Drew Friedman‘s portraits and caricatures, enlivened by expert draftsmanship and a jaundiced eye toward American culture, have graced the pages of magazines like Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other more or less nefarious publications, for decades. His extraordinarily textured technique reveals in each stroke of his pencil the various personal peccadilloes, ethical strengths, and moral weaknesses of his subjects. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Friedman has finally turned his pencil towards All the Presidents in an album to be published by Fantagraphics later this month. You can pre-order the book here.
I’ve been an enthusiast of both Drew and his father Bruce Jay Friedman (himself a piercing prose satirist whose anthology Black Humor was a treasured volume of my youth) since I was in short pants. He will be at the Strand Book Store on Thursday, October 3, for a conversation with the legendary comedian Robert Klein and a booksigning; you can sign up for this certain-to-be-delightful hour here. (Drew will also be at the Columbia University event celebrating a new history of Weirdo magazine — for which he drew the cover — later in October; more on that here.)
Last year, the good people at W.W. Norton released Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Among the contents are a few essays about why I — as a 57-year-old middle class white man living on the Lower East Side in the early 21st century and certainly not the target demographic for Louisa May Alcott’s novel — should spend a few hours in the company of the March sisters. (Well, not specifically me, but you get the idea.) As it happens, I visited the Orchard House, Alcott’s home, on a recent visit to Concord, MA, and I doubt that anybody of the dozens of visitors there really need any reason to read Little Women; they’d already done so, and enthusiastically enough to seek out the rooms where Alcott wrote the book.
A few days before I’d taken a tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, enthusiasm for Twain’s writing having drawn me there as well. And it led me to muse about Huckleberry Finn and why that novel, along with the rest of Twain’s work, still matters. Of course, those like myself who visited the Twain house needed little rationale for either their visit or their enthusiasm for the book. We were the converted and had already heard the evangel. But it did pose the question: Where was everybody else? What did Twain have to offer those who hadn’t read a word of him since high school, if at all? For such people do exist.
Admittedly, I’ve had qualms myself, and recently. To read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2019 — with its dead cats, its adventures on Mississippi River islands, the role-playing of its characters as pirates or Robin Hood, and its complete and total lack of iPhones, television sets, and electricity — is to wonder what it would have to offer even today’s boys, to whom the book was originally addressed in part. Set in the antebellum South, it was somewhat anachronistic even when it was first published in 1876. These days it reads like science fiction. What could that world offer today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds, who prefer to spend their time on YouTube and Fortnite? (Not to mention that any Department of Child Services worthy of the name would have run the adults of the entire town of St. Petersburg into jail for parental neglect with nary a thought.) The appeal of the book for adults is clearer. All of them were children once, and the book recalls a general nostalgia for the independence, the imagination, and the innocence associated with childhood, before they were assimilated into mature, adult society.
All great writers have the ability to find the universal in the particular, and I think this gives us a clue as to what Mark Twain can offer us today. For even during his own time, one of Twain’s central concerns was the ability of men and women to govern themselves and others, the central issue of democracy itself. Though Twain was an American writer, ultimately that concern cuts to the universal qualities of human nature.
What our treatment of other races says about those qualities can only lead to bitter conclusions. It’s a fool’s game to determine what Mark Twain might say about this or that in our own time, but I’ll play the fool and imagine that Twain would have lauded the New York Times‘ recent “1619 Project,” which posits slavery as America’s original sin. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” the Times says in an introductory paragraph, and the controversy that the project has generated, especially on the right, indicates that the issue remains sensitive. Backdating American identity from 1776 to 1619 is, I believe, just the kind of subversive irreverence that Twain would have welcomed.
A central question about next year’s election will be what America itself means — the duties and obligations of a citizen in an imperfect republic. Here, too, history has demonstrated that the distance between our ideals and our behavior, as well as those of our politicians, is so gapingly wide as to be open to ridicule, and ridicule was Twain’s stock in trade. So far as Donald Trump goes, you needn’t ask what Twain would say about the man; he’s already said it in depicting such characters as the Duke and the Dauphin. Indeed, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, is a witty, comic encyclopedia of human iniquity; anybody reading those three books will be ready for the upcoming election season; nothing will be surprising then. You can’t say that about Little Women. And as to whether technology can ameliorate some of these iniquities — well, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has already had the last word on that as well.
