Friday, July 20, 2012

The Johns Steinbeck and O'Hara

Since John Steinbeck's name popped up here not long ago (in a passage from a letter by George Lyttelton slagging one of his lesser efforts, The Wayward Bus), I'll close this recent run of quotes from John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists with a look at his entry for Steinbeck. Sutherland's biographical sketch is fairly dismissive, essentially agreeing with Fitzgerald's characterization of Steinbeck as a "rather cagey cribber." In his middle period he cribbed from Hemingway, whom he met one time, in the early 1940s:
John Hersey, who set it up, records that the occasion was a "disaster." Steinbeck had given fellow novelist John O'Hara a blackthorn stick. Hemingway grabbed the stick from O'Hara and broke it over his own head and threw the pieces on the ground, claiming it was a "fake of some kind." Drink was probably behind his actions, but one is tempted to allegorise the episode as Hemingway protesting Steinbeck's appropriation of "his" style. That is how Steinbeck read the event, at least. According to Hersey, "Steinbeck never liked Hemingway after that--not as a man."
With O'Hara and Hemingway involved in an altercation, I think it's safe to say that, yes, drink played a part.

I'm inclined to give Steinbeck a tad more credit than Sutherland. Of Mice and Men is simple but moving, and East of Eden, while stagey in places and a tad overblown throughout, is nevertheless powerful. The Red Pony and The Pearl, on the other hand, those staples of middle-school curricula, are horrid and have probably done as much to destroy a love of reading as handheld video games.

Sutherland does at least let Steinbeck off more easily than the aforementioned John O'Hara. O'Hara gets more credit for his best work--Sutherland praises Appointment in Samarra, though he neglects to mention the great novellas of the early 1960s--but as a man he comes in for harsh judgment. In contrast with John Hersey, whose bio precedes O'Hara's, Sutherland writes,
Stylish decency was never the calling card of John O'Hara. Words like "oaf," "lout," and "brute" attach themselves to him, particularly in his drinking days. "A strange, unpleasant man," one critic calls him. Paul Douglas, the Hollywood star, once grabbed O'Hara by his necktie and made a good attempt at throttling him, after an especially obnoxious piece of drunkenness. Many wished Douglas had succeeded.
And that's all with Sutherland leaving out my favorite O'Hara story, of the time he greeted a friend for lunch while wearing no pants . . . which wasn't even his worst offense of the day. But the point is made: O'Hara was a writer better encountered on the page than over a drink.

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