6 Revolution in the Rust Belt

1.

A job waited for me in New York City, and I started at Columbia as a part-time writing student. In the autumn of 1968, thanks to a generous fellowship, I could go full-time in the writing program at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Age 27, a marriage behind me, I lived at International House, happier than I could remember. I had nothing to do but write.

The writing program then required its students to design a course of study that would complement the writing workshops (so we might be gainfully employed between royalty statements?). I designed a program to study human factors in computing, surely so exotic-sounding that in 1968 nobody at the School of the Arts had the remotest idea what I meant to do. So what? Alongside my writing workshops, I took courses all over the Columbia campus with a joyful heart.

I’ve made my share of snide remarks about “the workshopped novel” in its predictable emollience, but those two years at Columbia’s School of the Arts were an unsurpassed gift to me. I was surrounded by writers whose work I knew—Adrienne Rich, Jean Stafford, Stanley Kunitz, Frank MacShane—and by young writers whose work I’d come to know. Visiting writers brought in the fairy dust of celebrity: Reynolds Price, Robert Penn Warren, Jorge Luis Borges.

I was blessed to be the continuing student of Hortense Calisher, who subsequently claimed she mostly left me alone. But years later, I found one of my manuscripts thoroughly marked up. Calisher and I began as student and teacher; we became dear and loving friends for forty years until the end of her life.[1] I was also the student of V. S. Pritchett, a visiting British writer, and thought I’d never known a kinder man, deeply astute about writing, but who understood in his bones how fragile a writer can be. He took my first novel, Familiar Relations, my nominal masters’ thesis, and gave it to his own agent, who immediately found a publisher for it in London, Michael Joseph. Victor Pritchett and I corresponded for several years after I was gone from Columbia and he was back in London.

I fell in love again. With two men simultaneously. I was swept up by a witty Berlin judge, also living at International House, in the United States on a special fellowship to study the American primary system. I was enthralled by Joe Traub, a computer scientist at Bell Labs, whom I’d met at Stanford, but got to know in New York City. I was having the grandest of times.

Ed Feigenbaum came to visit me sometime during that year, amazed at my transformation. Well, yes. Skinnier, in mini-skirts, tights and high leather boots, doing what I loved, growing in self-confidence. “It’s like being rich,” I confided to him. “You can do anything you want and get away with it.”

In June 1969, at the end of the school year, the judge went back to Berlin. We were deeply serious about each other, but as a writer I couldn’t bring myself to leave my mother tongue. My growing feminism puzzled and worried his orderly German soul. He and I would continue to be friends for the rest of our lives, seeing each other (and our spouses) in New York City, which he loved, or his Berlin, which I came to love.

But Joe admired my independence, even when it upended everything he’d been taught about the relationships between women and men. I moved in with him in the Village, and we married that December, when he persuaded me that we could save in taxes if we married within the calendar year. It wasn’t really the money. I had an even more generous fellowship my second year at Columbia, thanks to Delacorte Press. Tax incentives were just an excuse.

I loved Joe for many reasons. I struggle to say which matters to me more: his steadfast support of my work, his deep abiding kindness to me (a much underrated characteristic in a marriage), his merry heart, or that he never bored me. For nearly fifty years, he came to the dinner table with a list, often written, of topics he wanted to amuse, stimulate, or provoke me with. Sometimes I’d get an email tease: “Two star item over dinner tonight.” I’d have to wait until he got home and dinner was on the table to hear it. He understood, nourished, and shared, all of my deepest passions.

I loved Joe’s take on life, which I suppose is a scientist’s take: question the givens, take nothing for granted, ask the awkward questions, look at it all differently. Many years ago, I gave him a Christmas present, a hefty river stone with a single word carved on it by the stonecutters of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine: WONDER. This word summed him up for me, both his eternal, childlike wonder and delight at the world, and the word that started most of our conversations: “I wonder…” We put the stone in a small garden outside his study in our Santa Fe house, a place where he loved to read, look at his garden, oversee his birds, and lift up his eyes in joy—and wonder—at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Although he died suddenly in 2015 in that house he loved, surrounded by those mountains he loved, died in my arms, he’s still alive to me in my heart, my mind, his wonder and joy in life contagious and persisting.

