Our Philadelphia/Chapter 1
CHAPTER I: AN EXPLANATION
I THINK I have a right to call myself a Philadelphian, though I am not sure if Philadelphia is of the same opinion. I was born in Philadelphia, as my Father was before me, but my ancestors, having had the sense to emigrate to America in time to make me as American as an American can be, were then so inconsiderate as to waste a couple of centuries in Virginia and Maryland, and my Grandfather was the first of the family to settle in a town where it is important, if you belong at all, to have belonged from the beginning. However, J.'s ancestors, with greater wisdom, became at the earliest available moment not only Philadelphians, but Philadelphia Friends, and how very much more that means Philadelphians know without my telling them. And so, as he does belong from the beginning and as I would have belonged had I had my choice, for I would rather be a Philadelphian than any other sort of American, I do not see why I cannot call myself one despite the blunder of my forefathers in so long calling themselves something else.
I might hope that my affection alone for Philadelphia would give me the right, were I not Philadelphian enough to know that Philadelphia is, as it always was and always will be, cheerfully indifferent to whatever love its citizens may have to offer it. I can hardly suppose my claim for gratitude greater than that of its Founder or the long succession of Philadelphians between his time and mine who have loved it and been snubbed or bullied in return. Indeed, in the face of this Philadelphia indifference, my affection seems so superfluous that I often wonder why it should be so strong. But wise or foolish, there it is, strengthening with the years whether I will or no,—a deeper rooted sentiment than I thought I was capable of for the town with which the happiest memories of my childhood are associated, where the first irresponsible days of my youth were spent, which never ceased to be home to me during the more than a quarter of a century I lived away from it.Besides, Philadelphia attracts me apart from what it may stand for in memory or from the charm sentiment may lend to it. I love its beauty—the beauty of tranquil streets, of red brick houses with white marble steps, of pleasant green shade, of that peaceful look of the past Philadelphians cross the ocean to rave over in the little old dead towns of England and Holland—a beauty that is now fast disappearing. I love its character—the calm, the dignity, the reticence with which it has kept up through
the centuries with the American pace, the airs of a demure country village with which it has done the work and earned the money of a big bustling town, the cloistered seclusion with which it enjoys its luxury and hides its palaces behind its plain brick fronts—a character that also is fast going. I love its history, though I am no historian, for the little I know colours its beauty and accounts for its character.
It is not for nothing that I begin with this flourish of my birth certificate and public confession of love. I want to establish my right, first, to call myself a Philadelphian, and then, to talk about Philadelphia as freely as we only can talk about the places and the people and the things we belong to and care for. I would not dare to take such a liberty with Philadelphia if my references were not in order, for, as a Philadelphian, I appreciate the risk. Not that I have any idea of writing the history of Philadelphia. I hope I have the horror, said to be peculiar to all generous minds, of what are commonly called facts, and also the intelligence not to attempt what I know I cannot do. Another good reason is that the history has already been written more than once. Philadelphians, almost from their cave-dwelling period, have seemed conscious of the eye of posterity upon them. They had hardly landed on the banks of the Delaware before they began to write alarmingly long letters which they preserved, and elaborate diaries which they kept with equal care. And the letter-writing, diary-keeping fever was so in the air that strangers in the town caught it: from Richard Castleman to John Adams, from John Adams to Charles Dickens, from Charles Dickens to Henry James, every visitor, with writing for profession or amusement, has had more or less to say about it—usually more. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has gathered the old material together; our indispensable antiquary, John Watson, has gleaned the odds and ends left by the way; and no end of modern writers in Philadelphia have ransacked their stores of information: Dr. Weir Mitchell making novels out of them, Mr. Sydney Fisher and Miss Agnes Repplier, history; Mr. Hampton Carson using them as the basis of further research; Miss Anne Hollingsworth Wharton resurrecting Colonial life and society and fashions from them, Mr. Eberlein and Mr. Lippincott, the genealogy of Colonial houses; other patriotic citizens helping themselves in one way or another; until, among them all, they have filled a large library and prepared a sufficiently formidable task for the historian of Philadelphia in generations to come without my adding to his burden.
"PORTICO ROW" SPRUCE STREET
town's fashion of belittling them. I am afraid it was partly their fault if the rest of America fell into the same habit. As I recall my old feelings and attitude, it seems to me that in my day we must have been brought up to look down upon Philadelphia. The town surely cut a poor figure in my school books, and the purplest patches in Colonial history must have been there reserved for New England or New York, Virginia or the Carolinas, for any and every colony rather than the Province of Pennsylvania, or I would not have left school better posted in the legends of Powhatan and Pocahontas than in the life of William Penn, and more edified by the burning of witches and the tracking of Indians than by the struggles of Friends to give every man the liberty to go to Heaven his own way. The amiable contempt in which Philadelphians held William Penn revealed itself in their free-and-easy way of speaking of him, if they spoke of him at all, as Billy Penn, though Penn would have been the last to invite the familiarity. Probably few outside the Society of Friends could have said just what he had done for their town, or just what they owed to him. If I am not mistaken, the prevailing idea was that his chief greatness consisted in the cleverness with which he fooled the land out of the Indians for a handful of beads.
