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June 2024
12min read

Two men sit at the large windows of the Philadelphia Club on a Friday evening. The windows are open, it is early September, warm enough for that. The noise of Walnut Street has died down, because Philadelphia is not a crowded city with iron clangor. The men are second cousins, around forty, resembling each other not very much, one taller and leaner, less rubicund than the other, who has just returned from California. The latter has made an important decision. He will move to Pasadena. He is explaining his reasons. They include more than the legendary California weather. He and his wife—as much as himself, he insists, if not more—have sized up the civilities and people in Pasadena: urbane people, most of them Easterners, many of them Bostonians. (That is always a recommendation among proper Philadelphians, who have a sense of respect, because of a sense of intellectual inferiority, for the proper people of Boston.) He talks about some of those men and women, including a few recognizable family names; he speaks of the schools, the club, the theater, and the house they are about to have built, the gardening, the California flowers, the salubrious omnipresence of outdoor life year-round. Of course Pasadena is not Philadelphia, but that “not” carries at least a prospect of “not yet.” Already a civilization is developing there that will encompass and typify what is best in America. It amounts to more than a floriferous setting and a healthy climate; it is also a good place for the children to grow up, who will of course go on to their boarding schools and then colleges back in the East, no more than five days away from their parents by train. Yes, California is the West, with all of its pluses and with fewer and fewer of its minuses: civilization there is overcoming the pioneer roughness every day, sometimes incredibly fast, and the evidences of that evolution are all around.

It is a big move for a Philadelphian to leave and go to live in California, from a place where people move less than in any comparable city in the United States, where the web of family connections is as comforting as it is constricting, where respectability is the primary ideal, and not only in public. Queen Victoria has died in January … but Philadelphia is still quite Victorian (all right: Victorian-American). It is not fin de sißcle , not belle époque, and will not ever be Edwardian—because in Philadelphia the cult of respectability is inseparable from the cult of safety. That is, at least in part, the Quaker inheritance: the desire for safety, sometimes so rigid as to be uncomfortable. It is thus that his cousin and friend is not going to try to dissuade him, or even to ask more questions than are needed to stitch their conversation along. One of the reasons for this is the Philadelphia!! custom to refrain from discussing (and, more than often, from thinking about) unpleasant things. That is a habit that can sometimes lead to regrettable consequences, when the excessive wish to keep safe is oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, allied to the reluctance to exercise more than customary foresight. But within this habit there resides, too, a modicum of the ingrained respect for privacy; and one of the reasons for his reticence comes from that. He is aware of a certain restiveness in his cousin’s temperament, evident in his cousin’s few known escapades, usually shortlived to the extent of harmlessness. He, unlike his cousin, is hardly given to enthusiasms—partly out of character, partly out of temperament. His cousin is a Progressive, of sorts; he is not. He has just returned from his summer place in Maine, from Northeast Harbor (Philadelphia on the Rocks, in the epithet to come in the late twenties), that Philadelphia!! appendage in the cool, rockbound, pale-blue-eyed North (call it Down East, if you wish), with its large and often ungainly gray cedar-shingled houses, where the sharp tinge of the outdoors is complemented by the knowledge of comfort indoors, large brick fireplaces puffing woodsmoke through big chimneys in midsummer, reminiscent of the smell wafting above the gardens of Philadelphia suburbs in the autumn: a comforting sense, as is the knowledge that Philadelphia is but one night away on the Bar Harbor Special of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, for him there is something neither quite safe nor quite respectable about living in California; and his cousin’s phrases about the blossoming of civilization in Pasadena do not greatly impress him. He is American enough to believe that life consists of change, but he is also Philadelphian enough to believe not only that change must be tempered by continuity but that change is a kind of continuity in itself—which is why both of them are unable to question the theory of Evolution that they somehow equate with Progress.

There is, however, a difference in their beliefs. One of them is inclined to think (an inclination to think may not be tantamount to a belief, even though it is sometimes more important than a belief) that America is growing ever more able to represent what is best of the civilization of the white race, of England, and of much of Western Europe—and that thus Philadelphia is somewhere in the middle between England and California, and that is how it has been, is, and should be. His cousin believes that the course not only of empire but of all civilization is inevitably westward and without cease; that what is still good in the American East is spreading to the West; and that because of the richness of this country he can partake in that movement with no loss, indeed, with physical and mental profit to himself and to his family. He believes that the future of America may be California, and sooner rather than later. His cousin believes that as America goes so will the world, even though that may not yet be around the corner.

What they talk about are doctors, lawyers, banks, relatives, schools. They do not know that they are talking about more than that. About the future of America.

What they talk about are doctors, lawyers, banks, insurance, schools, relatives, railroads, in the Philadelphian manner, what is practical is not only real but safe. They do not know that they are talking about more than that. About the future of America. Of the century. Of the world.

The twentieth century has begun. They espy no trouble in that. Both of them see a world in which the most important portion is being governed by the Anglo-Saxon, the seafaring, the Teutonic, the industrial and industrious races. That seems certain. Like Progress.

