The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara

By Geoffrey Wolff
Knopf. 373 pp. $30
Friday, August 29, 2003

Chapter One

The Region

Downtown Pottsville, sucked dry by suburban shopping malls, scratches the eyes. The signs of municipal putrescence are everywhere. Along Centre Street, main and hardened artery, vacant stores beg for tenants with desperate red telephone numbers stenciled on plywood where windows used to be. Automobiles, peppered by coal trucks and salted by PennDOT, wait impatiently at traffic lights, eager to get out of town. Even the parking meters look cold and penniless.

William Ecenbarger, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 1984

A decade later, the first time I visited the small city with the unmusical name of Pottsville, I was struck by a regional exhaustion awesome in its frank display. It's too easy to curl my lip, I know. Pottsville had been obliged to accustom itself to disdain and condescension enough from John O'Hara, its most famous citizen. I resolved to remember that if the Region was sooty, grim, and used-up, so were many places I'd lived and worked: Bridgeport, Providence, Waltham. But this was so scuffed as to be spooky. Maybe it was the high contrast of the scenery: green pastures abruptly corrupted by deep scars, the earth littered with mine-tailings lit by a brilliant spring sun. My approach from the west to the anthracite coal country of Schuylkill County in east-central Pennsylvania was through Shamokin (with great mounds of slag heaped like abandoned landfill), through Minersville (whose anomalous fancy restaurant, complete with awning, had long ago been boarded up), past sagging barns (billboarded with "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco") along tapped-out collieries and the abandoned tracks of the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad, listening to nutty right-wing syndicated vitriol coming in stronger and stronger from the Pottsville station. Skirting the western edge of Norwegian Township, across the Schuylkill River, I drove along West Market Street, reluctantly pulling to a halt at Sixth Street, my goal on that cloudless May afternoon.

So this was the eroded town that had inspired the prolonged fuss of John O'Hara's best fiction. It was difficult to imagine how such a place could have inspired anything, but that's the hocus-pocus of the creative enterprise, by which high drama can be cobbled from low stakes, inspired even by a burg where you couldn't kill an hour.

I walked along Sixth, across Norwegian Street (middle and lower-middle class in O'Hara's time, reduced from that prominence today) and uphill to Mahantongo Street. Pottsville, climbing opposed hills, was settled in the gap between shoulders of Sharp Mountain. In the eighteenth century it was a frontier trading post organized by a pioneer, John Pott. Ninety miles northwest of Philadelphia, less than half that distance northeast of Harrisburg, its considerable fortune was made by the discovery nearby of the world's richest known vein of anthracite coal.

The discovery itself is the stuff of fable, which would have you believe that a local farmer (Necho Allen) set a fire in his hearth dug into the surrounding earth and that soon the fireplace was aflame, pretty much eternally. A more candidly fictional version has this same pioneer, now rigged out in buckskins and coonskin cap, as the author of a Christmas Eve miracle, beheld from afar by a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia. Lo, in the east, at midnight, came a glow, a "strange effulgence." Encountering the amazed trader, Necho Allen explained that he had inadvertently produced the bright manifestation: sleeping in the forest, fearful of the panther that had previously mauled him, Allen had set a hearty campfire, and "several hours later I was awakened by summer-like heat. . . . Then I saw that the solid earth all about me seemed to be afire."

However it got found, the fuel for sure got used. Anthracite-glossy, black, hard coal-was prized as clean-burning: harder to ignite than soft coal, it gives off less smoke and greater heat. The precise geological pressures and accidents that formed this black gold were unfairly allotted, bestowed like a longshot lottery win on one particular region: eastern Pennsylvania has 97 percent of all anthracite in the United States, but the problem in the early nineteenth century was how to get it from there to the places where people would pay to set it on fire. The Schuylkill River offered one way, and by 1815 the Schuylkill Navigation Company had opened a canal between Pottsville ("hardly more than one shabby log hut," in the evaluation of a local historian) and Pottstown, extending it to Port Carbon (a distance of more than a hundred miles) by 1825, when Pottsville's boom began. By 1830, financial trusts from Philadelphia were buying up huge tracts of anthracite-rich forests and farmlands, and by the time of the Civil War, Pottsville-the Schuylkill County seat-was the commercial and professional center of a mining bonanza. ("The best site in the anthracite," went the boosters' motto, and before houses were heated with oil and gas, hard coal was the mother lode.) Track was laid to carry the coal, and along the river they carried this black gold to the sea, the bounty flowing down to the capital's rich delta, the City of Brotherly Love. At flood tide of the surge, nine trains a day ran to Philadelphia, but sufficient wealth stuck to Pottsville's managers of mines and railroads and banks to provoke that cocky town's burghers-especially those of English and Scottish stock-to regard themselves as gentry. In John O'Hara's time there, the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company (also called the "P&RC&I," or "the Coal & Iron") dug sixty million tons of hard coal per year; yet by 1971, a year after O'Hara's death, the tonnage was down to six million. Today no trains run from Pottsville to anywhere, and the population has stolen away from twenty-five thousand to sixteen thousand.

