Open main menu

CHAPTER XI: THE ROMANCE OF WORK

I

I WAS still in the stage of wonder and joy at seeing myself in print, when work and Philadelphia joined in the most unlooked for manner to help me tell my Grandmother that "something" she was so anxiously waiting to hear. An article on Philadelphia which an intelligent Editor asked me to write was my introduction to J. The town that we both love first brought us together, as it now brings us back to it together after the many years that have passed since it laid the foundation of our long partnership.

I would say nothing about the article at this late date had it not added so materially to my life and to my knowledge of Philadelphia. I am not proud of it as a piece of literary work. But it seems, as I recall the days of my apprenticeship, to mark the turning of the ways, to point to the new road I was destined to take. I got it out the other day, the first time in over a quarter of a century, proposing to reprint it, thinking the contrast between my impressions of Philadelphia thirty years ago and my impressions of Philadelphia to-day might be amusing. In memory, it had remained a brilliant performance, one any editor would be pleased to jump at, and I was astonished to find it youthful and crude, inarticulate, inadequate not

THE CHERRY STREET STAIRS NEAR THE RIVER

only to the subject itself but to my appreciation of the subject which at the time was unbounded. I do not know whether to be more amazed at my failure in it to say what I wanted to say, or at the Editor's amiability in publishing it. The article may not have lost all its eloquence for me, since between the halting lines I can read the story I did not know how to tell, but for others it would prove a dull affair and it is best left where it is, forgotten in the old files of a popular magazine.

The story I read is one of a series of discoveries with a romance in each. The way the article came about was that J. had made etchings of Philadelphia, and the Editor, who had wisely arranged to use them, thought they could not be published without accompanying text. When he asked me, as a young Philadelphian just beginning to write, to supply this text, he advised me to consult with J., whom I did not know and whose studio address he gave me.

I was thrilled by the prospect, never having been in a studio nor met an artist, and when it turned out not half so simple as it looked on paper, when the first catching my artist was attended with endless delays and difficulties, it did not lessen the thrill or take away from the sense of adventure.

J.'s studio, which he shared with Mr. Harry Poore, was at the top of what was then the Presbyterian Building on Chestnut Street above Thirteenth, quite new and of tremendous height at a time when the sky-scraper had not been invented nor the elevator become a necessity of Philadelphia life. Day after day, varying the hour with each attempt, now in the morning, now at noon, now toward evening, I toiled up those long flights of stairs, marvelling at the strange, unaccountable disclosures through half-opened studio doors, for it was a building of studios; glad of the support of my Uncle who was seeing me through this, as he saw me through all my earliest literary enterprises; arriving at the top, breathless and panting, only to be informed by a notice, written on paper and pinned on the tight-locked door, that J. was out and would be back in half an hour. My Uncle and I were inclined to interpret this literally, once or twice waiting trustingly on the dark landing some little while beyond the appointed time. On one occasion I believe the door was opened, when we knocked, by Mr. Poore who was not sure of the length of a half hour as J. reckoned it, but had an idea it might vary according to circumstances, especially now that J. was out of town. I went away not annoyed as I should be to-day, but more stirred than ever by the novelty of the adventure.

At last I tied J. down by an appointment, as I should have done at the start, and he, having returned to town, kept it to the minute. I think from first to last of this astonishing business I had no greater shock of astonishment than when I followed him into his studio. We were in the Eighteen-Eighties then, when American magazines and newspapers were making sensational copy out of the

THE MORRIS HOUSE ON EIGHTH STREET

princely splendour of the London studios, above all of Tadema's, Leighton's, Millais': palatial interiors, hung with priceless tapestries, carpeted with rare Oriental rugs, shining with old brass and pottery and armour, opening upon Moorish courts, reached by golden stairs, fragrant with flowers, filled with soft couches and luxurious cushions—flamboyant, exotic interiors that would not have disgraced Ouida's godlike young Guardsmen but that scarcely seemed to belong to men who made their living by the work of their hands. Indeed, it was their splendour that misled so many incompetent young men and women of the later Victorian age into the belief that art was the easiest and most luxurious short cut to wealth. But there was nothing splendid or princely about J.'s studio. It was frankly a workshop, big and empty, a few unframed drawings and life studies stuck up on the bare walls, the floors carpetless, for furniture an easel or two and a few odd rickety chairs—a room nobody would have dreamed of going into except for work. But then, my first impression of J. was of a man who did not want to do anything except work.

