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Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.

The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.

The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
Yes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.

When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks  invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.

David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
Who knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.

Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).

The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)

The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?

Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.

The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
This is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.

But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.

Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
In the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.

The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.

Beyond a Boundary (1963)
C.L.R. James’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.

In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
It’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.

Some of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.

Ball Four (1970)
Let’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).

Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.

The Boys of Summer (1972)
At some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.

Kahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fences—has itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.

1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).

In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.

The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?

Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox.  Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?

A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hell with the Lid Taken Off: A Pittsburgh Reading List

The most unexpected literary metropolis in the United States is Pittsburgh. Known less for literature than for producing more steel than any other place on Earth, Pittsburgh was literally the Ally’s arsenal during WWII and was central in America’s 20th-century ascent. But when industry collapsed during the Reagan administration, it — like her sisters Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Detroit — became a region adrift. For years the city was a Rust Belt punch line to those too ill-informed to experience the tough beauty of the place. And yet economics can be destiny, which is why it’s heartening, surprising, and in some sense worrying to see Pittsburgh discovered now by national magazines and newspapers which are always looking for the next location, a new Portland or Austin where arty people with expendable cash can drink craft beer and go to pop-up art galleries. In a few years we’ve gone from being the “Paris of Appalachia” (as if there should be any shame in that!) to Williamsburg on the Three Rivers. Yet the place itself remains more complicated, confusing, contradictory, beautiful, and glorious than the national media ever realized.

These dichotomies are too simple, though; they skirt the reality of a place, especially one that was so central in the “consequence of America” (as Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert put it). Pittsburgh is a synecdoche for the nation, a microcosm of the things that made America magnificent, but also of the things that damaged the country. There is great drama in its story, from being the first metropolis on that ever westward expanding frontier, to becoming the industrial “hell with the lid taken off” of Victorian essayist James Parton, to the reinventions of today. This is inevitably the stuff of great literature.

No less than Herman Melville once declared that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” Gilbert echoed Melville, when he remarked to The Paris Review, “You can’t think small in a steel mill.” Part of this is because the area certainly has a lot that can be written about: dramatic topography and sometimes-tragic history, cosmopolitan expansiveness as well as damaging provincialism, the still almost inexplicable physical beauty and the grime of industry. No declaration of it as the “Most Livable City in America” can fully contain these paradoxes. But in the writing of Willa Cather, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Chabon, Stewart O’Nan, and Ellen Litman we see a fuller expression of the raw energy of Pittsburgh than one does in the simple platitudes of official civic boosters.

As a native Pittsburgher, even when I was young, I intuited how heavy and determined the history of the city was, the very surroundings a sort of palimpsest. As with that type of manuscript, even though there may be an accumulation of layers of new letters on top, the previous generations’ words can still be visible underneath, if not always legible. What follows is a recommended reading list that tries to elucidate the nature of this palimpsest. We shouldn’t be surprised by that variety of voices. Pittsburgh continues to have a thriving literary scene outside of all proportion for its size, not just in the celebrated creative writing departments at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and other colleges and universities in the area, but in initiatives like City of Asylum, which houses writers in exile from their home nations; the writers’ network Litsburgh; or the small bookstore scene (with the welcome recent return of the excellent City Books). The region lends itself to such sublime inspirations as to create poets and writers of a surprising caliber, as Annie Dillard herself imagines Pittsburgh “poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag” where she can “see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like house fires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals.” Gilbert was right; it’s hard to think small here.

1. Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of Captain John Farrago and Teague O’Regan, His Servant by Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1792)
One candidate for the first actual American novel is the first work on this list. Although rarely read by anyone other than specialists today, Brackenridge conceived of Modern Chivalry as an American Don Quixote, a maximalist attempt to convey the full complexity, vigor, and reality of life on the western frontier. The errant knight in Breckenridge’s massive novel is John Farrago, who decides to “ride about the world a little…to see how things were going on here and there, and to observe human nature.” In his endeavors through the western Pennsylvanian landscape, Farrago’s Sancho Panza is a drunken Irish layabout named Teague O’Regan. Along the way, Brackenridge presents his readers with a Pynchonesque satire of an America on the verge of both the second great awakening and ultimately Jacksonian democracy, making the first American novel also the first road novel. Brackenridge was in some ways as quixotic as the character he created. Scottish by birth and Philadelphian by upbringing, Breckenridge’s literary ambitions began at Princeton, where he wrote the poem “The Rising Glory of America” (about what you’d expect) with his friend Philip Freneau and delivered it on the steps of Nassau Hall in 1771 in a pique of revolutionary fervor. After the War of Independence, he set out to the west to make his fortunes in Pittsburgh, which though already the metropolis of Trans-Appalachia was still a frontier settlement of no more than 400 people. While there Brackenridge would make himself the “great man” that he felt he had the potential to be, a potential that due to its large size would not be realized in that Quaker city to the east. Brackenridge afforded himself of every opportunity the growing western settlement offered, not just writing Modern Chivalry but both founding what would be The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the University of Pittsburgh. In Modern Chivalry he proves Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “Europe extends to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond,” depicting a growing city that was part of France longer than it was in Britain, and thus becomes more originally American than Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia, Dutch New York, or Cavalier Baltimore. Modern Chivalry presents to us with a strange twilight era, the age of the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion. The novel shows Pittsburgh on the edge of civilization, when the frontier began to burn its way west to the Pacific, a liminal Pittsburgh neither totally east nor west (as indeed it remains so today).

