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He had dreams,as do all boys. At the age of twelve, he was “looking forward to the day when, like Clint Shaefer, he would own his own Mercer; when, like Al Cullum, he would be on his way to Yale; when, like Bill Ulmer, he would know the 16th Arrondissement better than the third ward.”

They were Pottsville fellows, Shaefer, Cullum, and Ulmer – and so was the boy. He was John O’Hara, who later became the renowned novelist of twentieth century manners and who would claim a “Pennsylvania protectorate” – roughly the hard coal region and counties east of the Susquehanna River – in best-selling books that included Appointment in Samarra, Ten North Frederick, and From The Terrace.

Born on January 31, 1905, the oldest of eight children of Katharine Delaney O’Hara and Dr. Patrick Henry O’Hara, John O’Hara demonstrated early in life a penchant for fast cars and fast women – not bad training at all for a writer who would spend his career dissecting the country club set and small town sensibilities, and describing – sometimes too graphically, critics alleged – the allure of money and the power of sex.

Proud, headstrong and contentious, young John O’Hara managed also to be something of a squirt. Follow­ing Mass one day at Pottsville’s St. Patrick’s Church, he and another youngster – a fellow altar boy no less – brazenly quaffed of communion wine. Not long afterwards he took up cigarettes. He became a regular at Pat Joyce’s bar, located in one of the Schuylkill County seat’s seedier neigh­borhoods. When he was fourteen and in a typically defiant mood, John backed the family’s new Ford sedan out of the garage, raced down Mahantongo Street and onto Centre Street, where the automobile suddenly let out with a bang and stopped dead; a radial rod had snapped. O’Hara was terrified, and with good cause, for his father was a man given to blinding rages.

In spite of his arrogance and cavalier manner, John O’Hara was not truly incorrigible. He was curious, blessed with a phenomenal memory, and instinctively literary. “As a kid he used to sit by the tracks and watch the freights go by,” a friend recalled. “When he grew up, he could tell you the name of every railroad in the United States. The same applied to horses, Christian creeds, cars, music, and just about everything.”

“Every damn thing imaginably has come in for its share of inspection by me,” O’Hara wrote at nineteen, “and this may sound queer, but one thing I blame it on is learning to arrive at the meaning of a word by recalling its Latin root. Bend that!”

He learned to read at four, and grew to love the English annual This Year’s Book for Boys, which an aunt gave him each Christmas, and American Boy, until he out­grew it. In the family’s library he would busy himself with the biographies of Napoleon that his father owned, and pore over the pages of Time, which Dr. O’Hara received free as one of the community’s leading physicians. John enjoyed studying phrases and syntax and recording new words, such as “tycoon.” He committed to memory entire passages of In Our Time, the first collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which appeared in 1921 when O’Hara was sixteen, struck more than one responsive chord. “Amory Blaine’s mother’s maiden name was Beatrice O’Hara,” he wrote, “and I was in love with a girl named Beatrice then, a coincidence that became less important page by page.” Fitzgerald, he noted, was the “first novelist to make me say, ‘Hot dog! Some writer…'”

Dr. O’Hara offered to put John through medical school; offered, in fact, to place ten thousand dollars in the bank for that purpose. John rejected the offer, in part because he found the whole medical business disagreeable. More than once he was roused from bed in the middle of the night to prepare the horse-and-buggy and later the automobile for the long, bumpy, and usually unpleasant jaunts to one of the “patches” – small villages owned by coal companies – that surrounded Pottsville. To John, death was commonplace and tragedy simply the stuff of everyday life. He was his father’s helpmate during the devastating influenza epidemic of 1919. He vividly recalled a train accident he and his father encountered during their rigorous rounds. “I … had to hold the hand of a man who was dying of burns and the mother who was dying after the amputation of both legs …. ”

“Everytime the phone rang there was a chance death would be on call,” he later remembered. “‘He died on the operating table’ was a sentence I heard a hundred times at the dinner table.”

Patrick O’Hara thought his son had “marvelous hands,” the hands of a surgeon. John may have thought so too. In the heady days of 1934 that followed the publication of Appointment in Samarra, he “thought quite seriously about becoming a doctor.” His father had been dead for nine years.

