“Joe was like a young fellow that never grew up. In many respects that was what he was. But if you let it end there, you wouldn’t have the full picture of the man. I can’t believe that what I was allowed to see of Joe was all there was. If that was all there was, he was a dull man, perhaps a stupid man.”
Joe Chapin is the main character of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick. There’s nothing really special about Joe, and he would have been a very average man if not for his inherited wealth. Born into the privilege that always cocooned him and also denied some fundamental, necessary experiences, he attended law school, married and had two children. He was a good husband, a good father, and as a conservative, he was also a lifelong member of the Republican Party. He never travelled to Europe, didn’t fight in a World War, but he did have political ambitions which grew, almost preposterously, from his innate sense of self-worth. In many ways it’s a small life, and it’s definitely a sad life. From early childhood, Joe was conditioned to act a certain way, think a certain way, and only mingle with certain types of people. Joe was a man who never stepped out of line–except once, and that incident led to his permanent unhappiness.
Ten North Frederick is the address of Joe’s home–an old mansion in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. This was also Joe’s parents’ home; Joe was born in the house, and he died there. He obeyed his family’s wishes to keep the family home in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the most elite address in Gibbsville, because the best families–not the richest or the most fashionable–lived in that section of town, and even Joe’s address said a great deal about the sort of man he was. We could say that Joe was defined by external markers rather than internal. Joe was, in fact, a rather hollow person.
The novel’s focus is on the hypocrisy of small-time American life. In the introduction, written by Jonathan Dee in my Penguin Classics edition, Dee argues that O’Hara’s work is primed for a renaissance. He states that the novel is “pitilessly accurate” in “freezing the details of a bygone era in American history,” and citing the 2008 financial clash, that the novel blasts “the great American fairy tale of class mobility.” One of my pet beliefs is that no one writes as well about the excesses of wealth and the tentacles of selective power than Americans, and Ten North Frederick, surely one of the giants of 20th century American literature bolsters my argument. O’Hara’s style is heavy & ponderous–think Dreiser.
The novel begins with Joe’s funeral, and then the narrative expands with various pallbearers’ versions of Joe. A picture begins to form of the man who was the epitome of conformity, but then O’Hara moves in closer to see Joe through family members, and cracks begin to appear in the image we have until, by the end of the book, the vision we have of Joe and his life is of a big blank hemmed in and defined by conformity. Joe moved in a circle of influential people who all thought like him, shared the same values and beliefs, and rarely, if ever, stepped outside of their comfort zone.
In Gibbsville, in 1909, only a few men could tell with exactness the true wealth of the wealthy Gibbsville families. A family that had assets worth $800,000 could, and usually did, live in great comfort without spending much more money than a family worth $200,00. It was a matter of pride with the best people of Gibbsville to live comfortably, but without the kind of display that would publicly reveal the extent of their wealth. A few families, whose names were given to large holdings in coal lands and to breweries and meat-packing houses, lived in American luxury. They were the owners of the early motor cars. they employed the larger staff of servants. They had summer homes at distant resorts and led the lists of contributors to church and charity. Their wealth was a known fact and they were free to enjoy it. But behind them, obscured by the known wealthy, were the well-off, who possessed considerable fortunes and who quietly ran the town.
The book goes back in time over Joe Chapin’s life. We meet his parents locked in a bitterly miserable marriage. Joe’s neurotic, sexually repressed, vindictive mother Charlotte transfers all of her ambition and attention to her son while sidelining her husband into becoming a marginal, distant figure in his own house. Joe eventually marries Edith Stokes, a woman made in the same mould as his mother, and so he steps from his mother’s leash to his wife’s. Nothing is spontaneous with these people, and everything is decided by a name, an address, or a bank account. Here’s Edith planning the wedding invitations which are designed to let people know whether or not they are important enough to be invited to the reception:
Her lists had been checked and rechecked long before the engagement announcements, so that when she took the list to Charlotte Chapin, the mother of the groom and the bride-to-be were almost in perfect accord. Names marked with an “R” for reception remained marked with an “R”; a few, but a very few, marked with a “C” for church-only, were remarked with an “R” because Charlotte felt that this husband or that husband was slightly more important in the business affairs of the town than Edith could be expected to know. “It will mean a lot to Joe later on, Edith dear. I’d have done just what you did, but if you let down the bars just a little bit, just in one or two instances, I know it will be appreciated. And they’re worthwhile people, and in one more generation there wouldn’t be the slightest question about their being invited. So don’t you think we ought to be nice to them now?”
