Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rust Belt Voices

Does Rust Belt literature exist? I'm not aware of any book that might define this genre. Mining his own Rust Belt past, Paul Hertneky serves up an intriguing hypothesis:

As for stories nobody wants to tell: steel and its attendant industries would crash in the 1980s, creating a swath of unemployment and desperation in what became known as The Rust Belt. Today, obsolete industrial centers like Ambridge and Akron, Toledo and Allentown, fall into the sad category of predecessors like Lowell and Waterbury, Worcester and Fall River. For those of us who grew up there, the stories stick in our throats.

Surrounded as I was by silent immigrants and wildly exploited landscape, I knew nothing of how this place, its people and resources had made a real difference in America. Few artists or writers emerged from the ranks of steelworkers. We left our portrayal up to outsiders, observers, photographers from the Works Progress Administration, industrial and union newsreel shooters, journalists from national newspapers who coined descriptions of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off.” Every depiction, from the mythical steelworker, Joe Magarac, to The Deerhunter, is shot through the same lens, portraying blue-collar stereotypes with detached, sympathetic reverence, usually in as simple terms as possible. Novelists and filmmakers came to blue-collar towns like Ambridge looking for characters, but, with few exceptions, warped them into caricatures.

Emphasis added. There does seem to be a void where Rust Belt art should be. I think that is changing, rapidly. The generation that grew up in the Industrial Heartland without working in the mill is giving the region voice. You don't have to be a steelworker to create characters instead of caricatures.

Furthermore, the Rust Belt is transforming into something less pejorative. The landscape is cool and hip, authentic. The dense gritty neighborhoods are desirable. Places such as Pittsburgh appeal the urbanity of Generation Y. These people want to read the stories that Paul Hertneky and others feel compelled to write.


Paul Hertneky said...

Thanks, Jim. I just want to be sure that your readers know that I am talking about the past. But you bring up a great question. Today, I'm know that a literary movement is taking root in the Rust Belt because I see evidence of it every day.

The rise in literary interest follows the basic tenets of your blog -- that good people who have left the industrial heartland look back with a sense of belonging and want to know more and think more deeply about their homelands. And those who have stayed are embracing literary and aesthetic efforts that have been going on for years and are attracting ever-widening notice.

Beyond literary activity (writing, publishing, reading) -- it comes from struggle, ruin and reclamation, from artists looking back or staying put, going beyond pride and regional identity, shaking off the silence of immigrants and revealing universal truths embodied in our places and people.

The most recent of many examples: The Cleveland Review ( set to debut in late January.

Anonymous said...

I could swear there was a sort of literary thing coming out of Pittsburgh in the 1970s called Mill Hunk Herald, about the end of the steel era, or dealing with those themes.

One of the better books on urban decline and writing is Rotellos' 'October Cities'. Lit Crit but pretty interesting in its way.

Jim Russell said...

Recent story in the Post-Gazette about the "Mill Hunk Herald":

How we punched it out: From Mill Hunk Herald to Northside Chronicle