As bad as we say it is

Billboard on Schuylkill Expressway, near Exit 37 west of Conshohocken. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1970.

Two new books about Philadelphia are now available: an updated and revised edition of Philadelphia: A Short History by Roger D. Simon; and Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall. Both are being published by Temple University Press. In time, I hope to write about them both; they bring to mind my short essay below, originally published here in May 2017.

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. “The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners’ expectations,” Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  “Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to them. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotel’s air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires.” Local wags inclined to punnery called the city “Filthydelphia,” and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it “the Surekill Distressway.” We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo — and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe  their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus.1 He envisioned it as a “greene country towne,” a “city of brotherly love” that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be “friends” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love.2 “The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal,” Dilworth noted. “If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place.” Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.

An inauspicious debut

One of the virtues of the Oxford Mark Twain — maybe its greatest virtue — is that the series photographically reproduces the earliest published texts of books that Twain completed in his lifetime. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California is attempting to produce definitive scholarly versions of all of Twain’s surviving texts and letters, and they’re having a slow go of it, but the Oxford series in contrast presents Twain’s work as it was first presented to American readers from 1867 to 1910, Twain’s death. Reading through the 29 volumes of the Oxford series, one familiarizes oneself with Twain’s own self-presentations during his lifetime, and comes to them, in a way, as his first American readers did. The series also reproduces the original illustrations that accompanied the text, along with introductions from Twain enthusiasts and contextualizing essays from Twain scholars. The series was first published in hardcover in 1996, and a paperback edition appeared in 2010, but the latter is available only as a set; individual volumes are not available for purchase from the Oxford University Press. This is a little unfortunate; in the absence of a complete edition from the Mark Twain Project the Oxford series has become the unofficial standard edition, despite a few critical quibbles, and its $355.00 recommended retail price puts it beyond the budgets of most casual but engaged readers.

But individual books from the series are available if one hunts around enough; various vagrant volumes can be found on Amazon and in larger used book stores. I found the Oxford edition of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), at the Strand. The Jumping Frog was issued to cash in on the phenomenal success of the title short story, which first appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, and was quickly reprinted in other newspapers around the country. Twain’s friend, publisher Charles Henry Webb, gathered the frog story and 26 other parodies and short essays by Twain dating from 1863 in a volume that enjoyed what Richard Bucci in his afterword describes as only a “modest performance in the marketplace.” Twain himself was dissatisfied with the book. Only 4,076 copies were printed, and in December 1870 Twain bought and destroyed the typesetting plates.

Reading it in 2017 — this year marks the 150th anniversary of its publication — I can see why. Like any book of comic essays, it’s not a good idea to read it straight through, and among the few bits of gold there’s quite a lot of dross. One joke about the commonality of the name “John Smith” (and it’s the first joke of the book, in the dedication) is more than enough, but coming across it six or seven times strains one’s patience to the snapping point. In 2017, jokes about insurance companies may not read as fresh as they did 150 years ago.

But the best of the sketches and stories still shine. The title story, of course, remains something of a milestone in American literature — the first literary work from the American West to succeed in the East, and subversive enough in both form and vernacular. “The Jumping Frog” is the relation of several anecdotes from a poker-faced man named Simon Wheeler rendered as a monologue which, with utter seriousness, trades in the palpably absurd, a pointless meander that nonetheless draws some wonder in its imagination and language. But several other sketches retain their attractiveness too. “Aurelia’s Unfortunate Young Man” describes a young man’s slow but sure physical disassembly through the eyes of an advice columnist (a precursor perhaps to Lemuel Pitkin of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail); “Lucretia Smith’s Soldier” is a caustic parody of a sentimental Civil War romance, years before Gone with the Wind; “The Story of the Bad Little Boy who Didn’t Come to Grief,” as Roy Blount says in his introduction, “[is] not at all outdated at a time when The Book of Virtues sells in the millions.” Its final paragraph is one for the ages:

And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an ax one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality, and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

But far be it from me to discuss Donald Trump any further here.

Most of the best pieces in the volume were originally published in the Californian, a San Francisco newspaper started in 1864 and edited by the Jumping Frog‘s publisher, Charles Henry Webb. The Californian was a serious effort to produce a genuinely literary magazine in San Francisco, and Webb himself was a member of the New York circle of self-styled “Bohemians” before travelling west. He had been a regular visitor to Pfaff’s, the New York beer cellar and meeting place for some of the most experimental and avant-garde writers of the day, including Walt Whitman. The experiment attempted to extend humor into more serious literary endeavors, and Webb encouraged Twain to extend himself from the rough, quick journalistic satires of his early work into something more lasting and ambitious. The “Jumping Frog” story was among the first results.

Reading early Twain today is not unlike watching Chaplin shorts from the Keystone and Essanay eras. The character of Twain, like the character of the Tramp, is there in broad outline — more violent and less subtle than later iterations of the same character, but in stories like the “Jumping Frog” and others in this first collection, the reader can recognize intimations of the later complexity of Twain’s comedy and satire. There are worse ways to spend an hour or two of reading (and the Oxford Mark Twain edition is still a bargain; first editions of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, a very rare volume, fetch up to $31,000 at abebooks).

