Our Philadelphia/Chapter 12
CHAPTER XII: PHILADELPHIA AND LITERATURE
ON the principle that nothing interests a man—or a woman—so much as shop, I had no sooner begun to write than I saw Philadelphia divided not between the people who could and could not go to the Assembly and the Dancing Class, but between the people who could and could not write; and, after I began to write for illustration, between the people who could and could not paint and draw. It had never before occurred to me to look for art and literature in Philadelphia.At that time, you had, literally, to look for the literature to find it. Philadelphia, with its usual reticence and conscientiousness in preventing any Philadelphian from becoming a prophet in Philadelphia, had hidden its literary, with its innumerable other, lights under a bushel, content itself to know they were there, if nobody else did. As towns, like men, are apt to be accepted at their own valuation, most Americans would then have thought it about as useful to look for snakes in Ireland as for literature in Philadelphia. I am not sure that the Philadelphian did not agree with them. Recently, I have heard him, in his new zeal for Philadelphia, talk as if it were the biggest literary thing on earth, the headquarters of letters in the
CARPENTER'S HALL INTERIOR
United States, a boast which I am told Indianapolis also makes and, as far as I am concerned, can keep on making undisputed, for I do not believe in measuring literature like so much sheet iron or calico. But no matter what we have come to in Philadelphia, in the old days the Philadelphian seldom gave his lions a chance to roar at home or paid the least attention to them if they tried to. I rather think he would have affected to share the Western Congressman's opinion of "them literary fellers" when the literary fellers came from his native town.
But the Philadelphian must have done a great deal of reading to judge by the number of public libraries in the town,—the Philadelphia Library, the Ridgway, the Mercantile, the Free Public Library, the University Library, the Bryn Mawr College Library, the Friends' Germantown Library, the Library of the Historical Society, and no doubt dozens I know nothing about—and there were always collectors from the days of Logan and Dr. Rush to those of Mr. Widener, George C. Thomas and Governor Pennypacker. But the Philadelphia reading man never talked books and the Philadelphia collector never vaunted and advertised his treasures, as he does now that collecting is correct. The average man kept his books out of sight. I remember few in my Grandfather's house, and not a bookcase from top to bottom—few in any other house except my Father's. But I know that many people had books and a library set apart to read them in, and I have been astonished since to see the large collections in houses where of old I had never noticed or suspected their presence. The Philadelphian was as reticent about his books and his pleasure in them as about everything else, with the result that he got the credit for neither, even at home. This had probably something to do with the fact that though, as far back as I can remember, I had had a fancy for books and for reading, I grew up with the idea that for literature, as for beauty, the Atlantic had to be crossed, that it was not in the nature of things for Philadelphia to have had a literary past, to claim a literary present, or to hope for a literary future. But as I had discovered my mistake about the beauty during those walks with J., so in my modest stall in the literary shop, I learned how far out I had been about the literature. It was the same story over again. I had only to get interested, and there was everything in the world to interest me.
There was the past, for Philadelphia had had a literary past, and not at all an empty past, but one full of the romance of effort and pride of achievement. Because Philadelphians did not begin to write the minute they landed on the banks of the Delaware, some wise people argue that Friends were then, as now, unliterary. But what of William Penn, whose writings have become classics? What of Thomas Elwood, the friend of Milton? What of George Fox who, if unlettered, was a born writer no less than Bunyan? Friends did not write and publish books right off in Philadelphia for the same excellent reason that other Colonists did not in other Colonial towns. Living was an absorbing business that left them no time for writing, and printing presses and publishers' offices and book stores did not strike them as immediate necessities in the wilderness. It was not out of consideration that the early Philadelphia Friends bequeathed nothing to the now sadly overladen shelves of the British Museum and the Library of Congress.