In 1970, computer science was a burgeoning field, and Joe was restive at Bell Labs. We spent the spring vacation of my second and last year at Columbia traveling to various campuses eager to hire him. I often interviewed for jobs too, a kind of tagalong, because I wasn’t at all the hot property my husband was. Even so, in those sexist days, hiring a married couple at the same university was simply not done, ill-advised, nepotism, no matter how far apart their fields were. I heard it again and again. One April day, we succumbed to the beauty of Seattle, and Joe agreed to take a professorship at the University of Washington.

We both loved Seattle. It’s a splendid city by anyone’s measure, and Joe especially loved how easy it was to hike and ski nearby. Its hills, its abundant waters, fresh and sea, were always beautiful to me, surroundings that suffused me with pleasure, a reminder of the San Francisco Bay Area of my childhood. We made good friends; we hiked Cascade Mountain trails; we skied the slopes. I taught English at Seattle Community College, where many of my students were returning Vietnam vets, an education in itself for me.

But in those days, before Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle was a somnolent place in computer science. Just a year after we’d arrived in Seattle, Carnegie Mellon offered Joe the chairmanship of their computer science department, to begin in the summer of 1971. He couldn’t say no. I understood why and concurred completely.

2.

My introduction to Pittsburgh and its superstar computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon had been stealthy. It began when I was an undergraduate, typing course outlines and recommended book lists for Berkeley’s business school. Mostly what I noticed then was the recurring name of Herbert A. Simon. Next, as I worked on Computers and Thought, I saw how many of its contributors had been at CMU. Finally, the two years I worked at Stanford had filled out the map. Each of those experiences had educated me in just how eminent the CMU people were.

By this time, too, I knew that here, in the heart of the Rust Belt, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon had first conjured AI to life. I knew it, but didn’t completely understand it, as I would when I came to write my history of AI, Machines Who Think.

At a welcoming party of the faculty, I was so starstruck I stood mute before Herb Simon, the man I’d once secretly accused of being the sole scholar in the skeletal field of business scholarship. I barely had the courage to shake his hand.

Newell intimidated me a little less, although he was nearly as eminent as Simon, and they’d already had a fifteen-year research partnership in cognitive psychology and AI. Along with J. C. (Cliff) Shaw, who was a gifted programmer, Newell and Simon had produced the first-ever working AI program, the Logic Theorist.

I met Raj Reddy that night, too, although not for the first time. When I was at Stanford, Reddy had been a nearly anorexic graduate student at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, working on speech understanding. One night at a party at John McCarthy’s, I met his new bride, Anu, who, in her beautiful sari, sat in round-eyed silence, struck dumb by her sudden airlift from Bangalore to Stanford and its eccentric AI wizards. Now, in Pittsburgh, she was poised and self-confident, a woman with a radiant smile and a droll sense of humor.

3.

Since Michael Joseph in London had published my first two novels, Familiar Relations and Working to the End (this about a woman scientist in the Big Science milieu of the 1960s), I was welcomed to the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh English Department, headed then by Robert Whitman. Referring to the structure we were in, 42 stories of gothic revival, he said wryly, “You’ll soon learn to say ‘the Cathedral of Learning’ without laughing.” It happened that Whitman, a specialist in the literature of the theater, was married to Marina von Neumann Whitman, who taught economics at Pitt. She was the daughter of John von Neumann, whose brilliant work in early computing I’d soon encounter.

My students at Pitt were nearly all the first in their family to go to college, and in that respect, they were a refreshing delight. I began work on a novel called Three Rivers, about television news in the seventies, set in Pittsburgh, and in the process, made friends with Pittsburgh journalists.

Joe was engrossed by a department that had been great, but thanks to a sudden exodus of several stars, was now close to subcritical. Allen Newell was his indispensable mentor, as Joe pushed hard to bring the department back to eminence by recruiting new faculty, redesigning the PhD program, and tending to his own research and graduate students, especially H. T. Kung, who had come with him from the University of Washington.