I was now at the downhill corner of Sixth and Mahantongo (said to be an aboriginal word boasting of "plenty of meat"), number 606, where John O'Hara was raised in a spacious townhouse. His parents were Irish and Catholic-his mother a music-loving and tennis-playing lady with finishing-school manners, his father a respected physician and surgeon-and even in the constricted society of Presbyterian and Episcopal-dominated Pottsville, Patrick and Katharine O'Hara were personages. The outward display of their consequence now stood before me, in need of paint and a carpenter. The house, set close to the sidewalk, was built in 1870 by the Yuengling family, who owned the nation's oldest brewery, and still do. (The survival of the brand is just: I commend the honey-hued lager.) John O'Hara had been born January 31, 1905, down at 125 Mahantongo, but when he was eleven his flourishing father, improving his station, bought the Yuengling house when the brewers built a grand Tudor showplace farther up Mahantongo, up, up, always up, the American direction. Patrick O'Hara kept 125 as his office, with a large porch lined with benches to serve as a waiting room and inside examination and operating rooms; out back was a stable for the horses the Doctor loved to ride and to teach his son to ride.

Before coal barons and bankers settled there, Mahantongo was the street along which Welsh and German and pious Pennsylvania Dutch farmers had brought their produce into town from the Mahantongo Valley. Now it was a street of commerce, display, and churches. The Coal & Iron headquarters-a brick edifice as squat and sturdy as a safe-was downhill near the business hub of Centre Street. Across and down Mahantongo from 606, two short blocks-called "squares" in the Region-the O'Haras' Church of St. Patrick sits right beside D. C. Yuengling & Son. Owing to the proximity of that brewery's master system of heat, water, and electricity, the Yuenglings had provided 606 with those refinements. The three-storied house had six bedrooms, formal living and dining rooms, a music room with his mother's piano. There was a tiled entry, parquet floors, Spanish crystal chandelier, German stained-glass windows. Out front had been a hitching post, where John O'Hara's beloved pony had been tethered.

Out front now-or at least the last time I visited-is a plaque confirming that O'Hara had indeed lived there. While I was studying this memorial (and checking to see that the street sign spelled Mahantongo correctly, after years of announcing Mahantango), an elderly man approached me with an air of knowing precisely where he had come from and whither he meant to go. I suspected he might also offer direction and other useful information to an outlander lost in his neighborhood. I suspected wrong.

"What do you want?" he said.

"Nothing, thanks. Just sightseeing."

"What do you want?"

I crossed the street, toward the dual sanctuary of church and brewery, while he stayed on his side, the Presbyterian side, muttering balefully at me. (He recalled the fellow William Ecenbarger wrote about in 1984, "Forgetting John O'Hara: Pottsville's Revenge." This citizen, "bent in the shape of a question mark," was asked if he knew 606's most famous resident: "Yeah, I knew him, but I never had any use for him. He was a bum, and he wrote a lot of lies about this town." These sour sentries must stand watch in shifts.)

I recollected an offhand observation of O'Hara's about the town he called Gibbsville, that it gave a first and last impression that the traveler would have been safer at home. Pottsville's population descends from taciturn Dutch farmers who worked the difficult soil of mountains hereabout, and from the roughneck, sullen miners who worked the spiderwebbed veins where hard coal hides deep underground. Soft coal, wide-seamed near the surface, was for softies; as dispassionate a publication as The Almanac of American Politics 1996 described Schuylkill County's citizens during O'Hara's time as "tough-talking miners and factory workers who stayed menacingly in the background unless a character stumbled into the wrong roadhouse at night or the wrong diner at dawn."