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014) is an essential guide to understanding the cultural milieu in which Twain began to reach his aesthetic maturity, and I can highly recommend that as well.

“You just want to throw up your hands”

R. Crumb, “A Short History of America.” Click to enlarge.

The title of this post is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band in 2016 at the Galerie Vidourle Prix in Sauve, France:

Nasby’s birthday

“A nickel-plated son of a bitch”: Petroleum V. Nasby.

A short post here to note the 184th anniversary of the birth of David Ross Locke, the Civil War-era journalist who created the Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, described by his creator as “a nickel-plated son of a bitch.” Locke was born on this day in 1833. Back in the Pleistocene Era when I was wasting my time on a master’s degree, I was hoping to prepare some kind of dissertation on Locke’s work before common sense dissuaded me from a career in academia. Still, I remember it fondly.

David Ross Locke.

Locke and Mark Twain were close friends and drinking buddies, and Twain has some very nice things to say about the man in his autobiography. I’ve just finished reading the Oxford Mark Twain edition (the series itself is at the top of my current wish list, by the way) of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Twain’s first book, published in 1867. The same year saw the publication of Swingin’ Round the Cirkle, perhaps the best collection of Locke’s Nasby letters. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. By the end of the Civil War, Locke was recognized as the most important satirist of his generation; in the persona of Nasby — a drunk, racist opportunist — Locke underscored the hypocrisy and plain stupidity of the Democrats and Copperheads who emerged from the Civil War and laid the groundwork for today’s version of “white rage.” By 1865, Locke had become Lincoln’s favorite humorist: Lincoln once said, “I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will swap places with him!” And legend has it that just before his journey to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was reading the latest installment of the letters.

Like Twain, Locke (as Nasby, who shared a few of his creator’s weaknesses for alcohol and poor hygienic habits) had a phenomenally successful career on the lecture circuit, for humorists the precursor to stand-up comedy; unlike Twain, Locke had already developed a blisteringly satiric perspective on the American culture of the Civil War years and immediately thereafter. It may be too much to say that Locke paved the way both for Twain’s later, bitter vision of America’s racial heritage, and for the likes of Stephen Colbert. But it may not. Occasionally Locke and Nasby arise in the most curious places, most recently in the New York Times. In a 2012 column, Jon Grinspan, now a Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about Locke, Nasby, and their legacies, and Nasby’s prejudices echo today:

Beginning in early 1862, [Locke] aggressively lampooned dimwitted reactionaries who, in Nasby’s words, pined for “the Union ez it uzd to was, and the Constitooshn ez I’d like to hev it.” …

In letter after letter, Locke parodied the deluded belief in white supremacy. Nasby was proudly bigoted because “it is soothing to a ginooine, constooshnel, Suthern-rites Dimekrat to be constantly told that ther is a race uv men meaner than he.” Though he could barely “rede and rite,” Nasby worried that emancipation might mean that “our kentry will be no fit place for men uv educhashen and refinement,” like himself. Ultimately, Nasby fretted that freed slaves would begin “tyranizin over us, even as we tyrannize over them.”

Locke even defended interracial marriage, at the time reviled by almost all Americans. The Democratic Party accused Republicans of wanting to marry white women to freed slaves, a concern Nasby shared. He joined a rally by white women against miscegenation, but concluded that the hideous protesters he met had nothing to worry about; no freed slave would have any interest in them. Nasby did make an exception for sex between married masters and slaves, so long as “yoo temper it with adultery.” …

Through his risky satire, the slovenly, drunken Locke probably had more influence on the direction of American history than any other humorist.

Nasby’s own language, as you can see, may lead to a few orthological headaches for the contemporary reader — a not uncommon problem with the “Phunny Phellows” of this era — but there are rewards to be had. So here’s to the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby, that nickel-plated son of a bitch whose descendants continue to fill the voting booths and the rosters of the GOP. You can read Swingin’ Round the Cirkle — still a book ripe for someone’s dissertation, especially when race remains a central problem of the American experiment — for free right here. And in 2013, Ron Gorman, a volunteer docent at the Oberlin Heritage Center, wrote this appreciation, which features more of the Nasby letters and fills in quite a few biographical blanks.

Prost! for an Emmy win

He cooks.

I often note here that I enjoy spending my Friday afternoons at Cafe Katja, the lovely Lower East Side Beisl owned and operated by my friends Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner. I haven’t seen much of Erwin lately, but he’s been busy with Erwin Cooks, his new show for PBS39 dedicated to Central European cuisine and culture.

And more recently he was apparently in Pennsylvania, picking up his Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for “Lifestyle Program – Feature/Segment” for the Erwin Cooks episode on schnitzel and reisling (scroll down to #47 here). Not bad for a first-season show, and I must offer him congratulations and kind wishes on his well-deserved win. You’ll agree; the Emmy-winning episode is below. I’m hungry (and thirsty) already.

See you Friday at … well, you know where.