The last few days I noticed some things London and Pittsburgh share. These coincidences range from an unexpected bit of fun to some rather contemplative reflections; they were surprising and uplifting. One link between London and Pittsburgh this week is the filming of the Warner Brothers movie The Dark Knight Rises. By a fun coincidence filming finished at the University of London then packed up and came to Pittsburgh. The film has such a unique genre, narrative, and tropes that their choice of locations made me start to think about the city where I live, the University of London, and London, the city where so much of my attention is focused.
One prominent focal point in both cities are rivers, waterways and canals. Joseph Conrad’s description of the Thames opening out to the wide world perfectly describes the head waters of the Ohio River. The Ohio begins near my door. Lewis & Clark sailed from here to map the Louisiana Purchase. Their river boat was built nearby. The Ohio opened to the empire of the American West like the Thames opened to England’s empire in Conrad’s unforgettable metaphor. My neighbor’s grandfather represented Conrad in America and collected his manuscripts. As I enjoy the park near the river, I am impressed by the metaphor and the personal connection to the author.
Conrad might have constructed his metaphor while gazing at the Thames like I contemplate my river. Pittsburgh and London also have subterranean rivers. There are a lot of locks here like London’s Bow Back Rivers. The canals and lock system were a very important part of Pittsburgh’s success as an industrial manufacturing center. While Pittsburgh’s rivers are not tidal like the Thames, they were the most trafficked commercial waterways in the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pittsburgh’s canals were so famous that Charles Dickens came to see them. Another friend’s great grandfather met him. They rode through the underground canal together. Imagining Charles Dickens, a Charles Sheeler-like master of industrial imagery, being pulled along this underground canal, through the spectacle of people, animals and industry in Victorian Pittsburgh begs the question if these impressions were used in his writing. It is something to think about while walking along the canal’s water park today.
Today I walked across the city and had a ‘Clarissa Dalloway’ moment. Pittsburgh adopted double-decker buses just as London gave them up. As a bright red double-decker bus passed me I saw a woman sitting on the top deck enjoying the sun and breeze. She had the exact expression I imagine Clarissa Dalloway to have as she escapes on her double-decker refuge. ‘My’ Clarissa was as exuberant as I imagine Woolf’s to be; she made me laugh out loud and appreciate Woolf’s astonishing creativity.
Creativity is an important part of English studies; what an author writes about and how they write it are creative and fascinating. This week I enjoyed seeing Pittsburgh through London’s lens and perhaps with a perspective like some creative writers whose work I admire. I have a greater respect for the powers of observation wielded by great artists like Conrad, Dickens and Woolf. They must have observed similar scenes and turned them into unforgettable lessons. The links I found between Pittsburgh and London now inspire me to read and observe creatively as we open the book on a new term.