“I do appreciate titles that use the terrain instead of making their characters sit inside. I also enjoy titles that reveal the parts of our region that outsiders are unlikely to see, like Homewood, Butler, or old school, residential Oakland. Yinzers don’t gaze down from Grandview Avenue all day like the movies would have you believe.”
By Ed Simon
When author Jake Oresick and I first met on an unusually warm April day of this year to discuss the completion of his late father’s monumental project of literary scholarship The Pittsburgh Novel, we both had an absurdly, singular Western Pennsylvania experience when a stranger stopped to chat because she’d happened to overhear Jake say the word “Carpatho-Rusyn.” I had met with Jake at the Coffee Tree Roasters on Walnut Street to learn more about The Pittsburgh Novel, an encyclopedic reference envisioned by Jake’s father, the poet Peter Oresick, which aimed to identify every single fictional work set in any of the twenty-six counties which constitute Western Pennsylvania. Availing ourselves of the garage-door front of the coffee house which looks out onto the bustle of bougie Shadyside, Jake talked about his father’s research concerning his own ethnic background when the woman stopped to talk. It turned out that she too was Carpatho-Rusyn, and was in fact familiar with Peter Oresick’s writing on the subject. We had a friendly discussion with her for about fifteen minutes, then she went on her way. Pittsburgh is one of a small handful of cities where you just might randomly have a friendly discussion about eastern European identity with a random pedestrian, a rare occurrence outside of Krakow or Bratislava. As with all things in this region, the enthusiastic stranger who wanted to talk about early twentieth-century Ruthenian social halls demonstrated how often Pittsburgh connections and correspondences can be sudden and unexpected. If I wasn’t already convinced that, despite Allegheny County’s being among the top twenty most populous metropolitan areas in the nation, Pittsburgh basically remains a very large small town, when I later friended Jake on Facebook (for I am a millennial), I discovered we already had about twenty folks in common, including my having attended elementary and high school with his cousin. The quintessential nature of Pittsburgh is that six degrees of separation is an impossible game to play. It always turns into two or one degree of separation.
Charting connections with an eye towards the way in which Western Pennsylvania is paradoxically both very large and very small is at the core of Oresick’s indispensable digital archive The Pittsburgh Novel, hosted by Penn State University. Officially titled The Pittsburgh Novel: Western Pennsylvania in Fiction and Drama, 1792-2022, the site is an exemplar of both the digital and spatial humanities, a massive annotated repository of thousands of novels and short stories, plays and movies set not just within Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but also Butler and Bedford Counties, Franklin and Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington. August Wilson’s Hill District plays are of course featured, as is the early work of Michael Chabon and the Homewood tales of John Edgar Wideman, but so are self-published science fiction pulp paperbacks and Flashdance, nineteenth-century dime novels and The Deer Hunter. The Pittsburgh stories of the great bard of the prairie Willa Cather are here and so is the Bruce Willis flick Striking Distance, Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s eighteenth-century quixotic picaresque Modern Chivalry has an entry, as does George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “While some works are better known, celebrated, and spell-checked than others,” writes Jake in the project’s introduction, “The Pittsburgh Novel does not rank or editorialize, but merely identifies these titles and aggregates relevant data.” The result is not just a comprehensive history of Pittsburgh literature, but in many ways an account of the Pittsburgh of both imagination and experience, a charting of the soul of this region as understood by its citizens across four centuries, in all of its contradictions and confusions, glory and grandeur.
