Philadelphia: The saving grace of modesty

Agnes Repplier and her friend Robert in 1916. Photo: Mathilde Weil.

I’ve just gotten back from a visit to Philadelphia, my first in eight months, which was far too long. Though only in town for a long weekend, I managed to take care of some unfinished business — a first drink at the Pen & Pencil Club, introducing my wife to Dirty Frank’s — and perhaps even inspired myself to write more about the City of Brotherly Love in the near future.

But where to begin? Philadelphia’s charms are hard to define, but Philly native Agnes Repplier, one of the most celebrated essayists of bygone days, took a stab at it in the introduction to her 1898 Philadelphia: The Place and the People, and for now I’ll let her offer it in her own words, which might be mine had I her talent for elegance:

And now, after two centuries have rolled slowly by, something of [Philadelphia founder Quaker William Penn’s] spirit lingers in the quiet city which preserves the decorum of those early years, which does not jostle her sister cities in the race of life, nor shout loud cries of triumph in their ears, nor flaunt magnificent streamers in the breeze to bid the world take note of each pace she advances.

Every community, like every man, carries to old age the traditions of its childhood, the inheritance derived from those who bade it live. And Philadelphia, though she has suffered sorely from rude and alien hands, still bears in her tranquil streets the impress of the Founder’s touch. Simplicity, dignity, reserve, characterize her now as in Colonial days. She remembers those days with silent self-respect, placing a high value upon names which then were honoured, and are honoured still. The pride of the past mingles and is one with the pride of the present. The stainless record borne by her citizens a hundred and fifty years ago flowers anew in the stainless record their great-great-grandsons bear to-day; and the city cherishes in her cold heart the long annals of the centuries, softening the austerity of her presence for these favoured inheritors of her best traditions. She is not eager for the unknown; she is not keen after excitement; she is not enamoured of noise. Her least noticeable characteristic is enthusiasm. Her mental balance cannot lightly be disturbed. Surtout pas trop de zêle, she says with Talleyrand; and the slow, sure process by which her persuasions harden into convictions does not leave her, like a derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave. She spares herself the arduous labour of forming new opinions every morning, by recollecting and cherishing her opinions of yesterday. It is a habit which promotes solidity of thought.

To those who by right of heritage call themselves her sons, and even to such step-children as are, by nature or grace, attuned to the chill tranquillity of their foster mother, Philadelphia has a subtle charm that endures to the end of life. In the restful atmosphere of her sincere indifference, men and women gain clearness of perspective, and the saving grace of modesty. Few pedestals are erected for their accommodation. They walk the level ground, and, in the healthy absence of local standards, have no alternative save to accept the broad disheartening standards of the world. Philadelphians are every whit as mediocre as their neighbours, but they seldom encourage each other in mediocrity by giving it a more agreeable name. Something of the old Quaker directness, something of the old Quaker candour, — a robust candour not easily subdued, — still lingers in the city founded by the “white truth-teller,” whose word was not as the words of other men, — spoken to conceal his thoughts, and the secret purpose of his soul.