The Great Experiment

Unlike New York, which was founded as a trading post — it still is, in many ways — Philadelphia was founded as a bold experiment in religious freedom, liberty, and tolerance. As the city in which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and ratified, Philadelphia is at the center of the conflict between what we say we believe as Americans and the way we actually conduct ourselves. This tension defines, within Philadelphia’s borders, this national dilemma. Its history is a microcosm of the country’s.

New York’s history has been explored in film by Ric Burns; Philadelphia has its own Ric Burns in the producers of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of 13 half-hour television documentaries, masterfully directed by Andrew Ferrett. Very recently, the 11th episode of the series, “World Stage: 1872-1899,” was broadcast on Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV; now, like another ten episodes (two are still in production), it’s available for viewing online. The new episode is a portrait of the city’s Gilded Age, featuring familiar and less-than-familiar names such as Caroline Le Count, Dr. Rebecca Cole, Susan B. Anthony, John Wanamaker; a brief history of the 1876 World Fair; and, perhaps inevitably, Philadelphia’s fin de siècle slide into corruption. The series boasts gorgeous photography and insights from a variety of historians and personalities, with a special emphasis on racial conflicts and the important roles that marginalized communities played in the development of the city.

An ongoing project of History Making Productions, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is the brainchild of Sam Katz, and the senior writer and co-producer of the series is Nathaniel Popkin, whose book Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City I recently reviewed. As Mr. Popkin’s book suggests, much of Philadelphia’s physical past still exists through a combination of deliberate planning, benign neglect, and dumb luck, which means that many of the documentary’s re-enactments could be shot on location. It’s a splendid accomplishment, both inspiring and sobering; those of us who already love the city will be reminded of just why we do so. You can watch the entire series here; you can watch “World Stage” below.

A project for Ken Burns or someone like him

I was delighted with my visit on Saturday to the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which just opened last year; it’s a fascinating and solemn reminder of the ideals and courage required to found a country like ours, and conveniently located near Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Though established on noble and laudable grounds, my homeland inevitably falls short of these in reality. One can spend the entire day at the museum, so all-encompassing are the exhibits, and when one considers just how far we’ve fallen in grace and courage since then — well, pride is not the word, for I didn’t do any fighting for these ideals myself, but it certainly inspires me to take these ideals more seriously in my private and public lives. Although Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies last April and delivered the keynote address, nobody from the current administration could be bothered to attend. This should tell you scores about the current administration, too; perhaps the museum’s proximity to the National Constitution Center gave the Trump people the willies.

Of course, the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality is a fertile garden for American satire as well. I hope that one of these days Ken Burns — or somebody like him, but possessed of a sense of humor — creates one of those PBS documentary series about the history of the form in the United States; it certainly stretches from its colonial days (Ben Franklin could be particularly scabrous and scurrilous) to the present. Most neglected recently have been the satires of the pre-World War II era, and surprisingly it was one of the richest genres of American literature of the past hundred or so years. Twain (who died in 1910) kicked it off, of course, with his screeds against the Philippine–American War and the continuing practice of lynching in the south, but it did go on. Ten years earlier, in 1899, H.L. Mencken began writing for Baltimore’s Morning Herald newspaper; in 1920, Sinclair Lewis published his first masterpiece of American satire, Main Street; and in 1931, Nathanael West published the first of his four magnificent satiric novelettes, The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

By 1940 it was all over. West was dead; Mencken’s style and iconoclasm were less popular in a nation just emerging from an economic depression and preparing for war; and Lewis was succumbing to the alcoholism that would lead, in part, to his death ten years later. But those three decades between 1910 and 1940 were rich with this kind of satiric excavation, despite the fact that these authors have been eclipsed by the reputations of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Of the novelists, West and Lewis attacked the fraudulent nature of private and public life. West prophetically saw the catastrophes that a celebrity culture could produce in The Day of the Locust and the tragedy of maudlin sentimentalism and the sterility of New York City’s urban life in Miss Lonelyhearts; Lewis condemned the petty soullessness of the American salesman and his culture in Babbitt and the hypocrisy of cultish evangelical religion (a part of American culture since George Whitefield‘s time) in Elmer Gantry. And both novelists foresaw the dangers of a rank democracy of ignorant masses, leading to totalitarianism, in A Cool Million (West) and It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis).

