Updike and O’Hara

I just read this review by Louis Menand of a biography of John Updike. Lots of interesting stuff here, with this, perhaps, being the saddest:

When Updike received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, in 1998, two of [his second wife’s] children were present, but his were not invited.

Menand’s article seemed insightful to me but I was surprised to not see the name “John O’Hara” once. Updike seems so clearly to be a follower of O’Hara, both in form (lots of New Yorker short stories and bestselling novels) and also in content (they wrote a lot about sex and a lot about social class). Here’s Menand:

Updike wanted to do with the world of mid-century middle-class American Wasps what Proust had done with Belle Époque Paris and Joyce had done with a single day in 1904 Dublin—and, for that matter, Jane Austen had done with the landed gentry in the Home Counties at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and James had done with idle Americans living abroad at the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to biopsy a minute sample of the social tissue and reproduce the results in the form of a permanent verbal artifact.

That sounds a lot like O’Hara, no? Also this:

Updike believed that people in that world sought happiness, and that, contrary to the representations of novelists like Cheever and Kerouac, they often found it. But he thought that the happiness was always edged with dread, because acquiring it often meant ignoring, hurting, and damaging other people.

And this:

Updike’s identification with Berks County and its un-cosmopolitan ways . . . was crucial to a deeply defended and fundamentally spurious conception of himself as an ordinary middle-American guy. He wanted to rescue serious fiction from what he saw as a doctrinaire rejection of middle-class life . . .

Sure, there were differences between the two authors, most notably that Updike was famous for having excelled at Harvard, whereas O’Hara was famous for resenting that he’d not gone to Yale. Also, O’Hara wrote lots of things in the old-fashioned story-with-a-twist style, whereas Updike’s plots were more straightforward, one might say more modernist in avoiding neat plotting. Overall, though, lots of similarities.

I’m not saying that Updike is a clone of O’Hara but I was surprised to that Menand didn’t mention him at all.

P.S. In searching on the web, I came across this article by Lorin Stein that quotes Fran Lebowitz as describing O’Hara as “underrated.” Which is funny to me because Fran Lebowitz is perhaps the most overrated writer I’ve ever heard of.

P.P.S. More interesting than all the above is this 1973 essay, “O’Hara, Cheever & Updike,” by Alfred Kazin.

17 thoughts on “Updike and O’Hara

  1. Ask someone under 50 if they’ve even heard of O’Hara or Lebowitz let alone read them.
    In the early 60s, Alan Sherman could sing,to the tune of “Frère Jacques,”
    Sherman: “Whatcha doin’ Sara”
    Female: “Reading John O’Hara”
    Sherman: “He’s nice too, he’s nice too.”
    And it would get a laugh. Not today. Will you even find O’Hara in the American short story anthologies? Cheever and Updike will be there.

    I wonder if it’s the tone. In Cheever and Updike, middle-class Americans in the suburbs and towns are just trying to work out their own lives; any harm they do is unintended. Their motives are pure mostly. Nobody gets angry, nobody gets even since there’s nothing to get even for. (At least, that’s the general impression in my memory.) Unlike Roth or Bellow. In fact, now I’m reminded of that line from “The Front.” Andrea Marcovicci, as the WASP from Connectcut says she comes form “the kind of family where the biggest sin was to raise your voice. The Woody Allen character says, “In my family the biggest sin was to pay retail.” [Allen has no writing credit in this film, but this line sounds so much like him that you have to wonder.]

    • Well, Andrew is under 50 (as am I), although not by much. But yeah, O’Hara is not read much these days, and hasn’t been for a few decades. But, to be fair, he died in 1970 and did most of his best work several decades before that, whereas Updike was still writing good stuff well after 1990. Perhaps in forty years people under 50 won’t know Updike, either.

      I was going to quote a few bits from the Wikipedia entry on O’Hara but really the whole thing is worth reading.

  2. Andrew’s infatuation with Updike must be a New York thing. Writing about mid-century suburban life seriously is inimical to any claims to great literature. One yearns for a Babbitt or even a Bullet Park from this wordsmith–but alas, not to be. Ok, ok?

  3. I have never heard of O’Hara but then I’m English. The Amazon UK website indicates that I’m not alone. Appointment in Samarra has 6 reviews whilst the others have 2 at most. His time on earth coincided almost exactly with Steinbeck, who gets hundreds of reviews on Amazon UK. So, I guess he is considered a lesser author.

  4. I see O’Hara as more influenced by someone like Fitzgerald and Updike as more influenced by Hemingway, though O’Hara moved more toward the latter as that style became normal. I’d say Eugene O’Neill was an influence as well, but then he influenced everyone.

    I’m not an Updike fan. I prefer the more ethnic take on American life in mid and later 20th century fiction.

  5. Another reason I drew the O’Hara connection was the sad story about Updike’s distant relationship with his children. I’d always thought of Updike as being so cheerful (in contrast to O’Hara’s dour resentfulness), and reading this about his kids switched me to a darker view of Updike’s life.

      • Agreed. I never read Kazin’s article, so thanks for that.

        Also, on your “darker view” comment, my brother Alec told me that Updike’s late years were painfully isolated. His wife kept him detached as much as possible from old acquaintances. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for his children to get through to him. He was not exactly a family guy.

  6. I’m very pleased to see that there are some people our there who know about — and appreciate — John O’Hara. He is one of my favorite authors — unfortunately he is seldom read today.

    I would also recommend to you John P. Marquand (another mostly forgotten mid-20th century author) and Louis Auchincloss.

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