POTTSVILLE, Pa. - Seventy-five years ago a local boy named John O'Hara published his first novel - Appointment in Samarra - and left his former friends and neighbors fuming because it chronicled in great detail the business, brand-name, and bedroom preferences of the people in a town he called Gibbsville.
O'Hara changed the names of the streets and surrounding towns, but no one here was fooled for a minute. The fictional geography fit the real map skintight.
But far worse, real people - murderers, bootleggers, philistines, philanderers, promiscuous women, and unscrupulous businessmen - were given different names. Many of the town's leading citizens found themselves and their friends among the inebriate, adulterous, greedy, snobbish, hypocritical, and criminal characters in the book. Virtuous bosoms heaved with anger and dismay as the novel was passed up and down Mahantongo Street, and men who remembered young John O'Hara sitting quietly at the country club listening to their gossip rued their candor. O'Hara himself was nowhere in sight, having left town for New York six years earlier at the age of 23.
The Pottsville Free Public Library banned the book for a few years before grudgingly buying a few copies to meet heavy demand; they were kept behind the counter. City fathers named a public housing project in the city's former red-light district John O'Hara Homes.
Over the next four decades, O'Hara produced a Niagara of fiction; he still holds the record for number of short stories appearing in the New Yorker - 225. Many writers have dealt with the places where they grew up, but few ever made their hometown the subject of lifelong literary scrutiny, as O'Hara did.
But now, 75 years after Appointment in Samarra made him the town pariah, John O'Hara has come full circle in his old hometown. Indeed, he is becoming trendy. The irony is in the fire.
About 10 years after he died in 1970, the first signs of an O'Hara renaissance appeared. A small group of scholars held a John O'Hara Conference to discuss his work. In 1982, the state placed a historical marker identifying the house at 606 Mahantongo St. as the author's boyhood home. Ione Geier, a reporter with the Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, organized a walking tour that connected real and fictional sites. As his Eagle Scout project, a local Boy Scout placed signs identifying O'Hara's street names above the actual street names. Books by and about O'Hara appeared on the library's open shelves.
A bronze statue of the author was unveiled downtown. Then a watershed event in 1998: Modern Library, a division of Random House that reprints classic books, placed Appointment in Samarra No. 22 on its list of the 100 greatest 20th-century novels written in English.
O'Hara was a major figure in American fiction from 1934 until a few years before his death. He won mild critical acclaim for his dialogue and sexual candor.
But he was a vain, sensitive man, so he fought back at any adverse criticism without ever developing the tough skin of genius. He lusted unashamedly and unsuccessfully after the Nobel Prize.
The jury is still out, however, on where he belongs in the American literary pantheon. It is safe to say that he was, at times, a very, very good writer. Few would dispute that Appointment in Samarra is among the best novels written by an American in the 20th century.
In any event, the ranks of local O'Hara fans have swelled, and among the early recruits were Erica Ramus, a real estate broker, and Mantura M. Gallagher, a seventh-grade English teacher who is now a Schuylkill County commissioner.
With its tower and large arched windows, the Romanesque-style 1892 Schuylkill County Courthouse overlooks downtown Pottsville like a castle over a medieval realm. Just behind it is the 1851 county jail, where six Irish Catholic "Molly Maguire" coal miners convicted of murdering a constable and a mine boss were hanged in 1877. In Gallagher's courthouse office, she and Ramus are talking about John O'Hara, and in their enthusiasm they keep completing each other's sentences.
"The class violence that fueled the Molly Maguire episode was the background for O'Hara a few decades later," Gallagher said. "He felt he had been unable to escape the social and economic barriers that separated Pottsville's Irish Catholics like him from the Protestant elite."
"O'Hara didn't sugarcoat things," Ramus said. "He told it like he saw it. He wrote his stories like he was writing a news story, not some fancy piece of fiction with a lot of metaphors."