Life had not dealt John O’Hara a bad hand, however, and his family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. “We had a six-cylinder Buick touring car,” John once wrote, “a four-cylinder Buick sedan, a four-cylinder Buick runabout, a Ford roadster, and another Ford roadster for the farm.” The farm was located in Panther Valley, near Cressona, and its one hundred and sixty acres drew the O’Haras on weekends and during much of the summer. Dr. O’Hara was a gentleman farmer, a member of the Jersey Cattle Breeders of America, and the proud owner of a prize winning bull named Nobel of St. Mary’s. The family’s other animals in- eluded a team of sorrels, a bay carriage horse, a black carriage horse, five ponies (including two registered Shetlands), and, for John, a five-gaited mare that Dr. O’Hara purchased from the Kirby Horse Farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Although the O’Haras spent considerable time on the farm, they remained firmly anchored to Pottsville and, especially, to Mahantongo Street. John was born at 125 Mahantongo Street, not far from the main business district. The family eventually moved to 606 Mahantongo Street, into a house vacated by the Yuenglings, the local brew masters, who themselves had moved to the 1400 block of Mahantongo Street. The higher house numbers on Mahantongo Street signaled greater wealth and more prestigious social standing. The Yuenglings, the Shaefers, and the Archbalds were members of Pottsville’s reigning aristocracy. The O’Haras, who lived approximately in the middle of the long street, were not.

Yet the O’Haras held aspirations, evidenced by the farm, the fleet of automobiles, young John’s very own riding horse, and his enrollment in Miss Linders’ School of the Dance for Young Misses and Masters, to which he eagerly wore patent-leather pumps, an Eton collar, Windsor tie, black stockings, blue serge Norfolk suit, and white silk handker- chief.

For the entire family, there were trips to Philadelphia for shopping at John Wanamaker and Strawbridge and Clothier department stores, and sojourns at the grand Bellevue- Stratford Hotel. They made annual trips to New York City, where the O’Haras took in the circus at Madison Square Garden and “extravaganzas” at the Hippodrome. Driving along Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive, John O’Hara saw great nineteenth century wealth incarnate in the twentieth century: the Gilded Age mansions of millionaires and magnates, and their “butlers and footmen in knee breeches and swallowtails in conversation with the liveried chauffeurs.” He saw, too, echoes of Manhattan in Pottsville, with its fleet of Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Bentleys, Locomobiles, and Rolls Royces, as well as its many Ivy League graduates, and its distinctive upper crust customs.

Nonetheless, Pottsville was too small to be neatly pack- aged. And John’s own experiences were too varied to permit easy categorization. “They” – the Yuenglings, the Shaefers, and the rest of the upper Mahantongo Street set – were Protestant; the O’Haras were Roman Catholic. “They” were English, Scottish, and German; the O’Haras were Irish, and the Irish – well, the Irish were called “micks” and considered lower class and tough (and usually heavy drinkers). Young O’Hara found it easy to detect the differences. Riding with his father once he noticed a sign, “No Irish need apply,” and asked if the sign referred to him. “No,” his father staunchly replied, “we are Americans.” But in a comment that spoke volumes about his own insecurities, Dr. O’Hara declared, “The only way to get rid of signs like that is to change public opinion and public opinion will be changed only if the Irish become hardworking and sober and overcome their national weakness, laziness and drink.” Naturally, Dr. O’Hara was neither idle nor intemperate, but to John his father represented another kind of failure. He wasn’t rich enough. “I probably thought if my old man was such a big shot, why didn’t he own a Rolls Royce instead of the Fords and Buicks he habitually bought?”

Father and son differed on all sorts of things, and sometimes their differences exploded into open combat. On more than one occasion John arrived home with liquor on his breath and more than once paid the price. One time Dr. O’Hara knocked John down and beat and kicked him so violently that Tom O’Hara, the next oldest child, burst into tears. Of his father, Tom said he had a “fierce, skyrocket temper.” John, on the other hand, was much more descriptive. “My father … could open you up with a scalpel or with a jab and an uppercut.”

O’Hara’ s schooling was a trying and ultimately decisive experience for both father and son, although John started out well enough. He began as a student of Miss Katie Carpenter, a devoted private school teacher who taught her pupils the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers and the Episcopal version of the Lord’s Prayer. This Protestant influence was too much for O’Hara’s mother, who transferred John to St. Patrick’s Elementary School, opposite the family home. There, John recalled, he became “closely acquainted with the Studs Lonigans of our place and time.” To rid himself of his aristocratic reputation, he led a crowd of them, a “single file of stalwart Irish and Italians,” to a movie theater to see The Perils of Pauline.

