I wrote in my bio recently that I am interested in Pittsburgh writers, but I am not sure that I am because I am not sure that it is a thing. Can we define writing from a place? Could the totality of what has been written from or about the city of Pittsburgh be described with a label? Probably not. But we have to have ways to talk about what we are designating, so I’m interested in Pittsburgh writers.
The most predominant theme that I have outlined in literature about Pittsburgh is work. I touched on this idea a little bit in a piece I wrote for Belt Magazine, but it is one that I keep returning to over and over again as I think about writing from Pittsburgh. This is a theme that I have seen in newspaper writing from the nineteenth century and more contemporary writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From steel mills to the intellectual labor of professors, work comes to define the way that Pittsburghers not only organize their lives but also understand themselves.
Work, of course, defines a lot of people’s lives. Is it special in Pittsburgh? I have thought about this a lot, and I can’t say that I have a definitive answer. As Americans are known for being workaholics, can I really say that this is a defining principle of only Pittsburgh? Probably not, but I can say that work is not only a theme in Pittsburgh writing, but it also becomes the impetus for creative energy in the work. While work might be common to a vast majority of people, I see in Pittsburgh writing a direct link between labor and creative endeavors. One of my favorite examples that provides a blueprint for how this works is Richard Realf’s poem, “The Hymn of Pittsburg.”
You have probably never heard of Realf, but he was a minor literary figure in the nineteenth century. He was best known for being friends with John Brown; he also had a series of marriages that were various degrees of lawful and committed suicide in California in 1878. He lived in Pittsburgh for several years before his death and wrote the “Hymn of Pittsburg,” which encapsulates how centrally Pittsburgh was tied to the industries that dotted its rivers. The poem reads in full:
My father was a mighty Vulcan;
I am Smith of the land and sea;
The cunning spirit of Tubal-Cain
Came with my marrow to me,
I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel,
I coin vast iron acts,
And orb the impalpable dreams of seers
Into comely, lyric facts.
I am Monarch of all the Forges,
I have solved the riddle of fire,
The Amen of Nature to cry of Man,
Answers at my desire,
I search with the subtle soul of flame
The heart of the rocky Earth,
And hot from my anvils the prophecies
Of the miracle-years leap forth.
I am swart with the soots of my furnace,
I drip with the sweats of toil;
My fingers throttle the savage wastes,
I tear the curse from the soil.
I fling the bridges across the gulfs
That hold us from the To-Be,
And build the roads for the bannered march
Of crowned humanity.
Throughout the poem, Realf uses the history of labor and capital in the city to describe its role in an industrializing landscape. Pittsburgh is pitched as a ruling force in industry, a “Monarch,” but the poem is not exclusively about the superiority of Pittsburgh from an industrial perspective. Rather Realf links the production of goods and materials to the development of creative forces. Realf writes from the perspective of Pittsburgh, “I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel” (142). In this quote, the “thoughts” are fortified by the addition of “steel.” The steel is not an impediment to creation or generation of thoughts; it is what is supporting the thoughts. By the end of the first stanza, the reinforced thoughts have become dreams. Realf writes that in Pittsburgh the “impalpable dreams of seers” are being turned into “comely, lyric facts” (142). To describe “facts” as “comely” or “lyric” defies conventional ideas of what a fact is but in this case it is an appropriate part of the mixing of the elements of industry and poetry. Lyric connotes expression and feeling, which are not things associated with facts, steel, or Pittsburgh. Realf is suggesting that in the facts, in the industry, in the hard-nosed grit of Pittsburgh is expression and beauty. The production of iron and steel and the other industrial aspects of Pittsburgh add to creative acts rather than detract from them.
As the poem continues it is industry and labor that produces the progress of, as the poem says, “humanity.” In the second stanza of the poem, the king and monarch imagery continues and so does the idea of Pittsburgh as a revealer of the potential in the natural resources that are used to make industrial products. Once again the poem does not just formulate the usefulness of the labor in terms of production or in the literal terms of the use value of the industry. Here the industrial work results in “prophecies.” The last few lines of this stanza read: “I search with the subtle soul of flame/ The heart of the rocky Earth,/And hot from my anvils the prophecies/Of the miracle-years leap forth”. The “prophecies” come directly from the earth, but they are only brought forth by the “anvils” of the speaker. The labor here gets translated into inspiration; instead of divine inspiration or the prophecy coming from a spiritual source, it comes directly from the earth through industrial labor.
In the last stanza, it is the energy supplied by the labor that becomes the impulse which is thrusting forward the progress of “humanity.” The “I” in the stanza works through amazingly tough physical situations—”soots of my furnace,” “sweats of toil,” and “savage wastes”—but instead of being defeated by or succumbing to the work the “I” “tear[s] the curse from the soil” and “fling[s] the bridges across the gulfs”(142). This work stops the things that “hold us from the To-Be” in order to “build the roads for the bannered march/Of crowned humanity” (142). Pittsburgh is the force that is moving humanity forward. The argument that sets up that claim is not one that might be expected. In order to argue that Pittsburgh is a place for progress one might make the claim that industry moves the country forward, but Realf is making a much more complex and bolder claim that industry produces creativity and inspiration that moves us forward.
What Realf sees in Pittsburgh is what I want to capture when I discuss the literature of Pittsburgh. The literature of Pittsburgh is not monolithic, but it shares a common thread of work and labor and the creative inspiration inspiration of the city comes from that history.