An observant friend not given to melodrama had recently journeyed through and suggested the town had been invaded by body snatchers, and surely its enterprises, if not its human occupants, had vanished. I had read that 125 was for a time a hair salon, "Cut Loose" or "Hair Today," gone now. Across the street, at the corner of Progress Avenue and Mahantongo, the Necho Allen Hotel was boarded up after a time in limbo as a roost for the homeless. Ten years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported that "big signs at the Necho Allen Hotel promise food, spirits and rooms, but little signs say it's up for sheriff's sale." It had once been Pottsville's Ritz, built in the 1920s at a cost of over a million, with a bar in the basement, the Coal Mine Taproom, got up to seem like, well, a coal mine: anthracite walls and waiters lighting their order pads with the lamps set in their miner's helmets. (Piquant pride in a local product has not been utterly dulled: at Mootz Candies, on Pottsville's Centre Street, a visitor could still buy black licorice on a string and coal candy dispensed in a miniature coal bin with a miniature coal hammer to break it.)

At the Historical Society of Schuylkill County I asked the young man on duty a question or two about the famous author's standing in his hometown, pitching these queries in a scholarly tone almost too decorous for words.

What I got for a response was a narrowing of the eyes and a thinning of the lips: "Why do you want to know?"

"I'm writing about his life. He lived here."


When I mentioned the plaque that proclaimed John O'Hara a product of Pottsville, the young man asked if I'd seen it with my own eyes.

"Why?" I wondered. "Has it been moved?"

"You could say that," he said. "You could also say that people around here have strong feelings about the fella you're poking into here."

The nature of those feelings I could guess.

At Oxford, the actual county seat of imaginary Yoknapatawpha County ("William Faulkner, Sole Proprietor"), the writer's house-Rowan Oak-is a shrine. (O'Hara's Pal Joey is shelved, just as the Master left it, with some mystery stories in the bedroom bookcase.) Visit the courthouse square around which the idiot Benjy Compson was driven the wrong way and you'll find a life-size bronze Faulkner in a wide-brimmed bronze hat, seated on a bronze bench, holding a bronze pipe, looking quizzical or perhaps drunk; to make room for the goofy monument, its sponsors caused a magnolia tree to be cut down, provoking the statue's detractors to label its patrons troglodytes of the Snopes stamp. This is all to the good, a writer and his characters shaking up the place he wrote about, decades after his death. In Sauk Centre, Minnesota-Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie-the high school athletes are called the "Mainstreeters," and a visitor wouldn't be allowed to leave town without visiting "The Original Main Street" or the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home and Museum. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg-in fact Clyde, Ohio-has a Sherwood Anderson Memorial Park, just as Willa Cather's Red Cloud has a Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Thomas Wolfe's hometown erected a statue in downtown Asheville, but when the writer was alive and memorializing his fellow North Carolinians, he was threatened with libel suits, not to mention lynchings. Anderson was reviled by his fellow citizens during his lifetime, as were Faulkner (by Snopesian trash and magnolia-scented debutantes alike) and Lewis (by boosters and Rotarians). Maybe the latter two were redeemed by their Nobels.

Apart from his sometimes-kidnapped plaque, O'Hara has been commemorated by Pottsville rather mordantly: John O'Hara Street-erstwhile Minersville Street-is a "short, dingy cul-de-sac" created when the town's celebrated whorehouses (one local roadhouse named itself the Pussy Café) were torn down to make space for public housing; his namesake street makes the local news largely due to the frequency and infamy of crimes reported from its address.

In the spring of 1935, less than a year after the publication of Appointment in Samarra, O'Hara's first novel, scandalized and titillated the citizens, the author wrote a letter from Cape Cod to Walter S. Farquhar, star sports editor of the Pottsville Journal, from which O'Hara had been fired as a reporter. A mentor and friend, Farquhar had written asking for help getting a job with a magazine or book publisher in New York; O'Hara couldn't promise a job, but he gave plenty of free advice: "[I]f you write a movie plot I'll get you dough for it, a novel I'll help you sell it, a poem I'll help you sell it, I'll give you a send-in that will count with any publisher in New York.... The same with the better magazines. I'm known to them, and I will help you sell a good article or story to almost any mag you mention, if it's one of the better magazines.... 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.


© 2003 Geoffrey Wolff