Appointment in Samarra covers the final 48 hours of the social and physical destruction of Julian English, a Gibbsville/Pottsville Cadillac dealer and an individualist weary of family and friends. English reaches a crisis point at which he wants to break all patterns of conventional behavior, and he begins his downfall by throwing a drink in the face of a friend, Harry Reilly, at the Lantenango/Schuylkill Country Club. He drinks heavily, insults servants, flirts with the singer girlfriend of a local racketeer, and provokes a brawl at the staid Gibbsville/Pottsville Club. Unable to break free, Julian English asphyxiates himself in his garage on Dec. 26, 1930.
O'Hara biographer Geoffrey Wolff calls the novel "a group portrait of narrow self-interest, of greed, alcoholism, and intolerance."
Speculation on the identity of the "real" Julian English centered on three men, including the author himself. In a letter written to a friend 28 years later, O'Hara identified his model as William Richards, a local gambling figure who fatally shot himself in Pottsville in 1933. "I took his life, his psychological pattern, and covered him up with Brooks Brothers shirts and a Cadillac dealership and so on," O'Hara wrote, "and the reason the story rings so true is that it is the God's truth, out of life."
There was never any doubt in Pottsville about the identity of Elinor Holloway, who, O'Hara says in the novel, "shinnied halfway up the country club flagpole while five young gentlemen, standing at the foot of the pole, verified the suspicion that Elinor, who had not always lived in Gibbsville, was not naturally, or at least entirely, blond." Most people in Pottsville knew of the incident before O'Hara wrote about it, and the real-life Elinor considered a lawsuit, but changed her mind.
Today the Pottsville Free Public Library has a pleasant John O'Hara Alcove with reading chairs and a glass case containing handsome, dust-jacketed books by and about O'Hara. "Right now we have 209 copies of all 42 of his published works," says library director Nancy Smink. "Our records show there has been steady usage over the past 10 years."
Over the last 75 years, some of the Pottsville sites and locations that inspired O'Hara have vanished, but a remarkable number of others have changed little. Ramus, who has put together a nifty walking-tour brochure of O'Hara's Pottsville, turns her car onto Centre Street and warms to her subject.
She pulls to the curb and points to a stately red brick mansion at 315 S. Centre St. "This is the kind of prestigious home O'Hara had in mind in Ten North Frederick." At 370 Centre she pauses at an abandoned brick building. "This was automobile row, where all the dealerships were, and one of these was the basis for Julian English's Cadillac dealership." She drives past Mootz Candy store. "This is a Pottsville landmark - the only store in this area of town that was in business in O'Hara's time."
Architecturally, Mahantongo Street seems to be going in one era and out the other. Post-World War II split-levels have elbowed their way between their Edwardian and Victorian elders, which seem to sulk on either side. There is nothing at No. 125 to inform you that this building was the office and home of Dr. Patrick O'Hara from 1903 to 1916, and that the first of his eight children, John, was born here on Jan. 31, 1905. It's now the office of the local newspaper.
There's a macadam parking lot at what once was the site of the Pottsville Club, which O'Hara called the Gibbsville Club, "where almost any sufficiently solvent Christian man, who had made his money in a sanctioned enterprise and did not habitually leave his car parked in front of whorehouses, could be reasonably sure of election within two years of proposal and seconding."
There's a three-story rowhouse at 606 Mahantongo that Ramus recently helped sell. Near the first-floor dining room, where O'Hara made his first halting efforts at creative writing, there is an official blue-and-yellow state historic sign.
Higher up Mahantongo, the houses become steadily grander and before long they are mansions with columns and wide porches. Finally, Ramus pauses at the iron-gated Tudor mansion that once housed the brewers of the Yuengling family and now is home to the Schuylkill County Council of the Arts. "This is the 1400 block of Mahantongo," Ramus said. "This is where John O'Hara wanted to be when he was growing up. But he was way down on 600."
Back in Gallagher's office, Ramus recalled that when she left Pottsville in 1985 to go to college, first in New Mexico, then at the University of Delaware, she was surprised to learn that her literature professors had read O'Hara.