And so Joe’s life is controlled from the cradle to the grave–first by his mother, and then by his wife. He rarely makes a decision about his own life; his college is selected for him; his friends are arranged–even his college roommate is no accident, and Joe’s carefully conditioned to not question the status quo or who should be considered as acceptable society. There are many great scenes in the book that illustrate this but my favourite occurs when Joe’s mother, Charlotte takes offence with how 10-year-old Joe is treated by another mother, Blanche Montgomery, at a child’s birthday party. She vindictively colludes with an acquaintance to punish Blanche by shutting her out of the ‘best’ society.
The exclusion of the Montgomerys from the informal little dinner club was not noticed until the unannounced twenty-couple limit had been reached and nominations closed. It was an informal club in that there was no clubhouse, it had no rooms, no place for a bulletin board, no stationery. Its name was The Second Thursdays, without the word club. When it was seen that the Montgomerys were not included (and it became known they had not been asked), their social indispensability was at an end. Charlotte’s strategy had included extra, direct snubs for Blanche Montgomery, but she need not have planned so carefully. The absence of the Montgomerys from The Second Thursdays lowered their standing in the eyes of nonmembers and members–and no one, or almost no one, ever knew what had happened. One day they were a first family; then in a short while they were just another old family with money. And even Blanche Montgomery did not suspect Charlotte, who was not a member of The Second Thursdays; nor did she suspect Bess, a woman incapable of intrigue. In her tears and anger she blamed herself, but she never discovered the real reason for the snub. Perhaps she spent too much money on clothes? Perhaps she had flirted with someone’s husband? Possibly they did not like the color she had chosen for the repainting of the old Montgomery mansion? She was fully aware of the enormity of her failure: not even being married to a Montgomery was enough to carry her, but being married to her was enough to hurt a Mongtomery. In 1930, when her son was a lawyer for the big bootleggers and organized prostitution, dressed like a bootlegger and one of the prostitutes’ best patrons–she still blamed herself, and wished that her boy could have turned out like Joe Chapin.
The novel is packed with unforgettable characters: the vicious, yet hale and hearty politician, Mike Slattery, a very powerful man who runs the local political scene, and his wife, Peg who wanted the wives of the local elite to “not forget for a minute that she was the most powerful human influence upon one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth.” If you want a favour–someone run out-of-town or an abortion arranged, then Mike is your man. Mike never forgets that people owe him, and he sees himself as the puppetmaster behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Chapins never really understood that Slattery’s power did not run on the same level as their own. Since a great deal of the novel’s focus is on conformity and hypocrisy, it’s not too surprising that there’s a thread of sex–illicit, secret, repressed–running throughout the book and seen in the thoughts and actions of several characters.
Ten North Frederick, which was incidentally made into a film, is the portrait of a privileged American but it’s also the portrait of the first few decades of the American century with landmark historic events which don’t touch the Chapin family. WWI takes place off in the distance, prohibition reigns–not that the alcohol ban makes any difference whatsoever to Joe and his friends who always have plenty of alcohol to drink, the 1928 crash, (Joe loses money but life doesn’t change), the depression and there are distant rumblings of WWII. Ten North Frederick is a monumental achievement. It begins with Joe’s funeral and the many versions of this man, so at first Joe appears in our vision as a complicated piece of origami which over the course of the book is unfolded, through his various relationships, to reveal … a blank, creased piece of paper, a remarkably empty human being. And yet at the same time, it’s to O’Hara’s credit that the character of Joe remains fundamentally sympathetic.
** For foreign readers, there are a few passages of Pennsylvania Dutch which I had to work my work through phonetically.