Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Nerds on the Prowl

Joyce and I have finished up our final day in the Pottsville, PA, area, where I'm chasing down some locations important in the life and in the fiction of John O'Hara.  Soon, we'll be home, and it will be time to quit running around and instead to start writing.  But we had a great day today that began with a trip to a nearby country club.

This country club was the setting for some key moments in O'Hara's first novel, An Appointment in Samarra, a novel which many consider among his best.  (One reason: He rewrote it several times because of his editor's commentary; later, when he was famous, he would not allow editors to change a word of what he'd written--and what he'd written, in virtually every case, was what you and I would call a rough draft.  And the result?  His later fiction suffers--and often sucks.)

Anyway, we pulled up into the country club driveway, soared on into a parking slot (as if we belonged there), fired off a few pictures and drove off as if we'd suddenly remembered we were flying to Paris this very morning.

We headed then for Kutztown (rhymes with Rootstown), where adolescent O'Hara briefly attended what was then called the Keystone State Normal School (now it's Kutztown University).  Kutztown--unlike Hiram College (grrrrr!)--has kept its traditional "Old Main," the main classroom building where O'Hara attended classes before he was booted out for academic and disciplinary reasons (fighting, disobeying the Headmaster).  We spent some time on this very friendly campus, which featured a Starbucks in the student union, which they call the Academic Forum.  Sounds pretty good.

Back at our car--something not so friendly.  On the windshield, under the wiper: a warning ticket.  This vehicle is in violation of the Kutztown University ...  That was as far as I read.  Once I realized I had no fine to pay, I simply saved the ticket for a memento of an otherwise pleasant visit.

Then it was off to Tamaqua (tuh-MAWK-wah), where O'Hara worked briefly for the local newspaper, the Tamaqua Evening Courier in 1927 (he was in his early 20s).  This job lasted three months. Then he was fired for the reasons that cost him numerous jobs: late arrival, drinking problems, fisticuffs with locals.  The Courier merged with the current paper back in the 1970s, and the old Courier building is now ... a municipal parking lot.  More empty space in O'Hara's busy life.  But we had good chats with the local newspaper people and with the local librarian, who showed us some microfilm of the 1920s Courier.

Back to Pottsville then and the rectory at St. Patrick's, where they keep burial records.  There, we met Jane, a delightful woman who's been working there forty years and who knew the O'Hara family--and knew one of the brothers, Martin, very well ("Marty," she called him).  She dug out old burial records for the O'Haras (nothing is computerized), copied the record for Patrick O'Hara (the writer's father), and gave us a hand-drawn map of the very large Catholic cemetery so that we could find the graves.  And so we did.  We easily found (and photographed) the grave sites of his father, mother, aunt.

At the local historical society we didn't find much but a disgruntled employee, who called O'Hara "a spoiled brat" and complained that the writer had trashed Pottsville in his fiction, hurt residents by revealing their naughty behavior, made a fortune but sent not a single thing to the historical society.  As a result, he was not exactly brimming with information about O'Hara--nor with much goodwill.

But Pottsville has begun to recognize the significance of its prodigal son.  There's a statue on Centre Street, a "nook" devoted to him in the local library, a John O'Hara Street, and even the hotel where we're staying (Ramada Inn, right downtown) has conference rooms called The John O'Hara Ballroom, The English Room (Julian English was the main character in Appointment in Samarra), and The Lockwood Room (The Lockwood Concern was an O'Hara novel).  The visitors' bureau also has a John O'Hara Walking Tour of sites relevant to his life and fiction.

Last night, we were eating in a local pizza place (Roma's--we liked it so much we ate our three evening meals there), and we noticed a large group of middle-school kids eating at a nearby set of tables.  They were very well behaved (in case you're wondering), though the boys were at one end, the girls at the other.  Anyway, I approached them (carefully, carefully) as we were leaving, found out they were local school students, then asked: Have any of your teachers ever assigned any stories by John O'Hara ... the writer who grew up here ... whose statue is down on Centre Street?  Lots of blank looks and some questions in return.  One bright-looking young man said, Isn't he the guy who wrote about wife-swapping and stuff?  I thought that sounded close enough.  Sounds like O'Hara, I said.  My dad told me about him! the young man said. But the others seemed not to really recognize the name.

And so it is with fame, literary or otherwise.  Is anything more evanescent?

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