Kung and his new wife were bewildered by a complete absence of Asians in Pittsburgh. They had to drive to Washington, D.C., for Chinese ingredients, a make-do until they visited their Toronto relatives at the Christmas holidays, and could return with the real thing. Much later, at Joe’s eightieth birthday symposium, Kung—by then the William Gates Professor of Computer Science at Harvard—recalled how, at Carnegie, they’d fought and yelled at each other as they proved theorems together, snatching the chalk from each other’s hands. “You’re not Chinese!” Joe once roared in exasperation at this seventy-sixth generation descendant of Confucius. “If you were really Chinese, you’d show filial piety.”

My high-spirited husband, who’d once played first board and been captain of the chess team at Bronx High School of Science, sat down one night soon after our Pittsburgh arrival to play the best computer chess program then going, known officially as MacHack, but informally as “Greenblatt,” for Richard Greenblatt, its MIT-based designer. Using a king’s gambit, Joe checkmated it in about six or seven moves. Without a word, he posted the game’s results outside his office door and never challenged it again. (Hans Berliner was the world’s correspondence chess champion—which meant he played games by mailing moves written on postcards between distant players— and was working on a chess-playing program for a PhD at CMU. He said Joe’s winning strategy had never occurred to him. He modified his own work accordingly.)

4.

For all the good things that were happening in Pittsburgh for Joe and me, I was deeply uncomfortable in this city. I knew no one that first winter and spent my time driving around the city and then out into the countryside. I was shocked by the casual ugliness of early 1970s Pittsburgh—the slag heaps no one bothered to remove; the rusted industrial buildings neither worth using nor tearing down; the negligent lack of grace in the row houses built only for factory workers, mill hands, and coal miners, so who cared? Their inhabitants, coming from European villages shaped by centuries of local culture, villages smoothed at least by time, understood that dismal dwellings and backbreaking labor were the price they paid to escape famine or state-sponsored terror.

Any higher aspirations these immigrants might express focused on the churches—the fine masonry and striking stained glass windows of the Catholic churches, the gold-leafed or lapis-colored onion domes of the Orthodox churches, exotic bits of Byzantium caught by surprise in the hollows of the Allegheny Mountains. Human beings love beauty; crave it. These structures testified to that, places their parishioners could pour all their desire for loveliness, for transcendence, for grace. The churches were a collective human cry for deliverance from daily squalor.

Great American fortunes had been realized in western Pennsylvania—Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Phipps, Westinghouse, many more—but Pittsburgh was in effect then a colony. Those fortunes had been sucked away to the capitals, New York City and Washington, D.C. Token art filled a few local museums, although a new wing and a whole new museum opened during our time there. Andrew Carnegie had scattered small free libraries about (but he’d done that nationwide, and all honor to him for that).

When World War II steel production made streetlights necessary at noon, a post-war Pittsburgh “renaissance” was declared, and the air was fitfully cleaned up. Otherwise, nothing much had changed in twenty-five years. Downtown was drab, ominous with vacant storefronts. The city fathers imagined that erecting a new sports coliseum, Three Rivers Stadium, would resuscitate this rough, beer-and-a-shot town.

5.

As the 1970s began, Pittsburgh was in the storm path of great changes. The industries that had made the city so enviable (towns all over the United States named themselves after Pittsburgh, hoping to replicate its industrial might) were beginning to die. Strip mining was replacing underground coal mining. Newer, less costly, more nimble steel mills were being built in Brazil and Korea, later in China. The world would eventually take its business there because American management declined to modernize and American labor refused to bend.

This was a gradual process, the slowdown perceived in the early 1970s as only a momentary setback; everything would surely return to normal. Meanwhile, my male students could still get summer jobs as mill hands and make nearly as much money in three months as I made in nine. The acrid smell of steelmaking lingered to pinch your nose as you stepped out the front door in the morning. But death was in the air. In the next forty years, Pittsburgh would lose not only its mining and steel industries, but also forty percent of its population.

