philadelphia story

Philadelphia is there alright; America’s fifth largest city and second, though inland, seaport. It was founded by William Penn in the name of God as a refuge for a persecuted religious sect, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s dream of the Enlightened City, the young Republic’s first capital, shaped by the conscience of Quakers, the Plain, and the tastes of their rich Episcopalian descendents, the Fancy, devoted to moderation but fond of good living, a puzzle to strangers, a Hidden City whose charms yield only to long and careful exploration.

This is the city that Benjamin Franklin saw when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, landing from a small boat at the Market Street wharf. Peter Cooper's painting shows the homes, stores, and commercial buildings of the rich Quaker merchants, strung along the ship filled Delaware. Image:

There are two preconceptions of two highly developed Philadelphia myths. These might be labeled the “Dead Burg” myth and the “Fox-Hunting aristocracy” myth, the one idea that Philadelphia is utterly lacking in gaiety , a town based on Quaker slowness and sobriety; the other that it is the citadel of an extremely frosty upper class almost wholly devoted to snobbishness and horses and the like. Like many myths, both are based on solid fact.

Elfreth Alley; still claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the U.S., still retaining some of the look it did in Franklin's time. Image:

At the root of Philadelphia is the tradition of Quaker camouflage, the avoidance of show either in wordly goods or in unseemly emotions; then there is the Anglican tradition of avoiding what is Bad Form. Besides these two negatives, there is a general tendency towards withdrawal, hiding away, saying “No” to the rest of the world. What Owen Wister once called ” the instinct of disparagement” that makes Philadelphians run everything down, especially things Philadelphian, is a form of this negative. This has the advantage of modesty; it also is a blight on creative effort, on reform and on any new enthusiasm. It is said to pervade the air of Philadelphia and is disheartening to the intense, as it was meant to be. Its that drop of bitterness at the bottom of the glass. Philadelphia has, for all its history of prosperity, been a Disappointment: not the Holy City Penn had in mind, nor the Enlightened Center of the Republic Franklin had in mind.

Thomas Eakins's interest in sports, like his interest in medicine, was a faithful reflection of Philadelphia's interest. In the picture above, he shows max Schmitt, his boyhood friend, rowing on the Schuylkill River. Eakins himself can be seen in the further skull. With the possible exception of Winslow Homer, no American artist of his time has brought such authenticity and understanding to the painting of outdoor life. Image:

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