Philadelphia: A Brief History

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.

Suggested reading: Tom Carson on Huckleberry Finn

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 Baffler Tom 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.

Something in the Missouri water

Only 150 miles separate Hannibal, MO, where Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain (he never made it easy to write about him) spent his childhood, and Sedalia, MO, where Scott Joplin began to compose his early work; only 14 years separate the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and the publication of Joplin’s groundbreaking “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). There’s no evidence that Clemens and Joplin were familiar with each other’s work, even though Clemens would live on until 1910 and Joplin until 1917, but the coincidences are intriguing, perhaps least on the biographical level. Both were popular artists with higher aspirations, of course, but there’s more to them than that; the common conception of both Twain and Joplin is that they’re both lighter entertainers: Twain, the cracker-barrel philosopher blessed with an earthy, down-home comic skepticism; Joplin as the composer of rinky-plinky tunes best served up as accompaniments to silent comedies or honky-tonk drinking establishments. The truth, as the truth usually does in these matters, lies elsewhere.

I’ve just been finishing Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, a significant landmark in Twain scholarship, and her argument that African-American culture in the Reconstruction era had a seminal influence on Twain’s novel in its structure, vocabulary, and voice and his other work besides — and, therefore, on the entire body of American literature after Huckleberry Finn — is hard to refute, given the textual, linguistic, and cultural evidence and analysis she presents. Before Twain, American literature owed most of its debt to Europe, whether it was Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, or for that matter even Whitman, whose patois emerged from white culture in New England. Twain, however, mingled the vernacular of the American South and Southwest into his own literature. At the same time, Joplin drew upon his own experience in minstrelsy, popular song, and band music, along with his classical music training under the German Julian Weiss and at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, in transforming European forms and harmonies into something uniquely American; and out of ragtime and the various forms of the blues, jazz emerged.

Over the past few years I’ve been reading more of Twain and, more recently, listening to Joplin again. The melancholy and bucolic nature of much of this work, such as Twain’s evocations of the Mississippi Valley countryside and Joplin’s more langourous rags, especially among his more meditative pieces, appeals to me, but it’s not quite the same as nostalgia, not least because I can’t have nostalgia for a time in which I did not live. Not to mention that the politics of race is bitterly considered in the creations of both men (in Twain, obviously, but also in Joplin’s surviving opera Treemonisha and his lost opera A Guest of Honor, which reportedly depicted the visit of Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901).

My renewed attraction to this work may also be a reaction to the current political climate. As Fishkin points out in her study, and as Joplin biographer Edward Berlin pointed out in his Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, Twain and Joplin were essentially multicultural and inclusive artists, drawing from a variety of cultural sources — an aesthetic miscegenation which simply could not be brooked. Ragtime, as a precursor to jazz, was the product of African American music and culture of the Reconstruction and Redemption eras intermingling with American popular and folk songs; and a great deal of the resistance to characterizing ragtime as a uniquely American “classical” music had a racist undertone. (Ragtime had its effect on American literature as well, and not just on E.L. Doctorow: one of the groundbreaking American novels about race, James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, is narrated by an ambitious ragtime pianist.)

I’ve read Huckleberry Finn twice in the past few years (along with The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger) and plan to read it again soon; it’s inexhaustible. Similarly, the more I listen to Joplin’s music, the more there is to find in it. It’s hard to characterize Twain as a marginalized figure in American culture, especially given his presence in it, but I find that it’s his work, not his presence, that tends to receive shorter shrift than it used to; after a period of general popularity, Joplin’s music seems to have once again fallen into some obscurity, and he remains by and large on the margins of the American classical music canon. Perhaps it’s the melancholy strains in this work that appeal to me most these days. But one can get used to the margins, and at my age, it’s not a bad place to be.

Below, Sara Fishko gives an overview of Joplin’s career, presents excerpts of some of Joplin’s more meditative pieces, and speaks to Joplin biographer Ed Berlin in a 2011 edition of the Fishko Files.