The Pittsburgh Stories of Canonical Novelist Willa Cather | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh


There are as many literary works set in Pittsburgh today as there are movies filmed here. But try to find pre-1930s fiction by a canonical writer describing this tahn, and the list gets short after Willa Cather. Although famous for her Great Plains novels, Cather actually lived in Pittsburgh during her professional formative years.

“Pittsburgh was the birthplace of my writing,” she writes, quoted in Peter Oresick’s introduction to The Pittsburgh Stories of Willa Cather (Carnegie Mellon University Press). This very first compilation of these six stories was edited by the late Oresick, a poet, educator, and Ford City native dedicated to documenting and compiling fiction about Pittsburgh.

Cather moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, at the age of 22, and spent 10 years here as a magazine editor, reporter, critic, and public school teacher. for nine more years she kept rooms here before moving full-time to New York. (Oresick notes that 1913 O Pioneers! was written in Squirrel Hill!)

Unsurprisingly, given Cather’s jobs, these accomplished stories heavily involve education and the arts. In the poignant “The Professor’s Commencement”, a high school teacher prepares to retire. “A Gold Slipper” is an entertaining, dialogue-rich 1917 story about a middle-aged businessman’s unexpected crush on a concert singer. The music also features in “Double Birthday”, a moving portrait of two members of a once well-to-do family now in modest rooms on the south side slopes. In “Namesake,” an aging sculptor in Paris, France, recalls returning to his family home in the increasingly industrial Mon Valley in the late 1800s. And a quarter of the book is devoted to “Uncle Valentine”, a complex family story revolving around a cosmopolitan songwriter on an estate near Edgeworth.

Pittsburgh in these stories, by the way, is what you’d expect; while Cather clearly loved this place, she couldn’t ignore what in “Valentine” are described as “the narrow streets of the dark, raw and dark gray Old Town, cold with its wet river, and harsher due to the frown of brooding eyebrows of huge stone churches looming up in even the most congested part of the shopping district.”

The highlight of this collection is surely the story you probably already know. The widely anthologized “Paul’s Case” remains an engrossing study of a teenage misfit for the theater in dirty town Pittsburgh circa 1900. It’s a classic, its modernist style the perfect vehicle for the tragic inevitability of his father’s fate. protagonist.


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