Penn’s City: American Athens

PrintPrintEmailEmail

A generation ago one of Christopher Morley’s Main Line heroes told his girl that Philadelphia “had her spell of modernism and revolution in the eighteenth century and got through with it once and for all.” That was not strictly true. For several decades after the national capital moved on to Washington in 1800, Philadelphia remained the creative focus of American art. Here American painting graduated from its colonial phase into full-fledged artistic activity with professional organization, a transition in which Charles Willson Peale played a parental role. As a craftsman, an artist, and a man of indefatigable curiosity, Peale seemed able to work out every idea that came to him. He had organized the first art school, which held a public exhibit as early as 1795. Ten years later the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was organized as the first successful public institution devoted to art. Peale’s own museum, with all the oddities included in its collections, remained one of the major cultural institutions in the United States for several decades to come, until it was finally vulgarized into a pre-Barnum side show.

Perhaps the best proof of the stored-up vitality of the city was its position as the foremost publishing center of the nation, an eminence it retained at least until the third decade of the nineteenth century. Philadelphia already had to her credit the first American edition of Shakespeare and the first American anthology. In 1807 The Columbiad of Joel Barlow, a New Englander, was published there—a book hailed as “in all respects the finest specimen of bookmaking ever produced … by an American press.” Between times, Philadelphia had given the world the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, the nation’s first professional novelist, now all but forgotten but hailed by Keats and Shelley as a “powerful genius” comparable to the renowned Schiller. And by 1824 there were completed and published two encyclopedias, of twenty-one and forty-seven volumes respectively, that could have been produced nowhere else in the nation.

Penn’s town yielded its pre-eminence slowly. As the center of business finance it was given the coup de grâce only in the 1830’s, when Andrew Jackson scuttled Nicholas Biddle’s Bank of the United States. By then, New York had become the nation’s chief seaport and the “great commercial emporium” of the land. At the close of the War of 1812, England chose New York as the dumping ground for its accumulation of manufactures, a circumstance of which the alert merchants of Manhattan took immediate and full advantage. The early, precisely scheduled packet service to Europe that shuttled in and out of New York Harbor helped to concentrate transatlantic trade there, and the steamboats that proliferated on adjacent waters quickened the distribution of goods and people from everywhere. When the Erie Canal made New York the wide-open gateway to the West, no other city could challenge its status as the metropolis of the New World.

By then ideas that had been put into play at Philadelphia had, for almost a century, exercised a dynamic influence on the development of an American state of mind. Penn’s great experiment of religious freedom had broadened into an experiment of every other sort of freedom—political, social, personal, and economic —upon which our national experience continues to pivot. By then, too, Philadelphia seemed ready to settle quietly back on its venerable reputation and, as a “hotbed of inertia,” to become the butt of countless jokes (Philadelphias love to eat snails, but they find it so hard to catch them, etc.). Yet within the last dozen years, no other city has made such a remarkable effort to recover from the paralyzing blight that has afflicted our urban centers. The exact site of Penn’s “green countrie towne” has been opened up and developed as the largest single space available at the center of an American city in the twentieth century; opened up into a vision of what a city can do for its own salvation. In this modern revolutionary stage of its history, Philadelphia has set the pace for urban America. But then, revolution and modernism are an old story in Philadelphia.