O'Hara is Best ...

By Frank Wilson

Author John O'Hara was born a century ago in Pottsville . His father was a physician, and O'Hara's upbringing was comfortably middle-class. But Pottsville society in those days - when coal was still king - was almost feudally structured. The wealthy Protestant iron and coal barons lived in mansions higher and higher up along one side of Mahantongo Street. The O'Haras lived more modestly, halfway up the other side.

O'Hara's wish to attend an Ivy League school, preferably Yale, was thwarted by his father's death. O'Hara took a job on the local newspaper, but soon left for New York City.

It cannot be said that he never looked back. It could rather be said that he only looked back. Pottsville - which he renamed Gibbsville in his stories and novels - had given birth to the dreams and, above all, the resentments that fueled his fiction. In that fiction, many of Pottsville 's good citizens recognized themselves or their neighbors, and a good deal of the town's dirty laundry. There may be markers all over Pottsville now, so visitors can take a John O'Hara walk, but during his lifetime, town and townspeople had little time for him.

Critics haven't had much time for him either. Among his contemporaries, that may have been because they knew him. He was, by all accounts, a most unpleasant man: vain, touchy and quarrelsome. He thought he deserved the big prizes, the Nobel as well as the Pulitzer. He did win the National Book Award (for Ten North Frederick).

He made his name as a writer of short stories, mostly for The New Yorker, and his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, which many still consider his best, is really a novella. Fictionally, O'Hara was a natural sprinter, not a marathoner, but he could make himself go the distance and was convinced that fame, fortune and, above all, literary stature could be his only if he wrote novels that ran on for hundreds of pages.

Ten North Frederick, From the Terrace and the like - soap-opera novels combining solid reportage, O'Hara's trademark spot-on dialogue, and sex that seemed risqué in the '50s but looked passé once Tropic of Cancer became legal - pleased the public immensely, becoming blockbuster best-sellers and enabling their author to continue living the life of a country squire in Princeton.

He might have won the prizes and the critical applause had he stuck to what he was best at. He could report, but he couldn't invent, and he had little eye for the telling detail. What he did have was a flawless ear for the way Americans talk and for how much people reveal not just by what they say, but by the precise way they say it. He is at his best when, having set the scene with minimal ado, he lets his characters gossip away.

In 1960, at age 55, O'Hara published a trio of novellas - "The Girl on the Baggage Truck," "Imagine Kissing Pete," and "We're Friends Again" - under the title Sermons and Soda-Water (taken from Byron's Don Juan: "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, / Sermons and soda-water the day after"). Here, all of O'Hara's literary virtues, and none of his shortcomings, are on display. It is this book, not Appointment in Samarra, by which his work as a whole deserves to be judged.

In "The Girl on the Baggage Truck," Jim Malloy, O'Hara's fictional alter ego, is working for the publicity department of a Hollywood film studio and is squiring one of its stars around New York. The star is involved with a mysterious tycoon who claims to have been born in Gibbsville. The star was also once involved with wealthy aristocrat Junior Williamson, and the pivotal scene in the story takes place at a party on Williamson's estate, to which the star has been invited by Williamson's wife, Polly.

Polly is a cousin of Charley Ellis, who is one of Malloy's best friends, a socialite who has abandoned his ambition to write and joined his father's brokerage firm. Ellis is in love with his cousin, but she is simply fond of him. "We're Friends Again" tells of how Charley's eventual marriage and his friendship with Polly tie in and play out.

Gibbsville figures only peripherally in the first story and not at all in the third, but the second story is set there, making it the centerpiece in more than one sense. Bobbie Hammersmith, the girl all the boys dreamed of, is set to marry a well-bred New Englander, but changes her mind. A few weeks later, she's engaged to Angus "Pete" McCrea, the hometown crowd's all-time dork.

The marriage turns sour fast. Pete's and Bobbie's families go broke in the Depression, and Pete becomes a monster as well as a loser. But the marriage survives, and two children are born. How it survives and why is what the story is about, and in its 112 pages O'Hara writes with a depth, feeling and insight often missing from his outsize potboilers.