Peter Oresick, who conceived of The Pittsburgh Novel, was the perfect candidate to tackle such an endeavor. A brilliant and beloved poet and instructor in Chatham University’s MFA program and a teacher at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, among other institutions, Peter was the author of a dozen books, including the landmark anthology For a Living: The Poetry of Work, The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and Working Classics: Poems of Industrial Life. Jake writes how “Pittsburgh remained Peter’s lifelong muse because he never stopped finding novel ways to fall in love with it. Most of all, he loved the people, and was hungry to hear their stories: the customs, peculiarities, work places, closed churches, and deceased teachers that connect them to this piece of earth and everyone on it.” Having already completed large portions of the project, Peter passed away in 2016, and so the remainder of the work – the collection, categorization, organization, and annotation of many of the entries – remained for Jake, who speaks of the completion of his father’s project as an almost spiritual act, a son’s ritual of love and devotion. If Peter was the perfect candidate to inaugurate such a task, than Jake was the ideal person to finish it. Though he works as an attorney, Jake is also an accomplished writer, having authored the insightful and indispensable The Schenley Experiment: A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School, an account of the 156 year history of his alma mater (and my high school’s traditional rival) which was a beacon of both progressive education and integration in a heavily segregated city, now sadly closed and transformed into condos, an allegory of the travails of gentrification. Like his father, Jake has a keen understanding of Pittsburgh in all of its ugliness and beauty, a city as much parable as it is a location, as much identity as address, where as his father wrote in Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems, there is a “murmur preserved of our city-state/that once flourished-before its citizens dispersed/to other lands, to greater deeds on the blue Earth.” Here two of those citizens reconvened on Walnut Street to talk about Pittsburgh, literature, and fathers.
ED: This is such an ambitious, long-ranging, and comprehensive project – I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your father’s motivation in pursuing something like this and his relationship to Pittsburgh?
JAKE: Thank you. My father was a ride or die Pittsburgher. Born and raised in Ford City, taught at three Pittsburgh universities, bypassed multiple dream jobs to stay here. In another life, he would’ve had a Steelers face tattoo and been buried in a black and gold coffin, but God made my father an academic, so he celebrated Pittsburgh through that skill-set.
He was innately a writer, and at his best, I think, a poet. I like to say that Western Pennsylvania feels more like an active character in his poems than a passive setting. “An American Peace,” “One of Many Bars in Ford City, Pennsylvania,” “When in 2009 the G20 Summit Convened in Pittsburgh.” And then there was Warhol-o-rama, which, for my father, was absolutely a Pittsburgh project. It’s notable, though, that my father was even more innately a custodian of knowledge and records. He was an amateur archivist, saving Day-Timers from the ’80s, posters from his college poetry readings, and programs from his sons’ middle school graduations. He kept sources of information rather than arbitrarily sentimental objects. Knowing this, The Pittsburgh Novel‘s intensively archival elements make more sense. I called his record-keeper side notable because that mindset, while wonderful and immensely valuable, feels antagonistic to poetry. But he was organically both things.
What do you think he hoped The Pittsburgh Novel‘s role could be? When did he first get the idea to begin work on the project, and how did his thinking about it evolve over time?
He hoped The Pittsburgh Novel would be the last word in Western Pennsylvania fiction. He truly wanted it to be for everybody, but he was a realist and primarily expected it to land with academics.
The Pittsburgh Novel started informally in the ’70s as a simple list. But you should also know that he generally packed his brain with regional trivia for which there was no obvious outlet. The Westinghouse air brake, the Battle of the Monongahela, Jeff Goldblum is actually from West Homestead. In the mid ’00s, Wikipedia became that outlet, and he authored or contributed to dozens of Pittsburgh-related articles.
Initially, I think, The Pittsburgh Novel list was one of a dozen categories he could’ve turned into a full-length book. However, he seemed especially compelled to document and illuminate things that almost nobody else even knew, so he wouldn’t have been happy in a derivative project about Andrew Carnegie or Forbes Field. More importantly, the literary arts were his passion and, in light of his artist/historian duality, it’s appropriate that his parting opus would be facts about fiction.
What was it like to take on the completion of your father’s project? Do you think that it bears the mark of different sensibilities and personalities, as if a collaboration?
A lot of adolescent boys borrow their father’s sport coat for a school dance or a bar mitzvah. It’s invariably an ill fit and the emotional and literary metaphors explain themselves. That’s initially how the project felt. It was too big for me at a time when it needed to fit, in both a practical and circle of life sense. I grew into it, of course, but it was a process.
