Unexpected Philadelphia

PrintPrintEmailEmail

That was a century of national growth and brag, the century when in the American language big came to mean something other than mere size. This was one of the reasons that, for a long time, historians did not devote much interest to nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Now this is changing. There is a nineteenth-century side to Philadelphia that is lovable, enduring—and unexpected. Unexpected because Philadelphia is not particularly famous for its Victorian architecture. Its charm was, and remains, more complicated than that. English visitors have noticed this, again and again: Dickens and Trollope and Kipling said parts of it were better than London. Also, to this writer, who came to Philadelphia forty years ago and liked it instantly, it was an unexpected town with all the promises of decency and the sentimental warmth of a provincial city; and there were, too, the lights through the fog settling on Rittenhouse Square, muffled and elegant, with its patrician air. The nineteenth-century atmosphere still exists, not necessarily in celebrated buildings such as City Hall but in the, again unexpected, little streets, with their unexpected and irregular names: Quince, Manning, Fawn; Camac, Panama, Chadwick; Latimer and Van Pelt-the nooks and crannies of an unplanned Philadelphia. They are suffused with a rare combination of domesticity and elegance. For, even more than being the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia was, and still is, the City of Homes. One hundred years ago more people owned their houses in Philadelphia than in any other city on earth. They also moved less than other Americans, preferring to stay in their neighborhoods. (There is another side to this, of course. Philadelphians are an incurious people, often unaware and uninterested in what happens beyond their neighborhoods. When, not so long ago, an Irish Catholic boy from, say, Manayunk, would wed a Polish Catholic girl from Tacony, people would speak of a mixed marriage.)

The fact is that Philadelphians are not too sure of themselves.

So I direct my visiting friends or students to Washington Square, behind Independence Hall; to the small Cherry Street neighborhood north of Market; to Delancey Place, which is not a place but a meandering street, with its rows of splendid town houses, darkred and gleaming-white, like Charleston’s but somehow more urban and urbane; their doorways and lintels and windows as patrician as Beacon Hill in Boston but less selfconsciously so. Yet here, unlike in Boston or Washington, I cannot really point out a single house with a famous name. And this is perhaps not surprising. After two centuries we may observe the limitations of the ambitions, and consequently of the national achievements, of so many Philadelphians. Despite her key situation in the nation (and within the Keystone State), Philadelphia produced not one President, not one serious presidential contender, not one important senator (with the solitary exception of Boss Boies Penrose), nor a Chief Justice of the United States (the great old legal traditions of the city notwithstanding; the half-admiring, half-envious phrase “smart as a Philadelphia lawyer” appeared as early as 1786, in England). Famous Philadelphia writers: almost none. Famous painters: yes—but, even more, great private collectors who, unlike their contemporary millionaires in Boston and New York and Chicago, knew what they were buying without having to rely on the word of advisers and dealers. Famous people? Not really. Honorable people? Yes. The great historian Jakob Burckhardt once wrote that it is not easy to distinguish the sense of honor from the passion for fame; yet the two sentiments are essentially different. The ambitions of the best of Philadelphians may have been the reverse of what a wag said about celebrity, that is, the fame for being well known. Respectable Philadelphians have sometimes preferred not to be well known —at least not outside Philadelphia. Esse Quam Videri (“to be more than to seem”): this Roman phrase is Old Philadelphian, and at least two Philadelphia institutions have it as their motto.

They do not always live up to it. The trouble is that Philadelphians are not too sure of themselves. They will, at times, recognize local talents, but not until the reputation of the latter has been established elsewhere. They will overcome their Philadelphian reluctance in order to conform to ideas or practices that seem to be successful and widespread elsewhere, but then the results are not propitious; and when, for instance, Philadelphia decides to follow and imitate New York (usually after a ten-or even twenty-year time lag), it is the dowager trying to be the flapper: it is unseemly and it will not last.

The United States is a very big country. It has plenty of space for unexpected places, unexpected things, unexpected people. Because of the national inclination for publicity, there are places and people and habits in America that strenuously strive to fulfill, and overdo, what is expected—or rather, what seems to be expected—of them by others. That is why, alas, so many things (and sometimes people) become caricatures of themselves: say, Times Square on New Year’s Eve or Beverly Hills on Oscar night, a resistless fate that can befall not only Las Vegas but Nantucket. Yet privacy and individuality are essential elements of the freedoms bequeathed us—which has something to do with the condition that what is unexpected is surprising as well as interesting. There is plenty of that in the history of Philadelphia even after its glorious eighteenth century.