The Last Word?

Teacher scribes encyclopedia item on O'Hara

Staff Writer

After years of research and a general interest in John O'Hara, Dr. Vincent D. Balitas wanted to write his "last word" on the author who is arguably Pottsville's most famous native son.

Balitas, Pottsville, got his chance with "The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America," published in January by Notre Dame Press.

The book outlines the contributions of Irish immigrants to nearly every area of life, including Balitas' page-and-a-half entry on the author, who was born and raised in Pottsville and became one of the country's best-known and most popular 20th century writers.

"I'd been working on him since I was a kid, when I started reading him," Balitas, a poet, teacher and founder of the now-defunct "John O'Hara Journal," said of the writer. "I wanted to write my final observation on John O'Hara."

The encyclopedia entry - outlining O'Hara's life and works and offering insight into his fiction - joins other Schuylkill County-related sections of the book.

Also included are passages on bandleader and Shenandoah native Tommy Dorsey, for whose band Frank Sinatra was once the vocalist; the Molly Maguires, the controversial group that allegedly perpetrated murder and other crimes in 19th century battles with mining interests; and the one on Pennsylvania itself, which discusses the role of the Irish in coal mining and the labor movement.

Michael Glazier, the encyclopedia's editor, said the book includes entries on the contributions made by the Irish all over the country. Glazier - himself a native of Kerry, Ireland - said he traveled to every state and most major cities to study the history of Irish immigrants.

"I was looking around and I found books on Irish-Americans," said Glazier. "They all seemed repetitive."

Also, according to Glazier, many existing books overlooked the role of the Irish in several areas.

Other studies looked at Ireland the country, but not what happened when its people came to America.

"There was a great need to bind the whole thing together," said Glazier. This book, he said, touches on the Irish and their place in politics, labor, science, Hollywood, crime, music and theater, to name a few.

Displaying obvious pride in the book and its contributors, Glazier still warns the book isn't "bedside reading." It's more of a reference book, he said, for people studying the Irish or families looking for their ancestors.

Still, the book is selling well, with one Irish-themed book store selling 120 copies, which isn't bad for a $90 encyclopedia, said Glazier. He said the encyclopedia could also benefit from the Internet, where online booksellers like stock books not available at normal book vendors.

Balitas said the book will offer people more exposure to O'Hara, maybe sparking more interest in an author whose works are becoming harder to find.

"I would call O'Hara a major-minor' writer," Balitas said from his book-lined living room, recalling the difficulty a fellow professor had in finding copies of O'Hara's novel "Appointment in Samarra."

"There's a book that was named one of the top 100 books of the century, and no one's reading it. There's something wrong," he said. "If you don't develop a readership in college, you won't have an audience."

With luck, Internet bookstores and people who read the encyclopedia and become curious about O'Hara could create more of an interest, said Balitas.

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