When leisure came Philadelphians were readier to devote it to science. According to Mr. Sydney Fisher, Pennsylvania has done more for science than any other State: a subject upon which my profound ignorance bids me be silent. But science did not keep them altogether from letters. No people ever had a greater itch for writing. Look at the length of their correspondence, the minuteness of their diaries. And they broke into poetry on the slightest provocation. Authorities say that no real poem appeared in America before 1800, but the blame lies not alone with Philadelphia. It did what it could. Boston may boast of Anne Bradstreet who was rhyming before most New Englanders had time for reading, but so could Philadelphia brag of Deborah Logan—if Philadelphia ever bragged of anything Philadelphian—and I am willing to believe there is no great difference between the two poetesses without labouring through their verses to prove myself wrong. And the Philadelphian was as prolific as any other Colonial in horrible doggerel to his mistress's hoops and bows, to her tears and canary birds. And as far as I know, only a Philadelphian among Colonial poets is immortalized in the Dunciad, though possibly Ralph, Franklin's friend to whom the honour fell, would rather have been forgotten than remembered solely because his howls to Cynthia made night hideous for Pope. And where else did the young men so soon form themselves into little groups to discourse seriously upon literature and kindred matters, as they walked sedately in the woods along the Schuylkill? Where else was there so soon a society—a junto—devoted to learning?In innumerable ways I could see, once I could see anything, how Philadelphia was preparing itself all along for literary pursuits and accomplishment. Let me brag a little, if Philadelphia won't. Wasn't it in Germantown that the first paper mill of the Colonies was set up? Wasn't it there that the New Testament was printed in German—and went into seven editions—before any other Colony had the enterprise to print it in English, so that Saur's Testament is now a treasure for the collector? Isn't it maintained by some authorities, if others dispute it, that the first Bible in English was published in Philadelphia by Robert Aitken, at "Pope's Head above the Coffee House, in Market Street"? And Philadelphia issued the first American daily paper, the most important of the first American reviews, the most memorable Almanac of Colonial days—can any other compete with Poor Richard's? And Philadelphia opened the first Circulating
MAIN STREET, GERMANTOWN
Library—the Philadelphia Library is no benevolent upstart of to-day. And Philadelphia publishers were for years the most go-ahead and responsible—who did not know the names of Cary, Lea, Blanchard, Griggs, Lippincott, knew nothing of the publishing trade. And Philadelphia book stores, with Lippincott's leading, were the best patronized. And Philadelphia had the monopoly of the English book trade, with Thomas Wardle to direct it. And Philadelphia held its own views on copyright and stuck to them in the face of opposition for years—whether right or wrong does not matter, the thing is that it cared enough to have views. There is a record for you! Why the literary man had only to appear, and Philadelphia was all swept and garnished for his comfort and convenience.
And the literary man did appear, with amazing promptness under the circumstances. When the demand was for political writers, Philadelphia supplied Franklin, Dickinson, and a whole host of others, until it is all the Historical Society of Pensylvania can do to cope with their pamphlets. When the demand was for native fiction, Philadelphia produced the first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, and if Philadelphians do not read him in our day, Shelley did in his, which ought to be as much fame as any pioneer could ask for. When the need was for an American Cookery Book, Philadelphia presented Miss Leslie to the public who received her with such appreciation that, in the First Edition, she is harder to find than Mrs. Glasse. When, with the years, the past rose in value, Philadelphia gave to America an antiquary, and John Watson, with his Annals, set a fashion in Philadelphia that had to wait a good half century for followers. And when the writer was multiplied all over the country and the reader with him, Philadelphia provided the periodical, the annual, the parlour-table book, that the one wrote for and the other subscribed to—an endless succession of them: The Casket, The Gift, The Souvenir, which I have no desire to disturb on their obscure shelves; the Philadelphia Saturday Museum, and Burtons Gentleman's Magazine, to me the emptiest of empty names; Sartain's Union Magazine, which I might as well be honest and say I have never seen; Graham's, in its prime, unrivalled, unapproached; Godey's Lady's Book, offering its pages alike to the newest verse and the latest mode, the popular magazine that every American saw at his dentist's or his doctor's, edited by Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, for a woman, then as always, could get where she chose, if she had the mind to, without the help of arson and suicide; Peterson's, which I recall only in its title; Lippincott's, in my time the literary test or standard in Philadelphia and scrupulously taken in by the Philadelphia householder. I can see it still, lying soberly on the centre table in the back parlour of the Eleventh and Spruce Street house, never defaced or thumbed, I fancy seldom opened, but like everything in the house, like my Grandfather himself, a type, a symbol of Philadelphia respectability. It was as much an obligation for the respectable Philadelphia citizen to subscribe to Lippincott's as to belong to the Historical Society, to be a member of the Philadelphia Library, to buy books for Christmas presents at Lippincott's or Porter and Coates'. The Philadelphian, who had no particular use for a book as a book or, if he had, kept the fact to himself, was content to parade it as an ornament, and no parlour was without its assortment of pretty and expensive parlour-table books, received as Christmas presents, and as purely ornamental as the pictures on the wall and the vases on the mantelpiece. I know one Philadelphian who carried this decorative use of books still further and nailed them to the ceiling to explain that the room they decorated was a library, which nobody would have suspected for a moment, as they were the only volumes in it.
