Ourselves to Know

Novelist Philip Roth, in Exit Ghost, has his character Zuckerman narrate the tale of a college dean accused of racism, who, in the end, improbably, turns out to be Afro-American. This is at most ironic; it doesn’t redeem the hero within the story, whose plight would be much the same whether he be black or not. But the novel reminded me of old movies like Pinky in which the heroine is a black who passes for white. And that, in turn, raises the broad question of assimilation, personal or institutional. Dorothy Parker, née Rothschild, more or less successfully concealed her Jewish origins through much of her life. She hated her origins, but then she hated lots of things, including her convent education, the last suggesting that her father before her had sought to separate himself from Jewishness, at least the Jewishness of the lower East Side from which he drew the employees for his garment district sweat shops. And then there is John O’Hara.

It has long been fashionable to make fun of the gruff Dumbo-eared O’Hara, forever wearing his longing for admission into the Ivy League world on both sleeves. Hemingway once suggested that a fund be raised to send O’Hara to Yale so that he could get over his fascination with the college life he had never known. I doubt that would have done it. O’Hara, with the Social Register ever at his fingertips, knowledgeable in the lore of fraternities and secret societies and Manhattan clubs to which he didn’t belong, incorrigible name-dropper, is an easy target. One biography of the author begins with a chapter called “The One Who Didn’t Get The Nobel Prize,” an honor after which O’Hara hankered. He wanted medals and honorary degrees. Sometimes he would even settle for books of matches purloined from clubs that were not his so that he could scatter them around his living room to impress his guests.

What makes O’Hara particularly interesting is that in pursuit of recognition and acceptance he left behind Catholicism. His case is similar to, but far from identical with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald never graduated from Princeton, but the institution left a deep mark on him. His classmates’ prep schools and money and WASP aura became for him the world in which he wanted to make it. But unlike O’Hara, Fitzgerald had enough self-knowledge and perception to see that the worldly ideal that gripped him was not worth the price of entry. The pensive essays in The Crack-Up are almost public confessions of where and how his life went wrong. One finds no such second-guessing of himself in John O’Hara.

O’Hara may have been the best short story writer of his generation, a master of the mystifying yet satisfying Chekhovian tale. When he dropped into novels, he oppressed the reader with endless lists of the cars and houses and addresses and clubs and fraternities and universities that are meant to place his characters socially. The novels grew longer and longer as if he feared not getting in enough of the trivia which for him defined character. He can be severe with his characters, but it would be a task to discover his criteria for judgment. They seem to consist of an unformulated code imposed by old money, old families, and the prejudices of the society he longed to enter. There is no echo at all of a transcendent, religious, let alone Catholic, point of view in his work.

O’Hara is a special case if only because he was so emphatically, and predictably, unsuccessful in becoming what he was not. He cannot be called a Kennedy-Catholic because the Kennedys were assimilated into the wider secular culture of the country, at the expense of their faith. O’Hara remained an outsider, his big Irish face forever and pathetically pressed against the window of an exclusive club.

Assimilation and secularization can be almost identical. The Catholic, seeking entrance to a world in which his faith and origins are generally scorned – anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the liberal – can succeed only by failing to be true to his original self. But failure is perhaps the rule. It is as if one donated his body to science only to have it refused. Ironically, Catholic writers such as J. F. Powers and Flannery O’Connor understood that, as Catholics, they were in the mainstream of western art and wrote out of an outlook representing centuries of accumulated wisdom. By contrast, the dominant secular view is destructive, inadequate, uninspiring of great art.

Plato said that the state is the individual writ large. In individuals a hunger for the respect of mankind becomes indecent when that respect entails abandoning one’s faith. That is true of institutions as well. The secularizing of our Catholic universities is more likely to receive the contempt accorded O’Hara than a welcome from those whose rejection we should strive to deserve. Look at Flannery O’Connor. Ah well, a good man is hard to find. Would that there were more O’Connor-Catholic universities than the O’Hara-Catholic kind.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.