“Discovering” Fiction about Western Pennsylvania

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Regional studies – for some years scorned by the academic world as too parochial – seem now to be enjoying a renaissance. Those concerned with this work have the pleasure of “discovery” of materials that have been right there all along. They may also encounter widely held misconceptions about their field of interest.

For example, in the Pittsburgh Press (Sept. 11, 1977), feature writer Joe Bennett summed up his impression of the fiction that has been done about Western Pennsylvania: “By far, the largest selection of novels set in Western Pennsylvania are [sic] historical and semi-historical works about the French and Indian War.”

Paperback and book club readers – thinking of names like Neil Swanson, Agnes Sligh Turnbull and Hervey Allen – may nod assent. If so, they will be perpetuating a popular but mistaken proposition.

A project begun several years ago at Carnegie-Mellon University by myself and then-graduate student Anthony Spataro statistically demonstrated something quite dif­ferent. We set out to identify all the fiction that had been written about Western Pennsylvania. After some months we took a census of our findings. The results showed –

  • 36 novels about the pre-1810 era
  • 19 novels set between 1810 and 1870
  • 36 novels concerned with the 1870 to World War I period
  • 37 novels dealing with events since the First World War

(N.B.: This is an ordering by subject, not by date of publication.)

Although this project, which eventually should lead to a published bibliography, is still incomplete, we see no evi­dence that further discoveries will alter the indicated dis­tribution of subject matter.

The census list reflects the fact that, in terms of white civilization, Western Pennsylvania had a double birth­ – original settlement in the 18th century, and then its post­Civil War industrial revolution. Predictably, historical fiction writers have been attracted to the mythic entrepreneurs of the later period – the Carnegies, the Fricks, the oil barons and financiers – as well as to such “pioneers” as Braddock, O’Hara, Henri Bouquet and John Frasier. (The recent regional success of Samuel Schreiner’s novel Thine is the Glory attests to the apparently inexhaustible interest in the magnates of the industrial era.)

Public fondness for the conventional historical novel may lead to another misconception – that most of the fiction about Western Pennsylvania is escapist hero-worship of the Anglo-Saxon founding fathers. In industrial Pennsylvania, rich in working class and ethnic traditions, such a prospect would indeed suggest that regional literature is an
intellectual deadend.

In actuality, marketplace logic keeps romantic novels in print, obscuring the fact that, at least in Western Pennsyl­vania, there is a substantial body of proletariat fiction of better quality than these marketplace success stories. This state of affairs is probably best illustrated by fiction about steel-making. Marcia Davenport’s The Valley of Decision has recurrently been in print since its original 1942 publi­cation, and has also been made into a movie. It remains an interesting novel, but it is romantically over-blown and far too indulgent of an Anglo-Saxon, anti-union bias that is belied by the very details presented in the book. Ironically, a year earlier two first rate novels about steel had been published – William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge and Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace. Told from the point of view of mill workers in the Monongahela Valley, these books were pretty much ignored or forgotten even in the region they depicted so graphically.

Bell’s novel is properly singled out and emphasized. Tastes of course differ, but Out of This Furnace is arguably the best novel to have been done about Western Pennsyl­vania, regardless of subject or era. Predominantly set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, it tells the story of three generations in a Slovak steelworking family from 1881 to 1937. It successfully blends an account of ethnic roots, the struggle of urban life for the working class poor, and the gradual growth of the labor movement in steel. Unlike many historical novels, Out of This Furnace draws strength from the fact that its author knew his subject first hand. The book achieves a sense of absolute authenticity.

Out of This Furnace was reissued in 1976 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. With the new edition now in a fourth printing, it is finally getting the recognition it de­serves.

A short checklist of proletariat fiction will suggest the fuller picture of Western Pennsylvania to be found beyond the world of historical romance.

Asterisked titles have appeared, excerpted, in the anthology From These Hills, From These Valleys, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.

