Pittsburgh literary scene had decade of serious loss

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The decade opened with concerns over sex scandals; it closed with concerns over sex scandals, so, with a Gallic shrug, all that can be said of the past 10 years is "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Much did change in Pittsburgh's literary life, however. Its scope became narrower, almost pinched in some areas. Losses took a heavy toll on opportunities for the general reader to find a range of authors from pop to serious and to enjoy the special qualities of the independent bookstore.

The city's bookseller extraordinaire, Jay Dantry, ended his 49 years running his own store in Oakland in June 2008. It was one of those "end of an era" events that mirrored the major changes in bookselling that accelerated in the 2000s, from Internet sales outlets to e-book readers.

Dantry, however, seemed unaffected by those changes. He was just ready to retire as he reached 80.

The biggest of those subtractions was the closing of the International Poetry Forum. Founded by Samuel Hazo when he was professor of English at Duquesne University in 1966, it was closed by its founder last spring.

Foundation support wasn't forthcoming in the recession, said Hazo, as costs continued to rise. The International Poetry Forum was an institution, that rare jewel that makes a city stand out in the nation's culture. For years, Hazo brought the world's major poets to Pittsburgh, gave them first-class treatment, then presented them at a small ticket prices to audiences across the spectrum.

The loss of the forum is incalculable, not only for the city's prestige, but for all of us who honor poetry and will no longer have the opportunity to hear its many voices.

Hazo, a writer of strong poetry, fiction and essays reflecting his love for the city, had his critics who saw him as promoter first, ignoring the fact that what he really promoted were poets.

Another key loss was the Post-Gazette Book and Author dinners. Full disclosure: I was the coordinator of the dinners that began under The Pittsburgh Press with Sylvia Sachs' expert direction in 1974.

The dinners flourished in the days when publishers had the money to send swarms of authors around the nation to publicize their books. More than 500 representing the cream of the pop fiction field -- Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton and even Stephen King -- entertained thousands here, all for the sake of charity.

Cost reductions among publishers and cost increases for rentals and food here created a no-win situation to raise money. The dinners officially ended in 2002, but were briefly resurrected in several formats for several years, finally passing away in 2004.

So far no organization has arisen to replace those programs, but the decade did see the arrival of the Pittsburgh Speakers Series under Robert Morris University in 2002. A booking company lines up the speakers, only few of whom are writers, Frank McCourt and Pittsburgh's David McCullough excepted.

It was a career decade for McCullough who opened the 10-year-span with his terrific "John Adams," the biography of the second president that sold in the millions.

Sadly, it was the final one for McCourt, who came out of nowhere with his popular autobiography, "Angela's Ashes" in 1996. He died in July at 79. His sequels, "'Tis" and "Teacher Man" lacked the despair and struggle of the original, however, and the one-time high school teacher turned to lecturing, a skill he had in abundance.

The greatest loss among American writers of the decade was the death of John Updike of lung cancer Jan. 27 at 76. A native of Berks County, Pa., he began his steady climb to the novelist pantheon in the 1950s.

His "Rabbit" novels captured what he called "the doughy middle-ness" of Pennsylvania life while transcending it to create a kind of Grant Wood portrait of late 20th-century America.

Updike was a writer in every meaning of the word -- poet, journalist, literary and art critic, short-story writer, essayist, autobiographer and historian. Like his contemporary Philip Roth, he struggled with his female characters; unlike Roth, he moved gracefully into old age, coming to accept his fatal cancer diagnosis in his final poems.

Norman Mailer was another casualty of the 2000s, dying Nov. 10, 2007, at 84. After his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" was published in 1948, the pugnacious Mailer reveled in the attention among the new young American writers in 1950s New York.

His later fiction was profane but predictable, lusty rather than sensual, until he found his stride in nonfiction with his coverage of the late 1960s -- "The Armies of the Night," "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" and "Of a Fire on the Moon."

He capped his career with "The Executioner's Song" in 1977, the tale of Gary Gilmore and his 1976 execution in Utah. It rivaled Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Mailer was also one of our most visible writers with frequent rowdy TV performances and a campaign for mayor of New York.

There were more losses in the 2000s:

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, died April 11, 2007, at 84. His best-known works are "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Cat's Cradle."

David Foster Wallace died by his own hand, Sept. 13, 2008, at 46. "Infinite Jest," his sprawling 1996 novel, marked him as a fresh voice in American letters.

George Plimpton died at 76 on Sept. 25, 2003, best known by general readers for his "Walter Mitty-esque" books competing with pro athletes, but it was his founding and editing of the Paris Review that will be his enduring legacy.

W.G. Sebald, 57, killed in a car crash in England Dec. 14, 2001, created a moving picture of his native Germany in "Austerlitz," published in the United States also in 2001.

Budd Schulberg emerged from the Hollywood film world with his first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" in 1941, but will be remembered for two screenplays from the 1950s -- "On the Waterfront" and "A Face in the Crowd." He died at 95 on Aug. 5, 2009.

In Pittsburgh, the city lost three major figures in the literary world:

Frederick A. Hetzel guided the University of Pittsburgh Press from a small concern into a nationally known press during his 30 years as director. He died Sept. 13, 2003, at 73. The old-school gentlemanly native of Fayette County launched the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Agnes Lynch Starrett poetry prize and the Pitt Poetry Series, one of the nation's main poetry publishers.

He also oversaw the publication of a series of important books on the region including John Hoerr's sweeping history of the Pittsburgh steel industry, "And the Wolf Finally Came."

Patricia Dobler's death on July 24, 2004, at 65 shocked the region's poetry and literary community, which she served diligently since coming to Carlow University, then College, in 1986 to teach writing.

A fine poet in her own right, Dobler taught hundreds of hopeful writers through her Madwomen in the Attic workshops.

Children's literature was enriched by the lively work of Margaret Hodges in such books as "St. George and the Dragon" and other retellings of classic stories. A professor in the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of library science, Hodges was well versed in the field of books for young people and used that knowledge to write her books after she retired.

Hodges died at 94 on Dec. 13, 2005. Three months later, her husband, Fletcher Hodges died at 99. He was the first curator of the Stephen Foster Memorial Hall.

Finally, the death of Dennis Brutus Dec. 26. While he had moved to his native South Africa recently, his connections to the city remain strong in the many people touched by his generosity and courage. My last memory of Brutus, always the fierce opponent of violence, is his powerful presence at an anti-war rally in 2003 before the United States invaded Iraq.

Contact Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com . First Published January 3, 2010 5:00 AM


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