O'Hara was much younger than I am when he wrote Sermons and Soda-Water, but his sensibility was already that of someone much older. "A writer belongs to his time," Malloy muses in "We're Friends Again," "and mine is past. In the days or years that remain to me, I shall entertain myself in contemplation of my time and be fascinated by the way things tie up, one with another. "

Critics and scholars might want to pay another visit to O'Hara's Gibbsville. It may not be as mythic as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, but its proportions are more recognizably human.

Frank Wilson is the former book editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. This article was written in 2005.



Hello. My name is Joshua Prager. I’m a journalist in New York City. I write for Vanity Fair and the New York Times and other publications. (You can see my work at www.joshuaprager.com.) 
I wanted to let you know of a book of mine that just came out with a connection to O’Hara. It is titled 100 YEARS and is a list of passages (from novels and poems mainly) about every age from birth to one hundred. Together, they lay out the arc of a human life. 
Anyway, I wondered if you’d be so kind as to alert your members to it. Age fifty-nine in the book is given over to O'Hara. 
Thank you so much. 
ps: If you think anyone might want a copy, you can send them here. 
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Available in September

John O’Hara: Stories

By John O’Hara
Edited by Charles McGrath

Part of The Library of America

Category: Literary Fiction

Best Seller
John O'Hara: Stories by John O'Hara
Hardcover $40.00
Sep 13, 2016 | 880 Pages
  • Hardcover $40.00
    Sep 13, 2016 | 880 Pages  
Vox: 1.267.752.0538
Text: 1.267.752.0538


A Spanish writer and translator, David Paradela, needs help in 'translating' these idiomatic bits in the following O'Hara stories. If you can assist in 'translating,' please send your responses to me at JohnOHaraSoc@yahoo.com. Many thanks, Richard.
The Girl from California
“Why don’t you knock a little sense into him?” (The New Yorker, May 27, 1961, p. 37)
Vince and his father are talking about Vince’s brother, Pat. It’s my understanding that the references to the Army getting him have something to do with the Vietnam War, but I don’t exactly know why the father should knock a little sense into him: is it because he wants or because he doesn’t want to serve?
“It sounds like you ought to use it cooking” (The New Yorker, May 27, 1961, p. 41)
Talking about Montana, Karen says that the name Missoula “sounds like you ought to use it cooking”. I understand she says so because she finds the name funny, but I feel like I’m missing some hidden reference: some kind of cooking ingredient, product, label, utensil…?

Rich Lifestyles

Frank Zachary
John O'Hara, Editor
Frank Zachary, the legendary editor and art director of Holiday magazine and Town & Country, who died earlier this month, once had another party who was equally --if not more -- interested in the lifestyles of the rich: John O'Hara.
According to The New York Times obit (14 June) by Robert D. McFadden, 'After graduating from high school in Rankin, Pa., [Zachary] got a job with the weekly Pittsburgh Bulletin Index as a reporter-photographer. In 1933, his editor briefly was John O'Hara, who soon quit to finish is first novel "Appointment in Samarra." Using Mr. O'Hara's contacts in New York, Mr. Zachary became a part-time Pittsburgh correspondent for Time, Life and Fortune magazines.'

A Cult? A Times Writer Thinks So

 The following was submitted by Society member Charles McElwee.


Stephen J. Pytak

Of the Republican Herald [1 January 2015]
POTTSVILLE, Pa. -- notable work of fiction about the lives and gossip of mid-20th century aristocrats in “Gibbsville” turns 60 this year.

“Ten North Frederick,” a book by John O’Hara, is set in his fictionalized version of Pottsville, specifically North George Street, which is part of the “John O’Hara Walking Tour” in the city.

While times have changed, O’Hara’s books will always find an audience, Leslie Kraft, the literacy coach for Pottsville Area School District, said Tuesday.