2. The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie (1892)
Pittsburghers have a strange relationship to the generation of men who made the city one of the wealthiest metropolises in the country (and indeed whose accumulated inherited wealth in part helped the city survive the collapse of industry). Names like Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Westinghouse, and Heinz adorn museums, universities, schools, parks, and churches. Yet an appreciation is tempered by a certain working class suspicion; the hike is short from Henry Clay Frick’s opulent Clayton estate at the edge of the park named for him to the spot on the Monongahela across from where Pinkertons killed nine striking steelworkers in 1891. Carnegie occupies a complicated place in the psyche of the city, a poor Scottish immigrant whose life story is uncomfortably close to the bootstrap mythos of his adopted nation. Carnegie wasn’t simply the richest man in the world, but also one of the most generous philanthropists the country ever produced. A socialist in his youth, Carnegie eventually argued that redistributive justice through either labor unions or state intervention was unnecessary, and rather it was the paternal responsibility of the great man of industry to support his working brother. And so a thousand libraries bloomed, whether workers wanted them or not (raises in pay and better working conditions were another matter). In The Gospel of Wealth he puts forward his philosophy of philanthropy, one that was perhaps generous, but also very firmly on his terms (and sometimes not so transparently to his benefit as well). His bearded, kindly face peers out of a bronzed statue in the lobby of the music hall that bears his name, his shockingly small stature giving him an elfin appearance. There is an ambivalence surrounding him — gratitude for the sheer amount of good he contributed with his wealth, but also the feeling that it was a fire escape used to ameliorate guilt he felt over things like his deputy Frick’s handling of the Homestead steel strike (not to mention the role both played in the tragic Johnstown Flood). Despite it all, there is something avuncular about his still-ghostly presence as Pittsburgh’s tiny Scottish uncle, who must feel some gratitude that we’re the only people west of Edinburgh able to pronounce his name correctly (emphasis on that first syllable).

3. “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather in The Troll Garden (1905)
While most associated with the weather-beaten plains of her adopted Nebraska explored in novels like O Pioneers! (1913) and then the scorched deserts of New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather made Pittsburgh her home for 10 years. She explored the city in several short stories, most famously in her poignantly heartbreaking “Paul’s Case.” A landmark in American queer writing, “Paul’s Case” follows the attempted escape of its titular character, a sensitive adolescent aesthete who is oppressed by the Protestant work ethic of his father that permeates everything as completely as the industrial exhaust clinging blackly to every building’s exterior. Yet an opera performance at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall indicates to the young man that a different manner of being is possible. He absconds with stolen money from his father and spends a week living the life of a refined sophisticate in New York City. When his father comes to retrieve him, rather than return home, Paul commits suicide by jumping in front of a train bound for Pennsylvania. A work of nuanced sophistication, “Paul’s Case” captures Pittsburgh at its dreary, industrial height, and connects the regimented, clock-work like rationalism of its factories to the oppressive strictures of the Calvinism that justified the dour capitalism of the era. In this context Paul’s rebellion, though tragic, is not a failure, for in the music halls of this gray city he was able to see a different world, even if he couldn’t make that world his home.

4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
Her name conjures images of Left Bank bohemianism, of late-night absinthe and hash-fueled salons in her parlor, of the Seine slinking through Paris. Yet despite being the veritable mayor of the expat Lost Generation, the first river Stein would have known was not the Seine but the Allegheny. Born to a family of wealthy German Jews in Allegheny, Penn., (which is now Pittsburgh’s Northside), she was of the same community that fostered families like the Kaufmanns, once famous for their now-defunct department store chain and primarily associated with their glorious Frank Lloyd Wright house at Fallingwater. Allegheny was to Pittsburgh as Brooklyn was to New York, and as both were in some sense forcibly annexed by their larger neighbors, a certain independence still lingers in both places today. Stein reflected little on her short Pittsburgh childhood (the family moved to Oakland), and yet in the ghostwritten voice of her lover Alice B. Toklas, she wrote, “As I am an ardent Californian and as she spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She left it when she was six months old and has never seen it again and now it no longer exists being all of it Pittsburgh.”

5. Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (1941)
Although today the adjacent city of Braddock is primarily known for a maudlin (and yet still moving) Levi’s ad and its imposing shaven-head mayor John Fetterman, it was once the site of the Edgar Thompson Steelworks, the first Bessemer process steel mill in the world. (It should be said that portions of the mill are still in operation, despite the city losing 90 percent of its population from its historic height). That industrial site is the setting for Thomas Bell’s (ne’ Adalbert Thomas Belejcak) working class epic about Slovakian, Lemko, and Hungarian mill workers from the late 19th century through the mid-20th. Alongside other marginalized modernist authors like Tillie Olsen and Pietro di Donato, Bell offered an unsparing and unsentimental portrait of the brutality of work, alongside the often-insurmountable bigotry directed towards immigrants. Bell eschews any sort of romanticism, and Out of This Furnace is not social realist agitprop, but it is a clear-eyed depiction of the sort of violence that unregulated capitalism can enact on individuals and their communities. Throughout what emerges is a sober defense of labor rights and unionization in ensuring that the American dream is equitably available to all.

6. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant (1964)
Pittsburgh has the appearance of a love-child produced after a drunken one-night stand between San Francisco and Detroit. This is a compliment. Carved by three rivers cutting through the Allegheny Mountains, the city has a dramatic vista that is endlessly commented on in Pittsburgh and perennially surprises newcomers. The combination of a modern metropolis nestled among the river-kissed valleys and mountains gives the entire place a profoundly different feel from other similarly sized cities. With the iconic inclines on Mt. Washington, or the sudden conjuring of the cityscape like a mirage onto one’s field of vision as it emerges from behind the rural hills dotting I-79 North, the skyline is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful in America. Hungarian journalist Stefan Lorant worked with Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith to produce this massive album of Pittsburgh at mid-century, during the middle of what has been called “Renaissance I.” This civic improvement project, initiated by progressive mayor David L. Lawrence and banker Richard K. Mellon was in large responsible for beautifying the city, pushing for environmental initiatives to clean up the famously Gotham-like grime of the region, and to inaugurate massive building projects. Lorant and Smith’s massive project resulted in a text, that while suspiciously looking like a coffee table book, was perhaps one of the most comprehensive recordings of a mid-sized American city ever accomplished. Perennially popular (and going through several more editions), Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City chronicled in exacting and gorgeous detail everything from the Fifth Avenue mansions on Millionaire’s Row to the brick row houses of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. It remains endlessly fascinating.

7. About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr. (1974)
Western Pennsylvania was the forge that created Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, and Joe Namath. Football, from its glories to its toxicity, is religion in Pittsburgh. To fully explain that world requires someone familiar with the doctrine and sacraments of said religion, which the Steelers found in Southern writer Roy Blount Jr., an inhabitant of the only region in American perhaps more football obsessed than Pittsburgh. His About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up disproves George Plimpton’s assertion that the smaller the ball, the better the sports writing. A classic of the genre, Blount’s account follows the exploits of the team before the Steel Curtain juggernaut of the late-’70s. The glory days of four Super Bowls in six years was still in the future. But the ingredients were all there: Terry Bradshaw as quarterback; the brilliant coach Chuck Noll; running backs Rocky Bleier and John “Frenchy” Fuqua; defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood; defensive back Mel Blount; and the running back Franco Harris (along with his famed “Italian Army”), who one year before accomplished the greatest play in football history with his “Immaculate Reception” (so named in the honking yinzer accent of sportscaster Myron Cope). Blount depicts a team on the verge of greatness, where all the pieces should work together, but just don’t quite do so yet. Presided over by the stodgy yet beloved Irish-Catholic owner Art Rooney Sr., Blount’s book is fascinating for depicting a team right before they would become the high priests of this strange Pittsburgh religion of football.

8. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) by Andy Warhol (1975)
The city could be cold to an eccentric boy like Warhol, but in college at Carnegie Tech he was able to find a community of like-minded artistic compatriots and even mythically contributed a hidden mural to Holiday, now-closed but once the city’s oldest gay bar. With his degree in design, he escaped like Willa Cather’s Paul to New York and supposedly never looked back (though he was buried in the South Hills, his grave littered with Campbell Soup cans from admirers). Yet Andrew Warhola was a good Slovakian Catholic, attending Mass everyday with his mother, even as an adult. She took her son to the Church of St. John Chrysostom when he was an awkward, shy, St. Vitus’s dance afflicted boy. In the Byzantine Catholic splendor of the cathedral in Four Mile Run (the veritable basement of the city, bisected by the Parkway East), he would have marveled at icons of the church’s namesake and the Patristic fathers. In adulthood what did he do but invent a new form of icon based not around Christianity but America’s new religion of capitalism and celebrity, the Virgin Mary replaced with Marilyn Monroe, St. Monica with Jackie O? The city is now home to a large museum devoted to the artist, even though he had a reputation for obscuring his Pittsburgh roots. Indeed The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) strangely incorrectly claims the distinctly less glamorous McKeesport as his hometown. In another interview, he claimed, “I come from nowhere.” And yet an affection for the city in some sense always remained. When David Bowie played him in the film Basquiat (1996), he speaks of the Architecture Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Art where he once took classes: “Hey, we could go to Pittsburgh! I kinda grew up there. They have this room with all the world’s famous statues in it, so you don’t even have to go to Europe any more…just go to Pittsburgh.” Indeed the Northside is still home to Paul Warhola Scrap Metal Inc., run by Andy’s nephew who inherited it from his father, and only a few blocks away from the fashionable art museum baring his uncle’s name. Warhol may have made his career in New York, but he was always a Pittsburgher to the core, another Catholic son of mill hunkies working in a Factory.

