O'Hara At 'Home'


O'Hara's work endures time and criticism

by Christine Goldbeck, Editor

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Author John O'Hara.
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A scene from the John O'Hara Walking Tour. "Gibbsville" street signs illustrate local places found in O'Hara's stories and novels. Photo by Christine Goldbeck
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The Coal and Iron Building in O'Hara's fiction is the Reading Anthracite Co. building on Mahantongo Street. Photo by Christine Goldbeck
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Schuylkill County is celebrating John O'Hara's centennial in 2005 through various events. Click here for information. Meanwhile, at the Pennsylvania State University, home to the O'Hara papers, an exhibition, "John O'Hara: A Centennial Exhibit" opened November 7 in the Special Collections Exhibition Hall. The exhibition will run through January 31, 2006. Finally, I cannot help but wonder what O'Hara would think of new media and the fact that he is the subject of a blog. Do visit Richard Carreno's John O'Hara Society Speaking of new media, do bookmark this article, which, as a hypertext, is what we new media practitioners call a "living document." That's really just industry-speak for an article that will change as information is added and linked. Thirty-five years after his death, John O’Hara’s name remains more than a whisper in the news. This attests to the interesting facts about the life of the late Schuylkill County author and the enduring nature of his literary work. John Henry O’Hara was born January 31, 1905, the eldest of eight children to Dr. Patrick Henry and Katherine Elizabeth (Delaney) O’Hara. John’s paternal grandfather was Michael O’Hara, of Shenandoah. Michael O’Hara came to America as a child in the early 1830s and lived in Reading with his parents. He married Mary E. Franey, a Shenandoah girl, on July 5, 1864. According to one biographer, Michael met Mary when he came to deliver bad news of a fallen Civil War soldier.
John O’Hara is famous locally because he used Pottsville and other Schuylkill County towns as the setting of his many short stories, novellas and novels. He renamed Schuylkill County “Lantenengo County” in his works. He called Pottsville “Gibbsville” in tribute to his favorite New York editor Wolcott Gibbs, and took it upon himself, as many fiction writers do, to make up names for many other real places in the hard coal region.
The O’Haras enjoyed a comfortable life, first at 125 Mahantongo Street in Pottsville and later at 606 Mahantongo, a building first owned by the Yuengling family. In 1982, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a historical marker in front of the building at 606 Mahantongo Street.
John attended Miss Katie Carpenter’s, a private day nursery, and then Saint Patrick’s, where the Sisters of Saint Joseph put him in shape to be an altar boy and to become a writer.
Despite dancing classes, his horse Julia, the family farm in Panther Valley and other refinements, John was aware of the social differences about which he would write as an adult. This had to do with the fact that the O’Hara family was Irish Catholic. Irish immigrants were not seen in the best of light. After all, it had not been very long since the so-called Molly Maguires were hanged for crimes against mine supervisors and operators.
Doctor O’Hara thought his son had the hands of a surgeon. Young John had different designs for his life. The two personalities, actually much alike, clashed often. After being stripped of honors he would have received at Niagara University Prep School, where Doctor O’Hara had done his undergraduate work, O’Hara and the Doctor drifted even further apart.
O’Hara began his writing career in 1924 as a utility reporter for The Pottsville Journal. The Doctor imposed on his friend, Harry Silliman, the owner, to give his son a job.
When his father suddenly died of Bright’s Disease, the O’Hara family was left with no money and no breadwinner. Doctor Patrick, although skilled as a physician, was not “good with money,” to quote a local phrase.
John O’Hara, then 20, badly wanted to attend Yale; however, the death of Dr. O’Hara made that out of the question. In the years before his literary success, he worked in Chicago as an evaluating engineer, a steel mill worker, a soda jerk, and a gas meter reader among other jobs. In New York City, he was a rewrite man for the Daily Mirror, a movie critic for the Morning Telegraph, a staff writer at Time magazine, and had held other writing and editing positions.