“Well-written, character-driven works of fiction don’t often lose their relevancy. When the tension is derived from universal human truths — jealousy, ambition, passion and betrayal — the reader will relate the characters’ inner struggles to his or her own, regardless of the change in time period. Additionally, the book serves as a local color museum for those from the Pottsville area, allowing residents to access the area’s past in a way that makes it tangible and fresh,” Kraft said.

Recently, Kevin Keating, a retired Pottsville Area English teacher, examined a copy of the book from the collection at Pottsville Free Public Library.

“First printing, 1955. That’s kind of neat. When I was in college, I used to have a paperback version. I find it fascinating that I had a hard time finding anything on O’Hara in the Pottsville library before 1970. At that time, he was like a disowned son,” Keating said.

But over time, the community acknowledged and celebrated O’Hara’s books. The library and the Schuylkill County Historical Society have collections of his works and artifacts representing his life. And in October 2002, a life-like bronze statue of O’Hara by sculptor James J. Ponter, Pitman, New Jersey, was placed at 115 S. Centre St.

Initially published by Random House, New York, the book won the National Book Award in 1956. A film adaptation starring Gary Cooper as “Joseph B. ‘Joe’ Chapin” came out in 1958. And while there isn’t a monument to “Ten North Frederick” in the city, the book stands out from O’Hara’s “Gibbsville” books for a few reasons, according to local O’Hara readers and critics who talked about the book recently.

It’s a story about “the ‘best’ people who live in the ‘best’ old section of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania,” according to the cover jacket on the first edition.

In the book, they were the Chapin family, and the book includes stories about three generations of the fictitious aristocratic clan, focusing primarily on the one in the middle, led by Joseph B., a lawyer and bank director, and Edith S., who move to 10 N. Frederick in 1909. The book begins just after his death in 1945. Filled with characters who enjoy gossip, the book includes tales of the couple’s children and the husband’s mistress.
O’Hara named the family after “Chapin Boone,” according to Jack Mansell, 85, of Pottsville, who is fascinated with O’Hara history.

“He’d drop things in his books to acknowledge different people. O’Hara had a boyhood friend who had an uncle named Chapin Boone. The Boone family was originally from Saint Clair,” Mansell said Tuesday.

Last year, Keating and Nathan Halenar, an English teacher at Pottsville Area, taught an O’Hara class at Pottsville Area, “Studies of John O’Hara.” This year, Halenar continued the class.

“Like many of his other works, ‘Ten North Frederick’ represents O’Hara’s feelings that came about as part of his upbringing, his experiences growing up here which led him to become overwhelmingly obsessed with social status and the way that impacts life and direction,” Helenar said Tuesday.

“This story is about not only social structure but family and I think that’s one of the things which makes O’Hara relevant today, and I try to stress this to my students. He remains relevant because when we read his works, we see ourselves,” Helenar said.

O’Hara’s North Frederick is North George Street in Pottsville, Pamela C. MacArthur said in her book “John O’Hara’s Anthracite Region,” published in 2000 as part of the “Images of America” series.

“I always found it funny he set the story here,” Keating said Dec. 26, standing near the section of North George, where the stately home in the book would have been.
“In reality, there is no 10 N. George St.,” according to Regina Gargano, executive director of the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, Pottsville.

The properties in that area are 400-402 E. Norwegian St., owned by Barry L. Fox, Fredericksburg, and 12 N. George St., owned by Nicholas P. Carusella, according to the online Schuylkill Parcel Locator.

Just across the street from where the house in the book would have been, there is a sign recognizing North Frederick Street as part of the city’s “John O’Hara Walking Tour.” It’s affixed to the pole with the tags for North George and East Norwegian streets.
Gargano didn’t know O’Hara’s motivations for creating the house in “Ten North Frederick.”

“We can only guess the things he was thinking, but I think he created a fictitious address because you can’t exactly tie a family to it. So if the house didn’t exist, the people at the time that he wrote it couldn’t feel he was writing about them. People were very self-conscious here about his writing,” Gargano said.