9. Hiding Place by John Edgar Wideman (1981)
Although also associated with that other Pennsylvania city to the east where several of his books are set, Pittsburgh is still very much John Edgar Wideman’s town. A writer’s writer who has never claimed the mass readership he deserves (though he certainly has received the prizes, including a PEN/Faulkner award — twice) Wideman chronicled the defeats and triumphs of Pittsburgh’s black neighborhood of Homewood. His novel Hiding Place was rereleased by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992 sandwiched between his short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novel Sent for you Yesterday (1983) under the title The Homewood Books. Wideman writes in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson, or Jean Toomer, with an understanding of the deep roots (or tentacles) that tie us to our place of origin. Damballah, named about the Haitian Loa of both creation and death, is a magical realist inflected story about Homewood’s semi-mythic creation. Wideman’s works set in Pittsburgh connect the antebellum South, legacies of slavery and intuitional racism, the Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial North, and modern urban blight. In his telling, the runaway slave Sybil Owens founds the neighborhood in the 1840s, her very name conjuring the Sibylline Oracles, a conflation of hoodoo myth and Western classicism. Wideman understands that in life and in fiction the network of interconnection between disparate elements is the very substance of life. One character reflecting on stories told to him by his aunt says, “I heard her laughter, her amens, and can I get a witness, her digressions, the web she spins and brushes away with her hands. Her stories exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling, worth examining to find the stories it contains.” For Wideman, storytelling is an act of personal etymology, a way of excavating the repressed history (both individual and national), of cleaning off that which has accrued to your soul.

10. Fences by August Wilson (1983)
Unsurpassed in scope, Wilson wrote 10 plays for each decade of the 20th century, nine of which are focused on the historically black Pittsburgh neighborhood of the Hill District. He has been celebrated with two Pulitzer Prizes, his name in marquees lights on a Broadway theater, a museum in Pittsburgh, and soon a Denzel Washington–produced series based on the entire cycle to appear on HBO. Born to a black mother who moved north in the Great Migration from North Carolina and a German immigrant father, Wilson was a master of code switching with an ear for American vernacular that surpasses David Mamet. In depicting the denizens of Wylie and Centre Avenues some characters reoccur, such as the supernatural Aunt Esther, a “washer of souls” who is already 285 years old at the time of Gem of the Ocean (2003), the first play in the cycle set in the 1900s. Across plays like Jitney (1982), The Piano Lesson (1987), and King Hedley II (1999), he explores painful issues of race and class in a way no playwright has before or since. Composed out of chronological order, The Pittsburgh Cycle in its entirely allows audiences to explore the relationships between space and time in the production of a particular place. Although grounded in the concrete streets of the Hill, he’s able to focus that vision out in a universal manner. Wilson takes the encyclopedic vastness of the great explorers of location, like James Joyce and William Faulkner, and weds it to performed drama. In the mouths of his characters, the Hill is animated on stage in a way few other places have ever been in the theater. Fences, set in the ’50s, is arguably the most celebrated play of the cycle, winning both a Pulitzer and a Tony, and starring James Earl Jones in its Broadway premiere. Focusing on Troy, a once promising baseball player who didn’t break into the Negro League and who now works as a garbage man, the play’s themes of middle-aged despair and infidelity lend it a universal quality despite being set in a particular time and place (one that is perhaps distant from those in the audience, especially people lucky enough to be in the expensive seats). As Wilson said about the play, audiences see in Troy “love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty,” and can begin to understand that “these things are as much part of his life as theirs.” 

11. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1985)
Although she grew up only a 20-minute bus ride from the neighborhood depicted in The Pittsburgh Cycle, Dillard’s upbringing was one of privilege, which she explores in this memoir. She calls her childhood neighborhood of Point Breeze the “Valley of the Kings,” after the Egyptian necropolis of the pharaohs. Though by the time of her youth in the ‘50s, the area was solidly upper middle class (her father was an oil executive, and she attended the exclusive Ellis School), the remnants of its much more opulent Gilded Age past marked Point Breeze. Evidence of the tremendous wealth that shaped the city was everywhere, in robber baron mansions subdivided into apartments and the wrought-iron gate that used to be H.J. Heinz’s fence running alongside blocks of Penn Avenue. The city was built on top of itself, its history waiting to be excavated like an archeologist scouring that actual Valley of the Kings. This helped to develop Dillard’s gift for sensory detail, which she has honed into an almost theological precision. In An American Childhood she recounts how upon officially leaving the Presbyterian church as an adolescent, the minister told her that she would be back, and in many ways he was correct (if not as how he intended). Her prose (which has more than a bit of the poetic about it) adopted the sacramental poetics of a Gerard Manley Hopkins, awareness that the world is simultaneously fallen and enchanted with a charged energy. As she writes,
Skin was earth; it was soil. I could see, even on my own skin, the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit the morning he made Adam from dirt. Now, all these generations later, we people could still see on our skin the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden.
One of the most important themes of Pittsburgh literature, if we can generalize a theory of the genre, is for the possibility of transcendence in the mundane and for the sacred in the profane. Dillard may be most celebrated for bringing this awareness to her observations of the natural world in rural Virginia, but it was a spiritual skill inculcated by the contradictions of Pittsburgh, where rusting mills abut massive parks, that she first learned the personal vocabulary of matter and spirit.