The present generation could not be so ignorant if it wanted to. The statue of Penn, in full-skirted coat and broad-brimmed hat, dominating Philadelphia from the ugly tower of the Public Buildings, though it may not be a thing of beauty, at least suggests to Philadelphians that it would not have been put up there, the most conspicuous landmark from the streets and the surrounding country, if Penn had not been somebody, or done something, of some consequence. As for the rest of America, I doubt if it often comes so near to Philadelphia that it can see the statue. The last time I went to New York from London I met on the steamer a man from Michigan who had obviously been but a short time before a man from Cork, and who was so keen to stop in Philadelphia on his way West that I might have been astonished had I not heard so much of the miraculously rapid Americanization of the modern emigrant. Most people do not want to stop in Philadelphia unless they have business there, and he had none, and naturally I could not imagine any other motive except the desire to see the town which is of the greatest historic importance in the United States and which still possesses proofs of it. But the man from Michigan gave me to understand, and pretty quick too, that he did not know Philadelphia had a history and old buildings to prove it, and what was more, he did not care if it had. He guessed history wasn't in his line. What he wanted was to take the next train to Atlantic City; folks he knew had been there and said it was great. And I rather think this is the way most Americans, from America or from Cork, feel about Philadelphia.
It is not my affair to enlighten them or anybody else. I have a more personal object in view. Philadelphia may mean to other people nothing at all—that is their loss; I am concerned entirely with what it means to me. In those wonderful Eighteen-Nineties, now written about with awe by the younger generation as if no less prehistoric than the period of the Renaissance, until it makes me feel a new Methusaleh to own that I lived and worked through them, we were always being told that art should be the artist's record of nature seen through a temperament, criticism the critic's story of his adventures among the world's masterpieces, and though I am neither artist nor critic, though I am not sure what a temperament is, much less if I have one, still I fancy this expresses in a way the end I have set myself in writing about Philadelphia. For I should like, if I can, to record my personal impressions of the town I love and to give my adventures among the beautiful things, the humorous things, the tragic things it contains in more than ample measure. My interest is in my personal experiences, but these have been coloured by the history of Philadelphia since I have dabbled in it, and have become richer and more amusing. I have learned, with age and reading and travelling, that Philadelphia as it is cannot really be known without some knowledge of Philadelphia as it was; also that Philadelphia, both as it is and as it was, is worth knowing. Americans will wander to the ends of the earth to study the psychology—as they call it—of people they never could understand however hard they tried; they will shut themselves up in a remote town of Italy or Spain to master the secrets of its prehistoric past; they will squander months in the Bibliothèque Nationale or the British Museum to get at the true atmosphere of Paris or London; when, had they only stopped their journey at Broad Street Station in Philadelphia or, if they were Philadelphians, never taken the train out of it, they could have had all the psychology and secrets and atmosphere they could ask for, with much less trouble and expense.
