Willa Cather is so associated with the expanse of the Nebraska prairie, depicted in novels like O Pioneers! and My ntonia, how disorienting to imagine her living in hilly industrial Pittsburgh at the turn of the century, and yet for a decade she made her home in Shadyside and the fashionable East Liberty at the time. Although Virginia by birth and Nebraska by choice, in 1896 Cather moved to Steel City to write for Home Monthly.
Supplementing his income by teaching English in high school, Cather would publish his first fiction in Pittsburgh. No play written during this time evoked more of the drab, overcrowded, dirty and chaotic city of the time than its perfect 1905 story “The Paul Affair”. Telling the setbacks of the sensitive son of a steel frame, the story is rarely interpreted as a spiritual tale, yet Cather’s invocation of a young man’s desire to do “splendid, brilliant and poetic things”, in order to “unleash some hilarious and powerful characters.” spirit in him ”is a religious parable, in a way. Reading it today tells us something about the vagaries of God and Mammon in the City of Steel, a story worth considering whether you’re from Pittsburgh or not.
“The Paul Affair” does not appear in my book An alternate history of Pittsburgh–a gross oversight (perhaps the justification for a sequel), for as I will come back to shortly, Cather has something intrinsic to say about matter and spirit. But whatever, by writing my book, I knew that religion would be at the center of many chapters. Three rivers cutting through the Alleghenies with steel and glass towers rising up at the confluence of the Ohio, the houses clinging to the mountainside evoking the ancient dwellings on the slopes of West Jerusalem, or the Eternal Seven Hills of Rome.
In my book, I attribute some of this charged energy to Pittsburgh’s unique ‘spirit of place’, the sense that its geography has not only tangible material ramifications, but a more numinous meaning as well. The scholar Chiara Letizia writes about the importance of the confluences of rivers in many religious traditions around the world, explaining that often “rivers are considered holy entities, at the meeting of two streams, the ‘sacred’ of the first river s’ adds to that of the second, ”or what I describe in my book as being the reality of a place“ almost supernaturally charged with shattered beauty, a tint of numinous across the landscape itself ”. There is a certain intoxication of God here.
More than that, however, and at the center of my argument is this the archetypal pittsburgh story–a frontier town founded by colonists in a province with utopian aspirations that becomes America’s richest industrial metropolis, only to see its economy ravaged by free market orthodoxy–makes the region a metaphor for the nation itself. This is what makes the spiritual implications of the meaning of Pittsburgh all the more important, because if we try to reconcile transcendence with grimy reality, we derive a poetics of the sacred in the midst of the secular, which I have described in a 2015 essay in Belt charger as being a place of “weirdness and … wild beauty” so that “the physical and the spiritual exist in tandem here”.
This claim is neither a cliché nor a sentiment, but rather an observation on the alchemy of belief and ritual that occurs here, for as the Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert puts it in The Revue de Paris, “You can’t work in a steel mill and think small,” the same town he gazed at the once ubiquitous orange ring of flame on the horizon, the steel mills spewing out tons of steel every day, so it seemed like “the Christ and the Father still shaped the Earth.
Details of Pittsburgh’s religious history can be briefly recounted: how it was settled by Presbyterians of the Lower Church, invited to a colony founded by radical Quakers; how immigrants from Ireland, Southern and Eastern Europe brought a Catholicism that binds the city to New York and Boston as the most Catholic per capita in the country; how the Great African-American Migration brought new religious traditions; how it became home to one of the largest urban Jewish communities; and how Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists have added to the region’s spiritual diversity.
Something else crosses denominational lines, however, because faith takes on a certain earthly quality in Pittsburgh, born out of both topography and work. What other city would happily call its most famous soccer game a “pristine reception” without finding it irreverent? After all, this is the place where Polish immigrants built a miniature replica of St. Peter and where Marian shrines populate the cliff above the Park Way, where an incarnation of Vishnu resides at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in the Penn Hills and the Hasidic rabbis offer much needed prayers for the Pirates. As I asked in my essay, “If the essence of religion is to find the sacred in the normal, the sacred in the profane, then what city could be holier than Pittsburgh?”
