Exploring the world of John O'Hara in Pennsylvania

DAYTRIPPING

January 06, 1991|By John Koenig

Imagine the daughter of a prominent Baltimore family climbing a high flagpole during a wild party at a staid suburban country club, or, at another party, the son of a well-known local physician flinging the contents of a highball glass in the face of a man he did not like.

Unimaginable in Baltimore? Of course. Unbelievable at the Schuylkill Country Club at Pottsville, Pa.? Well, maybe. If such things did occur, they should not be mentioned in journalism nor in journalistic-type novel-writing, thought the people of Pottsville.

Yet they were included in fiction by a young man who became one of the nation's most prominent novelists and possibly greatest writer of short stories. His name was John O'Hara.

A newspaperman turned novelist, O'Hara (1905-1970) was born and reared in Pottsville, which is located in a mountain valley in an old northeastern Pennsylvania anthracite region. He put it all in his first novel, "Appointment in Samarra" (1934), a best seller about life in Prohibition-period Pottsville, which became "Gibbsville" in his books and stories.

The native son was frowned upon by the proper people of Pottsville/Gibbsville. Living in New York City as a budding writer, he rarely returned to Pottsville. Later he moved to Princeton, N.J., where he spent the last 17 years of his life turning out more stories than possibly any other serious writer of American fiction.

Despite his long residence in New Jersey's Ivy League town, O'Hara -- known in his later days as the "Squire of Princeton" -- turned to the Pottsville area for the setting and characters in many of his novels and short stories.

With the passage of years the view of John O'Hara in the minds of Pottsville people has mellowed. Townspeople no longer are roiled as they once were when "Appointment in Samarra" appeared and became an overnight best seller.

In fact, Pottsvillians in more recent years have become in their own way proud of John O'Hara. He rather put the town on the map, it might be said, in depicting it as a center of cosmopolitan life although a small city. Sinclair Lewis had his Zenith, Thomas Hardy his Wessex and Anthony Trollope his Barsetshire. John O'Hara had his Gibbsville and his Region, the area surrounding Pottsville, derived no doubt from the old term Anthracite Region.

It is 20 years since the death of O'Hara at age 65 at his Princeton home, and new attention is turning to the writer and his Pottsville and his Region. In the past dozen years scholarly sessions have been held in Pottsville for discussion of O'Hara's writings -- something that would have flattered his sensitive ego despite his scorn for academicians.

In 1982, 1986 and 1988 the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts held John O'Hara observances, which included walking tours of O'Hara's old neighborhood and dramatizations of scenes from his books enacted in Pottsville homes. Another such festival is being pondered for the future -- possibly in 1992.

Meanwhile the Council for the Arts has been arranging, in cooperation with the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, new bus tours of the Pottsville area stressing its art, architecture, history and associations with O'Hara and his writings.

"There is a lot of interest in John O'Hara right now," says Merle Walker, director of the Arts Council, which has its headquarters in the beautiful old Yuengling mansion in town. "At various times we have heard from groups wanting to do a television presentation on him or a commercial film on one of his works."

Recognition of O'Hara as a local celebrity can readily be seen on arrival at the Treadway Hotel, on Centre Street, in downtown Pottsville. After checking in, I discovered that the hotel had a John O'Hara Ballroom, and private dining/meeting rooms named the Chapin Room, the English Room and the Lockwood Room -- all for characters in O'Hara's leading novels such as "Ten North Frederick" (made into a movie starring Gary Cooper), "Appointment in Samarra" and "The Lockwood Concern."

As much as any single writer can be, O'Hara was identified with the New Yorker magazine. His earliest writings appeared there -- before his published books -- and continued through most of his life with an 11-year gap from 1949 to 1960 when he had a temperamental split with the magazine's editors.

During this break from the magazine he switched from writing witty, short vignettes of life, mainly in New York, to long novels with memories of the old hometown serving as the scene. Other short stories and novels followed. In the 1960s, the last decade of his life, he turned out a staggering total of seven short story volumes, seven novels, several novellas, a book of plays and "My Turn," a collection of his syndicated newspaper columns.

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