12. Paradise Poems by Gerald Stern (1985)
One of the great Pittsburgh poets, Gerald Stern has diction and a personality that many would read as “New York,” which is to say as “Jewish.” Indeed (and not to conflate the regions) Stern would find himself in the unlikely position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000 to 2002. But despite his ultimate destination, Stern was very much a product of the steep, cobble-stoned streets of South Squirrel Hill, and his yiddishkeit personality of wry ironic humor and steadfast commitment to justice were very much incubated there. Many are surprised to learn that Pittsburgh is home to one of the largest urban Jewish communities in the United States, where every variety of the Jewish experience from Hasidism to socialist Zionism historically has had adherents. Often compared to his friend the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine (who similarly explored his own native city of Detroit), Stern’s verse expresses a similar industrial and Midwestern Jewish American experience. Like his other friend Gilbert, Stern would spend his life traveling and living in more exotic locations than the east end of Pittsburgh (pursuing graduate school in Paris for example). But also like Gilbert he can’t shake Pittsburgh, the language of that city permeating his speech and more importantly his consciousness. Stern’s poetry is not just introspective or confessional, but indeed sly and funny; it’s not just intellectual, but unpretentious. He is not simply wise; he is also humane. His commitments come from both a secular understanding of the Torah and the Talmud, and the working class experience of a Pittsburgh youth, what Gilbert called the “tough heaven” of the city. This is a distinctly non-utopian place where Stern argues that we must stake out our claims to utopia even within the heartbreak and discord of a broken and fallen world. This sense of not just the possibility for a restored world, but also the ethical imperative of it, is seen in his poem “The Dancing” from the collection Paradise Poems. A profound Holocaust poem, he depicts a “tiny living room / on Beechwood Boulevard” where his family celebrates the conclusion of the Second World War. Here they joyously dance to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” “my hair all streaming, / my mother red with laughter, my father…doing the dance / of old Ukraine.” He calls upon the “God of mercy, oh wild God” here “In Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh,” which exists in a world that can produce both the horrors of the Holocaust and the joys of dancing. Stern’s prophetic injunction is that we must live as if the world could be perfected precisely because it can’t be.

13. Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (1989)
Chabon would later claim that he conceived of Mysteries of Pittsburgh as an unlikely cross between The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Like both of those novels, Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a bildungsroman of sorts, a young man’s novel all the more exceptional precisely because of how young a man its author was. The book was started at the almost absurdly tender age of 21, all the more remarkable for how he deftly communicated the coming-of-age of its protagonist, Art Bechstein, and that character’s sexually confused summer after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. A native of Columbia, Md., Chabon moved to the city as a teenager, graduating from Taylor Allderdice high school (like Stern) and studying at both CMU and Pitt. He combines both an outsider and transplant’s eye for the region, chronicling the previously underexplored reality of characters associated with the universities of the area that have increasingly come to dominate the cultural and economic life of the city as Pittsburgh transforms itself into America’s largest college town. Although acutely aware of the industrial past, Chabon’s men and women travel the leafy, Tudor-homed, middle-class streets of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, and work in Oakland under the shadow of Pitt’s massive gothic skyscraper of a building called the Cathedral of Learning. Mysteries of Pittsburgh eschews the typical lunch-pail, shot-and-a-beer, smokestack stereotypes that linger about the city, rather portraying the tweedy, quasi-bohemian lives of writers and students (though those characters are just as likely to enjoy a boilermaker or several at that dive, the Squirrel Cage). He fuses Jewish, queer, and popular culture themes while generating characters that display a deep interiority. Both his honesty and nostalgia avoid the pitfalls of cynicism; his Pittsburgh is what it is, exhibiting a clear affection while also being aware of where it lags. This is perhaps even clearer in 1995’s Wonder Boys, arguably one of the greatest campus novels ever written, and certainly the greatest one about the Pittsburgh literary scene. It follows the weekend exploits of Professor Grady Tripp (obviously based on Pitt’s Chuck Kinder) and his brilliant student James Leer. In the narrative concerning Tripp’s demons and his sort-of-redemption, Chabon’s honesty allows us to avoid sentimentality while still offering a defense of why we read fiction at all. That doesn’t mean he can’t engage in some earthy Pittsburgh anti-pretentious shit-talking, as Tripp remarks, “There were so many Pittsburgh poets in my hallway that if, at that instant, a meteorite had come smashing through my roof, there would never have been another stanza written about rusting fathers and impotent steelworkers and the Bessemer convertor of love.”

14. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert (1994)
After winning the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962, East Liberty’s Jack Gilbert briefly found himself celebrated as a literary wonder boy, yet he would ultimately choose what he called a “self-imposed isolation.” Though he spent a life “In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont” and “On Greek islands with their fields of stone,” he psychically remained grounded in “what remains of Pittsburgh in me.” His hometown was such an abiding subject of Gilbert’s that his poetry concerning it was collected in the anthology Tough Heaven (2006), including “Searching for Pittsburgh” originally included in The Great Fires. He describes, “The rusting mills sprawled gigantically / along three rivers” and the “gritty alleys where we played every evening” that were “stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky.” For Gilbert, Pittsburgh is “Sumptuous-shouldered, / sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable” — as perfect a description as I have ever read. This is a place of “deep-rooted grace. / A city of brick and tired wood,” with “The beauty forcing us as much as the harshness.” This catholic (lowercase c) sense of the numinous embedded even in the injustices of the world was one Gilbert witnessed first hand among the hardships but also the sublimity of working-class life in East Liberty; it allowed him to understand that “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude” (as he wrote in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”). Central to Gilbert — and maybe Pittsburgh writers from Stern to Dillard — is this powerful, nostalgic, sense of loss, of an ache associated with the disappearance of things once so significant. In one of his most moving Pittsburgh poems, “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” also collected in The Great Fires, Gilbert describes entertaining the baby of his Danish mistress while the mother is occupied with chores. He writes of making the child laugh saying, “Pittsburgh softly each time before throwing him up…Pittsburgh and happiness high up. / The only way to leave even the smallest trace. / So that all his life her son would feel gladness/unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined / city of steel in America. Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.”

15. Muscular Music by Terrance Hayes (1999)
One of the last poems in Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry was about a gay bar in Downtown Pittsburgh and was by a then–29-year-old, straight, black poet from Columbia, S.C., named Terrence Hayes. Dove included Hayes alongside poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg as an exemplar of American verse. In what was consciously (and controversially) a cannon-defying collection, Dove choose to include Hayes as the almost-culmination of the last century of American poetry, a vote of confidence for his future significance. Across four collections, and first as a creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon and now at Pitt, Hayes has explored race and sexuality, popular culture and personal epiphany. He is a poet for our moment, a bard for Barack Obama’s America examining issues of gender and race as lived in this moment. In “At Pegasus,” he writes of awkwardly informing one man who asks him to dance “I’m just here for the music. Even with the masculine defensiveness, he is able to tenderly reflect that he has “held / a boy on my back before. / Curtis & I used to leap / barefoot into the creek,” transporting himself from Pegasus back to a southern childhood. Considering the liberatory potential of the place, he describes the bar in distinctly Yeatsian terms with “the edge of these lovers’ gyre, /glitter & steam, fire, / bodies blurred sexless / by the music’s spinning light,” a veritable egalitarian democracy of men. He is able to empathetically link his childhood play with these men, “each breathless as a boy / carrying a friend on his back.” He explains, “These men know something / I used to know. / How could I not find them / beautiful, they way they dive & spill / into each other.” For Hayes, Pittsburgh isn’t some conservative old industrial town, but indeed a place that, however unlikely some may think, can hold a bit of emancipatory potential for those willing to look (even for outsiders).

16. One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris by Deborah Willis (2002)
Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhoods have had an outside influence on wider black culture. The Hill District would ultimately become Pittsburgh’s version of Harlem, home to jazz clubs and bars, and a center in that cultural renaissance. As the halfway point between New York and Chicago, the Pittsburgh jazz scene hosted every major musician to perform. The city also produced an unlikely array of talent, including Art Blakey; George Benson; Erroll Garner; Ahmad Jamal; Stanley Turrentine; Billy Eckstine; Lena Horne; and most notably Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s composer whose signature “Take the A Train” was based off of directions that Strayhorne received. The Hill was also home to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest and most venerable black newspapers, which employed the photographer Charlie “Teenie” Harris (so nicknamed for his diminutive height). Teenie had another nickname, “One Shot,” for his borderline mythic ability to capture an almost perfect image on one try. This collection of his mid-century work curated by artist Deborah Willis gives the viewer a sense of the photographer’s scope. As the presiding archivist of the Hill, Harris took over 80,000 images, of everyone from the celebrities who traveled through (including JFK, Joe Louis, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Gillespie, Martin Luther King Jr., and dozens of others) to life in Pittsburgh’s speakeasies and black churches, from the Crawford Grill to that jazz club’s Negro League baseball team the Pittsburgh Crawfords. His massive inventory of images is perhaps the most full and complete recording of any black community in the United States, perhaps of any community at all. Archivists at the Carnegie Museum of Art are combing through the collection, identifying figures and locations. Through the entire body of work what is most conveyed is singular warmth of the people depicted even in sometimes desperate circumstances, a characteristic of the Pittsburgh aesthetic.

