The following is Part II of Robert Knott's interview with John O'Hara Society member Steven Goldleaf, editor of the upcoming volume of O'Hara's New York Stories.
Robert Knott: What were some of the challenges the editing process entailed?
Steven Goldleaf: During the editing I realized that I was having arguments with John O’Hara. I could sense his presence when I would decide, for example, to make something uniform throughout the stories. Some of these were very small things, like the spelling of “grey”—with an “e” or an “a.” He had it both ways. I thought it would be nice to have it consistent, but I imagined O’Hara’s objection: “No, that has to be spelled in the British way because….”
I’m not crazy enough to literally have this argument with a dead person, but in my head I thought: “Yes, sir, but for consistency….” And sometimes they were rather substantial issues. You think of editing as being rather easy, just select some stories, put them in order and publish them, but there were some issues that were tricky. Did I mention the story “Sportsmanship?”
“Sportsmanship” is a wonderful early story that is a kind of morality tale about a guy who steals money from the owner of a pool hall and tries to get back in his good graces. I love the story. It’s one of my favorite early stories and it’s included here because it clearly takes place in the Bronx. But in the course of reviewing it for this collection, I noticed there was a typo in the story. In fact, there was a typo in the title of the story. The story is actually called—and I checked the New Yorker publication and the first book collection and the later book collections—“Sportmanship” with no middle “s.” I thought, “That’s a funny typographical error” and I looked in the story itself and found the character says, in dialogue, “sportsmanship.”
I thought, “OK, let me look this up,” and I looked it up in various dictionaries and it was virtually non-existent. There were no dialectical uses of it, no examples of it in literature. I thought it was flatly a typographical error, but the story has been reprinted with that error in the title and in the story itself time and time again. This was a particularly interesting argument I was having with the dead O’Hara, saying, “We really should fix this one” and he saying: “No, leave it as it is. That was how I approved it for printing in the New Yorker and in the first collection.” I think I went back and forth on this several times. There’s a good argument to be made either way, but ultimately I think I ended up titling the story “Sportmanship,” even though I don’t think that was actually the title of the story or that O’Hara was making any particular point. I think it was simply an error. But it appears as “Sportmanship” in every form John O’Hara ever got to approve. It’s only been transformed into “Sportsmanship” by other editors. I’m not even sure they made the change consciously. They just saw it misspelled and unthinkingly corrected it.
If anyone thinks that “Sportmanship” was a deliberate misspelling on O’Hara’s part I’d be interested to hear about it. I’ve discussed sports with thousands of New Yorkers, but I’ve never heard any of them pronounce that word without all three “s”es in it.
There was another early story called “Good-by, Herman,” which O’Hara sometimes spelled without an “e” at the end, but is sometimes printed with an “e.” Inside the story he references a character who is a non-native speaker of English, a German-speaker, whose name is spelled different ways throughout the story. It’s hard to tell if this is something O’Hara did deliberately to show the difficulty different American characters had pronouncing the name or if it’s simply an error. You could also make all kind of character assumptions based on how an individual character chose to pronounce the name and you’d feel pretty stupid if you found out that was just O’Hara’s goof.
In the end, I just tried to do whatever I thought O’Hara would have wanted me to do, after he and I were done arguing about it.
RK: Do you have a particular favorite story in the book?
SK: I do. If O’Hara were to be represented by only one story, I would probably pick the only story (I believe) that he ever wrote about a black man. It’s a beautiful story called “Bread Alone.” It comes very close to being overly sentimental, but it humanizes this African-American protagonist in a way that very few white middle class authors were capable of doing in the late 1930s. For this reason I think it’s of great historical significance that a white author took such trouble to understand what black people went through and presented it in a way that allowed the reader to empathize with the characters. So, that’s my favorite in a lot of very real senses.
I’ll also say that a story I’m very much drawn to—and again, it’s because of place—is “John Barton Rosedale, Actor’s Actor.” It takes place in a building that is still standing. It’s also a building that John O’Hara lived in for a period in the 1930s. It’s actually a city block between 23rd and 24th streets and 9th and 10th avenues; a series of linked buildings called London Terrace. The story is an unusually good character study of a—how should I put it—monomaniac. This actor who is the protagonist of the story is well portrayed as being extremely talented and extremely prideful. It’s a wonderful study! If I had to get this collection down to only a dozen stories this one would certainly be among that number. It’s a very strong piece.
RK: Is there anything you hope the book reveals about O’Hara to readers new to his work? To readers familiar with his work?
SG: The main trait that O’Hara’s stories have in common is their emphatic theme of compassion. O’Hara is often seen as a kind of hard-boiled writer gifted at depicting circumstances and brand names and outward appearances, but I think that’s all wrong. I think what he was most gifted at was studying people who he felt were not that easily understood. He would go to some trouble to understand what motivated them, what made them behave in the—often odd—ways that they did and then write a story that made the reader say, “I understand why that character did what he did.” Some of the most amazing things he’s done are stories about very unsympathetic characters, sometimes murderers or other criminals and, while you don’t want to go out and commit a murder yourself, you do understand what’s going on in a criminal’s head. I can see how this character got to the point that this seemed like a good option.
One example of this is John O’Hara on lesbianism. In his later years he seemed virtually obsessed with lesbians and how they lived their lives and how they behaved and what they ate for lunch and so on. But I remain convinced that his main motivation for exploring this was that he was a heterosexual man and didn’t really understand what they were doing or how they lived or why someone would be homosexual. Rather than say, “Well, I don’t understand that and to hell with it,” he would write obsessively stories about people who behaved in ways that seemed odd or strange to him, in such a way that he would understand the people finally, and O’Hara’s reader would get to understand what was going on inside that person’s mind.
His last story was entitled, “We’ll Have Fun” and it was about this very unlikely pairing of a wealthy, young upper-class lesbian who finds herself in proximity to an unemployed, elderly Irish stable hand—and they forge a friendship. I think this was O’Hara’s way of saying it is very difficult to predict what people will do when confronted with a type of person they don’t know very well. In this case there was a very positive outcome: two unlikely people getting together and forming a relationship.
(Robert Knott is an officer of the John O'Hara Society).