Thanks to the elasticity of cultural opinion, works of art are constantly changing in popularity. Occasionally you’re in, occasionally out. Appointment in Samarra, the debut novel from John O’Hara, was quickly venerated after publication in 1934. As time wore on, and the author revelled in chilidish antics, opinions wavered. So, will Appointment in Samarra pass our test?
Appointment in Samarra centers around the coal mining town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. There we find Julian English, his wife Caroline English, and their all too close-knit community. Though they belong to the ‘Latenengo Street’ country club, own a successful Cadillac dealership, and carry college education, life is far from perfect in the English household. Like all lit firecrackers, one is waiting for an explosion.
One evening at country club, Julian, after drowning himself in drinks, decides to chuck his glass at Harry Reid, an important client. Like in all small towns, word travels fast and an uproar soon fell upon Julian. The next morning, the understandably upset Caroline instructed Julian to make amends with Reid, fearing his influence throughout Gibbsville. Though he knows the right path, Julian cannot diverge from the slippery slope he’s on – and everyone feels the consequence.
Though the purpose of this blog is focused on the relevancy of celebrated works, historical context is as important as prose. Published in 1930, Samarra predates the pulp novels so popular in later years. O’Hara continually used upper class life and Gibbsville – a thinly veiled construction of his own hometime, Pottsfeild – in over 30 novels. “If only through his social documentation, O’Hara firmly suits his readers to his world, conjuring up details and thought processes unti you can’t tell where reality ends and O’Hara begins.” It’s what O’Hara is saying and how he is saying it:
“Ed had said he wouldn’t be down till around four o’clock. He had to spend Christmas with the wife and kid, God knows why. Al did not like to think of Annie Charney. The kid was swell; si years old and fat and healthy-looking. He wasn’t like Ed, but for the present more like Annie. She was fat and healthy-looking and blonde, like most Polacks. Ed didn’t care for her any more. Al knew that. Ed cared for Helene Holman, who was a torch singer like Libby Holman and sang at the Stage Coach. Ed really cared for Helene. He played around a little, but Al knew Helene was the only one he really cared for, and Helene really cared for him. With her it was slightly different, because nobody else would even look cockeyed at Helene as long as Ed cared for her, but even taking that into consideration Al knew Helene really cared for Ed. And she was good for him. You could tell when Ed and Helene were getting along. Ed was easier to get along with then. Tonight, or this after’, when Ed showed up at the Apollo, he probably would be in bad humor. That was the way Annie affected him. Whereas if he had spent the day with Helene he would have been in a good humor. But Al knew that Ed wouldn’t think of spending Christmas with Helene. Ed was a family man, first and last, and that was the only day in the year he would spend with the kid, at home.“
Though O’Hara has been compared to Fitzgerald – citing This Side of Paradise as a “sort of textbook” - the comparison seems stretched. Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ is more akin to many faceted lives within Samarra. While the former author leaves the reader ambigious to personal views on small town life, O’Hara condemns it with a sharp knife. There is no doubt the author of ‘Paradise’ and ‘Gatsby’ didn’t reveal amongst the noveau-riche. Furthermore, ‘Samarra’ bothers little with discretion while Fitzgerald’s strength is spontaneous outburst of bourgeois melodrama. Lastly, O’Hara certainly wrote his debut during the “Hangover Years”, rather than the evening prior:
“He got out of bed, not caring to wait for warmth and luxury. His feet hit the cold hardwood floor and he stuck his toes in bedroom slippers and made for the bathroom. He had felt physically worse many times, but this was a pretty good hangover. It is a pretty good hangover when you can look at yourself in the mirror and see nothing above the bridge of your nose. You do not see your eyes, nor the condition of your hair. You see your beard, almost hair by hair; and the hair on your chest and the bones that stick up at the base of your neck. You see your pajamas and the lines in your neck, and the stuff on your lower lip that look s as though it might be blood but never is. You first brush your teeth which is an improvement but leaves something to be desired. Then you try Lavoris and then an Eno’s. By the time you get out of the bathroom you are ready for another cigarette and in urgent need of coffee or a drink, and you wish to God you could afford to have a valet to tie your shoes. You have a hard time getting your feet into your trousers, but you finally make it, having taken just any pair of trousers, the first your hands touched the closet. But you consider a long, long time before selecting a tie. You stare at the ties; stare and stare at them, and you look down at thighs to see what color suit you are going to be wearing. Dark gray. Practically any tie will go with a dark grey suit.”
After the death of O’Hara’s father, the family fortune had been squandered and without the means for an ivy-league education. This troubled the author throughout his life. In a short-lived (and hilariously sour) column for Newsday, O’Hara would comment on inner politics within Harvard and Princeton, despite having never attended. He even went so far as to “demand“ an Honorary Degree from Yale while denying several other awards. Like his column, O’Hara’s thin veil of resentment is just as obvious in his debut:
“‘That’s all right,’ said Bobby. ‘When there was a war, I was in it. I wore a uniform. I wasn’t one of these God damn slackers playing soldier boy at some college. Lafayette or Lehigh or whatever it was. S.A.T.C. Saturday Afternoon Tea Club. Yes, sir. When old Uncle Sam needed me, I heeded the call and made the world safe for democracy, and when the war was over Istopped fighting. I didn’t do like some people that put on a uniform back in 1917 and then did their fighting by throwing drinks around in the prescence of respectiable people at a country club, thirteen or fourteen years after the war was over. Nineteen-thirty. That’s what some people are. Veterens of 1930. The Battle of the Lantenengo Country Club Smoking Room. Surprise attack.’”
Understandable that O’Hara is most notable for his short stories. The author has a knack for the paragraph, despite now dated narratives. After the success of Appointment in Samarra, the author would have difficulty galvanizing lasting literary success, despite a slew of sex ridden bestsellers and ‘Ten North Frederick’ winning the National Book Award in 1956.
(O’Hara, far right, with Hemingway, far left)
O’Hara’s contemporary success has been denigrated to a spot on the Time and Modern Library literary totem, despite protests. It is not the critic’s job to defy the words of others, but when the label “disdain(er) of white male authors” – amongst other sour monikers - is used as personal description, one suffers from predictability. Though O’Hara may be a well known “lout“, we should all hope to remembered for our achievements rather than misgivings – especially when primary sources prove otherwise. While ‘Appointment in Samarra’ may not pass the test of time, it is much more than “middlebrow”.