By Chris Potter
Published: November 20, 2008
Growing up, I used to think that every house came with a free copy of Stefan Lorant's Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. It was a fixture on every coffee table, and it provided a lot of intellectual furniture too. Lorant's narrative is one we still take for granted: Big-shot white guys build Pittsburgh, nearly ruin it, and then build it anew.
This is the "great man" approach history, and it dominated scholarship for decades, just as "great men" dominated Pittsburgh itself.
But with the city celebrating its 250th anniversary, Charles McCollester, a labor historian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, offers a different view. He takes the top-down approach and flips it like an hourglass: We can watch time pass again, only with the people who were at the bottom sitting on top. [Editor's note: Potter is among the readers at a Nov. 21 book party at Carnegie Lecture Hall.]
The Point of Pittsburgh foregrounds the experiences of Native Americans, immigrants, blacks, women and working people of all kinds, unifying them under a banner demanding self-determination and dignity. Those "great men" weren't acting in a vacuum, after all: Without pressure from below, they might never have acted at all. "[T]he achievements and contributions of workers are often overlooked," McCollester writes in his introduction ... and his book seeks to change that.
Some material will be familiar, but in McCollester's hands it acquires a renewed epic sweep. Pittsburgh's first labor strike dates to 1804, a dozen years before Pittsburgh drafted a city charter. (For their trouble, the striking shoemakers were convicted for the heinous offense of "iniquitously raising the price of their wages.")
McCollester introduces a series of heroes sung and unsung, devoting special attention to women like Bridget Kenny, the "Joan of Arc of the Strikers," and Crystal Eastman, a pioneering feminist and mine-safety expert. Most historians duly note conflagrations like the Homestead Strike and the Allegheny Arsenal explosion; McCollester adds such events as the Cotton Mill Strike, the Stogie Strike, and a litany of mining disasters that make Quecreek look like a picnic.
But while McCollester's sympathies are clear, he doesn't shy from finding fault with less-than-visionary labor leaders. Conversely, he speaks highly of employers like Sargent Electric, which stuck by its union workers even in times of labor-busting.
With a lot of ground to cover, McCollester sometimes falls prey to his own enthusiasms. He occasionally digresses into events -- like the Allegheny County jailbreak that inspired the Diane Keaton film Mrs. Soffel -- that have little bearing on his theme. I'd prefer that McCollester stuck with the people's history, and dropped the popular history entirely. Leave the frothier stuff to Rick Sebak.
Lorant himself covered these anecdotes, handling them as sidebars sequestered from the main text. McCollester's book, by contrast, is laid out like a 400-page thesis, with little illustration. (The notable exceptions are Bill Yund's illustrations at the head of each chapter, which might be torn from a graphic novel about class struggle.) A livelier presentation might draw more general-interest readers, who'd find McCollester's writing style refreshingly devoid of academic pretense. More scholarly readers, meanwhile, will be grateful for his copious bibliography.
With luck, we may see such an edition: McCollester is seeking a national publisher. In the meantime, we can wait for his next book -- which will pick up where this one leaves off.
Like the Lorant story I remember from childhood, Point ends with Pittsburgh at its post-WWII apex. The polio vaccine has been developed, labor is flexing its muscles, and the Pirates have just beaten the Yankees -- the "pinstriped, corporate Yankees," no less -- in the 1960 World Series. As McCollester observes, "Never before or since would Pittsburgh be more prosperous or hopeful." But already the steel industry was rusting from within, and readers know how many of those hopes will be dashed.
McCollester has another, more painful, book ahead of him. But for a city celebrating its 250th birthday, this account of struggle and redemption is a worthy gift.
Point of Pittsburgh celebration: A Blue Collar Black Tie Affair 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 21. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $35 (includes book and companion music CD; benefits Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Just Harvest). 412-460-3663, x205 or www.pittsburghfoodbank.org
The Point of Pittsburgh is sold at Steel Valley Printing (412-461-5650) and at www.pointofpittsburgh.com.