My experience had been that people—if I leave out my Uncle—worked, not because they wanted to but because they had to and that, sceptical as they might be on every other Scriptural point, they were not to be shaken out of their belief in work as a curse inherited from Adam. J., evidently, would have found the curse in not being allowed to work. And as new to me was the enthusiasm with which, while he showed me his prints and drawings, he began to talk about Philadelphia and its beauty. It was unusual for Philadelphians to talk about their town at all; if they did, it was more unusual for them to talk with enthusiasm; and the interest in it forced upon them by the Centennial had been for every quality rather than its beauty. Even my Uncle—though later, in his Memoirs, he wrote charmingly of the charm of Philadelphia—at that time affected to admire nothing in it except the unsightly arches of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bridging the streets between the Schuylkill and the Station, and if he made the exception in their favour, it was because they reminded him of London. Thanks to the Centennial and the stimulus of hard work, I was not as ignorant of Philadelphia as I had been, but I was not rid of the old popular fallacy that the American in search of beauty must cross the Atlantic and go to Europe. And here was J., in five minutes telling me more about Philadelphia than I had learned in a lifetime, revealing to me in his drawings the beauty of streets and houses I had not had the wit to find out for myself, firing me with sudden enthusiasm in my turn, convincing me that nothing in the world counted but Philadelphia, opening my eyes to its unsuspected resources, so that after this I could walk nowhere without visions of romance where all before had been everyday commonplace, leaving me eager and impatient to start on my next journey of discovery which was to be in his company.


II

To illustrate our article—for ours it had become—J. passed over the obvious picturesqueness of Philadelphia—the venerable Pennsylvania Hospital, the beautiful State House, Christ Church, the Old Swedes, St. Peter's—buildings for which Philadelphia, after years of indifference, had at last been exalted by the Centennial into historic monuments, the show places of the town, labelled and catalogued—buildings of which J. had already made records, having begun his work by drawing them, his plate of the State House among the first he ever etched. He now went in preference to the obscure by-ways, to the unpretending survivals of the past, so merged, so swallowed up in the present, that it needed keen eyes to detect them: old buildings stamped with age, but too humble in origin for the Centennial to have resurrected; busy docks, grimy river banks, crazy old rookeries abandoned to the business and poverty that claimed them: to the strange, neglected, never-visited corners of a great town where beauty springs from the rich soil of labour and chance, neglect and decay.

How little I had known of Philadelphia up till then! One of the very first places to which he took me was the old Second Street Market that, when I lived within a stone's throw of it, I had never set my eyes on—the old market that, south of Pine, forces Second Street to widen and make space for it and that turns the gable of the little old Court House directly north, breaking the long vista of the street as St. Clement's and St. Mary's in London break the vista of the Strand—the old market that I believe the city proposes to pull down, very likely will have pulled down before these lines are in print, though there is not a Philadelphian who would not go into ecstasies over as shabby and down-at-the-heel Eighteenth Century building if stumbled upon in an English country town. And as close to his old family home and mine J. led me into inn yards that might have come straight from the Borough on the Surrey side of the Thames, and in and out of dark mysterious courts which he declared as "good" as the exploited French and Italian courts every etcher has at one time or another made a plate of—curious nooks and byways I had never stopped to look at during my Third Street days and would have seen nothing in if I had.

And I remember going with him along Front Street, where I should have thought myself contaminated at a time when it might have varied the dull round of my daily walks, so unlike was it to the spick and span streets I knew,—glimpses at every crossing of the Delaware, Philadelphia's river of commerce that Philadelphians never went near unless to take the boat for Torresdale or, in summers of economy, the steamer for Liverpool; for several blocks, groups of seafaring men mending sails on the side-walk, Mariners' Boarding-Houses, a Mariners' Church, and Philadelphia here the seaport town it is and always has been; and then, successive odours of the

THE OLD COACHING-INN YARD

barnyard, fish, spice, coffee, Philadelphia smelling as strong of the romance of trade as any Eastern bazaar.

