Places: Appointment in Samarra

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1930

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedGibbsville

Gibbsville. Appointment in SamarraPennsylvania town that John O’Hara invented for this novel and to which he repeatedly returned in his later books. Here, the central character is hard-drinking car dealer Julian English. O’Hara always valued getting his details precisely correct, so he tells readers that Gibbsville’s population in 1930 is 24,032. A minor character in the novel has occasion to think that Gibbsville is exactly 94.5 miles from Philadelphia. O’Hara knows these details well because his fictional Gibbsville, in his fictional Lantenengo Countycorresponds closely with the real town of Pottsville in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County–the heart of the eastern part of the state’s Pennsylvania Dutch and anthracite coal regions. The son of a respected Irish doctor, O’Hara grew up in Pottsville, and although he moved away as a young man, his imagination continually drew back to the region. Like his contemporary, William Faulkner, who also wrote with a great deal of historical, topographical, and sociological accuracy about his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, scarcely veiling the town’s identity by giving it a fictional name, O’Hara makes no attempt to obscure the real identity of Gibbsville.

Although O’Hara’s own life in Pottsville was reasonably secure and happy, he does not sentimentalize Gibbsville, especially in the rather dark Appointment in Samarra. At one point, Julian English thinks of Gibbsville as a small room. He has a point. Living in the shadow of New York, Philadelphia, and even Reading, Pennsylvania, Gibbsville’s residents, especially members of its social elite, like Julian, have deep insecurities that often cause them to become small-minded and narrow. Both magnanimous and petty characters inhabit all social levels in O’Hara’s world, but strains begin to show among Gibbsville’s wealthy because of their dependence on the waning anthracite coal industry and their times, on the verge of a Great Depression. The pressures Julian faces, brought on by financial uncertainly, a shifting social order, and changing sexual mores, eventually lead him to suicide. The tragedy, however, is not only Julian’s, but is meant in part to symbolize the coming breakdown of his entire social class.

Gibbsville is a place unto itself, but it also represents small-town America. Yet even though O’Hara understands that small-town American life has its stultifying aspects, he does not wholly condemn or satirize it. Gibbsville’s attractions are strong and real. The residents’ sense of shared history, their occasional flashes of moral decency, and the town and countryside’s physical beauty are genuinely appealing. Many Gibbsvillers–Julian’s employee Lute Fliegler and his wife Irma are examples–live fulfilling lives, even if these lives are marred by prejudice and shortsightedness.

Lantenengo Country Club

Lantenengo Country Club. Social club named after the county, to which Julian and his wife belong. The elaborate caste structure of Gibbsville can be seen in microcosm at this club, to which only members of Gibbsville’s upper class belong. Subtle hierarchies within that class mirror those of society at large. For example, everybody understands that there are differences between the club dinner-party hostesses who opt for the dollar-fifty roast chicken dinner, the two-dollar roast turkey dinner, or the two-fifty filet mignon dinner. The notion of admitting African Americans to the club has not even been considered, and although Jews have recently moved to Gibbsville’s prestigious Lantenengo Street, they are an unwelcome presence and are still not admitted to the club.

An incident that ultimately leads to Julian’s unraveling takes place at the club, late in the evening of December 24, 1930, when he throws a drink into the face of a fellow club member, Harry Reilly. A powerful businessman who has lent money to Julian’s Cadillac dealership, Reilly is a reasonably well-liked locker-room tenor and joke-teller. He is also Irish and nouveau riche, in contrast to Julian, whose Anglo-Saxon ancestors were among Gibbsville’s early settlers and whose family has been wealthy for generations. The extent to which Julian consciously realizes that the principal reason he hates Harry so deeply is that Harry represents the dissolution of the old Anglo-Saxon hierarchy, including its manners and morals, that is so much a part of his own identity is debatable. What is certain, however, is that Julian’s inability to understand the changing social order leaves him vulnerable to his tragic fate.

*Samarra

*Samarra. Iraqi city, located about sixty miles from Baghdad. Samarra appears only in the novel’s title and foreword, not in the story itself. O’Hara borrows the phrase “appointment in Samarra” from a play, Sheppy (1933), by W. Somerset Maugham, whose allusion is to an ancient Arabic fable in which a merchant’s servant desperately attempts to avoid death by traveling to Samarra. The point of the fable is that the servant’s fate, death, is inescapable; the relevance to Julian English is clear. Julian, like the servant in the fable, dies without ever understanding that his own fate is controlled by forces beyond his control or understanding.

BibliographyBier, Jesse. “O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra: His First and Only Real Novel.” College English 25, no. 2 (November, 1963): 135-141. Compares O’Hara’s first novel favorably with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), but questions the importance of the rest of O’Hara’s work.Bruccoli, Matthew J. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. A slightly expanded edition of the most complete biography of O’Hara, first published in 1975 and written with the cooperation of O’Hara’s widow. Discusses the sources and background of Appointment in Samarra and argues that O’Hara is a major writer. Good bibliography.Donaldson, Scott. “Appointment with the Dentist: O’Hara’s Naturalistic Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 14, no. 4 (Winter, 1968-1969): 435-442. Argues that O’Hara was writing a naturalistic, as opposed to a didactic, novel and that this accounts for the novel’s lukewarm acceptance.Eppard, Philip B. Critical Essays on John O’Hara. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Includes reprints of the essays by Bier and Donaldson described here and provides further material on Appointment in Samarra.Grebstein, Sheldon N. John O’Hara. New York: Twayne, 1966. The earliest and one of the most balanced book-length assessments of O’Hara’s controversial career. Identifies the forces at work in Appointment in Samarra as fate, society, free will, self-knowledge, sex, and money.Long, Robert Emmet. John O’Hara. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. A useful short study. Concludes that O’Hara is not a major writer, but calls Appointment in Samarra his “most nearly perfect novel.”
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