed between the two. Prescott had lambasted A Rage to Live for its “sensationalism,” primarily for being “only the story of a woman for whom there is a common but unprintable word.” Poore did not like all of O’Hara’s work (he later had serious reservations about Ourselves to Know), but he never regarded him as anything other than a serious novelist who deserved at least a respectful hearing.

The thin-skinned O’Hara obviously wanted to avoid being  reviewed by Prescott—and eventually, he figured out a way to circumvent him. At the time, the Times critics alternated the days of their reviews, a practice to which the Good Gray Lady adhered religiously. This meant that Prescott did not review on Thursdays.

Publishing on Thanksgiving, then, might have seemed to ordinary bibliophiles a reminder to get hold of another O’Hara title for Christmas. For the novelist, however, it meant stealing a critical march on someone who had done him dirt in print.

Ten North Frederick went through 58 international printings between its original publication and 1970—no surprise. But it also netted unusual critical acclaim for an O’Hara work, culminating in a National Book Award the following year—a recognition so unusual that the legendarily cantankerous author choked up at the end of his acceptance speech.

In nearly 40 years of reading and re-reading O’Hara, this novel remains a particular favorite of mine—even though, as I noted in a prior post, his most enduring legacy is as a master of the short story. Yet the 60th anniversary of its publication—and my viewing, after all this time, of its 1958 fine film adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Geraldine Fitzgerald (both in the image accompanying this post)—has made me reflect anew on why it works so well for me.

For the first time in a novel since the book that first brought him notice, Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara returned to Gibbsville, a fictionalized version of his eastern Pennsylvania birthplace, Pottsville. And, though it is longer and less fiercely concentrated than that earlier work, it deals with similar themes: society’s image of an individual vs. his self-image, free will vs. determinism. That can be seen, very subtly, even in its first paragraph, as a new widow prepares herself for the crowd coming to pay respects at the funeral of her husband:

“Edith Chapin was alone in her sewing room on the third floor of the house at Number 10 in Frederick Street. The room was warm, the day was cold and unbrightened by the sun. The shutters in the bay-window were closed, but the slats in the shutters were open, and Edith Chapin could, when it pleased her, go to the bay-window and look down on her yard and the two-story garage that had been a stable, and above and beyond the gilded figure of a trotting horse on the weather vane she could see roof upon roof upon third story upon third story of the houses on the rising hill. She would know the names of nearly all of the people who lived in them, she knew the names of the owners. She had spent her lifetime in the town, and it was easy to know who everyone was and where everyone lived. It was especially easy for Edith because she had always had a reputation for shyness, and it was not expected of her to make a fuss over people. She could notice them and study them, if it pleased her, without any further social effort on her part than simple politeness called for. It had always been that way.”

Notice the wealth of information suggested by these seven sentences:

*A great length of time is evoked—first by “the two-story garage that had been a stable,” symbolizing the seismic social change wrought by the automobile, second by the note that Edith “had spent her lifetime in town.” The rest of the novel will consider the entire lifetime of her husband, Joe, an eminent lawyer who, by virtue of inherited wealth, is the most prominent man in town.

*Edith gazes down on “the houses on the rising hill.” Her affluence is implied not just by topography but by her manner of beholding those in her orbit; they are beneath her. At the same time, she knows “the names of nearly all of the people who lived in them [and] the names of the owners.” Quietly, O’Hara has distinguished between landlords and tenants (“the people who lived in them”), another clue to the issues of class that obsess him. It might be said that O’Hara, with his insatiable curiosity about people, knew all about houses and their inhabitants. But he sometimes transformed what he knew for fictional purposes. In this case, he took the real-life home that most resembles the Chapins’—a house on George Street in Pottsville, owned by his mentor at a local newspaper—and made it into a far grander home on the written page, according to biographer Frank MacShane. One other thought about the matter of observation here: Technically, there is no passage in the book when O’Hara, as third-passage narrator, enters the consciousness of Joe Chapin. But through the entire experience of everybody gathered at the house for the funeral,  the reader learns as much about him as it is possible to do about a human being with all his inevitable secrets and need for privacy.

*The fact that Edith has lived all her life in town speaks volumes about her narrow horizons. But, except for education at Yale, Joe’s is no broader.

* Edith can look out the window “when it pleased her,” and she can notice and study the townspeople “if it pleased her.” The near-exact repetition of that phrase was not a mistake on O’Hara’s part. Pleasure is a highly contingent matter for Edith. Just as important, it’s a silent assertion of her will—an instinct in stark contrast to her largely passive, though decent and kind-hearted, husband.

*The weather—“cold and unbrightened by the sun”—summons not just a dismal day or time of year, but also, we will learn by the book’s end, the frigid marriage of Joe and Edith. Later,  O’Hara will peg this character unmistakably, without the screen of symbolism: “Protestantism for her religion, extravagance nowhere in her character, and discontent never far from her contemplation.”

*“Edith…always had a reputation for shyness, and it was not expected of her to make a fuss over people.” Much of the rest of the novel will unpeel an onion—the reputation of Joe Chapin as a success—versus the reality—a failure as a family man and in the one ambition he seeks to satisfy in midlife. Similarly, Edith’s reputation for “shyness” will be revealed as a sham. She is not a wallflower, but a withholder of affection. As for what is “expected,” that comes to hamstring her husband. Well into middle age, he does exactly what first his parents, then society, thinks he will do. He has never had to take risks—even small ones, let alone large ones—with the result that his inner resources are lacking. When, at age 50, he finally does decide to seek what he wants—the U.S. Presidency—he cannot grasp how preposterous the notion is, without the slightest political experience. It’s inevitable that, in the preliminary step toward this, running for lieutenant governor of the state, he will be cheated out of a $100,000 donation to the Republican Party by local boss Mike Slattery—who, by his comparatively lower-class upbringing, has far fewer compunctions about seizing what he wants.

There is something else to be noticed about the sentences in this first paragraph: they are long, leisurely even, in the manner of someone about to relate a story about three generations—not just Joe Chapin but also his parents and children.  But O’Hara also knew how such sentences could set up the reader for a short, devastating one, the kind that comes at the end of this long opening section about the funeral, when the mourners begin to quarrel over who will direct a subscription for the memorial they plan in his honor: “Joseph B. Chapin was finally dead. They had started fighting over him.”

Hypocrisy and cruelty run rampant in this kind of social order. Only love—even the furtive, helpless romance between Joe and a friend of his adult daughter’s—provides a grace note in a life discovered, tragically late, to have been empty at its core.

In a very real sense, O’Hara was laying down a marker for himself with Ten North Frederick. In the first two decades of his career writing fiction, his ability to write fast had been undercut by heavy drinking. Then, in the course of a year and a half in the 1950s, his life changed dramatically because of a near-fatal stomach ulcer, the death of his beloved second wife, the resulting primary responsibility for his nine-year-old daughter, and remarriage, on his 50th birthday.

The change in O’Hara was signaled by his pouring an entire bottle of scotch down the drain. After that, he never had another drink. All the energy he had once wasted on pub crawling now went into one of the most astonishingly prolific periods ever exhibited by a major American novelist.

The critical reputation of O’Hara has been dogged by the perception that he never wrote another novel as good as his rookie effort, Appointment in Samarra. A different but equally sizable group of people disliked his unsparing treatment of how characters interact, including through sex.

It’s a sign of the skill and complexity of O’Hara’s tough-minded realism in Ten North Frederick that he provided an answer of sorts through the otherwise not very sympathetic Judge Lloyd Williams: “Well I don’t give a damn what you think or anyone else. Nothing personal. I just see what I see and I don’t shut my eyes to it.”

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