And I remember J. and I crossing the forbidden line into "up town" to find beauty, interest, picturesqueness in "Market, Arch, Race and Vine"—old houses everywhere, the old Meeting-House, Betsy Ross' house, Provost Smith's, the Christ Church Burial Ground at Fifth and Arch where Franklin is buried, narrow rambling alleys, red and black brick, and there, up on a house at the corner of Front, where it is to this day, a sign going back to the years when Race was still Sassafras Street, and so part of the original scheme of Philadelphia, to which, with Philadelphia docility, I had all my life believed South of Market alone could claim the right.

And I remember our wandering to the Schuylkill, not by the neat and well-kept roads and paths of the Park, but where tumbled-down houses faced it near Callowhill Street Bridge and works of one kind or another rose from its banks near Gray's Ferry, and Philadelphia was a town of industry, of machines, of railroads connecting it with all parts of the world,—for already to J. "the Wonder of Work" had made its irresistible appeal. And I remember our wandering farther, north and south, east and west—interest, beauty, picturesqueness never failing us—in the end Philadelphia transformed into a vast Wonderland, where in one little section people might spend their lives dancing, paying calls at noon, eating chicken salad and croquettes from Augustine's, but where in every other they were striving, struggling, toiling, to carry on Penn's traditions and to give to his town the greatness, power and beauty he planned for it.

In these walks I had followed J. into streets and quarters of the town I had not known. But I would be leaving out half the story if I did not say how much he showed me in the streets and quarters I did know. It is with a town, I suppose, as with life out of which, philosophers say, we get just as much, or as little, as we bring to it. I had brought no curiosity, no interest, no sympathy, to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia therefore had given me nothing save a monotony of red brick and green shade. But now I came keen with curiosity, full of interest, aflame with sympathy, and Philadelphia overwhelmed me with its gifts. Oh, the difference when, having eyes, one sees! I was as surprised to learn that I had been living in the midst of beauty all my life as M. Jourdain was to find he had been talking prose.

Down in lower Spruce and all the neighbouring streets, where I had walked in loneliness longing for something to happen, something happened at every step—beautiful Colonial houses, stately doorways, decorative ironwork, dormer windows, great gables facing each other at street corners, harmonious proportions—not merely a bit here and a bit there, but the old Colonial town almost intact, preserved by Philadelphia through many generations only to be abandoned now to the Russian Jew and the squalor and the dirt that the Russian Jew takes with him wherever he goes. In not another American town had the old streets then changed so little since Colonial days, in not another were they so well worth keeping unchanged. I had not to dive into musty archives to unearth the self-evident fact that the early Friends, when they left England, packed up with their liberty of conscience the love of beauty in architecture and, what was more practical, the money to pay for it; that, in a fine period of English architecture, they got good English architects,—Wren said to have been of the number—to design not merely their public buildings, but their private houses; that, their Founder setting the example, they carried over in their personal baggage panelling, carvings, ironwork, red and black brick, furniture, and the various details they were not likely to procure in Philadelphia until Philadelphians had moved from their caves and the primeval forest had been cut down; that when Philadelphia could contribute its share of the work, they modified the design to suit climate, circumstances, and material, and bequeathed to us a Philadelphia with so much local character that it never could be mistaken for an English town.

This used to strike the intelligent foreigner as long as Philadelphia was content to have a character of its own and did not bother to be in architectural or any other movements. "Not a distressingly new-looking city, for the Queen Anne style in vogue when its prosperity began is in the main adhered to with Quaker-like precision; good red brick; numerous rather narrow windows with white outside shutters, a block cornice along the top of the façades and the added American feature of marble steps and entry,"—this, in a letter to William Michael Rossetti, was Mrs. Gilchrist's description of Philadelphia in the late Eighteen-Seventies, and it is an appreciative description though most authorities would probably describe Philadelphia as Georgian rather than Queen Anne. Philadelphia did more to let the old character go to rack and ruin during the years I was away from it than during the two centuries before, and is to-day repenting in miles upon miles of sham Colonial. But repentance cannot wipe away the traces of sin—cannot bring back the old Philadelphia I knew.

