Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Gibbsville. Pennsylvania 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 County corresponds 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...

(The entire section is 829 words.)