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.
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.
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