John graduated from St. Patrick’s in 1919, and at the age of fifteen entered Fordham University Prep, one of six hundred students welcomed to the Bronx campus, with its wide, lovely lawns and strict regimen. At Fordham John was introduced to the works of Irving, Goldsmith, and Whittier, for their influence on a young man’s “weekly compositions.” However, the experience was less U1an satisfactory and John left Fordham, under a cloud, in June 1921. He returned to Pennsylvania to enroll in the Keystone State Normal School in Kutztown, Berks County, the following September. Better dressed than most of his fellow students, he was glib, rebellious, and enamored of girls (“This was the candy store and I had a very sweet tooth”). He was, in fact, in love with one young woman whose father was a school trustee. John left Keystone State Normal School at the end of the 1922 school year.

The expulsions angered Dr. O’Hara, and for punishment he put John to work. John’s “positions” included “call boy” on the Sunbury Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad (he later bragged that while assigned to the Port Carbon Station he had managed to “tie up” the entire line by failing to wake the slumbering crew), “baggage smasher” at the Railway Express office and, finally, laborer before the open hearth at Pottsville’s Eastern Steel Mill.

In September 1921 John reentered school, at the Niagara Preparatory School in Niagara, New York. Older, perhaps more mature or chastened, John finally seems to have steadied himself and buckled down to work, and appeared ready to reap the rewards on graduation day with a speech as official class poet. But fate – or bad luck – again intervened. The evening before the commencement exercises John prowled town all night, imbibing heavily and generally raising hell. Inebri­ated and thoroughly disheveled, he returned just before dawn to his room, where he was awakened by an incensed Dr. O’Hara, accom­panied by a band of school officials. John was barred from the ceremonies and not allowed to graduate. The episode, punctuated by John’s lonely train ride back to Pottsville, seems to have quashed whatever was left in his relationship with his father. Years later O’Hara still felt the sting. “Father never really spoke cordially to me after that.”

Somehow, though, John O’Hara did acquire an enviable education. “When I was young,” he wrote, “I learned that girls liked two things about me: one, that I was a good dancer; two, that I made them laugh.” Besides “love” and “girls”, young John had three ambitions: to own a coonskin coat, to drive a Stutz Bearcat, and to lead his own jazz band. It was the Jazz Age, and for O’Hara the term evoked an w1deniable magic. ‘The word jazz … has meant first sex, then dancing, then music,” Fitzgerald wrote. “It is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war.” And John O’Hara was much like the nervous moth before the Jazz Age flame.

“I have arrived at what amounts to a second child­hood,” he wrote to hometown friend Robert Simonds in 1923. “Sounds ridiculous, but look: a child plays with a mechanical toy and after a time he will want to see what makes the wheels go around.” O’Hara’s first such discovery was young women; he escorted both the country club girls and the mill girls, called “spivots” in Pottsville, to dances through­out Schuylkill County. He was one of the town’s “nasty boys,” he recalled, “who had nothing better to do than to bring shame and disgrace on the girls who worked in the mills.” He was also the type to fall in love, as he did at least twice in Pottsville. His first true love, Gladys Suender of Frackville, he called “the Wonderful Wench” and “the Creole,” for her dark, almost Spanish complexion. His second and even more serious love was a hard case, indeed, for his pursuit of her involved O’Hara in the issues of wealth and status (she possessed both) and religion (she was Protestant). Margaretta Archbald was several years older than John and a student at Bryn Mawr College while John was moving in and out of prep schools, in and out of jobs. Their romance ended badly, of course, but it was passionate as long as it lasted, which it did far into the 1920s.

During this period John might have become a small town playboy or Prohibition era gangster. Instead, without intentional design early in his education, he became a student of human character. When the young men of Pottsville and the surrounding communities arrived home from World War l, he sought out those that would talk about their experiences. The Mahantongo Street types would not, as a rule, talk to O’Hara about their stints in the service, and something in their stiff, upper crust reserve deeply offended him. He turned to the veterans he met in the streets of Pottsville or to those he recognized from his father’s practice. One was a Polish steelworker who, John reported, had “literally torn the heart out” of a German prisoner after a “pal of his had been killed.”

John O’Hara delighted in the exuberance and profundity that marked Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, and provided him with a contrast­ing glimpse into the human condition. One soldier, epitomizing “the fun of the day,” was a young man of about twenty who pretended to “escort trolley cars through the crowded streets,” and “with great simulated dignity waved his hand at people as though he had ,commandeered the transit system.” Another soldier he spotted late on Armistice Day night, and John couldn’t help but notice the man’s coat sleeve flapping in the stiff fall breeze. The young veteran had lost an arm in Europe.