17. The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories by Ellen Litman (2008)
Western Pennsylvania, like many parts of the industrial Midwest, has long been home to eastern European communities. Onion-domed churches punctuate the skylines of industrial towns as surely as factory smokestacks. The latest wave of immigrants arrived starting in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, when the campaign to save Soviet Jewry resulted in the relocation of thousands of persecuted Russian Jews to the United States. In Pittsburgh many of them settled in the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, including Ellen Litman, who emigrated from Moscow in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Last Chicken in America follows her roman a clef Masha’s hybridized identity split between the Old World and New. Litman could be classifiable as part of the movement of young Russian American authors like Gary Shteyngart writing about America through the prism of their Russian backgrounds. Masha comments on the “unpleasantly wholesome smile” of a Russian friend who has assimilated a bit too readily into American culture, where that mouth now emanates “charm and fluoride, good fortune and good breeding, and you either know it’s fake and don’t trust it, or you trust it too much.” Litman’s account of first generation anxiety translates the Russian genius for ironic pessimism into a middle American vernacular. Her stories capture the storefronts of upstreet Squirrel Hill, where memories of Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa were first discussed in Russian, then heavily accented English, then English, only to maybe eventually be forgotten. Her character Victor says, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration.” The novel’s position is agnostic on Victor’s claims, and yet it affirms that the truth of being a hyphenated American can be as contradictory and difficult in 1992 as it was in 1892 (or 2016).

18. The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach (2014)
That people are finally paying attention to Pittsburgh is obviously good. It’s heartening for residents to see the city of which so many are fiercely proud receiving some positive press after decades of being overlooked or portrayed as another Rust Belt casualty. But there is a fear that something could be lost if this enthusiasm is too manufactured, for as the writer of Ecclesiastes might have reminded us (in his own way), “What The New York Times Sunday Style section giveth, The New York Times Sunday Style section can taketh away.” One must remember that to be the “New Portland” requires that there is an “Old Portland,” and all it takes is for Cincinnati or Buffalo or Peoria or wherever to unseat you. Hipsters (and their fellow travelers) were of course first attracted to the city by how cheap it was, but part of the charm of the place is something I call “gentle surrealism.” This is a phenomenon that resists the conscious weirdness of those trying too hard; its unpretentious and seemingly unaware of what uncoolness even is. An area that used to view pretzels encased in lime-green Jell-O as a type of desert has more than a whiff of the gently surreal about it. In first-time novelist Jacob Bacharach’s The Bend of the World, the protagonist believes that Pittsburgh is a “nexus of intense magical occurrence.” The satirical novel features UFO’s, Sasquatches, and inter-dimensional conspiracies, a gentle slice of surrealism served, Pittsburgh-style, with fries on top. Bacharach proves true what Jack Gilbert wrote all those years ago, that whether Steel City or travel section destination, “Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: Manuel Muñoz

Ever since I moved from New York to Tucson seven years ago, I’ve been restless about my reading. Some of my favorite Saturday afternoons in New York were spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, and I liked the bookseller-favorite recommendation shelves and the back tables that held the off-the-radar titles. I miss browsing for discovery’s sake.

That’s one of the many reasons I decided to start reading the entirety of the PEN/Faulkner nominees, dating all the way back to the 1981 list. My biggest hope was that I would have the browser’s pleasure returned to me, even if the sense of discovery wasn’t really my own; a prize list is a curated one, after all. Three lists and 17 books in, the result has been a mixed bag. For one thing, books by women are scarce and books by writers of color even more so (five women and one African-American writer so far, with the added irony that these books ended up being some of the most intriguing and substantial — so much for tokenism). I’ve also been enjoying how my odd reading project inspires conversation about the books that have stuck around and how much people love or hate them. Like Housekeeping, which holds up superbly on reread and inspires warm coos of approval whenever I mention it, or A Confederacy of Dunces, which I learned not to say much about if I wanted to keep a conversation civil, or Sixty Stories, which made one friend roll her eyes and say, “That’s 59 too many.” On the other hand, there have been genuine and wonderful surprises, like Walter Abish’s entrancing and masterful How German Is It, which I had known only as the lonely, drab unreturnable New Directions paperback with the black-and-white cover on the top shelf of the Brookline Barnes & Noble where I worked years ago. I would scan it every three months with my inventory gun, but I wasn’t curious enough back then to bring it down from the shelf and rescue it with my employee discount. Right now, I’m only halfway through the 1983 list and suspect that, if I had finished it in time, I might have written something about William S. Wilson’s Birthplace: Moving into Nearness, an epistolary novel set on an island long after a nuclear catastrophe. High on style, with lushly disorienting long sentences, it’s a disarmingly complex book, made all the more enticing by its provenance (San Francisco’s North Point Press, from the time before the conglomerates swallowed up all the indies, but that’s another story).

