Novelist, playwright, and columnist John O'Hara (1905-1970) was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in the state's northeastern anthracite coal region. Although O'Hara left Pennsylvania as a young man, he never lost track of it; beginning with his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), he set five novels and more than fifty short stories in what he called "my Pennsylvania Protectorate." The characters of O'Hara's fictional town of Gibbsville were the miners and poor immigrants, the bartenders, the country-club set, and the college-bred middle class of his hometown.
Some ten years before his death in 1970, O'Hara had begun to distribute his manuscripts to various university libraries. One of these manuscripts, the typescript of Sermons and Soda Water, was sent to Penn State in honor of Richardson Dilworth, a former mayor of Philadelphia and at the time a Trustee of Penn State. This gift prompted William L. Werner, an old friend of O'Hara's and a professor of American literature at Penn State, to suggest that in the interests of scholarship it would be far more useful to have all of O'Hara's manuscripts at one location. O'Hara from then on not only gave the University Libraries the typescripts of his published works but also provided in his Will that all of his manuscripts eventually be deposited at Penn State.
It was the idea of O'Hara's widow, the late Katharine B. O'Hara, that the author's original study at Linebrook in Princeton, New Jersey, be re-created at Penn State. The suggestion gave everyone with curatorial experience some pause, but it was an irresistible notion. John O'Hara was, after all, the Pennsylvania novelist, his only competition being Conrad Richter and John Updike. (Updike himself once pointed out that he and O'Hara could have been nurtured only in Pennsylvania, not in Boston or Brooklyn.) O'Hara's Gibbsville is as well-known and enduring as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.
But O'Hara was more than just a Pennsylvania writer; he was a writer of national stature. Appointment in Samarra, written before he was thirty, is still considered one of the best American novels of the first half of this century. Ten North Frederick won a National Book Award in 1956. In 1964 O'Hara received a Gold Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. By the time of his death in 1970, his bestsellers had sold some forty million copies, and five of his works had been made into big-budget motion pictures, including Butterfield 8, Pal Joey (which won him a Screen Writers' Award), A Rage to Live,From the Terrace. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and wrote some four hundred short stories in addition to nineteen novels.
It seemed altogether fitting that Penn State recognize John O'Hara's achievements by accepting the study and its contents as a memorial to the man and as a repository for a considerable legacy of books, manuscripts, letters, and memorabilia. The O'Hara Study was dedicated in 1974, with Mrs. O'Hara and O'Hara's daughter, Wylie, in attendance.
The study is virtually an O'Hara museum, with memorabilia from every stage of his life. It contains O'Hara's National Book Award, His Gold Medal for the Novel, and a whole series of certificates recognizing his achievements in theater and film. His collections of antique horns and various Pennsylvania antiques enliven a space that is filled to overflowing with objects illustrating his career and interests. There are photos of daughter Wylie and Charles Addams in a Bugatti; of a coonskin-clad O'Hara in a Stutz Bearcat; of a racehorse named O'Hara; of the O'Hara Rolls Royce; of Robert Benchley in an admiral's jacket but without trousers; of O'Hara with Bennett Cerf and Cardinal Spellman. There are decoy ducks, cuspidors, model cars, sabers, fire extinguishers, ashtrays, and engraved silver cigarette boxes from his publishers. The desk is covered with the tools of his trade, and the drawers hold his calendars and appointment books.
O'Hara's study was the working room of a writer who was dedicated to getting things right, so the shelves are stocked with reference books: technical dictionaries, Who's Who in America, Burke's Peerage, The Dictionary of American Biography, two editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, medical books, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women, histories of the automobile, military reference books, works on Pennsylvania, club yearbooks, atlases, horse books, book on music, books on sports. O'Hara referred to his study as his laboratory, and the memorabilia made him feel comfortable and helped to release the flow of memory. When he went into this room every night to write, the familiar items became part of the process of literary creation.
For information about visiting the O'Hara Study or consulting the John O'Hara Papers, 1923-1991, write or call Rare Books and Manuscripts (814/865-1793).
John O'Hara in his original study [photo by Martin d'Arcy]