I do not want to attribute too much to my new and only partially developed power of observing. Had the measuring worm not retreated before the sparrow, I might perhaps have been less prepared during my walks with J. to admit the beauty of the trees lining every street, as well as of the houses they shaded. But what is the use of troubling about the might-have-been? The important thing is that, with him I did for the first time see how beautiful are our green, well-shaded streets. With him too I first saw how beautiful is their symmetry as they run in their long straight lines and cross each other at right angles. It was a symmetry I had confused with monotony, with which most Philadelphians, foolishly misled, still confuse it. They would rather, for the sake of variety, that

FRANKLIN'S GRAVE

Penn had left the building and growth of Philadelphia to chance as the founders of other American towns did—they would rather boast with New York or Boston of the disorderly picturesqueness of streets that follow old cow tracks made before the town was. But Penn understood the value of order in architecture as in conduct. It is true that Ruskin, the accepted prophet of my young days, did not include order among his Seven Lamps, but there was a good deal Ruskin did not know about architecture, and a town like Paris in its respect for arrangement—for order—for a thought-out plan—will teach more at a glance than all his rhapsodies. Philadelphia has not the noble perspectives of the French capital nor the splendid buildings to complete them, but its despised regularity gives it the repose, the serenity, which is an essential of great art, whether the art of the painter or the engraver, the sculptor or the architect. And it gives, too, a suggestiveness, a mystery we are more apt to seek in architectural disorder and caprice. I know nobody who has pointed out this beauty in Penn's design except Mrs. Gilchrist in the description from which I have already borrowed, and she merely hints at the truth, not grasping it. Philadelphia to her was more picturesque and more foreign-looking than she expected, and her explanation is in the "long straight streets at right angles to each other, long enough and broad enough to present that always pleasing effect of vista-converging lines that stretch out indefinitely and look as if they must certainly lead somewhere very pleasant,"—the streets that are to the town what "the open road" is to the country,—the long, white, straight road beckoning who can say where?


III

It was without the slightest intention on my part that the vista-converging lines of the streets led me direct to William Penn. But I defy anybody to do a little thinking while walking through the streets of Philadelphia and not be led to him, so for eternity has he stamped them with his vivid personality—not William Penn, the shadowy prig of the school history, but William Penn, the man with a level head, big ideas, and the will to carry them out—three things that make for genius. To the weakling of to-day the fight for liberty of conscience would loom up so gigantic a task as to fill to overflowing his little span here below. But in the fight as Penn fought it, the material details could be overlooked as little as the spiritual, the comfort of the bodies of his people no more neglected than the freedom of their souls. He did not stop to preach about town-planning and garden cities, and improved housing for the workman, like the would-be reformer of today. With no sentimental pose as saviour of the people, no drivel about reforming and elevating and sweetening the lives of humanity, no aspiration towards "world- betterment," Penn made sure that Philadelphia should be the green town he thought it ought to be and that men and women, whatever their appointed task, should have decent houses to hve in. He had the common-sense to understand that his colonists would be the sturdier and the better equipped for the work they had to do if they lived like men and not like beasts, and that a town as far south as Philadelphia called for many gardens and much green shade. The most beautiful architecture is that which grows logically out of the needs of the people. That is why Penn's city as he designed it was and is a beautiful city, to which English and German town reformers should come for the hints Philadelphians are so misguided as to seek from them.

I could not meet Penn in his pleasant streets and miss the succession of Friends who took over the responsibility of ensuring life and reality to his design, not allowing it, like Wren's in London, to lapse into a half-forgotten archæological curiosity. Personally, I knew nothing of the Friends and envied J. who did because he was one of them, as I never could be, as nobody, not born to it, can. I had seen them, as alas! they are seen no longer: quiet, dignified men in broad-brimmed hats, sweet-faced women in delicate greys and browns, filling our streets in the spring at the time of Yearly Meeting. Once or twice I had seen them at home, the women in white caps and fichus, quiet and composed, sitting peacefully in their old-time parlours simple and bare but filled with priceless Sheraton or Chippendale. They looked, both in the open streets and at their own firesides, so placid, so detached from the world's cares, it had not occurred to me that they could be the makers of the town's beauty and the sinews of its strength. But in my new mood I could nowhere get far from them.

