From: Robison Michael R CNIN ( Robison_M@crane.navy.mil)
Date: 17 Nov 2002

Immediately following World War I, a Spartan, flag-waving attitude prevailed in the United States. In this environment Prohibition went into effect, and critics of the homeland spoke only in whispers. And then in walked H.L. Mencken, who put fire to all things sacred with his intellectual torch, and by the mid-Twenties it was fashionable to show a cynical disdain for everything American, from morals to food to music to literature. But Mencken's rants began on an intellectual level, and what really brought this all to the common man is two books written in the early 1920's by Sinclair Lewis, MAIN STREET and BABBITT. The novels satirized and laid bare the hypocrisy of existing society. Fourteen years later, with hindsight on the Roaring Twenties, O'Hara relit the torch with APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA.

John O'Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1905, the son of a successful Irish Catholic surgeon, and as he moved into his teens, the town grew and prospered from the richest coal fields in the world until it hit a peak population in 1920 of over 20,000. But this was not the prosperity of paradise; he watched with youthful eyes the whirlwind terror of World War I, and then after the war, in the hard-drinking gangster days of the Twenties, labor unrest came home to the coal mines in the bloodiest and most violent struggle in American history.

But these powerful issues are not what concerned O'Hara in his writing or his life. Perhaps aggravated by religious discrimination in his hometown, O'Hara was obsessed with social climbing throughout his life, effectively alienating him from many of his fellow writers and almost all the critics. He harangued his friends of higher social standing to get him into their clubs, and when he remained blackballed by the most exclusive club in town, he managed to get playing cards with the club's insignia, which he flaunted when playing bridge with guests. His failure to attend Yale tortured him conspicuously, enough so that Hemingway suggested that contributions be collected to "start a bloody fund to send John O'Hara to Yale." As if things couldn't get any worse, he compensated for his social insecurity by developing an obnoxious and overinflated vanity. He very vocally and often declared his availability for a Nobel prize in literature. He requested an honorary degree from Yale, which they happily refused.
  APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA, written before he turned 30, is listed by the Modern Library as one of the top novels of the 20th century. TEN NORTH FREDERICK won a National Book Award in 1956. By the time of his death in 1970, his work included 19 novels and over 400 stories. His novels had sold over 40 million copies, with five of them made into movies.

John O'Hara's wife chose as his epitaph, "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." No finer words could be said about a writer. O'Hara had written them about himself.

In APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA, O'Hara mixes booze and sex and the maddening restraints of society into a deadly cocktail. The beginning of the Great Depression finds Julian English in the small Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, financially and socially secure with his Cadillac dealership, beautiful wife, and rich friends. But in spite of all this, he is compulsively driven by some unknown inner force to destroy everything he has. Starting with a drink thrown in the face of a richer and more powerful acquaintance, Julian sets out on a path of willful self-destruction.


The theme of APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA is the crushing effect on the human spirit of an unreasonably restrictive society, and a condemnation of those who accept these restrictions without question. Edmund Wilson complained with some validity that O'Hara never probes beneath the surface, but he misunderstands when he states, "...yet the emotions that drive him to suicide are never really shown." This is simply not true. Julian English does show emotions, a vague, undirected anger and hostility, with a fog of confusion that surrounds it. Although this is evidently not sufficient for Wilson, it is exactly O'Hara's point that this is all Julian English is capable of feeling, given his psychologically crippled upbringing.

The scene that most powerfully portrays the iron grip this cruel set of societal rules has on its people doesn't even involve Julian. It's between Caroline and her mother, when Caroline goes to her for advice concerning a break between her and Julian. On the surface her mother appears a gentle and smiling and concerned person, but as the dialogue between them progresses, it becomes obvious that her real concern is not her daughter's welfare, but merely maintaining a proper appearance in the community. With nary a crack in her kindly demeanor, Caroline's mother refuses to discuss anything in her or Caroline's life that she deems inappropriate, and refuses to see or accept anything that contradicts the way she thinks things should be.


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