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.
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.
Last week saw the official publication of Identity and Diversity in New Music: The New Complexities, a new book from Routledge by my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The title is pretty self-explanatory (except for that punning reference to one particular stream of contemporary music), but more to the point the book comes from an insider. Marilyn has been an important pianist on the new music scene since her 1993 debut recital; more recently, and while continuing to pursue a busy performance schedule, she’s been the Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she’s Associate Professor of Music. Her book is a concise and thoughtful but honest and critical look at the roles of identity and diversity in creating new audiences and performers, based upon a survey of important twentieth and twenty-first century musical organizations from both aesthetic and organizational (as well as uniquely personal) perspectives. So a toast to her later today at Cafe Katja.
It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.
The last thing you could say, I think, about Trump and his supporters. Lemann adds, “It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter.”
These books are grimly amusing, if you’re in the right mind. The same can be said of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which lies next to the Hofstadter book on my bedside table. West’s books are satire that transcends satire; both are set in milieux of popular culture (journalism in the case of the first, Hollywood in the second) and bitterly detail the trivialization of personal experience in American urban life. (West also took on a fascistic Trump-like figure in his more explicitly political A Cool Million, a parody of Horatio Alger’s self-help books.) Miss Lonelyhearts is sui generis; The Day of the Locust is one of my two favorite novels about Hollywood (the second being Terry Southern’s scurrilous and under-rated Blue Movie).
So I’ve got my weekend reading planned. If I don’t see you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I’ll see you next week.
Not long ago the thonkingly huge history of New York in the early twentieth century, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 4.6 pounds), landed in bookstores. Suitable for pressing leaves or dropping upon large cockroaches from a great height, the book is the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 Gotham (Oxford University Press, 5.8 pounds), the history of New York from its founding to 1898. These are, obviously, substantial works about the history of the city, and regardless of its quality the new one is destined to end up, like its predecessor, imposingly displayed on bookshelves in apartments around the city, spines unbroken, unread because, given their length in these distracted times, unreadable.
Philadelphia had one of these too, though unlike the New York books it’s now out of print. Back in 1981, W.W. Norton released the 2.9-pound Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. The City of Brotherly Love has, for all its historical interest, taken a back seat in recent years to metropolitan histories from major publishers. If you’re not keen on a multi-year commitment to 1,000+ page narratives about New York, you can turn to the less daunting The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Basic Books, 1.2 pounds), but slimmer journeys through the history of Philadelphia, from its founding to the twenty-first century in which we find ourselves, can be hard to locate.
I raise a hosanna, then, for Roger D. Simon‘s revised and updated Philadelphia: A Brief History, the first edition of which was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association in 2003 and the second edition of which was released in 2017 (Temple University Press, 9.9 ounces). A history professor at Lehigh University, Simon cites the Norton volume a great deal in the 15 pages of notes attached to his slim, 123 pages of text; this is very much a “just the high points” survey, but it fills a profound need for a Philadelphia history of this kind, and it’s likely to be the go-to brief history for this generation.
As the editors write in their foreword, “The book’s central premise [is] that Philadelphia’s story is about residents’ attempts to sustain economic prosperity while fulfilling community needs” — and so it’s a case study, really, in what every city attempts to balance. Through his chapter subtitles, Simon makes explicit his approach: “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy” (Beginnings to 1800), “Industry Triumphant/Civic Failure” (1865-1920), “Economic Decline/Community Turmoil” (1930-1980) all point to the quite American dilemma of civic ideals running dead up against business interests. And he is especially attentive to the racial and socioeconomic tensions that this dilemma produced.
Alas, the inner conflict continues. A few years ago, Philadelphia magazine posted “A Challenge to Our Most Influential Philadelphians,” an essay by Tom McGrath urging that Philadelphia’s business community take a harder look at its civic responsibilities to the city. With a sigh, I note that McGrath’s remedy seems to be, like that for other cities, a greater emphasis on “innovative entrepreneurism” or “entrepreneurial innovation” — meaningless marketspeak that seem to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promise no clear solution to Philadelphia’s problems with public education and infrastructure. This new emphasis may attract new business to the city (for example, the establishment of Amazon’s second national headquarters there), but that attraction will be founded on things like tax abatements and other gifts to business and corporations. Good for the upper-middle and middle classes of course; not so good, though, for most of the rest of the population, which will continue to be economically squeezed until those tax abatements expire. It would be better for Philadelphia if Amazon established new distribution warehouses in the city instead of a shiny glass corporate tower; at least then the company would create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for unskilled labor, jobs profoundly necessary for the health of urban neighborhoods and the marginalized formerly working-class workforce. There is enough warning in Simon’s book that such band-aids will create less, rather than more, affluence in the Philadelphia communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.
The history of Philadelphia uniquely reflects the nation’s. Neither arose organically like the cities and nation-states of Europe; both were deliberately founded in the contexts of rebellion and escape from religious prejudice, and no other country in the world sets as one of its primary concerns the “pursuit of happiness” in its founding documents — a happiness that, perhaps inevitably, remains frustratingly out-of-reach for most of its citizens. For this reason alone, as well as for many others, the city’s history retains its relevance for the rest of us.
Simon’s writing is pellucidly clear, and the text is graced by several well-chosen illustrations and photographs, as well as a few instructive population tables at the end of the book. That said, Simon concludes with an ambivalent envoi:
[In 2016] more than four hundred thousand people survived on incomes below the poverty line. While the city became more diverse in the aggregate, it remained as segregated as ever at the neighborhood level. … The city had limited options to address community needs, particularly for its large impoverished population. … Business leadership seems preoccupied with Center City and reducing the taxes on business, but Philadelphia will be a successful community in the twenty-first century only if public and private capital invest in education, social welfare, and housing needs beyond the glamour of Center City.
From Simon’s book to the ears of Tom McGrath’s “Influentials,” one hopes. Not investment in technological innovation, but investment in innovative urban and community planning, will provide for a renaissance in Philadelphia, as Simon’s history suggests. In the meantime, lovers of Philadelphia can trace the historical possibilities of this renaissance — as well as more than a few cautionary tales — in Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History. It’s available now from Amazon.
Some critics believe that Mark Twain’s work took a turn towards misanthropy and pessimism with the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, but in a recent essay for The BafflerTom Carson suggests that the darker edge of Twain’s satire had been there all along, specifically in the 1884/1885 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Writes Carson:
Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their — or even his — future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood. …
… [Not] much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.
I’ve always been of the opinion that Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sunnier, more playful comrade, may have been among the very first and amoral con men in American literature — a quality evident not only in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but especially in the last third of Huckleberry Finn as well. It may have been this encounter with Tom’s true spirit that made Twain reluctant to run Tom and Huck through adulthood in other books, as he’d originally planned.
Carson goes on to examine the glorification of adolescence in American life through a properly jaundiced eye; you can read the entire essay here.