For the man who had a living to make out of literature, Philadelphia was a good place, not to come away from, but to go to, and a number of American men of letters did go, though I need hardly add Philadelphia made as little of the fact as possible. In Philadelphia Washington Irving, sometimes called America's first literary man, published his books, but truth compels me to admit that he fared better when he handed them over to Putnam in New York; though of late years, the Lippincotts have done much to atone for the old failure by their successful issues of The Alhambra and The Traveller. To Philadelphia magazines, N. P. Willis, and there was no more popular American writer, pledged himself for months ahead. To Philadelphia, Lowell came from Boston to get work. Poe deserted Richmond and the South for Philadelphia, where he contributed to Philadelphia magazines, edited them, planned new ones, while Philadelphia waited until he was well out of the world to know that he ever had lived there. Altogether, when I came upon the scene, Philadelphia had had a highly creditable literary past, and was having a highly creditable literary present, and, in pursuance of its invariable policy, was making no fuss about it.
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had he condescended to know of their existence, did not exist socially, and it is a question if he would have collected round him his ardent worshippers from Philadelphia had he not had the advantage of having been born somewhere else. If I am not mistaken, this worship had not begun in my time, when he was more apt to receive a visitor from London or Boston than from Philadelphia.
The fact that it was my good fortune to know these three men contributed considerably to my new and pleasant feeling of self-importance. When I wrote the life of my Uncle a few years ago, I had much to say of him and my relations with him at this period, and I do not want to repeat myself. But I can no more leave him out of my recollections of literary Philadelphia than out of my personal reminiscences. When he entered so intimately into my life he was nearer sixty than fifty, but he had lost nothing of his vigour nor of his physical beauty—tall, large, long-bearded, a fine profile, the eyes of the seer. He was fastidious in dress, with a leaning to light greys and browns, and a weakness for canes which he preferred thin and elegant. I remember his favourite was black and had an altogether unfashionable silver, ruby-eyed dragon for handle. On occasions to which it was appropriate, he wore a silk hat; on others, more informal, he exchanged it for a large soft felt—a modified cowboy hat—which suited him better, though he would not have forgiven me had I had the courage to say so to his face, his respect for the conventions, always great, having been intensified during his long residence in England. It seems superfluous to add that he could not pass unnoticed in Philadelphia streets, which did not run to cowboy hats or dragon-handled canes or any deviations from the approved Philadelphia dress. Nor did his fancy for peering into shop windows make him less conspicuous, and as his daily walk was hardly complete if it did not lead to his buying something in the shop, were it only a five-cent bit of modern blue-and-white Japanese china, this meant that before his purchase was handed over to me, as it usually was, his pleasure being not in the possession but in the buying, he had parcels to carry, a shocking breach of good manners in Philadelphia. In his company therefore I became a conspicuous figure myself, and I was often his companion in the streets; but to this I had no objection, having been inconspicuous far too long for my taste.He had written his Breitmann Ballads years before when the verse of no other American of note—unless it was Longfellow's and Whittier's and Lowell's in the Biglow Papers—had had so wide a circulation. He had also published one or two of his Gypsy books, never surpassed except by Borrow. And he was engaged in endless new tasks—more Gypsy papers, Art in the Schools, Indian Legends, Comic Ballads, Essays on Education, and I did not mind what since my excitement was in being admitted for the first time into the companionship of a man who
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devoted himself to writing, to whom writing was business, who sat down at his desk after breakfast and wrote as my Father after breakfast went down to his office and bought and sold stocks, who never stopped except for his daily walk, who got back to work if there was a free hour before dinner and who, after dinner, read until he went to bed. Moreover, he had brought with him the aroma, as it were, of the literary life in London. He had met many of the people who, because they had written books, were my heroes. Here would have been literature enough to transfigure Philadelphia had I known no other writers.
