The Pittsburgh Letters: A Montesquieu-styled social commentary
In the 1700s, the writer Montesquieu wrote an epistolary novel entitled “The Persian Letters,” in which two fictional characters travel from Persia to France and write letters home that display their observations. Their “innocent” perspective is a thinly-veiled social and political criticism of French society and the absolutist monarchy under Louis XIV. Through the eyes of a “foreigner,” our own practices — what we take for granted — can be rethought.
Sylvia to Norma R., Newburg, Pennsylvania
An early Sunday morning in Pittsburgh is the quietest of all mornings, but it’s the morning where everyone seems to be in the biggest hurry. No one walks on the sidewalk, like they do during the week; they run. Parallel with the avenues, in straight lines down the sidewalks to turn abruptly at street corners, up stairs and back down them, everyone’s in a rush, it seems, to get somewhere. The first time I saw the city so agitated I tried to stop a man and ask him if the city was in danger, but he did not hear me because his ears held tiny plugs connected by a thin wires in a way that made him oblivious to my presence beside him.
After four weeks living in Pittsburgh, I began to notice that this occurrence was somewhat regular and dependent on sunshine, but I still struggled to find the cause of this haste. Nothing is more important to an American than getting to work on time, but on Sundays, when it is said most do not work, what urgent matter do these individuals tend to? Back at home, we would wake up on Sunday mornings to milk the cows and go to church, but even then we would do so walking.
Even more troubling is the fact that the dress of the hurried is not at all the same as that worn daily. One tells me that everyone woman in Pittsburgh must have a little black dress or brown boots for these are the most expensive, but we used to wear these colors on the farm because they colors were least likely to show dirt. But in Pittsburgh, when hurried on Sunday morning, a man’s whole attire changes. There is no collared shirt, no muted colors, no grey — suddenly he wears enough neon yellow and orange to rival a construction worker. But since he does not carry any tools except a narrow white rectangle of plastic on his arm, which, as far as I can see, has not purpose whatsoever, I doubt sincerely he is hurried for payment.
One Sunday, there was one individual who seemed more in a hurry than all the others. He was carrying some books and was wearing a backpack, which increased his strain. He cut diagonally across Schenley Plaza instead of going around it, like the others, and I was sure the others would be impressed by his ingenuity. However, the other runners seemed particularly baffled by this man and continued running, not even stopping to help collect the papers which fluttered behind him.