I’d like to imagine that their conversation occurs on Friday, September 6, 1901, on the afternoon of the day when President McKinley was shot in Buffalo. The news has not reached the Philadelphia Club. They do not know it yet. Nor do they know that a week later (on Friday the thirteenth) McKinley will be dead, and Theodore Roosevelt will be the President of the United States.

Now you must know that I will return to one of these people—to the California-bound one, in, say, 1912 or 1913. “When you will, I presume, describe what is happening to his Arcadian illusions out there.”

Not Arcadian but Progressive; and ideas even more than illusions.

“All right, except that the idealization of the American West was both Arcadian and Progressive.”

And few people, if any, saw the inherent contradiction between these two things. This includes Teddy Roosevelt, who once said to Charles Fletcher Lummis: “I owe everything to the West! It made me! I found it there!” And in 1911 or 1912 he spoke to Lummis again: “California has come mighty close to my government ideals.” This Lummis, who had been at Harvard at the time of Roosevelt, was a big promoter of Pasadena, a big booster of California, a patron of arts and crafts, a Health and Culture enthusiast, an interminable spokesman for Arcadian Progressivism. He also said that “the ignorant, hopelessly un-American type of foreigner which infests and largely controls Eastern cities is almost unknown here.” “Here” was Los Angeles. He was a pompous, insufferable fool, which Roosevelt was not, but both of them were wrong about what would become of California.

“ You’re telegraphing your punch. What will become of California, what will become of Philadelphia, what will become of America, what will become of civilization. Your Big Questions. But I don’t know whether it is sufficiently telling to hang the Auftakt of this theme on these two buttoned-up Philadelphia gents, even though they are your friend’s relatives, and even though one of them seems to be ready, if not altogether itching, to loosen his high collar. Besides, you have done a little cheating here, using the device of this conversation between two men in the Philadelphia Club. There was such a conversation, right there, a small turning point in the history of American literature, and I think you know what I mean.”

You mean Owen Wister talking to Walter Furness in September or October 1891 at the Philadelphia Club. The record is there, in Wister’s own words. He had just returned from the West. Let me find it. Here it is. Wister: “ Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of the California forty-niner, went the way of the Mississippi steam-boat, went the way of everything? Roosevelt had seen the sage-brush true, had felt its poetry; and also Remington, who illustrated his articles so well. But what was fiction doing, the only thing that has always outlived the fact? Must it be perpetual tea-cups? The claret had been excellent. ’Walter, I’m going to try it myself! I’m going to start this minute.’” He stood up, bid good night to Furness, and wrote his first Western story, “Hank’s Woman,” in the library of the Philadelphia Club that night. Then out of “Hank’s Woman” came The Virginian , the legend of the West for a century to come.

“ Which is just about unreadable now.”

Which is why it was a milestone less in the history of American literature than in the history of American popular imagination. In any event, Wister was a most peculiar person. His illusions turned into the blackest kind of despair. A few years later Wister wrote a better book than The Virginian , a novel about Charleston and the South, Lady Baltimore ; in 1912 he began a book about Philadelphia, Monopolis , which he abandoned; in 1934 he wrote the centennial history of the Philadelphia Club, after insisting that the book written by another member (already printed) be withdrawn and destroyed; and the last thing he was writing before he died in 1938 was to be a book on French wines.

“ So he began his writing inspired by the club claret, and his last inspiration returned to claret.”

Spare me these paradoxes, though there is something to them. A true and startling biography of Wister is yet to be written, since the revolution of his ideas is more interesting than the man himself. There is an American tragedy of that mind, the tragedy of the insubstantial virility of his American illusions. It is not like Dreiser or even Fitzgerald, since the American tragedy is not about people who want to rise, rather impatiently, in American society. The history of those who attempted to write about the tragedy of American patricians is yet to be done, starting with Fenimore Cooper and perhaps ending with John O’Hara, alas .

“ Stop right there. You’re going on too long.”

I know I am, and besides, my California-bound Philadelphian is not at all a Wisterian or Rooseveltian believer in muscular Christianity. He is something of an American hedonist. Like many of those people, including the former Bostonians who are moving to Pasadena, he and those westering Americans are not moved by a bravado nurtured by Kipling or the Bible.

“ I presume that our man’s wife is charmed by the tinkling of teacups among the ladies formerly of Boston, sitting in the gardens of Pasadena. But, good God, what are they and their husbands talking about, except congratulating themselves frequently for how smart they have been in moving there?”

Well, you may be right about the scope of their conversations and even about their tone. But let’s not be too tough on those men and women in Pasadena in 1901. They are still full of an American vitality, and they are not so much hedonists as idealists, which makes almost all their illusions not only understandable but defensible. Let’s be honest: it could have been quite pleasant to live in Pasadena in 1901. But there was one thing that few people have noticed, including historians. This is that while California was ahead of Eastern America, and while of course the United States was ahead of Europe, ahead in many things and practices, and I mean not only machines or industry but popular democracy, public education, the secret ballot—at the same time, and in a very important way, America was behind Europe, because most of the prevalent American ideas, especially those of the Progressives, were already antiquated and unreal.

