Daily Archives: February 4, 2009

Pittsburgh Stories

My most recent contribution to the First Floor – New & Featured‘s website is a book list, Share the History – Stories Set in Pittsburgh’s Past. Inspiration for this list of novels came from a book I received as a gift, From These Hills, From These Valleys: Selected Fiction About Western Pennsylvania. In addition to novel excerpts, From These Hills contains a short story by Willa Cather, who wrote six short stories set in Pittsburgh.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection,   reproduction number LC-USZ62-42538 DLC

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection

At age 22, Cather moved from Lincoln, Nebraska to Pittsburgh. She arrived in June, 1896. The Carnegie Library and Music Hall had opened one year before. The Pittsburgh Symphony was established a few months before Cather began her ten year residence in the Steel City. She was thrilled to attend Pittsburgh’s theatres, opera, and symphony, and not long after beginning her first Pittsburgh position as assistant editor for Home Journal, Cather was also hired as part-time drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader.

Collected in various volumes of her work, her Pittsburgh stories shine with local color in the form of recognizable buildings and neighborhoods, and people who share characteristics of her friends and acquaintances — familiar folks, though not stereotypes. 

No single volume contains all six stories. Each title below is followed by the collection in which it can be found.

  • Double Birthday (First published in Forum, February 1929.) Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 Concerning a clandestine bottle of wine from the Judge’s cellar, and the birthday celebration for a nephew and an uncle who share names as well as birthdays. Set in the 1920s, when desirable neighborhoods (as exemplified by the Judge’s house on Squirrel Hill) are located away from the city center, killing the friendly intimacy of older neighborhoods, such as the South Side, where “the Alberts” live uphill from Carson Street. 
  • A Gold Slipper  Vintage Cather A Pittsburgh coal baron, who describes himself as a “hard-headed business man,” with his cultured wife attends a concert in which he has no interest .
  • The Namesake (First published in McClure’s, March 1907.) Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 Cather explores the question of what makes an artist American. An expatriate sculptor returns to Pennsylvania from Rome to care for his aunt, the sister of his namesake. In learning about his uncle, who died at age sixteen in the Civil War, he claims the meaning of his name, ties to his family, and discovers a passion for national traditions. 
  • Paul’s Case  Five Stories,  Great Short Works of Willa Cather and Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 Portrays a sensitive youth at odds with a repressive society, whose enemy is the emotionally and aesthetically bankrupt middle-class world devoted to the gods of money and respectability.
  • The Professor’s Commencement  Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (First published in New England Magazine in June 1902.) Set in the lower Hill District. On the day of his retirement, a high school teacher remembers early in his career, when “the desire had come upon him to bring some message of repose and peace to the youth of this work-driven, joyless people, to cry the name of beauty so loud that the roar of the mills could not drown it.”
  • Uncle Valentine (First published in Woman’s Home Companion, February 1925.)  Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 and Great Short Works of Willa Cather. Inspired by Cather’s friendship with the composer Ethelbert Nevin, who she met in Pittsburgh.

– Julie


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