Classic novel, new film share similar titles, not much else
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
The difference between “this” and “the” has never been so great when it comes to stories about Pittsburgh.
“Out of The Furnace,” the blockbuster movie filmed in Braddock and opening Friday, has little in common — except its disturbingly similar title and a main character who is a steelworker in Braddock — with “Out of This Furnace,” the gold standard of historical novels about the immigrant and labor experience in Pittsburgh, also set in Braddock.
But the confusion doesn't bother the publisher of Thomas Bell's “Out of This Furnace,” the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Although some residents familiar with Bell's novel would prefer to see a movie based on Bell's classic rather than another contemporary drama filmed in Pittsburgh.
“Thomas Bell's book has its own life, and that's been the case for years,” said Maria Sticco, publicist for the University of Pittsburgh Press in Oakland.
Founded in 1936, the University of Pittsburgh Press is a scholarly publisher of academic books, poetry, short fiction, as well as books about Pittsburgh.
It took the late Carnegie Mellon University Professor David P. Demarest Jr. to rescue an obscure book and convince the University of Pittsburgh Press to publish “Out of This Furnace” in 1976. The book was originally published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1941.
Today, it is the Press' best-selling book. It's required reading in more than 300 college classes across the country.
“Out of This Furnace” has sold more than 200,000 copies and is available for Kindle and Nook; more than 500 eBook versions have been sold, according to Sticco.
Bell's story of three generations of the Slovak Kracha and Dobrejcak families resonated with not just native Pittsburghers but historians nationwide as an example of the American immigrant worker experience — from downtrodden steelworker beset with language and economic barriers to labor union success.
“You don't have to be Slovak to get that story,” said Chris Magoc, professor and chairman of the history department of Mercyhurst University.
Of Slovak descent, Magoc is a former director of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society Heritage Museum in Tarentum. He has used Bell's book in many of his classes.
“Whether your ancestors were Poles, Italian, Ukrainian or whatever, who worked in the mills or the mines, you can relate,” he said. “The story is about very hard-working people adapting to a new country that wasn't very welcoming.”
The working conditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s were backbreaking for steelworkers who toiled for long hours, whether they were at U.S. Steel in Homestead or Allegheny Steel in Brackenridge. Bell's fictional Mike Dobrejcak, the second generation, is killed in a mill accident.
“If you lost your arm in a mill accident, you were done,” Magoc said. “It was such a grim life.”
The book pays homage to local labor legend Fannie Sellins by referencing her brutal slaying in 1919 during a labor strike at the Allegheny Coal and Coke Co. mine in Natrona. It provided coal to Allegheny Steel Co., now ATI Allegheny Ludlum in Brackenridge.
“She is never forgotten. She is a hero known throughout the Pittsburgh region as a martyr for the cause,” Magoc said. “The fact that Bell brings her into the story — that tells you right there he was obviously aware of her death and the bigger picture of her impact.”
Bell's book ends with a happier, prouder third-generation steelworker:
“They were all sorts of men, Scotch and Irish and Polish and Italian and Slovak and German and Jew, but they didn't talk and act the way the steel towns expected men who were Scotch and Irish and Polish and Italian and Slovak and German and Jew to talk and act. They were outspoken, fearlessly so, as though they had never learned to glance around and see who might be listening before they spoke. They were obviously convinced that they were individually as good as any man alive, from Mill Superintendents up or down, as the case might be, and probably better.”
For Magoc, Bell's book is enduring because it is so descriptive of many families beyond Pittsburgh and beyond the steel industry: “There are several heroes in Bell's book. With the third generation, Dobie grows up in his father's shadow. All he wants is good life for himself and his family.
“And the means for that is dignity.”
Reacting to the new “Out of The Furnace” movie, Magoc said: “Why Hollywood doesn't make a film on Bell's novel is scandalous. It's a great story, and I think it will be made into a film at some point.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691.
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