His big break came in 1934 with the publication of his first novel, “Appointment in Samarra.” Only a year later, his autobiographical story “The Doctor’s Son,” cited by fans and critics alike as one of his best works, was published as part of a collection of his short stories.
Not all local citizens liked what he wrote about his “Pennsylvania Protectorate.” In fact, almost three quarters of a century ago, O’Hara’s books were not placed on the shelf in Pottsville Free Public Library because they were considered indecent for their portrayal of the area and because they contained adult content.
Today, this library has 149 O’Hara volumes of 41 O’Hara titles. Only 80 of the books circulate. The rest are in the library’s “Local History Room” to ensure that the library always has a copy of each of the books.
Pottsville also now has a bronze statue of the author and Gibbsville street markers. Above the sign designating Mahantongo Street, is a decorative sign declaring it “Lantenengo Street,” the title O’Hara gave this residential street in his many works about the area. To fans throughout the world, O’Hara told the truth about people and life. O’Hara enthusiasts are hard-pressed to name their favorite of his essays, his stories and his novels. Those who believe he was among the best of America’s 20th century authors say his ability to write dialogue and his talent for description are among the skills he repeatedly showed himself master of in his work.
In talking about O’Hara books, dissenters and fans alike have many books from which to choose. O’Hara wrote 16 novels and 402 short stories. More than 40 million copies of his books were sold by the time of his death at age 65. Several of his bestsellers were made into major motion pictures, including: “Butterfield 8” with Elizabeth Taylor; “From the Terrace” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; “Pal Joey,” for which he won a Screen Writer’s Award; and “Ten North Frederick” with Gary Cooper. The novel “Ten North Frederick” won the National Book Award in 1956. O’Hara also had a radio show and wrote essays on cultural and political topics.
“I must have read each of them five times,” said Dr. David A. Morowitz, M.D., who practices medicine in Washington D.C. and Chevy Chase, Md., and who visited Pottsville for the first time in October 2000, for a John O’Hara Weekend. “And, it’s not like we’re talking about James Joyce, who put out, what, about three major works? O’Hara really put them out. On a manual typewriter.”
O’Hara did for northeastern Pennsylvania, and particularly the hard coal region, what writers before him, such as Sherwood Anderson, who wrote “Winesburg, Ohio” had done; he recorded the social history of a place and time. In addition to Schuylkill County, he also wrote New York City, Hollywood, and Pennsylvania’s Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, the state capitol, which O’Hara named Fort Penn, into his novels.
His stories are social history lessons that chronicle the lives and times of people in the early part of the 20th century. To read O’Hara is to know, beyond doubt, what people wore, where they worked and how much they earned, to which clubs they belonged, what kinds of automobiles they drove and what games they played.
“The ‘20s and ‘30s and the ‘40s are already history, but I cannot be content to leave their story in the hands of the historians and the editors of picture books,” O’Hara once said. “I want to record the way people talked and felt and thought, and to do with complete honesty and variety.”
As for the Gibbsville cycle of his work, there is no doubt that O’Hara remembered well what he saw, heard and felt while growing up in Schuylkill County. Consider this passage from page 49 in “Appointment in Samarra”: “The anthracite region lies roughly between Scranton on the north and Gibbsville (Pottsville) on the south. In fact, Point Mountain (Sharp Mountain), upon which Gibbsville’s earliest settlement was made, is the delight of geologists, who come from as far away as Germany to examine Gibbsville Conglomerate (Pottsville Conglomerate, a stone formation found nowhere else in the world. When that geological squeeze, or whatever it was that produced veins of coal, occurred, it did not go south of Point Mountain, and coal is found on the north slope of Point Mountain, but not the south side, and at the eastern face of Point Mountain is found Gibbsville Conglomerate. The richest veins of anthracite in the world are within a thirty-mile sector from Gibbsville, and when those veins are being worked, Gibbsville prospers. When the mines are idle, Gibbsville puts on a long face and begins to think in terms of soup kitchens.”