Ghosts of the early Friends haunted the old streets and the old houses and, mingling with them, were ghosts of the World's People who had lost no time in coming to share their town and ungraciously abuse the privilege. The air was thick with association. J. and I walked in an atmosphere of the past, delightfully conscious of it but never troubling to reduce it to dry facts. We could not have been as young as we were and not scorn any approach to pedantry, not as lief do without ghosts as to grub them up out of the Philadelphia Library or the Historical Society. We left it to the antiquary to say just where the first Friends landed and the corner-stone of their first building was laid, just in which Third Street house Washington once danced, in which Front Street house Bishop White once lived. It was for the belated Boswell, not for us, to follow step by step the walks abroad of Penn, or Franklin, or any of our town's great men. It was no more necessary to be historians in order to feel the charm of the past than to be architects in order to feel the charm of the houses, and for no amount of exact knowledge would we have exchanged the romance which enveloped us.

Could I have put into words some of the emotion I

ARCH STREET MEETING

felt in gathering together my material, what an article I would have made! But my words came with difficulty, and indeed I have never had the "ready pen" of the journalist, always I have been shy in expressing emotion of any kind. No reader could have guessed from my article my enthusiasm as I wrote it. But at least it did get written and my pleasure in it was not disturbed by doubt. I was too enthralled by what I had to say to realize that I had not managed to say it at all.


IV

With the publication of the article our task was at an end, but not our walks together. J. and I had got into the habit of them, it was a pleasant habit, we saw no reason to give it up.

Sometimes we walked with new work as an object. There were articles about Philadelphia for Our Continent. We called it work—learning Romany—when we both walked with my Uncle up Broad Street to Oakdale Park, and through Camden and beyond to the Reservoir, where the Gypsies camped, and made Camden in my eyes, not the refuge of all in doubt, debt, or despair as its traditions have described it, but a rival in romance of Bagdad or Samarcand. When we walked still further, taking the train to help us out, to near country towns for the autumn fairs, never missing a side show, we called this the search for local colour, and I filled note-books with notes. Sometimes we walked for no more practical purpose than pleasure in Philadelphia. And we could walk for days, we could walk for miles, and exhaust neither the pleasure nor the town that I once fancied I knew by heart if I walked from Market to Pine and from the Delaware to the Schuylkill.

I remember as a remarkable incident my discovery of the suburbs. With the prejudice borrowed from my Father, I had cultivated for all suburbs something of the large sweeping contempt which, in the Eighteen-Nineties, Henley and the National Observer, carrying on the tradition of Thackeray, made it the fashion to profess for the suburbs of London. West Philadelphia and Germantown were no less terms of opprobrium in my mouth than Clapham and Brixton in Henley's. But Henley, though it was a mistake to insist upon Clapham with its beautiful Common and old houses and dignified air, was expressing his splendid scorn of the second-rate, the provincial, in art and in letters. I was only expressing, parrot-like, a pose that did not belong to me, but to my Father in whose outlook upon life and things there was a whimsical touch, and who carried off his prejudices with humour.

I was the more foolish in this because few towns, if any, have lovelier suburbs than Philadelphia. Their loveliness is another part of our inheritance from William Penn who set no limits to his dream of a green country town, and from the old Friends who, in deference to his desire, lined not only their streets but their roads with trees. This is

CLIVEDEN, THE CHEW HOUSE

only as it should be, I thought when, reading the letters of John Adams, I came upon his description of the road to Kensington and beyond, "straight as the streets of Philadelphia, on each side . . . beautiful rows of trees, button-woods, oaks, walnuts, cherries, and willows." In our time, scarcely a road out of Philadelphia is without the same beautiful rows, if not the same variety in the trees, and while much of the open country it ran through in John Adams' day has been built up with town and suburban houses, the trees still line it on each side. Everybody knows the beauty of the leafy roads of the Main Line, quite a correct thing to know, the Main Line being the refuge of the Philadelphian pushed out of "Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine" by business and the Russian Jew combined. But the Main Line has not the monopoly of suburban beauty, though it may of suburban fashion. The Main Street in Germantown, with its peaceful old grey stone houses and great overshadowing trees, has no rival at home or abroad, and I have seen as commonplace a street as Walnut in West Philadelphia, its uninteresting houses screened behind the two long lines of trees, become in the golden light of a summer afternoon as stately an avenue as any at Versailles or St. Germain.

