There once was a time when the citizens of Pottsville, Pennsylvania did not regard their native son, the author John O’Hara, with kindness. His name was whispered in scorn and not a little hatred for exposing the peccadillos and worse of the Jazz Age antics of the hypocrites of the town he called Gibbsville. His books were kept under lock and key, it is said, in the public library. But, in his great rival Ernest Hemingway’s words, “the sun also rises.” Today O’Hara’s home is honored by a plaque from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and, since the 1980s the Schuylkill County Council of the Arts has honored him with scholarly lectures and bus tours. The council has its headquarters in the former O’ Hara family home. One journalist passing through town a number of years ago noted that a downtown hotel had a John O’Hara Ballroom, the Chapin Room, the English Room and the Lockwood Room, named for characters from his novels. In short, O’Hara is no longer a pariah in Pottsville.
Like many writers that have fallen out of favor, O’ Hara needed a crusader to take up his cause. He found it in his biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli. A graduate of Yale and professor of English at a number of universities, he published his “The O’Hara Concern” in 1975, giving O’Hara his first academic treatment. This was followed by the “Selected Letters of John O’Hara.” They secured a place for O’Hara among the great American writers of the mid-20th century, along with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The road to a long, temporary literary exile for O’Hara began with a quip by Hemingway. In the firmament of mid-20th century American literature, he was god. So in the 1930s, when taking time out from hunting big game in Africa, catching marlins off Cuba, and, it seemed, single-handedly fighting the Spanish Civil War, “Papa” as he was known to intimates, delivered a judgement on O’Hara that was the ultimate put down: “We're taking up a collection,” he said to some friends, “to send John O’Hara to Yale.” It stuck, branding O’Hara until quite recently as a popular Johnny one-note of a writer who couldn’t get out of his small-town.
No tales of disillusioned nights in Paris cafes discussing Joyce and Proust by the “Lost Generation”, no running with the bulls in Spain, no drunken hijinks on the Rivera that end in tragic denouncements and a pistol shot or a dramatic drunken car crash on the Moyenne Corniche highway overlooking Monaco. Scandals in a Pennsylvania coal town? Who would possibly want to read about that? Apparently, a lot of people. O’Hara’s books continued to sell well throughout his life, and he was credited with creating the New Yorker magazine short story fiction format. And his novel Butterfield 8 had plenty of tragedy and was set in New York.
But O’Hara was outside what some academics called the ”canon” of great writers. And what was worse, in their minds, he sometimes wrote for Hollywood. When Random House announced it was going to reprint O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra” in its publications list, a howl was raised from the critics, academics and authors who brought threats to withdraw their books if this was done. Interestingly, Hemingway had hailed O’Hara’s first book “Appointment In Samara” as one everyone should read: “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read “Appointment in Samarra.’"
In fact, despite Hemingway’s caustic quip, the two were at times friends. In 1950 O’Hara even wrote a highly praise-worthy review of Hemingway’s novel “Across the River and Into the Trees,” which was otherwise regarded by critics as inferior to his early work. A classic photo from the 1930s shows Hemingway and O’Hara sharing a banquette at the Stork Club, a major celebrity nightclub of the era, with its owner Sherman Billingsley between them. Both men were known for their real and imagined consumption of prodigious amounts of alcohol. Hemingway gloried in claiming he “liberated” the bar at Paris’s exclusive Ritz Hotel following the German occupation by drinking 54 martinis. To honor the legend, nightly, at the Ritz’s “Bar Hemingway” venue, white coated bartenders rhythmically shake cocktails for patrons surrounded by Hemingway memorabilia, including “Papa’s” typewriter. No such shrine exists for O’Hara, who eventually gave up drinking due to severe health concerns.
Today O’Hara is recognized as a writer with an ear for the subtle nuance and social cues that identified what he called “my Pennsylvania protectorate.” This was not just confined to Pottsville proper or even just Schuylkill County but went into Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties as well. It developed over his youth having been born in Pottsville in 1905 to Dr. Patrick and Katherine Delaney O’Hara. At the time Pottsville was at the height of its anthracite coal prosperity, with train loads of the fuel that heated the homes and powered the factories of the northeast passing through town. The O’Haras were upper middle class by the standards of the day. The elder O’Hara was well liked and admired by many. But there was always a line that their son felt was a barrier to his acceptance. Because they were Irish Catholics, certain social venues, an exclusive preserve of the higher levels of the WASP power structure, were closed to them.
His father was heart-broken when O’Hara turned his back on a career in medicine. But he had more interest in being a college cut-up. In 1922, he was dismissed from what is now Kutztown University. From 1924 to 1926 he was a reporter and columnist for the Pottsville Journal. With the death of his father in 1925 all hope of attending Yale, his life-long goal, disappeared, along with the family’s income. In 1927, after being fired from two newspaper jobs, O’Hara tried to get a job at the Morning Call and announced in a letter to a friend that he will not take less than $35 a week. He asks a friend about getting a room for $11 and two meals a day. O’Hara is a little worried that his being a Catholic will keep him from a job.
“There’s so much prejudice in Allentown, you know, and there are people otherwise normal who fear that to harbor a Papist is to defy the great god Janus-wasn’t he the home god Lares and Penates? This, as I say, is tentative and may never materialize.” As far as is known O’Hara never worked for the Morning Call.
It was February 1928 when O’Hara left Pottsville, supposedly carrying his raccoon coat, standard wear for young men at the time, and never returned. Not much was heard of him in Pottsville until 1934 when “Appointment in Samarra” was published. In his thinly veiled fiction, Pottsville saw itself, particularly the women of the community. And they were furious. His mother still lived in town and was the target of either sympathy of anger. The chief focus of anger was a sentence that dealt with a drunken woman at a country club who climbed a flagpole, revealing to all that she was not a natural blond.
O’Hara, writing to a friend in Pottsville, had this to say in part:
“If you’re going to get out of that God awful, town, for God’s sake write something that will make you get out of it. Write something that automatically will sever your connection with the town, that will help you get rid of the bitterness you must have all those patronizing cheap bastards…You don’t love them any more than I do.”
But as much as he wrote about getting away, O’Hara could never really do that. Until his death in 1970 he would write a huge amount. Critics had the most praise for his short stories, which he wrote mostly for the New Yorker. His novels were and remained popular with the public. His characters were based on real people but were also taken from a variety of them. And his eye for detail remains perfect. It is difficult to know what O’Hara would make of his current popularity in Pottsville. But it was clearly Pottsville that gave him the subject matter that made him the writer he became.