Book Review: “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh”

An Alternative History of PittsburghAn Alternative History of Pittsburgh
By Ed Simon
Belt Publishing, 2021
176 pages
Paperback, $16.95
Reviewed by Leslie Przybylek, Senior Curator, Heinz History Center

In literary tradition, an “alternative history” is speculative fiction based on the historical past but diverted into a contrasting trajectory by changing events at a critical point in the narrative. Think, Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) about a dystopian America shaped by Axis victory in World War II. The technique often explores larger societal themes and questions by presenting familiar stories or characters in a new light.

In Ed Simon’s brief but richly written nonfiction volume, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, “alternative” functions differently, but the results are no less illuminating. The author, a native Pittsburgher and a staff writer for The Millions, spells this out in the introduction: “Alternative” refers to “an issue of structure,” characterized as a Wunderkammer (wonder cabinet) of representative moments. This historical “cabinet of curiosities” is organized into three sections, each featuring 12–15 essays arranged along chronological lines. The scope is vast, stretching from 300 million BCE to 1985. A concluding afterword, a lovely musing on East Liberty, extends into 2020.

This is not traditional narrative history, and the work’s literary spine is evident from the start. Section headings are drawn from Jack Gilbert’s poem “Searching for Pittsburgh,” and there’s a lyricism to the best essays that gives them a real emotional arc. Individual pieces are brief, some less than three pages, and those hoping to delve deeply into backstories of complex events should start elsewhere. But Simon’s distillations of people, events, and actions builds a thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of place and the impact of moments that reverberate across time, some whose symbolic relevance only becomes clear later.

Merging the expected with the obscure and occasionally the profane, the book balances content familiar in any Pittsburgh history (yes, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick both appear) with the exploration of less familiar figures, such as the eerily relevant tale of one-time mayor Joseph Barker. The timeline format allows obscure moments and people, familiar only to subject experts, to emerge as punctuation points symbolizing larger themes. Even well-known stories gain new meaning, aspects of their context emphasized—for example, the relationship of the French Revolution to the Whiskey Rebellion, or Andrew Carnegie’s radical Scottish past—that are not unknown to scholars but often lost amid more popular retellings of these tales.

The book is not without flaws. Some essays are so brief that they feel prematurely truncated and would have benefitted from another page or two to give the events a clearer context. And it would have been nice to see more women appear. Perhaps the most vivid who does is Evelyn Nesbit, the tragic model at the center of the murderous triangle between architect Sanford White and Henry Thaw. While the essay does her justice, there are many other Pittsburgh women with great stories to tell. Though the book does not include a bibliography or citations, an extensive list of sources is mentioned in the text. Such issues, however, do not detract from the value of the whole.

The Pittsburgh that emerges here is not always pretty—sometimes violent, combative, resolute, scheming—but there’s a depth and dramatic beauty to the unfolding panorama that the physical brevity of the book belies. Like other volumes offered by Belt Publishing, the Cleveland-based organization devoted to countering simplified stereotypes of the “Rust Belt,” the volume provokes deeper reflections about the nature of place and the narratives
that sustain and mythologize it.

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