Not only the trees, but the past went with us to Germantown. Has any other American suburb so many old houses to boast? Stenton, the Chew House, the Johnson House, the Morris House, the Wistar House, Wyck—are there any other Colonial houses with nobler interiors, statelier furniture, sweeter gardens? I recall the pillared hall of Chew House, the finely proportioned entrance and stairway of Stenton, the garden of Wyck as I last saw it—rather overgrown, heavy with the perfume of roses and syringa, the June sun low behind the tall trees that stand close to the wall along Walnut Lane;—I recall the memories clustering about those old historic homes, about every lane and road and path, and I wonder that Germantown is not one of the show places of the world. But the foreigner, to whom Philadelphia is a station between New York and Washington or New York and Chicago, has never heard of it, nor has the rest of America to whom Philadelphia is the junction for Atlantic City. With the exception of Stenton, the old Germantown houses are for use, not for show, still lived in by the families who have lived in them from the beginning, and I love them too well to want to see them overtaken by the fate of sights starred in Baedeker, even while I wonder why they have escaped.

At times J. and I walked in the green valley of the Wissahickon, along the well-kept road past the old white taverns, with wide galleries and suppers of cat-fish and waffles, which had not lost their pleasant primitiveness to pass themselves off as rural Rumpelmeyers where ladies stop for afternoon tea. Can the spring be fairer anywhere than in and around Philadelphia when wistaria blossoms on every wall and the country is white with dogwood? Often we wandered in the Wissahickon woods, by narrow footpaths up the low hillsides, so often that, wherever I may be, certain effects of brilliant sunshine filtering through the pale green of early spring foliage will send me straight back to the Wissahickon and to the days when I could not walk in Philadelphia or its suburbs and not strike gold at every step. And the Wissahickon was but one small section of the Park, of which the corrupt government Philadelphia loves to rail at made the largest and fairest, at once the wildest and most wisely laid-out playground, in America. Will a reform Government, with all its boasting, do as much for Philadelphia? I had skimmed the surface only on those boating parties up the river and those walking parties in the starlit or moonlit shade. Wide undiscovered stretches lay off the beaten track, and the mansions of the Park—Strawberry, Belmont, Mount Pleasant—were well stocked, not only with lemonade and cake and peanuts, with croquettes and chicken salad, but with beauty and associations for those who knew how to give the order. And, greater marvel, beauty—classic beauty—was to be had even in the Fairmount Water Works that, after I left school, I had looked down upon as a childish entertainment provided for the holidays, beneath the consideration of my maturer years.


V

Of all our walks, none was better than the walk to Bartram's on the banks of the Schuylkill beyond Gray's Ferry. It seemed very far then, before the trolley passed by its gate, and before the rows of little two-story houses had begun to extend towards it like the greedy tentacles of the great town. The City Government had not taken it over, it was not so well looked after. The old grey stone house, with the stone tablet on its walls bearing witness that his Lord was adored by John Bartram, had not yet been turned into a museum. I am not sure whether the trees around it—the trees collected from far and near—were learnedly labelled as they are now. The garden had grown wild, the thicket below was a wilderness. It is right that the place should be cared for. The city could not afford to lose the beauty one of its most famous citizens, who was one of the most famous botanists of his day, built up, and his family preserved, for it, and when I returned I welcomed the sign this new care gave of Philadelphia's interest, so long in the awakening. But Bartram's was more beautiful in its neglect, as an old church is more beautiful before the restorer pulls down the ivy and scrapes and polishes the stone. Many were the Sunday afternoons J. and I spent there, and many the hours we sat talking on the little bench at the lower end of the wilderness, where we looked out on the river and planned new articles.

When our walks together had become too strong a habit to be broken and we decided to make the habit one for life, we went back again and again to Bartram's and on that same little bench, looking out upon the river, we planned work for the long years we hoped were ahead of

BARTRAM'S

us: perhaps seeing the future in the more glowing colours for the contrast with the past about us, the ashes of the life and beauty from which our phœnix was to soar. The work then planned carried and kept us thousands of miles away, but it belongs none the less to the old scenes, where it was inspired, and I like to think that, though the chances of this work have made us exiles for years, the memory of our life as we have lived it is inseparable from the memory of Bartram's or, indeed, of Philadelphia which, through work, I learned to see and to love.