* Thomas Bell: Out of This Furnace

original publication: Little, Brown & Co., 1941
setting: Braddock, 1881-1937
ethnic group: Slovak
in print: University of Pittsburgh Press

* William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

original publication: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
setting: Kentucky, Monongahela Valley, 1919
ethnic group: Black
The story of three black brothers, transported from Kentucky to Allegheny County in boxcars to serve as scab labor during the 1919 steel strike.
out of print

* Michael O’Malley: Miners Hill

original publication: Harper & Row, 1962
setting: Monongahela Valley mill town (Braddock), 1940s
ethnic group: Irish
A teenage boy must reconcile himself to his mother’s decision that he become a priest.
in print: under the title Small Town Blues, Popular Library

Philip Bonosky: The Magic Fern

original publication: International Publishers, 1961
setting: fictional place names (Duquesne?), 1950s
ethnic group: mixed
Communists oppose the company-oriented steel union hierarchy.
out of print

Lloyd Brown: Iron City

original publication: Masses and Mainstream, 1951
setting: fictional place names (Pittsburgh), 1940s
ethnic group: Black
Communist organizers are jailed on trumped up charges, and their comrades mount a campaign to free them.
out of print

* Michael Musmanno: Black Fury

original publication: Fountainhead Publishers, Inc., 1966
setting: Allegheny County, 1920s
ethnic group: mixed
Coalfield strikers struggle against the coal-and-iron police.
out of print

Stefan Heym: Goldsborough

original publication: Gold Heron, 1954
setting: fictional place names (Youghiogheny Valley?), 1950s
ethnic group: mixed
Radical organizers must content with their more conservative fellow coal miners, as well as with the owners.
out of print

* Chester Aaron: About Us

original publication: McGraw-Hill Book Com­pany, 1967
setting: near Butler, 1930s
ethnic group: Jewish
A patch-town family tries to deal with the Depres­sion and with the gradual dispersion of its members.
out of print

* Edward Fenton: Duffy’s Rocks

original publication: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1974
setting: fictional place names (McKees Rocks?), 1930s
ethnic group: Irish
A young boy longs for a larger world than the de­caying mill town where his grandmother is raising him.
in print

A. E. Fisher: Requiem

original publication: The John Day Company, 1933
setting: Pittsburgh, 1930s
ethnic group: mixed
A steel-working family tries to cope with the De­pression.
out of print

* Lester Goran: Maria Light

original publication: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962
setting: Pittsburgh, 1940s
ethnic group: mixed
A middle-aged widow tries to raise her family in a project-housing development.
out of print

* K. C. Constantine: The Rocksburg Railroad Murders

original publication: Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972
setting: fictional place names (Greensburg)
ethnic groups: Italian, Slav
see also: The Blank Page (1973), The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1974), A Fix Like This (1975)
These crime novels take for their hero a middle-aged cop in an ex-mining town.
in print: The Blank Page, A Fix Like This

The books on this list move well beyond the province of conventional historical fiction – the best sellers. By and large they are realistic, oriented to the world of working class people. They are concerned with survival during hard times and with the value of political struggle. The epic theme they recurrently celebrate is not the opening of a wilderness or the building of an industrial empire, but the effort to unionize effectively the region’s working classes. In short, these novels ask readers to take seriously the modern history of Western Pennsylvania.

In Winter ’77-78, The Iron Clad Agreement, a Pittsburgh­-based professional theatre company, adapted Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace for the stage and toured it to four area mill towns – Braddock, Homestead, Donora and Aliquippa. After each performance audiences reminisced about local history, the coal-and-iron police, the 12-hour work days, the households full of boarders. And they wondered about the future. Will the old steel towns sur­vive? Will unions be able to meet the challenges of apathy and automation?

Those audiences were responding to a part of the Western Pennsylvania story that is still being discovered, still to be told-its modern, industrial history as seen, in drama and literature, by working people.


David P. Demarest, Jr., a member of the Carnegie-Mellon English Department, edited From These Hills, From These Valleys, and wrote an afterword for the new edition of Out of This Furnace.