But, through him, I did know others. First of all, George Boker with whom, however, I could not pretend to friendship or more than the barest acquaintance. In the streets he was as noticeable a figure as my Uncle, though given neither to cowboy hats and dragon-handled canes nor to peering into shop windows and carrying parcels. Like my Uncle, he was taller than the average man, and handsomer, his white hair and white military moustache giving him a more distinguished air, I fancy, in his old age than was his in his youth. His smile was of the kindliest, the characteristic I remember best. He had returned from his appointments as Minister to Russia and Turkey and had given up active political and diplomatic life. He had written most of his poems, if not all, including the Francesca da Rimini which Lawrence Barrett was shortly afterwards to put on the stage, and he impressed me as a man who had had his fill of life and work and adventure and was content to settle down to the comforts of Philadelphia. He and my Uncle, who had been friends from boyhood or babyhood, spent every Sunday afternoon together. My Uncle had large spacious rooms on the grund floor of a house in South Broad Street where the Philadelphia Art Club now is, and there George Boker came Sunday after Sunday and there, if I dropped in, I saw him. I had the discretion never to stay long, for I realized that their intimate free talk was valued too much by both for them to care to have it interrupted. I can remember nothing he ever said—I have an idea he was a man who did not talk a great deal, while my Uncle did; my memory is of his kindly smile and my sense that here was one of the literary friendships I had read of in books. So, I thought, might Dr. Johnson and Goldsmith have met and talked, or Lamb and Coleridge, and Broad Street seemed tinged with the romance that I took for granted coloured the Temple in London and Gough Square.
Through my Uncle I also met Walt Whitman, and he impressed me still more with the romance of literature. He was so unexpected in Philadelphia, for which I claim him in his last years, Camden being little more than a suburb, whatever Camden itself may think. I could almost have imagined that it was for the humour of the thing he came to settle where his very appearance was an offence to the proprieties. George Boker was scrupulously correct. My Uncle's hat and dragon-handled cane only seemed to emphasize his inborn Philadelphia shrinking from eccentricity. But Walt Whitman, from top to toe, proclaimed the man who did not bother to think of the conventions, much less respect them. You saw it in his long white hair and long white beard, in his loose light grey clothes, in the soft white shirt unlaundered and open at the neck, in the tall, formless grey hat like no hat ever worn in Philadelphia. To have been stopped by him on Chestnut Street—a street he loved—would have filled me with confusion and shame in the days before literature had become my shop. But once literature blocked my horizon, to be stopped by him lifted me up to the seventh heaven. If people turned to look, and Philadelphians never grew quite accustomed to his presence, my pleasure was the greater. I took it for a visible sign that I was known, recognized, and accepted in the literary world. And what a triumph in streets where, of old, life had appalled me by its emptiness of incident!In one way or another I saw a good deal of Walt Whitman, but most frequently by the chance which increased the picturesqueness of the meeting. I called on him in the Camden house described many times by many people: in my memory, a little house, the room where I was received simple and bare, the one ornament as unexpected there as Walt Whitman himself in Philadelphia, for it was an old portrait, dark and dingy, of an ancestor; and I wondered if an ancestor so ancient as to grow dark and dingy in a frame did not make it easier to play the democrat and call every man comrade—or Camerado, I should say, as Walt Whitman said, with his curious fondness for foreign words and sounds. But though I saw him at home, he is more associated in my memory with the ferry-boat for Camden when my Uncle and I were on our way to the Gypsy's camping place near the reservoir; and with the corner of Front and Market and the boot-black's big chair by the Italian's candy and fruit stand where he loved to sit, and where I loved to see him, though, Philadelphian at