But if “interesting” is the guiding principle here, then I have to choose August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running. My good friend from graduate school, Ken, has a completist’s temperament as well, and it was his idea to read and discuss the entirety of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (one play about the African-American life for each decade of the 20th century). I went along with it because I know little to nothing about drama and figured I could learn something from a literary art that, at least from my fiction writer’s eye, hangs everything on dialogue and space.

Two Trains Running is set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The date alone is a striking avoidance of the obvious flashpoint of the previous year, a reminder that history might be marked by our major national traumas, yet it is experienced by ordinary people living through the times right after. The central conflict is that of Memphis, the diner’s owner, who is debating what to do in light of the city’s urban renewal schemes. Does he sell or risk losing his property to eminent domain? Everyone has an opinion, from the savvy funeral-home owner West to the philosophical regular Holloway to the numbers-running Wolf, who uses the diner as his central booking site. It took several readings of the play for me to see that it privileges the diner more than characters, that each of the characters casts the space in the regret of past wishes and the urgent, sometimes already frustrated, dreams for the future. Each of the characters, of course, except for one, the fascinating Hambone, who wanders into the diner with his singular and repetitive complaint over his lack of payment for a fence he painted years ago. “I want my ham!”

The play, which I read in the spring, has lingered in my imagination all year, and it’s even withstood what Ken calls August Wilson’s Purple Rain period: “Because, except for Prince, I can’t think of another artist who packs as many punches in a row as he does with Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson.” I keep thinking about how sharply Two Trains Running insists upon a plurality of experiences and my rereading keeps me at a constant attention to how the play’s language holds all sorts of tonal ambiguities, just waiting for an actor or a director to draw them out. I’ve been inspired by how the play contrasts the sometimes naïve and boisterous impatience of youth (where the only story that matters is the one that’s happening now) with the pain of stories long held close to the chest (where what we consider “history” is still not powerful enough to muscle out the voices that most need to be heard).

I’m still missing four of the plays (Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf), but it’s inspiring to experience a writer deeply invested with his community and capable of creating such a panoply of characters, all of them starkly different from each other. The plays have been my new poetry, pieces I can read in a single evening sitting, then reread multiple times, the music deepening with each contemplation. The accomplishment of Wilson’s Cycle is so audacious and impressive that I agree with Ken when he maintains that, had Wilson not died so early, he might have been the writer to break the American Nobel drought. We’re always too quick to believe it’s the fiction writers who have the most to tell us.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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Covering the Catalogs: Plume

The weather is nice, and we’ve got all the windows open in the apartment. We ran some errands earlier today – although the task of going to Whole Foods to buy cheese and olives deserves a term with better connotations than “errand.” Now I’m flipping through a stack of catalogs from Penguin while I listen to baseball on the radio. This is why I look forward to weekends.I think I’ll start with the Plume, Portfolio, Overlook, etc. catalog. These imprints do both paperback editions of books that have already come out in hardcover, and paperback originals, which are initially published as a paperback without a prior hardcover release.There’s a nifty little collection coming out in August as a paperback original. The Subway Chronicles “offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on this most public of spaces,” New York’s legendary subway system. Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose and Calvin Trillin are among 27 contributors whose essays look at New York’s subterranean city from every angle. The anthology’s editor, Jacquelin Cangro, runs thesubwaychronicles.com.I’ve heard sections of Dan Savage’s book The Commitment read on This American Life. Savage writes in the David Sedaris, David Rackoff, public radio funny man vein. Like those two Davids, Savage is gay and his sharp comic timing and casual mastery of the memoir style transcend any label. In The Commitment, Savage recasts the gay marriage “debate” as his own family drama, injecting some much-needed humor and personality into a controversy that is so often portrayed as faceless. The hardcover is already out and the Plume paperback comes out in October.Under the Portfolio imprint is the paperback of John Battelle’s book The Search. The book tells the story of how a goofy little search engine called Google grew into a $120 billion company that enjoys global ubiquity and is seemingly able to reinvent any industry it touches (publishing for example). Aside from my general fascination with Google, I’m also interested in this book because I read and enjoy Battelle’s blog. As the creator of FM Publishing and the “band manager” of Boing Boing, Battelle is someone to watch in the world of new media. The paperback edition comes out in September.Extras: Andy Riley’s morbidly hilarious The Book of Bunny Suicides and The Return of the Bunny Suicides are being collected in a box set called A Box of Bunny Suicides due in September. Haven’t seen the bunny suicides? Go here and click excerpt. Also, Plume is putting out great-looking new editions of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. (The snazzy new covers aren’t showing up at Amazon yet, but I’m assuming they’ll switch out the old ones soon.)

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