Analysis of John O’Hara’s Graven Image

“Graven Image” first appeared in the New Yorker (March 13, 1943) and then in O’Hara’s collection of short stories, Pipe Night (1945). In his review (March 18, 1945), Lionel Trilling praised O’Hara as having, “more than anyone now writing,” “the most precise knowledge of the content of our subtlest snobberies, of our points of social honor and idiosyncrasies of personal prestige,” for example, “of how secretly profound is the feeling which many modern Americans have about their college lives.” It seemed to Trilling that “no other writer could have projected the story ‘Graven Image,’ in which the New Deal bigwig, even at the moment of his greatest power, cannot forgive or forget his exclusion from the Harvard Club he had wanted to make.” Indeed, O’Hara was “the first writer . . . to deal fictionally with the social and emotional possibilities of the New Deal dignitaries” (Critical Essays on John O’Hara 41–43).

The “New Deal bigwig,” an undersecretary in the Roosevelt administration, arrives for lunch at an exclusive men’s club in Washington with a former Harvard classmate, who seeks a high-level federal appointment. The undersecretary, “a little man,” is called “Joe” by “the man he was to meet, Charles Browning.” He is surprised to have heard from Browning, who thanks him for having answered his “letter so promptly.” “Well, frankly, there wasn’t any use in putting you off. . . . I don’t where I’ll likely be in a month from now. In more ways than one. I may be taking the Clipper to London, and then of course I may be out on my can! Coming to New York and asking you for a job. I take it that’s what you wanted to see me about.” Browning replies, “Yes, and with hat in hand.” The undersecretary cannot see Browning “waiting with hat in hand” for anybody, “not even for The Boss.” Browning laughs and explains to the puzzled undersecretary, “Well, you know how I feel about him, so I’d say least of all The Boss.” The undersecretary concedes that Browning has “plenty of company in this goddam town,” and therefore wonders why he has come to him.

John O’Hara/The New Yorker

Why did he not go instead to one of his “Union League or Junior League or whatever-the-hell-it-is pals,” for example, “that big jerk over there with the blue suit and the striped tie.” Browning looks and the two men nod. “You know him?” the undersecretary asks. “Sure I know him [from New York], but that doesn’t mean I approve of him.” But “you’re not one of our team,” the undersecretary observes” and “yet you’d ask me a favor. I don’t get it.” “Oh, yes you do, Joe. You didn’t get where you are by not being able to understand a simple thing like that.” Grinning reluctantly, the undersecretary admits that he was “baiting” Browning, who had expected him to do so, for he had “always been against you fellows,” even “in 1932.” “But that’s water under the bridge—or isn’t it?” The undersecretary asks why it should be, to which Browning replies, “For the obvious reason.” “My country, ’tis of thee?” the undersecretary conjectures. “Exactly. Isn’t that enough?” “It isn’t enough for your [New York] Racquet Club friend over there.” “You keep track of things like that?”

“Certainly,” the undersecretary declares, “I know every goddam club in this country, beginning back about twenty-three years ago.” He had “had ample time to study them all, objectively, from the outside.” Noting that Browning is wearing a wristwatch, the undersecretary asks what happened to “the little animal.” Browning pulls out of his pocket a key chain with “a small golden pig,” but the undersecretary notes that “a lot of you fellows put them back in your pockets about five years ago, when one of the illustrious brethren closed his downtown office and moved up to Ossining.” “Are you still sore at the Pork?” Browning asks, and “Do you think you’d have enjoyed being a member of it? . . . You’d show the bastards. O.K. You showed them. Us. If you hadn’t been so sore at the Porcellian so-and-so’s, you might have turned into just another lawyer.” Mollifi ed, the undersecretary thinks he can help Browning, who wants to order drinks to celebrate. The undersecretary orders a cordial, which he sips, while Browning takes a scotch, half of which he drinks while noting that he had been worried about that “club stuff,” adding, “I don’t know why fellows like you—you never would have made it in a thousand years,” realizing at that moment that he has “said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?” “That’s right, Browning,” replies the undersecretary, who leaves, “all dignity.”

This conversation occurs in 1943, as can be inferred from the allusion to Richard Whitney (1888–1974), born into a wealthy family in Boston, educated at Groton and Harvard (B.A., 1911), elected to the Porcellian Club, president of the New York Stock Exchange (1930–35), convicted of embezzlement, and sent to Sing Sing Prison (Ossining, New York) in 1938. The undersecretary, who attended Harvard around 1920 (“about twenty-three years ago”), may be a composite of Sumner Welles, Adolf A. Berle, and FDR. Welles (1892–1961), scion of a rich and socially prominent family in Boston, was educated at Groton and Harvard (B.A., 1914) and served as undersecretary of state (1937–43). Berle (1895–1971), also born in Boston and educated at Harvard (B.A., 1913), served in FDR’s “Brain Trust” and then as assistant secretary of state (1938–44). Neither Welles, who was a nonconformist, nor Berle, who lacked the wealth and social status, cared about not being elected to Porcellian. O’Hara’s undersecretary is “a little man,” but Undersecretary Welles was tall, while Assistant Secretary Berle was short. Welles was forced to resign in August 1943, and Berle was dismissed in November 1944. FDR (1882– 1945) was also educated at Groton and Harvard (B.A., 1904) and rejected by Porcellian and confessed later that it was “the greatest disappointment of my life” (Ward 236). Such unnamed historical models (even FDR is referred to only as “The Boss”) lend authenticity to O’Hara’s undersecretary and Charles Browning, who, as did Richard Whitney (released from Sing Sing in 1941), appears to have worked on Wall Street. In 1940, O’Hara defended FDR against “the fascist bastards who like to say that Roosevelt is a traitor to his class” and contrasted the journalist Heywood Broun (1888–1939), who “honored Harvard by going there,” with “a Richard Whitney, who naturally went to Harvard and was a member of the Pork and the crew, and hunted, and did this and that” (Selected Letters 157). But in “Graven Image,” O’Hara seems to suggest that both the undersecretary and Browning are blinded by their reverence for the Porcellian’s “golden pig.”

O’Hara, John. “Graven Image.” New Yorker, 13 March 1943, pp. 17–18.
———. Selected Letters of John O’Hara. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Random House, 1978.
Schwarz, Jordan A. Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Trilling, Lionel. “John O’Hara Observes Our Mores” (review of Pipe Night). New York Times Book Review, 18 March 1945.
Ward, Geoffrey C. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Welles, Benjamin. Sumner Welles: FDR’s Global Strategist. A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 2003.

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