Samarra at 75

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a lengthy piece on the current affection that PottstownPottsville, Penn., has for native son John O’Hara, who skewered the town’s polite sensibilities in his 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra. Back then the book was only grudgingly held at the town library, behind the front desk. But 75 years will cool the anger folks feel toward a book—it’s certainly enough time for the people most directly affronted to likely pass on—and the story argues that since the novel made the Modern Library’s list of 100 greatest novels in 1998, O’Hara has enjoyed the respect usually bestowed on a town father, with a statue, themed street signs, symposia, and more. (The Pottsville Republican-Herald, digging deep, uncovers how often O’Hara’s most popular books have been checked out of the Pottsville library since 1998. Samarra has been checked out 67 times.)

One of the main sources in the Inquirer story is Erica Ramus, a real-estate agent who’s assembled an O’Hara-themed walking tour of Pottsville. “O’Hara didn’t sugarcoat things,” she tells the paper. “He told it like he saw it. He wrote his stories like he was writing a news story, not some fancy piece of fiction with a lot of metaphors.” That is, setting aside the biggest fancy piece of symbolism in the book—the title, taken from Somerset Maugham‘s short story, in which the appointment is with death.

4 thoughts on “Samarra at 75

  1. Sounds like the City of Chicago’s historical revisionism over Nelson Algren, which it once reviled but now purports to chreish and embrace. And I’m guessing Clyde, Ohio (setting of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) has undergone the same transformation.

  2. Lots of people want to blow the lid off their hometowns in fiction; few have done it in such a literary, tragic way as O’Hara did. In some ways, the protagonist envisions a town even darker than it really is; hence his growing despair. What would it take now for a novel to tick off a community where it’s set? Are there any recent examples?

    1. Good questions. I can’t think of any recent examples offhand. It may be that novelists no longer play the kind of important role in our culture that would allow them to generate such outrage. Oak Park, Ill., resented Hemingway for calling his hometown a town of “broad lawns and narrow minds”; Camden, New Hampshire, wanted nothing to do with the film version of “Peyton Place.” But that, of course, was years ago. Perhaps we no longer live in a culture where we need novelists to blow the lids off anything—everything we want to know about a community, warts and all, is available online. And perhaps such books are just going the way of the dodo. The “sin in the suburbs” novel is definitely a cliche at this point; A.M. Homes’ “Music for Torching” is among the few recent serious novels that I can think of that faced the theme head-on.

      One other thought, and it’s purely speculative: I wonder if publishers, and especially their lawyers, are more concerned today about lawsuits against writers who produce novels whose targets are clearly identifiable. You’d have to have a pretty good libel lawyer to pull that off successfully, I think, but given the economic state of the industry I wouldn’t doubt that some publishers are skittish.

  3. I can think of one example – from DC, no less – of a publisher killing a book for fear it was enough of a roman a clef that the real-life protagonist might sue. That was “Subversion” by T.A. Alderson, which Broadway Books published in 2000 or thereabouts and then recalled within a week. The problem there was that a) the woman who seemed to think she was the model for the book’s main character was a DC lawyer (as was Alderson); b) if the plot of the book had any counterpart in real life, there was some weird “spook” stuff involved, of the kind that suggests some honcho at Broadway or Random (or Bertelsmann) might have gotten a 3 am phone call of the “we know where your kid goes to school” variety.

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