heart, I trembled for his audacity; and with the Market Street horse-car, where he was already settled in his corner before it started and where the driver and the conductor, passing through, nodded to him and called him "Walt," and where he was as happy as the modern poet in his sixty-horse-power car. He was happiest when sitting out in front with the driver, and I have rarely been as proud as the afternoon he gave up that privileged seat to stay with my Uncle and myself inside. His greeting was always charming. He would take a hand of each of us, hold the two in his for a minute or so beaming upon us, never saying very much. I remember his leading us once, with our hands still in his, from the fruitstand to the tobacconist's opposite to point out to my
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Uncle the wooden figure of an Indian at the door, for which he professed a great admiration as an example of the art of the people before they were trained in the Minor Arts.
These chance meetings were always the best, and he told us that he thought them so, that he loved his accidental meetings with friends—there were many he prized among his most valued reminiscences. And I remember his story of Longfellow having gone over to Camden purposely to call on him, and not finding him at home, and their running into each other on the ferry-boat to Market Street, and Longfellow saying that he had come from the house deeply disappointed, regretting the long quiet talk he had hoped for, but deciding that perhaps the strange chance of the meeting on the water was better. My Uncle, had he been hurrying to catch a train, would still have managed to talk philosophy and art education. But I remember Walt Whitman also saying that the ferry and the corner of Market Street and the Market Street car were hardly places for abstract discussion, though the few things said there were the less easily forgotten for being snatched joyfully by the way.
It was one day in the Market Street car that he and my Uncle had the talk which left with me the profoundest impression. As a rule I was too engrossed in thinking what a great person I was, when in such company, to shine as a reporter. But on this occasion the subject was the School of Industrial Arts in which I was giving my Uncle the benefit of my incompetent assistance. He asked Walt Whitman to come and see it, telling him a little of its aims and methods. Whitman refused, amiably but positively. I cannot recall his exact words, but I gathered from them that he had no sympathy with schemes savouring of benevolence or reform, that he believed in leaving people to work out their own salvation, and this, coming as it did after I had seen for myself the terms he was on with the driver and conductor, expressed more eloquently than his verse his definition of democracy. I may be mistaken, but I thought then and have ever since that his belief in the people carried him to the point of thinking they knew better than the philanthropist what they needed and did not need. My Uncle was not of accord with him and I, who am neither democrat nor philanthropist, would not pretend to decide between them. My Uncle did not like Walt Whitman's attitude and refusal, convinced as he was of the good to the people that was to come of the reform he was initiating, though he was constitutionally incapable of meeting the people he was reforming on equal terms. The twinkle in Walt Whitman's eye when he refused gave me the clue to the large redeeming humour with which he looked upon a foolish world, seeing each individual in the place appointed, right in it, fitting into it, unfit for any other he did not make for himself of his own desire and courage—the humour without which the human tragedy would not be bearable.
I wish I could have had more talk with Whitman, I wish I had been older or more experienced, that I might have got nearer to him—or so I felt in those old days. I have now an idea that his silence was more effective than his speech, that if he had said more to any of his devoted following he might have been less of a prophet. But his tranquil presence was in itself sufficient to open a new outlook, and it reconciled me to the scheme of the universe for good or for ill. His personality impressed me far more than his poems. It seemed to me to explain them, to interpret them, as nothing else could—his few words of greeting worth pages of the critic's eloquent analysis.