“ You mean the sempiternal American addiction to Progressive Evolution, including the belief that, through science and education and political and social reform, society and mankind can be made perfect, or at least near perfect. But not far beneath this progressive optimism about the improvability of society lay a deep and hidden but at times sorrily apparent distrust about the improvability of human beings.”

That is not my argument here. It is that the moving vision within all those illusions, all that movement toward the West, the advance toward a healthier, open life untrammeled by brittle conventions and by hypocrisy—a vision eagerly taken up by Englishmen and many continental Europeans too—was the vision of the American West as a return to a simpler ideal of manhood, a rebirth of a once lost and legendary but now actually achievable way of life, against the ever paler ideas of the Age of Reason (“ the stinking brain” was one of Wister’s uglier phrases), which the ever smokier clouds over the cities and the factories of the Old World (and of the American East) had stifled and obscured. Evolution, indeed; but together with Return. In 1895 Wister wrote an article for Harper ’s, “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.” The West, he wrote, gave the Anglo-Saxon race another chance. “The race was once again subjected to battles and darkness, rain and shine, to the fierceness and the generosity of the desert. Destiny tried her last experiment upon the Saxon, and pluck [ed] him from the library, the haystack and the gutter, … [whereupon] his modern guise fell away and showed again the medieval man.” This hankering after the Middle Ages was one example of something that not many people recognize: the medieval facet of the American heart. Wister was thinking and writing this around the time when Henry Adams was turning toward Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.

“ But he wrote this stuff sitting in the Philadelphia Club—after having asserted several times that he did not like to live in Philadelphia, but then he could not shake the Philadelphia dust from his feet, he was to return to it, wearily, and earlier than he had imagined.”

Our Pasadena Philadelphian sees nothing of the Past in the West. His vision is a blossoming, garlanded near-future, here and there braced with stainless steel.

Yes, and good-bye to Owen Wister. I repeat: Our California-bound Philadelphian is not at all like Wister. What he envisages are pleasantries in the life of an American capitalist in California. Wister would have scorned him. Our man is no amateur cowboy, not at all. Not for a moment does he see himself as the Last Cavalier, except perhaps at some New Year’s Eve costume party in Pasadena. For Wister the Last Cavalier was the Anglo-Saxon cowboy that was the drawing with which Frederic Remington illustrated “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” for Harper’s , showing a cowboy, tall and lanky, with a bronzed Anglo-Saxon face, including a drooping mustache, in front of a misty tableau of assembled ancient halberdiers, Templars, Crusaders, Knights of the Roses, and a seventeenth-century cavalier looking wistfully at this American horseman. “There ought to be music for the Last Cavalier,” Wister wrote Remington. “The Last Cavalier will haunt me forever. He inhabits a Past into which I withdraw and mourn.” But our Pasadena Philadelphian sees nothing of the Past in the West. His vision (if that is what it is) is a blossoming, garlanded near-future, here and there braced with a necessary scaffolding of stainless steel, and warmed everywhere by perennial sunshine. He is probably less splitminded than was Wister, who mourned for the past and cheered on the spirit of the future at the same time, to be incarnated by the new American, the Western man. “It won’t be a century before the West is simply the true America, with thought, type and life of its own kind,” he also wrote. He believed that too—at least for a while.

“ That may be very interesting, but you’re not writing a historical thesis. One of the things I miss: You must clarify that scene of those two men sitting at the window of the Philadelphia Club. Your readers may think that they are those large windows on the ground floor of a majestic club, with Morganesque bankers puffing at their cigars, as drawn by numberless cartoonists of the old New Yorker . The dining room and those windows of the Philadelphia Club were, and are, on the second floor, well above the street. More description, please.” All right. The Philadelphia Club is a red brick building, with marble steps and white window ledges and frames. It is handsome rather than elegant, not at all majestic but solid, and noticeable only to those who know what it houses, that is, the most selective of the clubs of that city, its membership made up mostly, though not entirely, of men of the older Philadelphia families. In 1901 it was more exclusive than the Rittenhouse Club with its Beaux Arts building and of course much more exclusive than the Union League (a monumental brownstone building occupying an entire city square, with a big statue up front). That had been erected during the Civil War by Republican nouveaux riches. Well, now, on this Friday evening in September 1901 the rooms of the Philadelphia Club are rather empty, with few diners at the long table, since many of the members live in the leafy suburbs, and the weekending habit is already widespread, even though nearly all of them keep their small town houses for the winter. Agnes Repplier’s later acid apothegm (“ Suburbanites are traitors to the city” ) applies to many of them too. On other Friday nights there are many more diners, with their wives; but in early September the theater season has not yet begun, and in 1901 the Philadelphia Orchestra does not exist. (Philadelphia is habitually about thirty years behind New York: the Philadelphia Orchestra and the art museum came about thirty, even forty, years after the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic.) I will now add that before their serious talk the two cousins had an excellent and typical dinner at the club: turtle soup or terrapin, or oysters perhaps (September being an R month), veal-and-kidney pie, et cetera—no, no Madeiras, though the family bins of the Philadelphia Club still had plenty of those. After that the two men translated themselves to the windows. Some of the parquet flooring and the fine wainscoting were still washed in the evening light, while the gas lamps on Walnut Street below them were being lit.

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