Of the Republican Herald [1 January 2015]
POTTSVILLE, Pa. -- notable work of fiction about the lives and gossip of mid-20th century aristocrats in “Gibbsville” turns 60 this year.
“Ten North Frederick,” a book by John O’Hara, is set in his fictionalized version of Pottsville, specifically North George Street, which is part of the “John O’Hara Walking Tour” in the city.
While times have changed, O’Hara’s books will always find an audience, Leslie Kraft, the literacy coach for Pottsville Area School District, said Tuesday.
“Well-written, character-driven works of fiction don’t often lose their relevancy. When the tension is derived from universal human truths — jealousy, ambition, passion and betrayal — the reader will relate the characters’ inner struggles to his or her own, regardless of the change in time period. Additionally, the book serves as a local color museum for those from the Pottsville area, allowing residents to access the area’s past in a way that makes it tangible and fresh,” Kraft said.
Recently, Kevin Keating, a retired Pottsville Area English teacher, examined a copy of the book from the collection at Pottsville Free Public Library.
“First printing, 1955. That’s kind of neat. When I was in college, I used to have a paperback version. I find it fascinating that I had a hard time finding anything on O’Hara in the Pottsville library before 1970. At that time, he was like a disowned son,” Keating said.
But over time, the community acknowledged and celebrated O’Hara’s books. The library and the Schuylkill County Historical Society have collections of his works and artifacts representing his life. And in October 2002, a life-like bronze statue of O’Hara by sculptor James J. Ponter, Pitman, New Jersey, was placed at 115 S. Centre St.
Initially published by Random House, New York, the book won the National Book Award in 1956. A film adaptation starring Gary Cooper as “Joseph B. ‘Joe’ Chapin” came out in 1958. And while there isn’t a monument to “Ten North Frederick” in the city, the book stands out from O’Hara’s “Gibbsville” books for a few reasons, according to local O’Hara readers and critics who talked about the book recently.
It’s a story about “the ‘best’ people who live in the ‘best’ old section of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania,” according to the cover jacket on the first edition.
In the book, they were the Chapin family, and the book includes stories about three generations of the fictitious aristocratic clan, focusing primarily on the one in the middle, led by Joseph B., a lawyer and bank director, and Edith S., who move to 10 N. Frederick in 1909. The book begins just after his death in 1945. Filled with characters who enjoy gossip, the book includes tales of the couple’s children and the husband’s mistress.
O’Hara named the family after “Chapin Boone,” according to Jack Mansell, 85, of Pottsville, who is fascinated with O’Hara history.
“He’d drop things in his books to acknowledge different people. O’Hara had a boyhood friend who had an uncle named Chapin Boone. The Boone family was originally from Saint Clair,” Mansell said Tuesday.
Last year, Keating and Nathan Halenar, an English teacher at Pottsville Area, taught an O’Hara class at Pottsville Area, “Studies of John O’Hara.” This year, Halenar continued the class.
“Like many of his other works, ‘Ten North Frederick’ represents O’Hara’s feelings that came about as part of his upbringing, his experiences growing up here which led him to become overwhelmingly obsessed with social status and the way that impacts life and direction,” Helenar said Tuesday.
“This story is about not only social structure but family and I think that’s one of the things which makes O’Hara relevant today, and I try to stress this to my students. He remains relevant because when we read his works, we see ourselves,” Helenar said.
O’Hara’s North Frederick is North George Street in Pottsville, Pamela C. MacArthur said in her book “John O’Hara’s Anthracite Region,” published in 2000 as part of the “Images of America” series.
“I always found it funny he set the story here,” Keating said Dec. 26, standing near the section of North George, where the stately home in the book would have been.
“In reality, there is no 10 N. George St.,” according to Regina Gargano, executive director of the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, Pottsville.
The properties in that area are 400-402 E. Norwegian St., owned by Barry L. Fox, Fredericksburg, and 12 N. George St., owned by Nicholas P. Carusella, according to the online Schuylkill Parcel Locator.
