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Historical Markers
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John O'Hara Historical Marker
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Name:
John O'Hara

Region:
Valleys of the Susquehanna

County:
Schuylkill

Marker Location:
606 Mahantongo Street, Pottsville

Dedication Date:
July 19, 1982

Behind the Marker

 
John O'Hara in his original study.
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The oldest child of a prosperous Irish Catholic family, John Henry O’Hara was born January 31, 1905, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.  There, his father Patrick’s success as a physician earned the O’Hara family a life of relative luxury.  They lived in one of the nicest homes in Pottsville-- the mansion on Mahantongo Street built by the prominent Yuengling family –and belonged to two country clubs. Despite these advantages, however, O’Hara grew up feeling like an outsider, because he and his family were Irish Catholic. 
A view of Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, created by J.R. Smith in 1833, and "respectfully dedicated to the enterprising citizens of the Coal Region."
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Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, PA, created by J.R. Smith,  1833.

 
Pottsville in the early 1900s was a prosperous small city of  about 20,000, in east central Pennsylvania.  Located in Schuylkill County near the bottom of the richest vein of anthracite coal in the world, Pottsville during the mining boom that followed the American Civil War also sustained other industries, including railroads, banks, lumber mills, breweries, and foundries.  Nine trains a day transported coal to Philadelphia, moving more than sixty million tons of coal per year.  As the region grew and prospered, Pottsville even supported its own professional football team, the markerPottsville Maroons, who in 1925 won what some sport reporters have called the first NFL championship.
Three men sit at a table. Let to right, Hemingway, Billingsly, and O'Hara
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John O'Hara (center) with Earnest Hemingway (left) and Stork Club owner...

 
“The Region” as the coal country around Pottsville was called, also witnessed some of the most violent labor struggles in the United States history, including the markerMolly Maguire struggles of the 1870s, the markerLattimer Massacre in 1897, and the great markerAnthracite Coal Strike of 1902, which fueled a legacy of hostility and animosity as mine owners and managers faced off against miners, and Protestant Scots Irish and “English” clashed with Irish and eastern European Catholics.
 
Growing up in Pottsville, O’Hara developed a keen awareness of the enduring social divisions and hierarchy in his hometown and an eye for the nuances that distinguished status.  Material items and social organizations mattered greatly to O’Hara.  Indeed, as a youth O’Hara’s great ambition was to attend Yale.  The death of his father in 1925, however, left the family penniless and forced O’Hara to find work after high school.

After working a series of odd jobs and as an apprentice reporter at the Pottsville Journal, O’Hara moved to New York City in 1928 and there wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, Time, the New Yorker, and other papers.  He also began writing short stories, twelve of which he sold his first year in the city.  Through the New Yorker, O’Hara met several people who became central to his life and his career, including New Yorker editor Walcott Gibbs, and writers Dorothy Parker and James Thurber.
American writer John O'Hara sitting with his wife Belle on a bench.
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John O'Hara with his wife Belle, January 17, 1938.


In 1934, O’Hara published his first and probably best-known novel, Appointment in Samarra.  Here O’Hara introduced the world to “Gibbsville,” a fictional town named for Walcott Gibbs and modeled after Pottsville.  In it, O’Hara depicted the deep-seated prejudices and anxieties of an old “English” anthracite elite in decline and the rise of Irish Catholics and other newer ethnic groups. 
 
In the decades that followed, O’Hara would set more than fifty of his short stories and eight of his novels in Gibbsville and provided readers a unique portrait of the upper class in  Pennsylvania coal country in the early decades of the twentieth century.  In this “Pennsylvania Protectorate,” as some called it, O'Hara explored how the once bright promise of coal had been tarnished after decades of rampant industrialization. He also used Gibbsville to reflect on the stifling consequences of the rigid class lines that had developed in industrial towns like Pottsville.

O'Hara's unflattering depictions of the materialism, greed, sexuality, and drinking of “Gibbsville’s” residents scandalized so many residents in Pottsville and other Pennsylvania coal towns to the point that the public library in Pottsville refused to hold any of his works. They were not alone in their criticism. Like the man himself, many of his works received mixed reviews.
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“Appointment With O'Hara,” column, Collier's Weekly, 1955....


O’Hara published his second novel, Butterfield 8, in 1935, followed by the serialized Pal Joey which the New Yorker began publishing in 1938.  In the decades that followed, O’Hara continued to write, publishing A Rage to Live (1949), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1958).  Both Hollywood and Broadway took an interest in his writings.  A musical adaptation of Pal Joey starring Gene Kelly ran on Broadway for more than a year in 1940-41, and in 1957 was released as a film starring Frank Sinatra.  In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her role in the movie version of Butterfield 8, while Paul Newman starred in a film version of From the Terrace that same year. 
O'Hara is receiving an award from John Hershey, as both men stand face to face.
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John O'Hara (on the left), receiving the Award of Merit for the Novel, the...

 
O’Hara also made important contributions to the American short story.  Paying great attention to small details,  he abandoned the traditional formula of a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, for stories that seemed to start and stop in mid-stream, and used elements as simple as a change in tone or mood to alter the trajectory of the story.  In doing so he developed what became known as “the New Yorker story,”  a form later followed by other writers, including J. D. Salinger and John Updike. Like O’Hara, Updike, who grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, would set many of his novels in a fictionalized version of his Pennsylvania hometown. 

Black and white photograph of three men, standing on a city sidewalk, conversing.
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Albert Erskine, John O'Hara, and Bennett Cerf, publisher and co-founder of Random...
A heavy drinker, O’Hara struggled to hold onto jobs.  His books, too, came under attack, as critics accused him of writing in the detailed and realistic style of the old “sociological novel,” which had grown out of fashion.  Despite frequent days of long drinking binges and the altercations that followed, his core friends remained loyal to him. In the last decade of his life, O’Hara reunited with the New Yorker, contributing some of his best short stories to the magazine, including Imagine Kissing Pete (1960).  O’Hara died in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 11, 1970.  By then, O’Hara, one of the great novelists and short story writers of the twentieth century, had left a unique and extended glimpse into a bygone era of Pennsylvania coal country. 
 
In 1960,O’Hara provided perhaps the best explanation of his objectives and accomplishments as a writer. 
 
“I have lived with as well as in the Twentieth Century from its earliest days.  The United States in this Century is what I know, and it is my business to write about it to the best of my ability, with the sometimes special knowledge I have.  The Twenties, the Thirties, and the Forties are already history, but I cannot be content to leave their story in the hands of the historians and the editors of picture books.  I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty and variety.”

-John O'Hara, Foreword to Sermons and Soda Water (New York: Random House, 1960).
 
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