Many thanks to all of those who offered their own additions via comments and email to my impromptu “Philadelphia Bookshelf” over the past few days. I was gratified by the response, and the little men who keep track of these things tell me that the post last Wednesday was surprisingly popular, perhaps meeting a previously unmet need.
A special note of thanks to Billy Penn, a web site and daily newsletter from Philadelphia’s public broadcaster WHYY. It was a mention on their newsletter that drew all of these excellent suggestions, and I should note that the Billy Penn project itself deserves your attention and support. As a current exile from the City of Brotherly Love, I find that it keeps me generously up-to-date on current events in my old home town. (For meditations on Philadelphia history itself, you can’t do better than Hidden City Philadelphia.) If like me you’re a former Philadelphian but remain one in spirit, you should sign up for the newsletter and drop a few pennies their way. I plan on doing so today.
But today I travel northward, not southward, to the Greene County Youth Fair in Cairo, NY, celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. (You can read a little about its history here.) Set in the midst of upstate New York’s rolling hills and mountains, the county fair is one of those events unique to the United States, and a grand time it is for midsummer: 4-H club members bring their animals — pigs, chickens, rabbits, you name it — for the solemn deliberation of highly regarded, stern, expert judges; you can eat some of their kin (the animals’, not the judges), enjoying excellent pork barbeques, sausages, chicken sandwiches, and fresh ears of corn; and there’s always live roots music from local bands to accompany your meal. It’s a place where screens, celebrities, politics, and religion don’t exist: just good feeling and good eating. So this week I raise my glass — or, rather, my paper cup filled with fresh lemonade — to the county fair, a rare pleasure in these anxious times. I’ll save you some funnel cake.
In my occasional Googling I’ve been unable to find a good list of books about Philadelphia — a city that once described itself as being “not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” — so I leap into the arena with my own below in the hopes that others may find it valuable. Certainly cities like New York and London have generated libraries, and Philadelphia has generated a few shelves as well — and in both cases, it’s hard to know where to start to dive into them. No doubt I’ll be able to add to this list with time, but this is enough to go on for now.
Roger D. Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History (Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2017) is a short (156 pages), breezy tour through the city that should be your first stop for Philadelphia’s history. Simon manages in these few pages to highlight the dynamics and contradictions that have been a part of the city’s life since its founding in 1682 by William Penn; he focuses particularly on the working classes that were instrumental in establishing the tenor and atmosphere of Philadelphia life. I reviewed it in a little more depth here.
Simon relies fairly heavily upon the now out-of-print Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (W.W. Norton/The Barra Foundation, 1982), which stretches comprehensively to 842 pages. Because each chapter was written by a different expert, it does have its ups and downs, but sometimes the devil is in the details, and you’ll find a lot of them here. The volume itself was a herculean effort, stretching over more than a decade in its composition, but it wound up being more than equal to Gotham, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s monumental history of a city 100 miles to Philadelphia’s north.
About ten years after the publication of the above book, Edward G. Rendell was elected Mayor of Philadelphia, and Buzz Bissinger’s chronicle of his first term, A Prayer for the City (Random House, 1997), brings the reader up to speed about Philadelphia history after 1982. Rendell was one of the city’s most charismatic mayors, but as Bissinger points out, the city was in fiscal, racial, and political crisis, and there was only so much charisma could do. But the book is far from being merely a treat for urban affairs policy wonks. Philadelphia’s problems are also exemplified in Bissinger’s profiles of four “typical” Philadelphians: a welder whose job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard is in jeopardy; a policy analyst working with Rendell; a criminal prosecutor; and an elderly woman from one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
The late historian John Lukacs, who lived for much of his professional career within 20 miles of Philadelphia, wrote primarily about world history, but he was also the author of a charming series of essays about Philadelphia in the early 20th century, Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981). As his subtitle suggests, Lukacs provides portraits of several mostly-forgotten Philadelphians such as publisher Edward Bok, writers Owen Wister and Agnes Repplier, and politician Boies Penrose, all of whom made lasting contributions to Philadelphia’s patrician (and philistine) culture. Lukacs is witty and far from objective about their personalities and achievements (if you could call some of them that).
Out-of-print but worthwhile if you can find a copy, Herbert Kupferberg’s Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra (Scribner, 1969) covers the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, in part, its former home, the landmark Academy of Music. More than just a paean to the orchestra in its heyday under the batons of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the book is also instructive in how the patrician class built and supported the orchestra, detailing both successes and failures in its outreach to patrons and audiences both wealthy and otherwise.