The satirists of the 1950s, such as William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, and Terry Southern, built upon these foundations for their own masterpieces; without these earlier authors (and a few Europeans such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine), there’d be no The Recognitions, JR, Catch-22, or The Magic Christian.

If you want to follow the road from the ideals and stresses that gave rise to the American Revolution to the situation we’re in today, and you want to understand how we got here, you could do worse than revisit Twain, Mencken, Lewis, and West; to see how their prophecies have come true, I would recommend following these up with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (the latter was republished in paperback, with an update, earlier this year). They won’t give you hope — not least because most Americans these days can’t be bothered to read anything that doesn’t appear on a Facebook feed — but they will give you a pretty good idea of how we got here. And if you do indeed want that hope, you’ll have to go to the Museum of the American Revolution yourself, to remember that there was a time when we collectively aimed just a little higher — politically, culturally, and personally — than we do now.

And afterwards stop in for dinner at City Tavern. That doesn’t disappoint, either.

Below, a 1948 interview with that great American H.L. Mencken, conducted at the Library of Congress and the only extant recording of that author’s voice. It was recorded only a few months before a stroke incapacitated Mencken, leaving him unable to speak clearly or write at all — though aware and fully conscious — until his death eight years later, in 1956.


Hide and seek

The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published last November by Temple University Press; it’s a philosophical meditation masquerading as a coffee table book.

A handsome book it is, too. Photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott provides contemplative perspectives on a variety of public, semi-public, and commercial spaces in Philadelphia, many of them off-limits to the casual flâneur in the City of Brotherly Love; the accompanying text, by Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, eschews a straightforwardly historical approach by considering the relationships between these spaces, their history, and their current uses and disuses.

Metropolitan Opera House, North Broad Street, Philadelphia, 2009. Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott.

Most books of Philadelphia history like this, boasting glamorous and unpeopled photographs of interiors and restored exteriors, concentrate on the colonial and early national eras of the 18th and early 19th century. The Hidden City authors turn their attention instead to the later 19th and early 20th centuries, finding the objects of their contemplation in churches both formal and informal; sewers and abandoned subway stations; municipal buildings, some like Philadelphia’s City Hall still abuzz with activity and some like Germantown’s  Town Hall in disuse; and prisons like Eastern State and Graterford, designed on the long-abandoned idea of the panopticon as a means of moral punishment.

The “ruin” in this book, though, is considered less as an attractive fragment than as an object with a life of its own. “For Philadelphia seems to possess an exceptionally large number of places that have disappeared elsewhere — workshops and small factories, sporting clubs and societies, synagogues and theaters and railroad lines — like endangered species that have managed to stay alive in some remote forest or swamp,” Popkin and Woodall muse. Among the more telling passages are a visit to the remains of the International Peace Movement community that Bible-thumper Father Divine founded, along with the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street; the Church of the Gesú, site of a depressing and violent civil rights controversy in the 1940s; and a peek into the John Stortz and Son tool factory, founded in 1853 in Philadelphia’s Old City and, somewhat miraculously in this day and age, still flourishing and providing employment to machine workers and small craftsmen. An additional pleasure of the book is a long-overdue consideration of the monumental contributions that people of color and women made to the economic and cultural life of the city over the past 150 years.

Wagner Free Institute of Science, exhibits on main floor, North Broad Street, Philadelphia, 2015. Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott.

As Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City peels back the layers of the past, it reveals more than ruins of buildings; it also reveals the ruins of certain habits of mind, of shared community values, reminders of the stresses and anxieties that made and continue to make Philadelphia a unique place in the world. Film directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch turned some of these same settings into nightmares, but that didn’t do them justice. The book gives them a new and glowing life. Every city has a different flavor, hard to define precisely and, because cities are always changing, always provisional. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is an essential bridge between past and present. Sure, it belongs on your coffee table. But make sure you read it, too.

NOTE: The book is the product of the ongoing Hidden City Philadelphia project; you can find its website here.