The Keystone State is Ringing

tags: Pennsylvania, 2020 Election

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and author of the upcoming book An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, available from Belt Publishing in the spring of 2021.

When King Charles I bestowed Pennsylvania upon the Quaker William Penn, in 1681, it was the largest private land holding on Earth—forty-six thousand square miles, give or take, stretching 283 miles from the Delaware River to that rectilinear, ruler-straight line of a border with Ohio. At its most northern point, the junction of New York and Ontario at Lake Erie, the latitude is almost the same as Boston; the southern edge is that symbolically fraught Mason-Dixon Line. Unfolding like a wrinkled Amish quilt across the Poconos, the Alleghenies, and the Appalachians, fractured by tectonic plate and glacier alike, the province—and, later, the state—would always be an ambiguous space. Which is why, whenever the national media turns its eyes towards Pennsylvania, it seems as if their analyses continually miss the mark.

Every four years, Pennsylvanians face the trauma of being a “swing state” and, for those of us with progressive inclinations, the possibility of embarrassment. Throughout the rapidly-collapsing Trump regime, there has been a cringe that’s accompanied my Pennsylvania identity. When we could have prevented incipient fascism, in 2016, too many of our fellow voters pulled the lever in favor of authoritarianism. Which made the announcement last Saturday—that Pennsylvania had pushed its native son, President-Elect Joe Biden, over 270 electoral votes—so sublimely sweet. That it was my hometown of Pittsburgh makes it even more so. It feels like a kind of redemption.

It’s also a reflection of Pennsylvania’s complexity.  This area has always been hard to categorize, starting with the state’s designation as “Mid-Atlantic,” which feels nonsensical for a landlocked state. “Mid-Atlantic” itself has long meant simply the part of the Northeast that’s not New England (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and perhaps the District of Columbia), though defining something by what it’s not is never satisfying. Pennsylvania is sometimes seen as Midwestern by those of a more coastal bent, and parts of it belong to Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Democratic political strategist James Carville infamously said that “Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama.” The state is perhaps best understood as what was left over after every other region delineated its confines.

Geographic ambiguity is the least of the Pennsylvanian uncertainties. Pennsylvanian gulfs are vast. The area we frequently call the “T”—between the mainline of Philadelphia and the suburbs of Pittsburgh—can appear a wide-open zone of Trump signs and A.M. Christian radio, while the urban centers share more in common with any of the major metropolises in the northeast or industrial Midwest. If you look at a nighttime satellite image, you see the explosion of lights on the seaboard, with Philadelphia (the fifth largest city in the U.S., and the second largest on the east coast) but a node lodged between Baltimore and New York, and then infinite speckled darkness spreading westward till you hit the lights of Pittsburgh.

Yet that does a disservice to the sheer diversity of the state. First settled by Algonquin in the east and Iroquoian speakers in the west, Pennsylvania has been claimed, variously, by Swedes, the Dutch, the French, and the English, and fought over by representatives of the Quaker Penns and the Catholic Calverts in southern Maryland. In the early days, the state had neither the Puritans of New England nor the Cavalier ethos of points further south. Its history is marked by the Pennsylvania Dutch who settled here throughout the eighteenth-century (many of whom still speak their distinctive German dialect), the Welsh and Irish who came in the nineteenth, and the scores of southern and eastern European immigrants and African American migrants who came in the twentieth.

Certainly such a history—of migrations external and internal, of industry and agriculture, of settlement and colonialism—isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. And yet there’s always been something a bit odd about this place, with its propensity for both the utopian and the apocalyptic. Pennsylvania was the land where the eighteenth-century Pietist mystic Johan Kelpius would meditate in the caves of Germantown, and where in that same century the Paxton Boys militia would massacre a group of Conestoga Indians on a hideous Christmas Eve; where, in the nineteenth century, the religious communitarians of Ephrata and New Harmony would attempt to construct their perfect societies, and where Henry Clay Frick would use the Pinkertons to murder striking steel workers in Homestead; where the hulking, rusting heft of Bethlehem Steel would rise upon the ruins of a Moravian utopia. To be an American is to live in contradiction, and in that way, Pennsylvania has always been a bit more American.

Read entire article at Belt Magazine

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