The second great change was the information revolution. As the industrial age was dying, the information revolution was being nurtured in the factorylike yellow brick buildings of Carnegie Mellon University, nurtured with a conscious goal that the university could somehow “green” the city, bring it into the new age. But the Pittsburgh where I found myself seemed an unlikely place for such a rebirth. Carnegie Mellon was a verdant island of the future in a vast dead sea of the past.

A third great change in the early 1970s was the rise of feminism. Women had finally stirred themselves for decency, justice, and equality, not just for others, as they had so often in the past, but now for themselves.

Each of these things—the death of the industrial age, the birth of the information age, and the second wave of feminism, would come to affect me deeply, and braid indivisibly in my mind.

I observed and wrote as an outsider, putting the city’s wrenching transitions into words. I taught its sons and daughters. But I felt like a graft that hadn’t taken. No matter how hard I tried, in Pittsburgh, I always would.

From my journal in 1977. You have to have lived in one of the cultural centers—New York, San Francisco—to understand how deadly intense the life of the mind is in the provinces. Making up for geographical distance from what they consider the epicenter, they attack the great issues with a ferocity that would shock the more blasé citizens of the coasts. This comes across in Gladys’s novels [Gladys Schmitt was a local and much beloved novelist who’d enjoyed national success in the 1940s and 1950s] and maybe accounts for my own sadness. I feel at a distance from everything too, starved, suffocated, deprived. Yet having lived at the centers, I also know how foolish it is to look enviously that way.

I wasn’t alone. Herb Simon’s wife, Dorothea, and Allen Newell’s wife, Noël, were both from the San Francisco Bay Area, and we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, making the best of it because our husbands were embarked on such a grand and important adventure. Dorothea Simon was stoic and never complained, but Noël Newell suffered from crippling migraines and wrenched my heart. Later, when the novelist Mark Harris moved to town, and we all became close, it was his wife, Josephine Harris, another who’d spent years in San Francisco, who voiced it unambiguously: this is no place for us.

I was younger, and these older women were a cautionary example to me. In turn, they regarded me with both support and envy. I was a new generation, raising questions about women’s roles, no longer willing to accept the utter self-abnegation, the frustrations, that had been most women’s lot for millennia. My husband’s priorities weren’t, by definition, more important than mine. If this city didn’t suit me, I didn’t have to stay. Locked into the old socializations, the older women felt they must suffer and be silent.

Although I was teaching in the English department at Pitt, I turned to the high excitement that pervaded Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department for solace and stimulation. (CMU’s business school and the drama department were also peaks, and under Newell and Simon’s tutelage, the psychology department would flourish.) Not only were pioneering computer projects underway, but just because of that, interesting visitors came and went.

One afternoon I watched Big Iron being moved into the architecturally brutalist Science Hall. For a certain kind of person, Big Iron—those hulking mainframes of the seventies—equaled Big Power, slightly sexy. That evening I had dinner with a young visiting scientist from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, and he told me about his vision for a computer you could carry in your arm, along with a bag of groceries in the other arm. Alan Kay was dear, I thought, but absurd with his Dynabook idea.

Absurd. I write these words on a laptop that was Alan Kay’s original idea. My smartphone might let me do that, too, except the keyboard is too awkward. But on that phone I read not only text messages and email, but also the works of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Charles Dickens on my daily subway rides.


  1. Hortense Calisher and I had many reasons to be friends, but among them was her understanding and admiration of C. P. Snow’s work. She loved the idea of creating in a series of novels, Strangers and Brothers, a significant living world that most of us wouldn’t otherwise be permitted to enter, the world of big science and its role in government, especially in winning World War II. She admired his larger ideas of what being intellectual encompassed. In her memoir, Herself, she describes spending a day with Snow and his wife, Pamela Hansford Johnson, hating to tear herself away. Decades later, she wrote a long novel called Mysteries of Motion, which had original and provocative things to say about the space program, including what she called “the odd fastidiousness of intellectuals who believe it has nothing to do with them.”

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This Could Be Important (Mobile) by Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press: Signature is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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