O’Hara’s boyhood years gave him insight to the frailty of life and later served him well in his writing. In 1919, he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of a girl he had once kissed, Beulah Keiter. “She was a quiet, sexy girl, my age, who wore high heels before the other girls did. I was in love with her for a month or two.” Although Beulah had moved to Williamsport, she was to be buried in Pottsville. His recollections of the funeral remained razor-sharp. John recalled that, “all I had to do was to meet at the church five other boys and walk up the aisle as they pushed the casket to the altar rail. As an altar boy I had often served mass at funerals of people I did not know, but I had only been to two funerals that affected me personally …. But they were family. I cried all through Beulah’s funeral, because no one my age had died before …. She was my first sadness of that kind.”

The novelist drew lessons of one sort or another from an endless parade of Pottsville characters, which he described pointedly. Dory Sands was a “fat little man who was having an honorable career as a street cleaner until he ran for public office.” Eggy the Boy Engineer was a “rather grimy man who wore the best clothes in town – after they had been worn by the original owners.” Screendoor was an aptly named young Italian gangster because of his complexion. Dardanella was a “fat little tart” in John’s prep school days. Mike Joulwan, the unofficial “king” of the Syrian community in Pottsville, was “the strongest man in the steel mill,” while “Bobby Snyder was the freshest punk kid in our crowd …. He talked dirty all the time, and he used to put his hand up girls’ dresses and whistle through his teeth …. I loathed him and he would not fight me.” Even his family was not immune from his charac­terizations. A spinster aunt of John’s “hated Abraham Lincoln, and on the other hand she nursed Union soldiers. She was a devout Catholic, and all during Prohibition I made a neat profit by providing her with drugstore gin which I sold her at twice what I paid for it. I loved her …. ”

The list went on to include a Pottsville law1dry owner, a devoted family man, who kept to business six days a week, but who would on Sundays visit a local roadhouse “conducted” by a “leading madam.” The man was oblivious to the opinion of “nice people,” for he parked “the snappiest, yellowest, most expensive roadster in town” in front of the roadhouse, located along the road that led Pottsville society to the country club. “He told them to go to hell,” John wrote.

It was a sentiment O’Hara well understood. He was wounded by the treatment his father had received at the hands of a cabal of Protestant doctors that forced the physician out of the Pottsville Hospital. Following Patrick O’Hara’s death from Bright’s Disease in February 1925, the family’s precarious financial condition grew apparent. Dr. O’Hara’s investments had been ill-advised, to say the least, and he had failed to write a will. The O’Haras were left practically destitute, John’s dream of attending Yale shattered. With his friends at college, he was left only with the hope of establishing a social fraternity in Pottsville. He had also hoped to marry Margaretta Archbald, but after graduation from Bryn Mawr and put off by John’s heavy drinking, she accepted a teaching position on an Indian reservation in the West.

Following the debacle at Niagara, Dr. O’Hara had interceded to secure his son a job as a reporter with the Pottsville Journal, and John’s journalism career did continue, albeit haphazardly, after his father’s death. He covered the Maroons, Pottsville’s popular football team, and an assort­ment of murders, arsons, and church socials. He also managed to be fired: twice by the Journal and once by the Evening Courier in nearby Tamaqua. “I always seemed to be in the corner bar when the story broke,” he later said. Walter Farquahr, John’s mentor and the Journal‘s sports editor, remembered well his protege. “John liked to write but he didn’t like to report …. He was too impatient to do the routine drudgery, too much of an artist. He missed routine assignments because he didn’t think they were worth cover­ing.” The Maroons, however, were an exception, perhaps because John did not see the games as routine.

As the local contender in the nascent National Football League, Pottsville’ s Maroons claimed a place on the first pages of the county’s newspa­pers. Whenever the team played, the young cub reporter liked to commit his observa­tions to print. From the pressbox at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park during an exciting December 1925 game for the Maroons, O’Hara wrote: “A movie camera is on the scene. WIP is broadcasting the game.” During the same season he witnessed the only eastern college appearance of the University of Illinois’ sensa­tional Red Grange, and contributed a commentary to the Journal in which he declared Grange was “not supposed to go to college to play football but he learned more about football … than many law students learn about law …. Why, then, shouldn’t Red establish a fortune when he can?”

In May 1923, O’Hara had written Simonds again. “T have made up my mind to get out of Pottsville.” Two years later he had yet to make a move, explaining to his friend, “My ambition is to get a job on The World. It’s the very best paper and it would help immeasur­ably for me to get the job with the Pulitzer sheet. To be able to say ‘Yes, I work for the N.Y.W.’ is an open sesame.”