“This is not your traditional Gibbsville street. So that’s what makes ‘Ten North Frederick’ a little odd, if you go by the actual address,” Keating said.

O’Hara usually enjoyed writing stories which took place on the city’s west side, in places like “Lantenango Street,” which in reality is Mahantongo Street. But O’Hara’s North Frederick is on the east side, Keating said.

“The east side of town has always been considered the other side of the tracks. I hope I don’t offend people by saying that. All the haves were on the west side of town,” Keating said.

He wasn’t sure if wealthy families ever lived on North George Street in the late 19th century and the early 20th.

But Gargano believes there were.

“North George is where the wealthy lived before they started moving to Mahantongo, Oak Road and Howard. That’s where the oldest of the wealthy families lived, on North George, aka North Frederick,” Gargano said Monday.

North George includes a hill.

As Keating walked along the street, he said he always imagined the house in the book being higher up that hill.

“I think O’Hara was always fascinated with the idea of the wealthy overlooking, literally and figuratively, the middle class. So they built their homes on hills so they could overlook Gibbsville,” Keating said.

“And I think the homes on this street, as you go up the hill, they become more majestic. And that’s where I always pictured 10 N. Frederick being. But if it was near the corner of North George and East Norwegian, as the book suggests, it would stand out,” Keating said.
The book describes the fictitious 10 N. Frederick in detail:

• “The Chapin house was the only one on Frederick Street that had a stoop of three chaste brownstone steps. The other houses of equal age and proportion had marble stoops, originally chaste but soiled by time and traffic. The front door was a massive fixture, four inches in thickness, with a brass plate the size of a playing card, in which had been cut the name Benjamin Chapin. The patina from years of polish and rubbing left the name barely distinguishable.”
Benjamin Chapin was the father of Joseph B.

• “Above the door was a fan light into which was etched the number 10. The outer side of the light had not been washed – ‘hopeless,’ was Edith’s word for the task of keeping it clean – but the inside was comparatively free of dust.”

• “On each side of the entrance, on the western elevation, was a pair of windows, plate glass, separate but twins. The window sills were high enough above the street level to make it impossible for the nosy to peer in.”

The house included a bay window, a butler’s pantry near the dining room, a dumbwaiter and a small library which was called the “back sitting room.” The house was big enough to accommodate a dinner party of more than 60. In back was a two-story garage which had been a stable, according to the book.

O’Hara was born in Pottsville in January 1905. His novels include “Appointment in Samarra” and “Butterfield 8.” He also penned screenplays, plays and short story collections. He died in April 1970 in Princeton, New Jersey, and was interred in Princeton Cemetery.

Copies of a pamphlet outlining the “John O’Hara Walking Tour of Pottsville, Pennsylvania” are available at the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, based at Union Station, Pottsville.
Gargano offered a guided tour April 26, during the eighth annual Block of Art. This was a new event, and she said she’s planning to do it again this year during the ninth annual Block of Art, but the date and time have not been set.

“I like all of O’Hara’s work. I always have. He’s a social novelist and he was a keen observer of society, hierarchy and class structure, which had more importance in his day than it does today, I think. Back then, people placed a higher importance on it. He was great at dialect and capturing the voices of all the different classes here in society here in the coal region, and John O’Hara’s coal region is from Schuylkill County to Scranton. And I think his work is very, very human,” Gargano said.


'Erotic Visions'

From The Paris Review
Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring

AGM Delayed

Due to scheduling conflicts we are delaying the January Society meeting.  Current thinking is to hold an event closer to O'Hara's death date in April.

If you are considering attending, please share weekend dates in the spring that work best for you, along with suggestions for a location (Philadelphia, New York, and Princeton have been our most frequent meeting spots) and any agenda items, topics or conversation starters that you think we should cover.

January AGM Update

The January meeting of the John O’Hara Society is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, 1/17, in Philadelphia, PA. More details to follow.  If you plan to attend, please let us know if your preference is to hold the meeting at lunch or dinner time.