If the people of Pittsburgher find the sacred in the secular, then “Paul’s Case” offers a tutorial on how industry can be its own dark god against which we must rebel. Cather was inspired by his experience within the Scottish-Irish aristocracy of Pittsburgh which was committed to harsh Calvinism and capitalism.–God and the Invisible Hand, equal agents of providence–and in shaping Paul, she portrays a daring resistance to such restrictions. Paul is an esthete and a dandy, finding meaning in the beauty of the opera companies he watches as a bailiff at Carnegie Hall, but the only adornment his father allows in their home is a portrait of the Scottish reformer John Knox.
In a description that coincidentally matches Paul, Max Weber in Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism (also published in 1905) describes how for “These People in Possession of Spontaneous and Fun Arrangements” the creed of endless material accumulation coupled with a disdain for pleasure was “absolutely meaningless”. Pittsburgh’s central creed was exactly as Weber described it, a cold city ruled by a harsh gospel, and so Paul fled with his father’s money to New York City, where for several days he lived a life of luxury. .
Learning that his father will come to pick him up, Paul decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train leaving Penn Station. “He crossed his brain, clearer than ever, the blue of the Adriatic water, the yellow of the Algerian sands,” writes Cather. “Then, because the imaging mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions turned black and Paul fell back into the huge conception of things. The train, Cather wrote with auspicious meaning, was bound for Pennsylvania. With good reason, “Paul’s Case” has been read as queer praise, his tragic death a “gay suicide.”
Without ruling that out, note that Cather’s description of Paul’s death also has some mystical elements with its final merging into a meaningful infinity. As much martyrdom as suicide, and while the character rebels against the Calvinism of Pittsburgh, it is in this city that he saw for the first time these nuclei of transcendence. As Cather later recalled, “Pittsburgh was even more vital, more creative, more culture-hungry than New York. Pittsburgh has been the birthplace of my writing. She understood the paradox of Pittsburgh, a city haunted by both God and steel.
The Numinous runs through Pittsburgh, from the first humans known to live in North America at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter just south of the city to the establishment of the Iroquois Confederacy and the revelation of the Code of Handsome Lake; from the arrival of the German utopian visionaries known as Harmonists and the founding of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the writing of The Pittsburgh Platform who established Reform Judaism; there are the Communist murals of Max Vanka painted in the Croatian Church of St. Nicholas and the icons that Andy Warhol saw in the Byzantine Catholic Church of St. John Chrysostom; and the tallest building at the University of Pittsburgh is ironically called the Cathedral of Learning.
There is a universe between the first mass celebrated west of the Alleghenies at Fort Duquesne in 1754 and the protests organized against the leaders of US Steel who worshiped at the wealthy Presbyterian Shadyside Church in 1985. At the dawn of the century when the city would build America, and the Pittsburgh Post It would appear in 1890 that the whole region was a “cyclorama of the works of God and of men”.
Gritty Pittsburgh of glowing beauty, dedicated to the dirty grind of the making, but who was also deeply pious, deeply religious–dare I say it, deeply holy. Three decades after Cather left, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church skyscraper would be built in his old neighborhood. If Paul’s father preferred whitewashed simplicity, Richard Beatty Mellon disagreed, as the cathedral is a veritable symphony of stone, its massive stained-glass windows an epic of light and color, its pipe organ among the largest in the United States. A Gothic cruciform cathedral whose tower rises three hundred feet, three times the height of the famous German cathedral in Regensburg and barely shorter than Chartres.
English oak benches line the interior with ribbed buttresses, the dark sanctuary illuminated by stained glass windows depicting scenes from Scripture and the Reformation; his altar crafted in sought-after marble from Algeria, the same place Paul imagined before his death. Constructed from Indiana limestone, when the cathedral was completed in 1935, it is said to have glowed with a blinding face, although over the years the exhaust fumes from the mills have slowly stained its surface. a dark color of soot, this beautiful place of God is not beyond the reach of industry either.