In rural Washington County, a 12-year-old helps rebels plot against the United States government. In a stately McKean County mansion, a popular governor seeks to drown a dark family secret. On Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington, an overzealous football fan escapes down the Incline after choking a rival fan to death with a Terrible Towel. These events are fiction, and found within more than 1,500 novels, short stories, stage plays, motion pictures, and television series set in Western Pennsylvania since 1792, by writers as diverse as Willa Cather, August Wilson, E. L. Doctorow, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Kurt Vonnegut. 

The Pittsburgh Novel: Western Pennsylvania in Fiction and Drama, 1792-2022 is an annotated bibliography of all known fiction with a significant geographical setting in any of Pennsylvania’s 26 westernmost counties between 1792 and 2022. “[A] literary scavenger hunt like no other,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014, The Pittsburgh Novel features long-lost nineteenth century dime novels (e.g., Youth Sleuth’s Pittsburgh Discovery (1892), The Mystic Canoe (1865)) and obscure, self-published titles, as well as national bestsellers (e.g., The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (2005), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)), award-winning works (e.g., The Piano Lesson (1990), The Deer Hunter (1978)), and screenplays of iconic motion pictures (e.g., Flashdance (1983), Night of the Living Dead (1968)). 

The Pittsburgh Novel is all-inclusive, with works set in all 26 Western Pennsylvania counties. It has traditional literary genres, as well as roman à clef and novelized historical biographies, and even unorthodox, avant-garde, and comically creative works. Nikki Hopeman’s Habeas Corpse (2013) is an erotic, LGBT, zombie thriller; Dave Borland’s 2050 (2012) imagines a dystopian future in which Western Pennsylvania is split between two hostile nations; and Tamar Myers’ 23-part murder mysteries series is culinary-themed and set in an Amish community. While some works are better known, celebrated, and spell-checked than others, The Pittsburgh Novel does not rank or editorialize, but merely identifies these titles and aggregates relevant data. While the best known fiction focuses on Pittsburgh proper—with stunning establishing shots of Point State Park, car chases across bridges, and gratuitous use of stadiums—this project sought to identify all sites that appear in the works, such as North Side Cemetery in Butler Township, Butler County, the Pymatuning Reservoir in Linesville, Crawford County, and the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Napier Township, Bedford County. 

In 1955, Peter Oresick, my late father, was born in Ford City, Armstrong County, a small mill town in the Allegheny River Valley. As a young boy, Peter borrowed Request for Sherwood Anderson (1947) from the local library, and unwittingly began the scavenger hunt that would become his life’s work. (As a college freshman, Peter loaned a copy to his classmate, Stephanie Flom, who would become his wife and my mother). In that book by Frank Brookhouser, also a Ford City native, young Peter recognized settings and surnames, and was thrilled that his region was “important enough” to memorialize in fiction. As Peter’s life would unfold, the literary arts and the Pittsburgh region would become his two great passions, and he relished their occasional confluence. Peter authored seven books of poetry, and each integrated the region so seamlessly that it felt more like a living character than a passive setting: the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory’s frenetic din; the Carnegie Museum of Art’s silent majesty; pulling me, his then-infant son, under the black Ohio River to protect us from fallout in a dream about a nuclear incident. Even Peter’s fascinations with Andy Warhol and Willa Cather—which led him to author Warhol-o-rama (2008) and edit The Pittsburgh Stories of Willa Cather (2016)—were Pittsburgh-by-proxy, as he met the region anew through the lives and art of its top iconoclasts. 

Indeed, Pittsburgh remained Peter’s lifelong muse because he never stopped finding novel ways to fall in love with it. Most of all, he loved the people, and was hungry to hear their stories: the customs, peculiarities, work places, closed churches, and deceased teachers that connect them to this piece of earth and everyone on it. Peter celebrated the sports teams, too, but equally their folklore, and how their trades and parades have changed and linked us, and in a sense become us. He was fond of Pittsburgh’s lush public parks, and the longest versions of their origin stories. He could not drive a mile without pointing to an obscure landmark, and he even knew the region’s most attenuated celebrity connections. Peter’s Pittsburgh was not steel and soil, but human beings and their tales of the moments that defined them. 