If you’re as interested in early American and colonial history as I am, you won’t want to be without George W. Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia (Westholme Publishing, 2016). Despite its title, it’s more than a tourbook; it’s an in-depth, well-illustrated survey of some of the most and least famous historical buildings and locations in the Philadelphia area, many of which have been restored and are still publicly accessible. It’s as readable as a novel and worth carrying about as you make your own investigations into the streets of the city.
For more recent excavations of Philadelphia history, you couldn’t do better than Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple University Press, 2017), a lovely coffee table book — and more — from photographer Joseph Elliott and essayists Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall. They visit many 19th- and 20th-century historical, domestic, and business sites upon which the dust of the past has drifted, often obscuring them from public sight, but these sites even now reveal a stratum of Philadelphia history that informs the city’s present and, quite possibly, its future. I review it in a little more depth here.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of two biographies that provide idiosyncratic insight into the city and those who populate it. Franklin himself is an inescapable presence in Philadelphia’s historical district, and rightly so: in many ways, and to many minds, he represents the practical, realistic spirit that is so much a part of the Philadelphia character. The Autobiography covers his experience as a youth and young man in Philadelphia, and perhaps the most charming passages come early in the book, when he walks up Market Street from the edge of the Delaware River, observing the personality of the city circa 1723. Thanks to restoration efforts, you can do so yourself now and get a good idea yourself of just what it was he observed. Among the best of the brief biographies about the man is Edmund S. Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin.
My idiosyncratic choice for the second exemplary Philadelphian is W.C. Fields, the subject of James Curtis’s excellent biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). When I was in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, a tour guide wryly observed, “Philadelphians tend to listen politely to authority, then turn around and do whatever they want” — certainly a trait of Fields’ characters in films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze and It’s a Gift, put-upon middle-aged men with a fondness for the occasional mid-day nip. Unlike his con-man persona of his later films, Fields’ middle-class characters here are modest and humble (sometimes to the point of self-loathing), but capable of a grumbling, misanthropic wit which, I’ve found, is a specifically Philadelphian trait.
Finally, to round out the list, a little fiction. Philadelphia has produced few novels about itself to rank with, say, Edith Wharton’s about New York. But it has, like New York, produced a slew of excellent newspaper columnists — Pete Dexter, Clark DeLeon, Stu Bykovsky (who recently left the fine Philadelphia tabloid the Daily News — at least, it was fine during its heyday a few decades ago). Some of these columnists have gone on to write novels as well, and among the best is Third and Indiana (Viking, 1994), a bleak novel about Philadelphia’s drug-ridden Badlands by former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez is faultless in portraying the life and argot of Philadelphia’s working and petty criminal classes, as well as the defeated neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. A second highly-regarded Philadelphia novel, currently on my bedside table, is Dexter’s 1984 God’s Pocket, a somewhat lighter portrait (I understand) of South Philadelphia.
I never met the late Paul Krassner in the flesh, but back in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I had the opportunity to ask him via email about his reaction to that terrible event. His response can be found in the below item, originally posted here on January 8, 2015.
Long before there was a Daily Show there was The Realist. Paul Krassner, who founded the magazine in 1958, is one of America’s most notorious satirists and a pioneer in the great period of American humor that included Lenny Bruce and so many others. He’s still going strong; in 2004, he received the ACLU Uppie (Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression, and in 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” Paul said in accepting it, “and even happier that it wasn’t posthumous.”
As his biography indicates, he is no stranger to the kinds of controversies that Charlie Hebdo so regularly stirred up. I asked Paul this morning for a comment on Charlie Hebdo and the events of the last few days; this is what he told me:
This massacre is an awesome outrage, even to liberals and conservatives alike, although some dinosaur Republicans might try to blame Obama. It’s a horrendous violation of semantic principles, such as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” As an atheist, I perceive the irony of those assassins shouting “God is great” to justify their insane act in the name of a deity that I believe doesn’t exist.
And what could happen in America? Security guards protecting the “Onion” offices? Treat “Funny or Die” as Islamic marching orders? Invade the cyberspace of NBC for broadcasting “Saturday Night Live” until it morphs into “Saturday Night Dead” if it’s not already deceased?
