At the ripe age of twenty-eight, John O’Hara completed Appointment in Samarra, his first novel, in less than four months. At a similarly quick pace, the events of the book take place in a span of just three days. In this brief time, Appointment in Samarra tells of the increasingly impulsive and self-destructive acts that lead to the main character’s suicide. Julian English, once a high-ranking member of the community of Gibbsville, angers and alienates those close to him, resulting in the rapid decline of his social status. Specific explanations for Julian’s behavior are unclear in the text, though personal insecurities along with his alcoholism undoubtedly play a role. The small-town prejudices of Gibbsville (O’Hara’s fictionalized version of his hometown, Pottsville, Pennsylvania) greatly affect Julian’s demise as well. Omniscient narration works to expose these prejudices via the inner thoughts of various people in the town.
The title, Appointment in Samarra, is a reference to W. Somerset Maugham's 1933 retelling of an old story in his play, Sheppey. In the story, which appears as an epigraph for the novel, Death speaks of meeting a merchant in Samarra, informing the reader from the beginning of the novel’s fatal ending. In his foreword to the 1952 reprint, O'Hara says that the working title for the novel was The Infernal Grove. It was not until fellow writer Dorothy Parker showed him the story in Maugham's play that he got the idea for the title Appointment in Samarra.
Modern Library ranked Appointment in Samarra 22nd on its list of the “100 Best” English-language novels of the 20th century.
Harcourt, Brace & Company first published Appointment in Samarra in 1934. Bound in black cloth, the 301-page first edition states “First Edition” on the copyright page. The dust jacket has the original price of $2.50 printed on the front flap and “Recent Fiction” printed on the back panel (instead of reviews). While true first editions of the novel have sold for upwards of $12,500, first editions signed by O’Hara have sold for twice that.
Faber and Faber published the first UK edition of Appointment in Samarra in 1935.
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