I have never been to any town anywhere, and I have been to many in my time, that has more decided character than Philadelphia, or to any where this character is more difficult to understand if the clue is not got from the past. For instance, people talk about Philadelphia as if its one talent was for sleep, while the truth is, taking the sum of its achievements, no other American town has done so much hard work, no other has accomplished so much for the country. Impressed as we are by the fact, it would be impossible to account for the reputation if it were not known that the people who made Philadelphia presented the same puzzling contradiction in their own lives—the only people who ever understood how to be in the world and not of it.The usual alternative to not being of the world is to be in a cloister or to live like a hermit, to accept a rule in common or to renounce social intercourse. But the
ARCH STREET MEETING HOUSE
Friends did not have to shut themselves up to conquer worldliness, they did not have to renounce the world's work and its rewards. For "affluence of the world's goods," Isaac Norris, writing from Philadelphia, could felicitate Jonathan Dickinson, "knowing both thyself and dear wife have hearts and souls fit to use them." That was better than shirking temptation in a monk's cell or a philosopher's tub. If George Fox wore a leather suit, it was because he found it convenient, but William Penn, for whom it would have been highly inconvenient, had no scruple in dressing like other men of his position and wearing the blue ribbon of office. Nor because religion was freed from all unessential ornament, was the house stripped of comfort and luxury. I write about Friends with hesitation. I have been married to one now for many years and can realize the better therefore that none save Friends can write of themselves with authority. But I hope I am right in thinking, as I always have thought since I read Thomas Elwood's Memoirs, that their attitude is excellently explained in his account of his first visit to the Penningtons "after they were become Quakers" when, though he was astonished at the new gravity of their look and behaviour, he found Guli Springett amusing herself in the garden and the dinner "handsome." For the world's goods never being the end they were to the World's People, Friends were as undisturbed by their possession as by their absence and, as a consequence, could meet and accept life, whether its gifts were wealth and power or poverty and obscurity, with the serenity few other men have found outside the cloister. Moreover, they could speak the truth, calling a spade a spade, or their enemy the scabbed sheep, or smooth silly man, or vile fellow, or inhuman monster, or villain infecting the air with a hellish stench, he no doubt was, and never for a moment lose their tempers. This serenity—this "still strength"—is as the poles apart from the phlegmatic, constitutional slowness of the Dutch in New York or, on the other hand, from the tranquillity Henry James traces in progressive descent from taste, tradition, and history, even from the philosopher's calm of achieved indifference, and Friends, having carried it to perfection in their own conduct, left it as a legacy to their town.The usual American town, when it hustles, lets nobody overlook the fact that it is hustling. But Philadelphia has done its work as calmly as the Friends have done theirs, never boasting of its prosperity, never shouting its success and riches from the house-top, and its dignified serenity has been mistaken for sleep. Whistler used to say that if the General does not tell the world he has won the battle, the world will never hear of it. The trouble with Philadelphia is that it has kept its triumph to itself. But we have got so far from the old Friends that no harm can be done if Philadelphians begin to interpret their town's serenity to a world capable of confusing it with drowsiness. If America is ready to forget, if for long Philadelphians were as ready, it is high time we should remember
THE SCHUYLKILL SOUTH FROM CALLOWHILL STREET
ourselves and remind America of the services Philadelphia has rendered to the country, and its good taste in rendering them with so little fuss that all the country has done in return is to laugh at Philadelphia as a back number.
Philadelphians have grown accustomed to the laugh. We have heard it since we were in our cradles. We are used to have other Americans come to our town and,—in the face of our factory chimneys smoking along the Schuylkill and our ship-building yards in full swing on the Delaware, and our locomotives pouring out over the world by I do not know how many thousands from the works in Broad Street, and our mills going at full pressure in the "Little England" of Kensington, in Frankford and Germantown,—in the face of our busy schools and hospitals and academies,—in the face of our stores and banks and charities,—that is, in the face of our industry, our learning, and our philanthropy that have given tips to the whole country,—see only our sleep-laden eyes and hear only our sluggish snores. We know the foolish stories they tell. We have heard many more times than we can count of the Bostonian who retires to Philadelphia for complete intellectual rest, and the New Yorker who when he has a day off comes to spend a week in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphian who goes to New York to eat the snails he cannot catch in his own back-yard. We have heard until we have it by heart that Philadelphia is a cemetery, and the road to it, the Road to Yesterday. We are so familiar with the venerable cliché that we can but wonder at its gift of eternal youth. Never was there a jest that wore so well with those who make it. The comic column is rarely complete without it, and it is forever cropping up where least expected. In the last American novel I opened Philadelphia was described as hanging on to the last strap of the last car to the sound of Gabriel's horn on Judgment Day; in the last American magazine story I read the Philadelphia heroine by her Philadelphia calm conquered the cowboys of the west, as Friends of old disarmed their judges in court. In the general Americanization of London, even the London papers have seized upon the slowness of Philadelphia as a joke for Londoners to roar at. Li Hung Chang couldn't visit Philadelphia without dozing through the ceremonies in his honour and noting the appropriateness of it in his diary. And so it goes on, the witticism to-day apparently as fresh as it was in the Stone Age from which it has come down to us.If Philadelphians laugh, that is another matter—every man has the right to laugh at himself. But we have outlived our old affectation of indifference to our town, I am not sure that we are not pushing our profession of pride in it too far to the other extreme. I remember the last time I was home I went to a public meeting called to talk about the world's waterways, and no Philadelphian present, from the Mayor down, could talk of anything
FRIENDS' GRAVEYARD, GERMANTOWN
but Philadelphia and its greatness. But whatever may be our pose now, or next year, or the year after, there is always beneath it a substantial layer of affection, for we cannot help knowing, if nobody else does, what Philadelphia is and what Philadelphia has done. Certainly, it is because I know that I, for one, would so much rather be the Philadelphian I am, and my ancestors were not, than any other sort of American, that, as I have grown older, my love for my town has surprised me by its depth, and makes my confession of it now seem half pleasure, half duty.