In an interview with John K. Hutchens, published on Dec. 4, 1955 in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, O’Hara was asked if Pottsville and Gibbsville were the same towns. O’Hara answered: “The across-the-tracks stuff, the canal, the railroad, are where I have placed them. Ethnologically, too, as well as topographically, I have stayed close to the facts of Pottsville.”
As for whether his characters were real people in Pottsville, in the same interview, O’Hara said that a few minor characters are all but photographed “to populate a party, say. But beyond that, or above it, I go in for disguises. I use the psychological pattern of a real person, then cover him up with the superficial aspects of another.”
The criticism about his work extends beyond whether he wrote facts about Schuylkill County and its citizens in his fictional work. The literary value of his work is also subject to intense debate. Decades following his death on April 11, 1970, at his estate, Linebrook, in Princeton, NJ, critics opine that his work lacked the depth of his contemporaries, among them John Steinbeck, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
“I went into a little period where I thought I was getting a little snotty, where I was thinking that if I can read and understand a book, then it was not good. I thought ‘he can’t be much good because I can understand him.’ Fortunately, that didn’t last long. I realized good writing does not have to be difficult to understand. Good writing just has to be good writing,” Morowitz said.
Erica Ramus, publisher of Schuylkill Living Magazine realized how important O’Hara is to modern American literature when she left the area briefly to go to school. “I started reading John O‘Hara in college and I was hooked. I was impressed that my teachers in New Mexico--then at the University of Delaware--had read O'Hara. I had assumed he was a local writer not well known, and was impressed to find him being read outside the area. I wish more Schuylkill Countians would take an interest in his writings. He's not just a local phenomenon--he's a celebrated author known well outside of Gibbsville.”
Throughout the last three decades, O’Hara’s regional fans, including Ramus and Schuylkill County Commissioner Mantura Gallagher, have made efforts to keep his name alive. Dr. Vincent D. Balitas, Pottsville, wrote The John O’Hara Journals. The Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, in Pottsville, staged O’Hara weekends at which his works were discussed and dramatized. These events have been revived.
Usually, the annual O’Hara weekend occurs in October; however, in marking his centennial this year, various organizations, including the Pottsville Free Public Library and the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, have been hosting various events to mark what would have been his 100th.
In 1995, Modern Library, a division of Random House that reprints classic books, released a hardcover version of “Appointment in Samarra.” Three years later, when The Modern Library released its 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, “Appointment in Samarra” was number 22. According to The Modern Library, “the reader’s poll for the best novels published in the English language since 1900 opened on July 20, 1998 and closed on October 20, 1998, with 217,520 votes cast.”
Although the economic landscape of Schuylkill County has changed drastically since O’Hara’s childhood, some sites and locations about which O’Hara wrote have changed little. Visitors will find that Pottsville’s Mahantongo Street still has mansions that stood in O’Hara’s boyhood days. Other sites are gone.
For example, a March 2001 fire gutted a Queen-Anne-East Lake style town house located at 430 S. Centre St. in Pottsville. According to the Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald in a March 22 story about the fire that destroyed it, in the 1880s this building was the home of prominent entrepreneur William Lesley Sheafer. Mr. Sheafer’s son, Clinton, who was raised in the house, was the model for a character named Whit Hoffman in “Appointment in Samarra.”
Renewed interest in O’Hara has increased the value of his books. First edition printings of “Appointment in Samarra” sell for $1,500 and more. “The Second Ewings,” the novel on which he was working hours before he died, contains 74 pages issued as unbound sheets in a box with a label, and it is offered at $130.50 and higher.
Issues of The New Yorker in which his stories were published cost $50 and more, depending upon the seller and condition of the issues. Other titles sell for $25 and under, but none as low of the cost when they were first published.