Do human beings have the ability to govern themselves to their best, most compassionate advantage? Do human beings have the ability to govern each other, for that matter? Optimists will say that it’s an open question, and the jury’s still out. But in 2019, Mark Twain’s closing argument, laid out in all his books, may be impossible to refute. There is comfort in misanthropy and pessimism after all; not the comfort of optimism, but the comfort of being right. “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little,” said the man itself. And, as Mark Twain also proves, there can be undeniable, liberating joy in knowing it.
My recent visit to the Mark Twain house and museum in Hartford, CT, possessed something of the quality of a pilgrimage. Over the past few years I’ve read several of Twain’s books, but certainly not all — the canon runs to seven thick volumes of about 1,000 pages each in the Library of America edition, perhaps the most reliable and available of contemporary editions, and even this omits thousands of letters as well as the gargantuan, unedited autobiography that the University of California Press issued in three bulky tomes over the past decade. So my own reading — The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Old Times on the Mississippi,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger (and a few shorter pieces, biographies, and critical works) — has been far from comprehensive and complete, though happily this leaves me with more to anticipate. Wandering the rooms and halls of Twain’s mansion, where he spent many of his happiest and most productive years, was to be plunged into the late 19th-century world which produced some of this country’s most extraordinary literature. The museum, too, was an enlightening institution. Really, you should get up to Hartford sometime yourself and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.
This visit and the new release of a digitized version of the Huckleberry Finn manuscript by the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library sent me to Mark Twain & Huck Finn, Walter Blair’s excellent 1960 study of Twain’s masterpiece, in which the scholar of American humor put his finger on one of the main strands — and, for some of us, appeals — of Twain’s work as a whole. He begins by discussing Twain’s 1867 The Innocents Abroad, his first book, but spins this strand out to the rest of Twain’s work as well:
The full title, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, shows that “an innocent” — “a new pilgrim” — was the chief character. Since the author was debunking tourists, his hero’s “progress” took the form of disillusionment concerning Europe and the East. In the part of Roughing It which was a continuous narrative, another sort of innocent — a greenhorn — was disillusioned about the West of romance. “Old Times” follows a similar pattern: journeying on the river, the cub is disillusioned concerning its romance. Such educational journeyings would figure in The Prince and the Pauper and in Part II of Life on the Mississippi. … Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper similarly would show an irresponsible boy moving toward respectable maturity. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain would again deal with the educational journey leading to disillusionment … (48-49)
Of course, this disillusionment has its saving grace in that it’s being offered by a humorist, more specifically a satirist. Like the great satirist Jonathan Swift before him and the great satirist H.L. Mencken after him, Twain roots his essentially misanthropic vision in the genre of comedy. Among the many rewards of this disillusionment, perhaps the greatest is laughter. Another, of course, is the courage to live in truth, not merely about the cosmos but about one’s self as well (for the true misanthrope confesses that he’s as guilty as the rest of his race of his faults), and in this there’s a certain pleasure to be had. To quote Florence King, another misanthrope and much missed, “If we take as one definition of a misanthrope, ‘Someone who does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer,’ we realize at once that we are dealing with an individual who has something to look forward to.”
There’s more, of course — Twain was a conscious literary artist, and experimented more with the structures and techniques of fiction than perhaps any other American writer of his time; his brilliant assimilation of the American vernacular into his prose may be the most obvious and important, though not his only achievement by far. But if I may be so bold as to build upon Blair’s catalog, I cite the concluding paragraphs of Twain’s final major work of fiction, The Mysterious Stranger, perhaps his final, damning statement of disillusionment. Written in 1902-1908 and first published posthumously in a corrupt edition in 1916, it was neglected for decades before it began to enjoy something of a renaissance, and critical attention has slowly been turning to it as a major Twain work. As novelist William Gaddis said of it, “We all came out of Mark Twain’s vest pocket. No one has ever beaten ‘The Mysterious Stranger.'”
“Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand. …
“Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago! — for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane — like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell — mouths mercy and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! …
“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks — in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream — a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought — a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.
A pilgrimage to the house of the man who wrote this is more than due respect to a great writer. It’s inspiration itself.
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.