In the 1970s, Peter opened a savings account, and received from the bank a copy of From These Hills, From These Valleys (1976), David P. Demarest Jr.’s anthology of working-class fiction set in this region. That book, he often said, changed his life. After graduating from Pitt in 1977, Peter taught English in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and noted how pupils perked up when reading works with local settings. He then started keeping a list of Western Pennsylvania fiction, which transformed from a hobby into a critical job function when he was hired by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1981. The Press had hit the jackpot in 1976, when, at the urging of Demarest, a Carnegie Mellon University English professor, it reissued Thomas Bell’s little-known Out of This Furnace (1941) to commercial and critical success. Peter’s role at the Press was, in part, to recreate that success by finding other obscure Western Pennsylvania novels for reissue. Demarest became Peter’s mentor and friend, who, like Peter, kept and expanded his own list of Pittsburgh fiction. 

In the 1990s, raising three adolescent boys—Bill, David, and myself—exposed the scholarly Peter to popular culture that he would have otherwise missed. Peter seized on media with local ties, and reasoned that blockbusters like Striking Distance (1993), Groundhog Day (1993), and Sudden Death (1995) were also, in a sense, Pittsburgh novels, as they were fiction and emanated from written scripts. (Our parents even chaperoned us on the set of Only You (1994), where my brothers and I worked as extras until sunrise at Kennywood Park). 

In 2008, Peter formally began the Pittsburgh Novel project, unsure of what it would become, and met weekly with Demarest to compare lists and discuss new finds. With the Internet’s help, the list expanded exponentially, and continued after Demarest passed away in 2011. Around this time, Peter formulated and taught a popular course at Chatham University that highlighted regional fiction, and included guided walks through some of the settings familiarized in literature. 

In 2013, Peter launched the Pittsburgh Novel blog, which included plot summaries, author biographies, and a comprehensive list of geographic settings and landmarks for each title. With new, current novels being published rapidly, I advised Peter to limit the project’s scope to works published in or before 2014. Peter worked tirelessly on the bibliography until late 2015, when his health deteriorated, and he asked me to ensure that the project would be published. 

Before Peter passed away in 2016, he communicated regularly with Steven Herb—then-Director of Penn State University’s Pennsylvania Center for the Book and an enthusiastic Pittsburgh Novel supporter—about publishing the project as a print book in conjunction with Pennsylvania State University Press. Later, in light of exciting innovations in digital publishing, my mother, Stephanie, and I decided that Peter’s scholarship would maximize its utility and audience as a dynamic website under Penn State University Libraries’ Open Publishing imprint. 

After Peter’s passing, I discovered that Peter had identified close to 1,000 additional potential Pittsburgh novels, which were yet to be reviewed and annotated. Our editors at Penn State insisted that “someone” should review and annotate the additional titles, and strongly suggested that the “someone” be me. Part of me was ecstatic, as my father was a giant to me and the person who best understood me. I had recently realized my dream of becoming an author, like him, and for years we had discussed teaming up on a project. Even so, I initially resisted, as a louder part of me was still heavy with grief and deflated that The Pittsburgh Novel’s finish line was moving further away. I was still referring to Peter in the present tense, and did not share his enthusiasm for works about the Johnstown Flood, the Biddle Boys’ jailbreak, and zombies in Monroeville. However, as I plodded through the project’s final tasks—scouring the web for rare titles; semiweekly library trips to pick up twenty new books at a time; speed-reading and note-taking—I found myself communing with Peter. First I complained, and then I sought guidance. Finally, I found myself in these stories, experiencing these Pittsburgh places anew, walking where I sensed he had walked. As the project neared completion in late 2022, I channeled Peter’s enthusiasm and meticulousness, and added a few dozen titles from 2015 through 2022 to ensure the bibliography was current. 

Now, more than six years after his death, Peter’s life’s work is complete. This bibliography will support regional scholarship, as academics can now identify and analyze works using multiple subcategories with unprecedented precision, and professors can easily find regional works for their reading lists. However, The Pittsburgh Novel is also for library science professionals, book clubs, teachers, students, parents looking for a bedtime story, teenagers seeking a movie to stream, and proud Western Pennsylvanians from all 26 counties, which are “important enough” to have been memorialized in fiction. Per Peter’s vision, The Pittsburgh Novel is truly for anyone searching for a story into which they can escape, and willing to risk falling in love with a place in the process. 

Jake Oresick

Return to top