By Jan Kurth | Print
*Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March issue of Print, a newspaper for Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhood. It has been republished here with permission. It has been lightly edited for style.
It sounds like the stuff of late-night speculation and wagers, though admittedly of a literary, maybe boozy, bent.
Just how many plays, movies, TV shows, novels and short stories have been written about Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania? And what about individual neighborhoods, like the ones on the Northside?
Pittsburgh poet and teacher Peter Oresick wondered about these questions. For years, he researched and collected all the references he could find going back to 1792. It was part of a project called “The Pittsburgh Novel,” which was left unfinished at his death in 2016.
His son, local attorney and writer Jake Oresick, then took up the project which was finally completed and published this year.
The official book launch was held at the University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library on March 7. Also in attendance for the panel discussion were writers Ellen Prentiss Campbell, who has written stories and novels set in Bedford County; local actor and playwright Wali Jamal; and Pittsburgh novelist Stewart O’Nan.
Jake Oresick had initial doubts about the project’s feasibility. After his father’s death, he found himself talking out loud and wondering, “Dad, just what did you get us into?” But in the end, he found that he “did get into.”
The research is available as a searchable online bibliography through Penn State Libraries Open Publishing at openpublishing.psu.edu/pittsburghnovel/biblio.
During the discussion, Oresick asked the panelists why they used western Pennsylvania as a setting in their works. For Ellen Prentiss Campbell, it was the death of her parents, who had lived in Bedford County. Though Campbell lived in Washington, D.C. at the time, she found herself getting immersed in Bedford County local history. It was during her research that she discovered the untold story of the Bedford Springs Hotel and how it was turned into a detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Berlin during the summer of 1945, along with his family and staff. That story inspired her debut novel, “The Bowl With Gold Seams” (2016), which won the Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction.
Though Stewart O’Nan grew up in Pittsburgh and still lives here, he says that he writes about this area “mostly out of curiosity.”
“I write away from myself, not toward myself,” he said. “I write out of a place of total ignorance.” He claims that it took him 25 years to write about Pittsburgh in “Emily, Alone” (2011), as he really didn’t know the world of 85-year-old women.
Wali Jamal, who as an actor has performed in all ten of August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle” plays, plus Wilson’s solo show, “How I Learned What I Learned,” was asked whether those plays could have been set anywhere else other than Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Not at all, he said. Even though Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978, “it was getting him away from Pittsburgh that allowed him to step back.”
Jamal also finds the African-American experience to be a major inspiration for his own work as a writer. His first play was about Robert Smalls, a man who escaped from slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship and delivering it into Union hands. He has also written a play about Martin Delany, an African-American physician and abolitionist who spent much of his adult life in Pittsburgh.
Jamal is currently working on a book about his own life and Wilson’s, in addition to another play set in East Vandergrift, Pennsylvania.
So how many pieces of literature are set in the 26 counties of Western Pennsylvania? Over 1,500 as it turns out. Roughly 1,100 of these are in Pittsburgh.
Of these, 243 make some sort of reference to a Northside neighborhood, typically more than one.
Allegheny Center can boast of 15 of them. Two random examples include Kathleen George’s thriller, “Fallen” (2004), and the Sharon Dilworth novel, “The Year of the G inkgo” (2010). T he e arliest e xample i s Stella Ryback’s novel about two Pittsburgh women who go husband- hunting in New York, “White Flower” (1948).
One fun feature of the database is that you can look up individual landmarks in particular neighborhoods. For example, if you ever wondered whether Buhl Planetarium was ever immortalized in literature, the answer is yes. The best known mention is in the August Wilson play, “Jitney” (1981), but the Planetarium also makes an appearance in Clark Blaise’s “Pittsburgh Stories: The Collected Stories of Clark Blaise” (2001), and Susan Dodson’s novel, “The Creep” (1979).
Allegheny West has five literary references. The oldest are by Pittsburgh writer Margaret Deland, including her novella, “The Voice” (1912), and her book of short stories, “Around Old Chester” (1914). Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) shows up in three of the five. One of these is the Barbara Paul novel, “Your Eyelids are Growing Heavy” (1981).
Brighton Heights has just three mentions: John M. Brewer Jr.’s novel, “The Room” (2011); a screenplay by Chris Guttierez, “Bridge to Nowhere” (2009); and Nich- olas Stevensson Karas’ novel, “Hunky: The Immigrant Experience” (2004).
California-Kirkbride, alas, can claim just one representation in literature. It’s by Queen Rella (aka Barbara Durant), and it’s a novel called “Steel Twinz: Ladies in the Street” (2011).
Central Northside turns out to be a popular place among authors, with 34 references. One is Thomas Sweterlitsch’s apocalyptic novel “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (2014), another is Hilary Masters’ “Elegy for Sam Emerson” (2006).
Chateau gets a nod in six works. Thomas Regan’s “A Better Life: And Other Pittsburgh Stories” (2014) and Lee McClain’s novel “My Abnormal Life” (2005) are two of them.
East Allegheny comes in at 13. The most famous example is the screenplay for “Flashdance” (1983), by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas. But East Allegheny also shows up in another screenplay, “A Man Called Otto” (2022) by David Magee. The film starred Tom Hanks.
Fineview has just two, and one is the above-mentioned “Flashdance.”
Manchester has 22 referrals. The majority are stories and novels from the early 1900s by Margaret Deland. One of the exceptions is Alexander Cordell’s “The Race of the Tiger” (1963), about an Irish immigrant family.
Marshall-Shadeland comes in at 24. A very early example is “Old Fort Duquesne: or, Captain Jack, the Scout. An Historical Novel, with Copious Notes” (1873) by Charles McKnight. Stories about the true-crime adventures of the Biddle Boys and their escape from the Allegheny County jail also make a good showing. One of these is Arthur Forrest’s “The Biddle Boys And Mrs. Soffel: The Great Pittsburg Tragedy And Romance. With Full Description Of Their Lives And Crimes” (1902). This inspired a silent film that same year that was produced by the Thomas Edison Company. The name of that film was “Capture of the Biddle Boys,” with screenplay by Edwin Stanton Porter. The material was later reworked into “Mrs. Soffel” (1984), with screenplay by Ron Nyswaner. That film starred Mel Gibson as Ed Biddle, Matthew Bodine as Jack Biddle, and Diane Keaton as Mrs. Soffel, the warden’s wife who helped the Biddle boys escape.
North Shore, however, is the heavyweight literary champ at 63. Here are three of the works: Jacob Bacharach’s novel “The Doorposts Of Your House And On Your Gates” (2017), the screenplay for “Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story” (1980) by Jerry McNeely, and Jane Bierce’s romance, “Time of Possession” (1998), about a Pittsburgh Steeler who falls in love with a local journalist.
Northview Heights has just two. One of them is Paige Green’s novel “Family Over Everything” (2013), about twin siblings growing up in a public housing project.
Perry North has seven examples, including Paola Corso’s “Catina’s Haircut: A Novel In Stories” (2010), about an Italian immigrant family.
Spring Garden has just one: Robert Emrick’s novel “Hunky Hill” (1993).
Spring Hill-City View also has just one: Ambrose E. Korn Jr.’s “Deutschtown’s Pigeon Hill” (2011).
And finally, there is Troy Hill with 18. Examples referring to Troy Hill include Lester Cohen’s novel “Coming Home” (1945), about a World War II veteran; and Lester Goran’s “Outlaws Of The Purple Cow And Other Stories” (1999).