Sunday, September 27, 2009

Unleash Hell

No, this isn't anything to do with any protest.

Going back to the use (or misuse) of language and the now ubiquitous quote that Pittsburgh was once “Hell with the lid off”. It was used by almost every visiting reporter.  I almost wonder if the quote was included in the memo all the visiting media must have been given on how to write the positive Pittsburgh story.   Here is just a partial list of newsoids in the last week using the mis-quote, or at least abusing the quote, to describe some version of a Pittsburgh past.

Los Angeles Times, Buffalo News, The Hindu , Daily Mail (UK) , Pacific Free Press , Financial Times (quote used as the title even) , Toronto Star, Agence Presse (France), PRI World (this one emphasizes the past ‘Dickensian nightmare portrayal of Pittsburgh’), Truthout (which explicitly says the description is ‘because of the smoke, soot, and brimstone coming from the steel mills that lined its riverbanks’... seriously brimstone??), etc, etc. There’s more actually, I’m just too lazy to type them all.

No wonder we are so conflicted. Even compliments are taken as insults.

As pointed out here via circuitous blog-provenance the” Hell with the lid off” description of Pittsburgh is out of context at best. As originally written it was not penned as a pejorative. It was at least with awe that 19th century writer James Parton looked down on 1866 Pittsburgh. The quote was almost a love letter (again as described the anonymous commenter) and certainly not the insult it has universally been interpreted as. Read Parton's actual words:

"There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of the bluff, from which you can look directly down upon the part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers. On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld ... It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into -- hell with the lid taken off……

…. all is curious and wonderful; site, environs, history, geology, business, aspect, atmosphere, customs, everything ... To know Pittsburg thoroughly is a liberal education in the kind of culture demanded by modern times."
If nothing else it's a bit more eloquent than any press release verbiage you would read today.

There is another odd misunderstanding of where exactly Parton was when making this description. The Atlantic in 1910 says Parton was atop Mount Washington. As pointed out by a different anonymous comment here, the original source says it was from Cliff Street which exists on in the Hill District today meaning Parton’s view would have been looking down on the flats of the Strip District, then the nexus of industrial activity in 1860’s Pittsburgh. It was (still is) a heights that could inspire. In the past-future and now gone were indeed several inclines built to scale the heights to the Hill District just as the Mon and Duquesne inclines scale Mount Washington today.

A friend reminded me of what is another awed visitor saw looking down upon history from a much higher vantage point nearly a century later. It would be in World War II that Secretary of the Navy would describe Pittsburgh thusly:

“I wish it were possible that the names of all the men who are doing this great production job in Pittsburgh could be written into the war history… Every time I approach Pittsburgh, especially by plane, I get a sense of tremendous power, a sense of accomplishment. Pittsburgh thrills you. "
The airport then in use would have been the Allegheny County Airport today whose approach paths would have been through the turbulence inducing plumes of the Mon and Turtle Creek Valleys. If Parton was awed by the mid 19th century Strip District it would be hard to imagine what he would have thought if sitting next to Knox on one of those flights.

But to try a bit of outsourcing from the far too erudite Null Space readership. The quote above is from Frank Harpers history: The Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh. Only the latter sentence is typically remembered, but the first sentence is actually as important as it really points out the role of Pittsburgh's labor force in the eventual victories of World War II. It would actually be my inspiration for my oped on what World War II meant to Pittsburgh.

But Harper’s histories are not always the most completely cited and the original source of that quote I have never found. If anyone has any idea where Harper pulls that quote from I would love to know.

At least from all of this I have figured out why Russell Crowe’s character in State of Play was said to be from Pittsburgh. Puzzle over that.


Blogger n'at said...

Potentially related in time to Harper's source...

Knox visited the area in November 1942. He gave a speech on Nov-11 to "1,200 industrialists, veterans of the first World War and labor leaders in McKeesport" to quit moaning and get to work.

"'Long, Hard Fight' Ahead, Knox Says," New York Times, November 12, 1942

I suspect the Pittsburgh Press would have had a more home town, feel good story regarding Knox's visit to the area - touring the J&L and National Tube.

Sunday, September 27, 2009 11:13:00 AM  

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