Many of his books, including translations in German, French and other languages, can be viewed at the Penn State University’s Patee-Paterno Library in State College, where O’Hara’s Linebrook Study is re-created. There, visitors may see the Remington Noiseless on which he wrote his novels and stories and the Remington Noiseless portable on which “Appointment in Samarra” was created.
The John O’Hara Papers also are located in the university’s Special Collections Department, Rare Books and Manuscripts. For more information about visiting the study and for information about access to his papers, professional and personal, click here or call 814-865-1793.
The Schuylkill County Council for the Arts is another source for information about O’Hara. Contact the arts center in writing at 1440 Mahantongo Street, Pottsville, PA., 17901 or call 570-622-2788.
Reliable details about O’Hara are also available on the Internet. Visit John O'Hara: The Mighty and Enduring Pen for the list of fictional names O’Hara gave regional towns in his books.
The SCCA and the Pottsville Republican & Evening Herald are also sources of information about another of the coal region’s famous authors, Conrad Richter, a native of Pine Grove (16 miles from Pottsville), who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Town.” In a tribute to the elder scribe, O’Hara renamed Pine Grove “Richterville” in the Gibbsville cycle of his work.
O’Hara’s epitaph, written by his own hand, states “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”
Bruccoli, MatthewJ., ed. “An Artist is His Own Fault” John O’Hara on Writers and Writing. Southern Illinois University Press, 1977.
Bruccoli, MatthewJ., ed. Gibbsville, PA The Classic Stories. New York, Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc., 1992.
Bruccoli, Matthew J., ed. Selected Letters of John O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1978.
Farr, Finis. O’Hara A Biography. Boston: Little. Brown and Company, 1973.
Goldleaf, Steven. John O’Hara A Study of the Short Fiction.New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.
Long, Robert Emmet. John O’Hara. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.
MacArthur, Pamela C. Images of America John O’Hara’s Anthracite Region. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
MacShane, Frank. Collected Stories of John O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1984.
MacShane, Frank. The Life of John O’Hara. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.
O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. New York: Random House, 1934, Vintage Books Edition, 2003. *(Contains an introduction by John Updike, native of Shillington, Berks County, and a prolific fiction author.)
O’Hara, John. A Rage to Live. New York: Random House, 1949.
O’Hara, John. And Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1966.
O’Hara, John. Assembly. New York: Random House, 1960, 1961.
O’Hara, John. Files on Parade. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.
O’Hara, John. From The Terrace. New York: Random House, 1958.
O’Hara, John. My Turn. New York: Random House, 1964.
O’Hara, John. Ourselves to Know. New York: Random House, 1960.
O’Hara, John. Sermons and Soda-Water. New York: Random House, 1960.
O’Hara, John. Ten North Frederick. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1955, 1985.
O'Hara, John. The Farmers Hotel. New York: Random House, 1951.
O'Hara, John. The Lockwood Concern. New York: Random House, 1965.
Schuylkill Living Magazine. John O'Hara Issue. Pottsville: Fall 2002.
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Art of Burning Bridges A Life of John O’Hara. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Select Electronic Resources
PA Center for the Book has made a map of Lantenengo County. Visit O'Hara literature map.
(Note: One may wish to perform Internet searches for articles written about O’Hara. Numerous are the stories that have been published in the Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald newspaper. With the 2003 publication of the Wolff biography, newspapers throughout the nation published reviews and stories about O'Hara.)

Copyright © 1998-2005 by Eric McKeever/Christine Goldbeck. All Rights Reserved


Billy said...

Dude - is there some way to fix this post? It runs down the page in a long string of text. (Sorry, I am not very web-savvy; I know I am not describing the situation properly.)
On another note: I am a long-time O'Hara fan & I love short stories and I think that his collection, "Selected Short Stories of John O'Hara", should be Required Reading for anyone who purports to love short stories or thinks he or she knows how to write a short story!
That is all...

Anonymous said...

Stop with the white on black background. Not necessary, and very difficult to read.