Appointment at 75

Thanks to Christine Goldbeck:

It's the 75th Anniversary for Celebrated Pottsville Native's Controversial Novel: For 75 years, Pottsville has also been known as "Gibbsville."

By Stephen J. Pytak

Staff Writer

Published: Monday, May 11, 2009 8:20 AM EDT

For 75 years, Pottsville has also been known as "Gibbsville."

Fans of novelist John O'Hara believe it will continue to carry that designation for generations to come.

"O'Hara's works are very much relevant today because they deal with the human condition, with relationships between men and women and individuals and society," said Shenandoah native Christine M. Goldbeck, author of "A Tribute to O'Hara and Other Stories," published in 2000.

"He's relevant because the same themes he talks about in the 1920s and '30s and '40s still occur. And I believe he will be read for centuries to come," said Mark T. Major, local historian and executive director of the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau.

This is a watermark [sic] year for the celebrated Pottsville author, the 75th anniversary of the publication of his first novel, "Appointment in Samarra," in which his fictitious version of Pottsville was introduced. Local O'Hara fans can celebrate by visiting the life-size bronze statue of O'Hara on South Centre Street, checking out one of his classic books from a local library, or taking the John O'Hara walking tour of Pottsville. Pamphlets for the tour are available at the visitors bureau, 200 E. Arch St., Pottsville.

Meanwhile, the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, Pottsville, is planning a John O'Hara weekend dinner theatre in early November, according to Sandra Coyle, the council's executive director.

O'Hara remains popular at the Pottsville Free Public Library, according to Denise Miller, circulation manager.

"He's no Danielle Steel, James Patterson or John Grisham. But who's to say they'll remain popular in 75 years?" Miller said Thursday.

In his career, O'Hara wrote 16 novels and 402 stories, according to the Web site of The John O'Hara Society.

There are 209 O'Hara books and multiple copies of 44 O'Hara titles in the Pottsville library's collection. Since 1998, the most popular O'Hara title with patrons has been "Appointment in Samarra," Miller said.

"Since 1998, when we started keeping computer records, it's been checked out 67 times," Miller said.

According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 324, John O'Hara, published by Thomson-Gale in 2006,

"Appointment in Samarra" was published Aug. 16, 1934. The book, which chronicled the lives of the elite and affluent of Gibbsville, is also No. 22 on The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels.

Ione Geier, a Pottsville writer, has a hardcover first edition in her collection. It's her favorite of his novels.

"I identified with the places that he wrote about and when I was older the people that he wrote about," said Geier, who said she conducted the first two John O'Hara walking tours in Pottsville in 1978 and 1980.

It centers on the self-destruction of one of Gibbsville's more popular gentlemen, Julian English, and his struggle with relationships, community and self. Told from the viewpoints of several different characters,"Appointment in Samarra" is also about manners and depicts the way in which one must abide by certain rules in order to gain acceptance to maintain social standing, according to Goldbeck and

Gaining acceptance was something O'Hara had struggled with himself.

"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," Goldbeck said on the Web site for the John O'Hara Society.

By writing about a place he called "Gibbsville," O'Hara was able to criticize Pottsville's social strata, said Vincent D. Balitas, Pottsville, a retired American literature professor. Balitas also started "The O'Hara Journal," a literary magazine published locally between 1978 and 1982.

"In Gibbsville, he depicted a small town and revealed the warts. He attacked the hypocrisy, the Babbitry, the arrogance of small-town nobodies. When it came out, 'Appointment in Samarra,' O'Hara was considered a traitor to Pottsville. For a small town to be told their bleeding citizens are essentially nobodies, it created problems. It created problems for him," Balitas said.

While O'Hara renamed streets, churches and office buildings in Pottsville in his novels, some of his early critics believed he was also writing about specific people.

When asked about that, Balitas said O'Hara would say "these are composites of people."

Major called "Appointment in Samarra," "a decent read," but said he wasn't sure if it was a completely accurate portrayal of the upper class in Pottsville at the time: "Can't comment on it. I didn't live in the 1920s that he lived in. But he probably did the best job that he could. You always use what you're familiar with when you write a story like that, your own experiences, your own memories."

Schuylkill County Commissioner Mantura M. Gallagher, an avid O'Hara fan, called it her favorite novel.

"I've read and re-read it countless times and each time I find something new," she said. "It's timeless. He was known for his exact depiction of the region's dialect. He captured conversations like no other author whom I've read.

Furthermore, his exact descriptions, although sometimes tedious, left the reader with an "exact picture of what he was describing," Gallagher said. "It's still readable, which is good. It's a very tight, very compact piece of modern realism. I can go back and reread it without getting bored. That's the only one of his books I can do that with," Balitas said.

Miller said other popular O'Hara titles with Pottsville library patrons and how many times they were checked out since 1998 include: "Gibbsville, PA.: The Classic Stories," 54; "Ten North Frederick," 52; "The Farmers Hotel," 19; "Rage to Live," 19; and "From the Terrace," 13.

People new to O'Hara's writing style might not find it so easy to read, said Robin James, assistant reference librarian at the Pottsville library.

"It takes a level of patience and you have to be in the right mood. It's period. It's like Shakespeare. After a week, it's light reading. I took a shot at the 'Gibbsville' book when I moved here. Then I tried some short stories. He is a total craftsman when it comes to the dialog, and the dynamics of his characters' interpersonal relationships. Got to admire the guy. He did a good job," James said.

"Once you get into his books, his stories are hard to put down. I think it's the way he tells the story. It has a lot to do with his character development. It has a lot to do with character-to-character relationships in his stories," Major said.

Major said his favorite is O'Hara's autobiographical story "The Doctor's Son."

Local theater groups have performed dramatizations of O'Hara short stories. One of the more recent was The Strawberry Playhouse production of O'Hara's "The Champagne Pool" at Schuylkill County Council for the Arts in Pottsville in October 2008 during Pottsville's Roaring '20s Week celebration.

Gallagher said the Schuylkill County Bicentennial Committee and the Schuylkill County Actors Guild are planning to host a few in 2011.

"These will be from his 'Gibbsville' book. It takes time because we have to find four appropriate short stories and convert them to dramatic form," Gallagher said.

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