What happened? Little, if anything.

In summer 1927, following a brief excursion to Germany as a ship’s waiter, O’Hara was considering a job as a South American plantation overseer for the United Fruit Company. “A year ago,” he told Simonds, “I don’t think l would have considered taking such a job. Now … I’ll go lots of places. For one thing, I’ve decided to roam the world.” What he actually attempted amounted to nothing more than a trip to the West to see Margaretta Archbald. He traveled as far as Chicago, where he ran out of money and ended up begging for a room in a seedy flop house.

“I’ve never been so un­happy, so little enthusiastic about life, and it’s all the fault of this place, or of myself. If 1 had some objective,” he wrote Simonds, “something to look forward to, it wouldn’t quite be so lethal, but as it is – .” He told Simonds a short time later, “At my present rate I’ll end up in a joint in Tia Juana with a bullet in my left ventricle. And when that time comes you’ll know that some­one else did what I haven’t the courage to do myself.”

All of his self-denigration came to an end – temporarily at least – in March 1928 when, prompted by the departure from home of his sister Mary, O’Hara landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. By May, he had made his debut in The New Yorker. He had also encountered editor and critic H. L. Mencken in a Manhattan speakeasy. He remembered that he wasted no time.

“Where did you get the idea that if you haven’t learned the bass clef you can’t appreciate music?”

“Did I say that?” responded a startled Mencken.

“You said it, all right.”

An intellectual, John was obliged to think deeply about people, places, and events during the period of frustration following his father’s death. “Proud and sensitive,” Farquahr remembered, “he felt keenly his inability to aid his family …. It was then that he began to look with bitterness upon the mores of his time.”

During late summer 1933, holed up in New York’s Pickwick Arms Hotel writing Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara counseled Farquahr. “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 … those patronizing cheap bastards.”

But as O’Hara probably realized, leaving is never easy, and in one sense he never did leave Pottsville – not in any absolute sense. Eight of his fourteen novels and more than half of his three hundred and seventy-four short stories are set in the region he called his “Pennsylvania protectorate.” He transformed Pottsville into Gibbsville. Tamaqua he called Taqua. He rechristened Frackville as Mountain City. In his literary landscape, Harrisburg surfaced as Fort Penn. And Mahantongo Street, where it all started, emerged as Lantenengo Street, truly one of the most important neighborhoods in twentieth century American fiction.

Of course, John O’Hara was too much of an artist to lift directly from life the tortured souls he created in fiction. Otherwise, they might have acquired the “Pottsville lethargy” and “the awful coma” about which he had complained to Simonds. Whatever their other faults or blemishes, his characters were never somnambulant. Yet O’Hara did write from life. He let it be known, for instance, that Julian English, the protagonist in Appointment in Samarra, was “a fellow named Richards, who was definitely not country club (as English was), but had charm and a certain kind of native intelligence …. I took his life, his psychological pattern, and covered him up with Brooks shirts and a Cadillac dealership.”

The fictional Julian English, a prominent member of society who committed suicide, could not leave Gibbsville, even though it would have saved his life. “He was too tall to run away,” O’Hara wrote. “He would be spotted …. There was something awfully good and lucky for him in being guided out of the club and into the car and away, but something else had pulled him back. You did not really get away …. And so he kept his foot on the accelerator, hurrying back to Gibbsville.”

In his own way, O’Hara seemed to be forever hurrying back to Pottsville. Much like English, there was nothing sentimental about his attachment. He knew its secret passions, and recognized its cheap tricks of conscience. Yet return he did. For its stories, its characters, its very familiarity. As a novelist, John O’Hara found that his hometown contained a universe of experience. Pottsville was the cradle, as well as the crucible, of his life’s work.


For Further Reading

Bruccoli, Matthew J. John O’Hara: A Checklist. New York: Random House, 1972.

____. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1975.

Farr, Finis. O’Hara. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. John O’Hara. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

McCormick, Bernard. “A John O’Hara Geography.” Journal of Modern Literature. 1 (1970- 1971).

O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934.

____. Ten North Frederick. New York: Random House, 1955.

____. The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.


Richard Robbins of Uniontown writes for the Greensburg Tribune-Review. His articles have appeared in the Theodore Roosevelt Journal and Pittsburgh History, published by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. His article chronicling the rise and fall of coal broker and banker Josiah V. Thompson, “Uniontown’s Prince of the Gilded Age,” appeared in the spring 1989 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.