Saliba on O'Hara

O'Hara and the  Bourgeoisie

The Genteel John O'Hara
Pamela C. MacArthur
Peter Lang, 2009

By Robert Saliba
There's that scene in BUtterfield 8 where Jim Malloy goes to a party in a New York apartment, gets drunk and obnoxious and starts a fight, and a lot of people say yes, that's John O'Hara -- ignorant, pugnacious, unruly, and when I recall that scene I think of an alternate title to The Genteel John O'Hara: 'Pamela Pushes Back.' This book belongs on the shelf next to Matthew Bruccoli's The O'Hara Concern. 

No doubt John O'Hara had his issues, but there was another side to him, and in the preface to her meticulously researched book, Dr. Mac Arthur writes: 

"I attempt to portray a loving polished gentleman and family man who suffered from neglect by the literary world yet became not only a  literary artist but a gentleman (with the attributes of an ethnographer, geographer and social historian) who recreated "The Anthracite Region" and its people so well that he recorded the late Nineteenth Century and the first half of the American Twentieth Century in novelistic form."

Dr. Mac Arthur begins by demolishing the ugly racial stereotype. John O'Hara was born into a family whose ancestors had been in America for many generations. His parents were educated, well-bred intellectuals. His father, Dr. Patrick O'Hara, was a prominent pioneering medical physician, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

His mother, Katherine Delany O'Hara, was schooled in music and the arts and literature and instilled in her children good manners and a love for learning. The parents were moneyed, clean-living, cultured, and enjoyed a good reputation in the community. You take this family background and upbringing, combine it with superior intelligence and the ability to write, and you see why John O'Hara got where he got. 

There's another scene in BUtterfield 8, the one where Jim Malloy is in a speakeasy with Isabel Stannard (one of Caroline's two friends who sail with her to France in June 1925), and he gives his memorable "I am a Mick" diatribe -- meaning that no matter how Americanized and polished he may be, he'll  always be that little Irish kid. And Dr. Mac Arthur shows us how John O'Hara was always looking up Mahantongo Street, trying to make it with the WASP aristocracy, particularly those two women -- Margaretta Archbald (the love of his life, who is Natalie in Winter Dance) and Gladys Suender (who is Natalie in From the Terrace). 

I've driven through Pottsville and walked its streets and failed to imagine that once upon a time there really was this important city inhabited by the likes of the Froggy Ogdens, Whit Hofmans and Julian Englishes and Joe Chapins, with its men's club, its country club, and its Assembly.

Last January, at the Society's Annual Meeting in Princeton, one of our members, Carol Ritter Wright, told me you could see the once upon a time if you looked at the architecture, and reflecting on that I agree with her. 

Dr. Mac Arthur confirms the accuracy of John O'Hara's descriptions. She has lived in Potsville. She has walked its streets, researched its public records, interviewed its citizens. With an enormous amount of hard, meticulous, exhaustive work, she shows how Gibbsville and Pottsville are essentially identical.

John O'Hara got it right. At one time Pottsville, as the center of the anthracite industry, was one of the wealthiest cities in America. There really was an upper class elite - twenty-five leading families who dictated the social customs and mores. There's that part in her book where she takes us through Ten North Frederick and shows us how it reflects the reality of Pottsville with its people and customs. There is also a chapter on the gangster element (Ed Charney et. al.). 

We are also shown how John O'Hara was a loving husband and family man. His first marriage broke up, but his second and third marriages were successful. 

At the end there is a section on what is being done by many people to revive the John O'Hara reputation, and favorable mention is made of Richard: "Richard D. Carreno, corresponding secretary of the John O'Hara Society based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has resurrected John Henry O'Hara's name with marked success. The Society offers John O'Hara paraphernalia from audio tapes to Carreno's edited John O'Hara Compendium which was published in 2008." 

I think all  O'Hara fans share an anger at his not being put at the top of the literary establishment, and Dr. Mac Arthur gives us a second reason to be angry. What is the antonym for "genteel"?


I also want to mention Dr. Mc Arthur's 1999 John O'Hara's Anthracite Region. It's a narrative accompanied by vintage photographs and postcards, and it is also superb. I saw the photograph of the inside of a department store and said yes, that's exactly what I saw in Appointment in Samarra, that's where Julian stole. The same thing with the freight train, which Julian and Butch hitched when escaping the police. And the picnic grove where Jim Malloy and Isabel Barley had their fling, but not quite: no picnic table, Pamela.  


RGK said...

A wonderful review. I will be looking forward to reading the book!

Richard Rabicoff said...

This is great. The book is $160 on Amazon. How can I get hold of it at a reasonable price?

RGK said...

You can get it direct from the publisher, Peter Lang Group, although their site seems to be down at the moment. It's still pricy, though, as it is classified as an "academic" title.

jsnewhall said...

I got the book from Peter Lang publisher for $61.00 plus shipping. You can get it from Abebooks for about the same price.

Robert Saliba
Morristown, New Jersey