Different sensibilities? Yes. I was the attorney to his poet. The Rahm to his Barack. He was so excited about finding obscure dime novels and it came through in some of his abstracts. I felt that way sometimes, but was more often concerned with finding inconsistencies in author bios. Or making sure Central Catholic was nested under Squirrel Hill and not Oakland. He gave the soup its flavor and I saw myself as the quality control.
I’m always fascinated by those method questions in literary interviews, the old George Plimpton The Paris Review inquiry about what sort of pencil a writer uses to mark up their manuscript, or their favorite model of typewriter or whatever. So naturally I’m interested in your research process. This is such a huge project, how did you go about gathering the examples of what would be included? What resources and archives did you rely on? How did you categorize and file what you found?
My father’s research was fairly organic. He was in publishing so he regularly read and sometimes wrote book reviews, and trade conventions were our first family vacations. He later sold rare books online, so he spent a lot of time perusing titles at used bookstores and yard sales. Additionally, my father zeroed on historical figures—Braddock, Carnegie, Johnny Appleseed—and correctly predicted that historical fiction would cover their Pittsburgh years. He also figured that authors who’d lived here were likely to write and keep writing about this region, so he kept them on his radar.
When I inherited this project, I started with my father’s long list of potential Pittsburgh titles, so I didn’t need to research more. I did have a process, though, which included requesting twenty titles at a time from the CLP website, speed-reading, annotating, and lugging the books back to the library. I kept the data in a monster Word document, which Penn State later moved to a spreadsheet with a separate column for each title’s author, keywords, genres, and the like.
With such an extensive list of titles, there is an inevitable question – which ones did you think best exemplified the region? Were there any “Great Pittsburgh Novels” which you encountered – surprising or not – that you felt really “got” Pittsburgh?
This one is tricky, as I don’t purport to be a gatekeeper, and I’m uncomfortable deciding that a title isn’t authentically Pittsburgh because it isn’t my Pittsburgh. To this end, a lot of demographically nuanced titles—August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, Wonder Boys, Queer as Folk, American Rust—are acclaimed, in part, because they feel authentic to other demographics. While I won’t crown a champion Pittsburgh Novel, I do appreciate titles that use the terrain instead of making their characters sit inside. I also enjoy titles that reveal the parts of our region that outsiders are unlikely to see, like Homewood, Butler, or old school, residential Oakland. Yinzers don’t gaze down from Grandview Avenue all day like the movies would have you believe.
As a follow-up to that question, what’s a title that was particularly Pittsburgh to you, that spoke to your experience?
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s the happily integrated, urban adolescence that I didn’t know was uncommon until I left Pittsburgh.
Thank you, Jake, this is all really fantastic. I guess as a sort of final question, what do you hope readers get from The Pittsburgh Novel? When you imagine folks consulting it a year, or ten, or twenty-five from now, what do you see?
As every author secretly does, I’ve imagined department chairs and librarians holding a rave in the basement of Hillman to celebrate the keyword and genre tags changing their lives forever. Realistically, I’ve imagined this audience for several years and I see a diverse readership with equally diverse aims. First, the academics. There’s a doctoral student who, at 2 a.m., desperately needs to know how many Presbyterian allegories with feminist themes have been set in Allegheny City. Either now or in twenty-five years, I’d hope we’re their first stop. Second, people whose interests are more regional than literary. I’ve had so many conversations with people who insist that no fiction has ever been set in their hometown, and they’re always pleasantly surprised to be wrong. I see people in the mold of my father: proud of their town that not everyone has heard of and eager to consume all five titles set there. In the same vein, I hope librarians across the region will use The Pittsburgh Novel to feature and recommend titles set in their communities. Third, I see regular people browsing to find a new read. Fourth, I really hope that curious, thoughtful people will use the site with no specific goal other than to bounce between hyperlinks, as we love to do with Wikipedia, and learn something new.
Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.