Religions continue to rationalize their dogma, from birth to death — and then comes the hereafter for these Muslim murderers where all those virgins supposedly waiting to greet the Muslim murderers in Nirvana are busy reading “Lysistrata.” OMG has declared war on LOL.
UPDATE: In 2015, Paul responded to my request for a comment about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. You can find that response here.
Satirist Paul Krassner, the founder of the magazine The Realist, took The Final Step yesterday at his home in Desert Hot Springs, CA, at the age of 87. The New York Times obituary is here.
Coincidentally, I’ve just been re-reading his 1993 memoir Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture, which Krassner himself updated seven years ago and offered for sale on his web site (though it’s unlikely now you’ll be able to get an autographed copy). The book charts Krassner’s career and personal life, from his debut on the Carnegie Hall stage at the age of six through the raising of his daughter; more, it charts in its own idiosyncratic way a part of American history we’re still learning to live with. The Realist was founded in 1958, four years after the fall of Joseph McCarthy and six years after the debut of Mad magazine, where Krassner was a freelance contributor; Mad‘s publisher William Gaines generously provided office space for Krassner’s own magazine. Over the next 43 years, Krassner and his contributors pursued a line of absurdist investigative satire that attracted writers such as Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce (Krassner also “edited” Bruce’s own autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People). The symbiotic relationship of Mad and The Realist — both as businesses (early on) and in their aesthetics — led to other satiric magazines such as the National Lampoon and Spy. Both of those magazines, of course, closed down long ago; Krassner closed down The Realist in the first year of this new century; and, as you likely have already heard, Mad magazine will cease regular publication later this year.
The argument’s been made that we have no more magazines of this kind because we no longer need them. They’ve so deeply influenced popular culture to a degree that they’ve rendered themselves irrelevant, the thinking goes. Who needs Mad when you’ve got Mad TV? National Lampoon when you’ve got Saturday Night Live? Spy when you’ve got Last Week with John Oliver and countless other comedy programs on video, from the major networks to YouTube?
Well, as it turns out, we may need them more than ever, and for a variety of reasons. Reading the pages of a magazine or a book is a more intimate variety of communication than watching a video; a reader is, at the best of times, actively interpreting the nuance of word and image, can go back over it, think about it at his or her own pace. The production of a print magazine, too, is more cost-efficient than garnering the resources of a television network for a weekly program (and this program at higher risk of cancellation than a magazine). Finally, both broadcast and paid mass media are more at the whim of self-appointed censors and Standards and Practices departments than magazines and books, as the National Lampoon writers who moved to Saturday Night Live discovered to their chagrin. Mad (in its first few decades) and The Realist ran little to no advertising and were beholden to no advertisers.
Most important to me is that first quality: the intimacy of reading. As Victor Klemperer pointed out, language is one of the first victims of a totalitarian society. One of the reasons that magazines such as these had the corrupting effect on me that they did was because I could absorb not only the parody and satire of their contemporary targets, but also their worldviews: primarily, skepticism and a certain kind of cheerful nihilism. Ultimately, their message was that you can’t entirely trust anyone — that people in authority all have their reasons to lie to you, and they will if they must. This includes people in the White House, in Congress, in advertising agencies, in classrooms, in churches and synagogues. You are not, as Jonathan Swift, pointed out, a “thinking animal”; you are an “animal capable of thinking,” which is not at all the same thing. Your duty as a human being is to take advantage of that capability. And if you can make fun of those who are lying to you, all the better: it knocks them down several notches, and laughter is often preferable to tears.
This perspective isn’t something you’re going to get from an entertainment conglomerate, a government, or a church (and, it should be pointed out, you shouldn’t entirely trust Mad or The Realist either). But it is a perspective that we need if we’re “live in truth,” as Vaclav Havel put it. It’s no wonder that one of the greatest satiric novelists of the twentieth century, Vladimir Voinovich, lived under a totalitarian regime. Critical thinking, leavened by a sense of humor, may be the greatest threat to tyranny. And the more deeply we can ingrain that habit of critical thinking — through a critical attitude towards language, which we can gain only if we read — the more ready we are to fight against tyranny, whether governmental, physical, or metaphysical.
The entire print run of Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist is available here, and a 2016 anthology of cartoons originally published in the magazine is available here. In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner, an anthology of his work. It’s available for pre-order here.