Dawn in a Pennsylvania Coal Town

An exhibit at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art of seventeen etchings and paintings by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) evokes a lost world, yet people recognize in Hopper’s work a timeless quality. Hopper’s quiet, lonely scenes, usually described as melancholy, make one feel one has been there: one has been in that now empty room where the afternoon sun perpetually slants across a drab wall; one has walked along that forever deserted city street one Sunday morning.

Since the Carnegie exhibit displays works by Hopper only from the museum’s permanent collection, absent from it are Hopper’s most famous oil paintings, such as “Nighthawks” (1942), a glimpse inside a city diner at its three late-night customers. Also missing from the show are two paintings featuring Pennsylvania: “Dawn in Pennsylvania” (1942); “Pennsylvania Coal Town” (1947). The former depicts a lone Pennsylvania Railroad passenger car in a bleak urban station; the latter, a bald, clean-shaven man in a long-sleeve white shirt raking the lawn between two faded clapboard houses. In those two paintings Hopper conveys a bygone and introverted quality that one can still find in parts of Pennsylvania.

Just as Hopper used brush and canvas to conjure with memories and delve into vistas of isolation and shadows, his younger contemporary, Conrad Richter (1890-1968), explored these themes in his fiction. Much of Richter’s fiction considers the relationship between sophisticated and simple people on frontiers, and Hopper’s paintings characteristically portray one or two ordinary people poised about to do something, usually at the edge of dusk or dawn. Silent intimacy pervades both men’s art.

In two thought-provoking tales, a novel and a short story, Richter sketches in his clear, laconic way the same mid-twentieth century dignified desolation, introspective life on the verge, immortalized by Hopper. The novel is The Waters of Kronos (1960), and the short story is “Doctor Hanray’s Second Chance,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post (10 June, 1950). The novel is still in print, and the short story has been reprinted in anthologies and appeared again in the April, 1979, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Both works of fiction deal with a man returning to his boyhood home in central Pennsylvania.

It was an area Richter knew well. Richter was born in and grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a son and grandson of Lutheran ministers. His lean, vivid fiction, awarded the Pulitzer and other prizes, often focuses on Pennsylvania. For example, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) takes place in eighteenth-century central and western Pennsylvania, and The Awakening Land trilogy (1940-1950), follows pioneer families from post-colonial Pennsylvania into backwoods Ohio.

Admittedly, the short story about Hanray’s second chance is not explicitly set in Pennsylvania, but its theme is so clearly developed in The Waters of Kronos, set in the mythical Unionville, Pennsylvania, that both tales likely occur in the same neck of the woods. Moreover, the location of the short story is implied: the main character has driven a thousand miles from his house in the Midwest to a rural valley where residents with German and Scots-Irish surnames can trace their farms and families back to the time of the American Revolution.

So, in what may well be central Pennsylvania, Dr. Peter Hanray goes by himself to Stone Church, also called Deckertown. The town of his youth, in the days before the automobile, it has become an Army installation. For some obscure but compelling reason, he longs to see once again his ancestral valley, “this triangle of river and long blue mountains that shut in the rich brown farming land.”

Now it is called the Rose Valley Military Reservation, strictly off-limits to civilians. He is aware of the change, but not of its ramifications. He arrives in late afternoon, and as he drives towards it, “to the right and left he could see the high steel fence topped with strands of barbed wire.” Stopped by a guard, he explains that he wants to see the graves of his parents, but the guard is reluctant, even when Hanray produces the proper identifying documents.

Eventually allowed inside, Hanray confronts a landscape “with half the houses gone and the rest reduced to windowless boxes,” his boyhood home among the latter, and from there he can see “the raw industrial strip of buildings of the XYT explosive line, and beyond, the reach of ugly stacks and tanks against the autumn-sunset sky.” These are images worthy of Hopper.

Haunting Peter Hanray, a famous nuclear physicist, are memories of his youthful arrogance and the disdain he had for his father, a medical doctor. The elder Dr. Hanray had been a general practitioner and a pillar of the local Protestant church. Young Peter was embarrassed by his father’s lack of ambition and by his faith, seemingly incompatible with a man of science. Peter’s father “attended church like some simple, unlearned countryman,” and he was in charge of the Sunday school, there “greeting perfect strangers with the brotherly and overfriendly way of a preacher.”

The son had gone on to international fame and had been honored by the President of the United States. Yet, returning to this small town, really little more than a village, had become important enough for a solitary drive half-way across the country. Likewise, in The Waters of Kronos, John Donner, an aging author, drives for seven days from his house “by the Western Sea” to Pennsylvania to see his family’s graves. Before long he encounters a horse-drawn wagon full of anthracite, something he had not seen in ages.

Hanray also experiences elements from days long gone. Once back home, most alluring for Hanray are rustic sensations from decades past: “Tramping down the village road he could smell the old-time aroma of wood smoke, raw-fried potatoes and valley cured ham.” And again: “He could smell the savor of baked beans from the oven, shot through with the scent of the stove.”

With these memories stirred, he continues his sojourn into the twilight of Hopperland. The afternoon sky glimmers through the belfry of the old church, and so much seems familiar and yet also foreign. He is unsure what to say in such a nostalgic place. Full of heartache, he finds that no one recognizes him except an old dog. By nightfall, however, Hanray has had a life-changing end to his quest, one I will not spoil for the reader.

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.
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