Just across the street from where the house in the book would have been, there is a sign recognizing North Frederick Street as part of the city’s “John O’Hara Walking Tour.” It’s affixed to the pole with the tags for North George and East Norwegian streets.
Gargano didn’t know O’Hara’s motivations for creating the house in “Ten North Frederick.”
“We can only guess the things he was thinking, but I think he created a fictitious address because you can’t exactly tie a family to it. So if the house didn’t exist, the people at the time that he wrote it couldn’t feel he was writing about them. People were very self-conscious here about his writing,” Gargano said.
“This is not your traditional Gibbsville street. So that’s what makes ‘Ten North Frederick’ a little odd, if you go by the actual address,” Keating said.
O’Hara usually enjoyed writing stories which took place on the city’s west side, in places like “Lantenango Street,” which in reality is Mahantongo Street. But O’Hara’s North Frederick is on the east side, Keating said.
“The east side of town has always been considered the other side of the tracks. I hope I don’t offend people by saying that. All the haves were on the west side of town,” Keating said.
He wasn’t sure if wealthy families ever lived on North George Street in the late 19th century and the early 20th.
But Gargano believes there were.
“North George is where the wealthy lived before they started moving to Mahantongo, Oak Road and Howard. That’s where the oldest of the wealthy families lived, on North George, aka North Frederick,” Gargano said Monday.
North George includes a hill.
As Keating walked along the street, he said he always imagined the house in the book being higher up that hill.
“I think O’Hara was always fascinated with the idea of the wealthy overlooking, literally and figuratively, the middle class. So they built their homes on hills so they could overlook Gibbsville,” Keating said.
“And I think the homes on this street, as you go up the hill, they become more majestic. And that’s where I always pictured 10 N. Frederick being. But if it was near the corner of North George and East Norwegian, as the book suggests, it would stand out,” Keating said.
The book describes the fictitious 10 N. Frederick in detail:
• “The Chapin house was the only one on Frederick Street that had a stoop of three chaste brownstone steps. The other houses of equal age and proportion had marble stoops, originally chaste but soiled by time and traffic. The front door was a massive fixture, four inches in thickness, with a brass plate the size of a playing card, in which had been cut the name Benjamin Chapin. The patina from years of polish and rubbing left the name barely distinguishable.”
Benjamin Chapin was the father of Joseph B.
• “Above the door was a fan light into which was etched the number 10. The outer side of the light had not been washed – ‘hopeless,’ was Edith’s word for the task of keeping it clean – but the inside was comparatively free of dust.”
• “On each side of the entrance, on the western elevation, was a pair of windows, plate glass, separate but twins. The window sills were high enough above the street level to make it impossible for the nosy to peer in.”
The house included a bay window, a butler’s pantry near the dining room, a dumbwaiter and a small library which was called the “back sitting room.” The house was big enough to accommodate a dinner party of more than 60. In back was a two-story garage which had been a stable, according to the book.
O’Hara was born in Pottsville in January 1905. His novels include “Appointment in Samarra” and “Butterfield 8.” He also penned screenplays, plays and short story collections. He died in April 1970 in Princeton, New Jersey, and was interred in Princeton Cemetery.
Copies of a pamphlet outlining the “John O’Hara Walking Tour of Pottsville, Pennsylvania” are available at the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, based at Union Station, Pottsville.
Gargano offered a guided tour April 26, during the eighth annual Block of Art. This was a new event, and she said she’s planning to do it again this year during the ninth annual Block of Art, but the date and time have not been set.
“I like all of O’Hara’s work. I always have. He’s a social novelist and he was a keen observer of society, hierarchy and class structure, which had more importance in his day than it does today, I think. Back then, people placed a higher importance on it. He was great at dialect and capturing the voices of all the different classes here in society here in the coal region, and John O’Hara’s coal region is from Schuylkill County to Scranton. And I think his work is very, very human,” Gargano said.