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Monday, 31 March 2008

Lit'ry Life: John Steinbeck

Steinbeck Channels John O'Hara

By Richard Carreno
I remember, long ago, how the late journalist George Frazier once explained how his son, George Frazier IV, received the moniker 'IV'. It was because of John Steinbeck, he said. Steinbeck, Frazier told the group I was in, landed on the 'IV' for his son John Steinbeck IV (1946-1991) on a whim. There had been no 'Jr,' or 'III,' beforehand, you see. "If it was good enough for Steinbeck, it was good enough for me,' Frazier said. Actually, that was same line of reasoning I employed when I named my youngest son, Hunter, 'Hunter Carreno IV.' But, as they say, I digress.

What got me thinking about John O'Hara was, in fact, Steinbeck. This, thanks to a recent article about the author in The New York Review of Books by Robert Gottlieb, a former -- and the brilliant, I should add -- editor of The New Yorker.

First, I didn't know that O'Hara and Steinbeck were friends, that is, New York-based friends. I always reckoned that their backgrounds and visions were quite different, divisively diffrent -- Steinbeck, the populist; O'Hara, the elitist. It's more complicated than that, of course. But you get the idea Still.... Both authors became more politically conservative as they aged. They were both gung-ho supporters of the Vietnam War. Both of Steinbeck's sons were volunteers in the war. I believe O'Hara's step-son was also a volunteer. (Me,I was a draft-dodger. Actually, not exactly. I received a 4-F, and if you don't know what that is, you're younger than 50 and you don't believe in a Fairy God Mother).

Gottlieb, writing in the Review's 17 April edition, says Steinbeck's 'life in the big city was populated by well-known New Yorkers-about-town: Abe Burrows, John O'Hara, Fred Allen, the Benchleys, Burgess Meredith, the Frank Loessers. When Joshua Logan invited him to a party for Princess Margaret, he told Elaine [Steinbeck's third wife], "That's not the way I live." But it was the way he lived.'

Gottlieb continued, East of Eden was 'also a new kind of novel for Steinbeck -- a novel of moral crisis, told entirely in the first person, very much in the spirit if not the tone of East Coast novelists like his friend John O'Hara...' Who knew?

Just by changing 'Pottsville' for 'Monterey' and 'O'Hara' for 'Steinbeck,' Gottlieb on Steinbeck could be a stand-in for O'Hara: '...[W]ho in America considers him seriously today, apart from a handful of of Steinbeck academics and some local enthusiasts in Monterey?'

There's a big legacy difference, however. Gottlieb notes the 'force-feeding' of Steinbeck on 'hundreds of thousands of school kids' and, more recently, the author's recent 'official canonization by the Library of America....' (Gottlieb's essay on Steinbeck was occasioned by a new Steinbeck edition by The Library of America).

As for O'Hara, nowhere to be found -- much. Certainly, not in schools. Thanks to the O'Hara Estate, I'm told, his works have not been permitted to seep their way into school-oriented anthologies, the source of 'literary' teaching nowadays. Likewise, no Library of America editions of O'Hara's oeuvre.

Another check? At my Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square (in Philadelphia, no less!), three O'Hara books on the shelf. More than dozen by Steinbeck. Enough said.