By Richard Carreno
Many places have a claim on John O'Hara's literary soul -- and his liver. New York, LA, Princeton, and even, for a time, London. Of course, his heart was in the Heartland, or the 'Region,' as he called the area around his birthplace of Pottsville.
But O'Hara also had another less-explored literary tie to place, that in Philadelphia. That is, until now, thanks to the most recent O'Hara biography, The Genteel John O'Hara, by Pamela C. Mac Arthur. (Peter Lang, Bern, Switzerland, 2009, 304 pp).
MacArthur, who lives in Windsor, Ontario, spent years living amongst the Region's natives, and argues, quite persuasively, that O'Hara -- despite bouts with drink and with his fists -- wasn't the mean-spirited rowdy as he's often dipicted in less-than-flattering portraits and biographies. Looking on the bright side, and digging deep into his Pottsville roots, Mac Arthur makes that case that if wasn't actually always refined, he was at least coated with the patina of bourgeois gentility.
I met Mac Arthur, a new Pal, at the Society's New York field trip last month, and I was pleased to learn that she was familiar with my theory that O'Hara had a stronger bond with Philadelphia than often conceded. (Mac Arthur also cites some on my scribbling on the Master in her text).
O'Hara was, of course, Pennsylvania's most prominent 20th century writer. (No, pendants, I haven't forgotten John Updike). As a youth in Pottsville, about two hours away from Philadelphia by car, it was only natural that O'Hara's growing curiosity about the larger world beyond the Region would draw him to its principal big city, then the US's fourth largest city.
At the time, Pottsvillians, of a certain class, would shop, have their affairs, visit speakeasies and their favourite bootleggers, be entertained at brothels, and be schooled in Philadelphia. (O'Hara's father was a graduate of Penn's medical school).
Even a cursory reading of O'Hara bios show that O'Hara was in and out of Philadelphia all his adult life. Going to the Orchestra, visiting societally well-connected friends, hooking up with its clubs, and even using its hospitals when he was Princeton resident. I've detailed O'Hara's personal, long-term association with Philadelphia -- as well as that of many of his characters -- here and elsewhere.
Still, the idea has never gained much traction. O'Hara in New York, yes. O'Hara in Los Angeles, of course. O'Hara in Philly? Em....
In fact, Mac Arthur observes that the genteel O'Hara found respite in Philadelphia.
Mac Arthur notes the author wished he 'could leave New York and see a place like Philadelphia again.' O'Hara remembered that he got '"a swell kick out of listening to the city noises,"' and he wanted to '"capture that swelling feeling in another city."'
Over time, and over and over again, he did.