Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Where is literary Philadelphia?

Since we moved here in June, I’ve visited a few literary sites: the NPS Edgar A. Poe House and the Marianne Moore room at the Rosenbach in particular. The Marianne Moore room probably shouldn’t count as literary Philadelphia really because it is a depiction of literary New York transplanted to Philadelphia (but still, it’s amazing). But I’ve driven by the Owen Wister house and been inside the school that George Lippard attended, both in Germantown (Concord School in HABS/LOC image on the left). I haven’t yet tracked down any Charles Brockden Brown sites, but that will be my next project.

It seems odd that someone has not already traced out an elaborate literary tour of Philadelphia. (If you know of such a literary tour, let me know!)

A few weeks ago, I talked to Ken Finkel of Temple University, formerly of WHYY and the blog The Sixth Square, about this. He indicated that over the years a few people have been interested in either starting up literary tours of Philadelphia or were generally interested in writers from the Philadelphia area. I’m tracking down leads currently, but in the mean-time I’m setting out on my own to see what the city has to offer the literary tourist.

I’ll start with Charles Brockden Brown and the current exhibition at the Library Company, “Philadelphia Gothic: Murders, Mysteries, Monsters, & Mayhem Inspire American Fiction, 1798-1854” for the background to my project. I hope to get to it as soon as holiday travels are finished.

Though it’s hard to think of Center City Philadelphia today as the setting behind Gothic novels like Lippard’s Quaker City, one place where you can see a touch of this is at Eastern State Penitentiary. Though it was built after Charles Brockden Brown’s time, there today visitors can get a sense of early criminality in Philadelphia and see how Quakers sought to reform convicts through institutionalizing forced personal reflection. You can see how an edifice built to inspire meditation on personal sins became a fortress-like prison, simultaneously modern and medieval. It only closed in 1971. So perhaps my tour of literary Philadelphia, or at least Gothic Philadelphia began here with Dickens' impressions of the prison on his tour of it in 1842.


In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.

In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature.

I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, nomatter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.

... Every facility was afforded me, that the utmost courtesy could suggest. Nothing was concealed or hidden from my view, and every piece of information that I sought, was openly and frankly given. The perfect order of the building cannot be praised too highly, and of the excellent motives of all who are immediately concerned in the administration of the system, there can be no kind of question.

Between the body of the prison and the outer wall, there is a spacious garden. Entering it, we ... passed into a large chamber, from which seven long passages radiate. On either side of each, is a long, long row of low cell doors, with a certain number over every one. Above, a gallery of cells like those below, except that they have no narrow yard attached (as those in the ground tier have), and are somewhat smaller. The possession of two of these, is supposed to compensate for the absence of so much air and exercise as can be had in the dull strip attached to each of the others, in an hour's time every day; and therefore every prisoner in this upper story has two cells, adjoining and communicating with, each other.

Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife and children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.

Look here the entire text and a more complete description of Philadelphia

Thursday, December 4, 2008

F.G. Fisher's Stratford Models at the Rosenbach

I've been spending part of a day each week at one particular literary museum in Philadelphia, The Rosenbach. I first visited the museum in September. I went to see the Marianne Moore room, where the museum has recreated Marianne Moore's living room item-by -item in one of the upstairs bedrooms of the Rosenbach house. I was so interested in what I found in the museum, aside from the Marianne Moore Collection—which I can’t rave about enough, that I joined their docent class this fall.

As part of the class we wrote about three objects in the collection. My favorite objects this week are a set of models that Dr. Rosenbach collected in 1916. A portion of what follows is from my research for the class.

Dr. Rosenbach loved Shakespeare and collected a number of important editions of early collections of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which ended up in the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare collecting has long been in fashion and may have well been the first literary collecting where collectors saw objects associated with an author with a pseudo-religious fascination.

The famous Shakespeare Mulberry is a great example. Supposedly, Shakespeare planted the tree when he retired to “the New Place,” his final home in Stratford. The mulberry tree he planted inspired so many on-lookers that the last owner of the New Place, Reverend Francis Gastrell ripped the tree out and destroyed the house shortly thereafter. The legend goes that the townspeople were so angry that he had removed the tree, that they lobbed stones through the windows of the house. Gastrell eventually razed the house after the damage. Apparently, some locals thought to salvage the tree and make mementos out of the wood. These mementos were such a craze that "true" relics and fakes were often sold to unsuspecting, or even suspecting tourists. When Washington Irving traveled to Stratford he was offered such a relic from a man who claimed to have helped remove the tree. Irving declined, but procured his own “relic,”--a sprig from a tree in the courtyard where Shakespeare was buried (see The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. New York G. P. Putnam's sons, 1888, p. 354). Even Mark Twain and his wife, after visiting the birthplace in 1874, brought back a sapling that was a descendant of the Shakespeare Mulberry to plant in their yard in Hartford, CT. (Twain writes a hilarious account of the tree’s troubled life in a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post, which you can find here).

At the Rosenbach you can see a whole set of papier maché models of the buildings in Stratford, including Shakespeare's birthplace and a rendition of the Mulberry tree. These were made by F.G. Fisher, a librarian and amateur actor (and the father of the famous actress, Clara Fisher). Made in 1830, they speak to how crazy the Shakespeare commemoration bonanza has been for more than two hundred years now. Scholars have argued that until 1769, most people interested in an author visited an author’s grave. Many even made rubbings of Shakespeare’s gravestone. But in 1769, the actor David Garrick brought a booming industry to Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in an elaborate “Jubilee.” The celebration focused not on his grave, but on the other historical sites that were associated with him, especially his birthplace.

Garrick hung a banner depicting the rising sun in the window of the room where he believed that Shakespeare was born. By the time that Fisher created his model, the birthplace may well have been recognizable to most Shakespeare enthusiasts. The story of Shakespeare’s banishment from Stratford had already become popular legend akin to Washington and the cherry tree in the U.S. By 1830, Stratford was a site of national pilgrimage. The models were just in time for the second great celebration of Shakespeare in Stratford—the Second Royal Gala Festival. If a Shakespeare enthusiast could not make the trip to Stratford, perhaps he or she could have seen Fisher’s models on display in London.

The Rosenbach collection of Fisher’s models is fascinating and they aren’t even close to the most exciting thing that the museum has to offer.

See J. Jarvis, A Descriptive Account of the Second Royal Gala Festival, at Stratford-Upon-Avon...April 23, 1830...In Commemoration of the Natal Day of Skakspeare. London: R. Lapworth, 1830. See also for a brief biographical description of Frederick George Fisher the reprint of his daughter’s 1897 autobiography, Clara Fisher and Douglas Taylor, Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder (New York,: B. Franklin, 1970). Here, he is described as an "amateur actor and Shakespearean scholar of repute" (xii) and as a “gentleman of fine literary taste, [who] was at one time, proprietor of a noted library at Brighton, and afterward an active auctioneer in London." (Appendix 134).

See Nicola Watson’s work on graveside literary tourism in chapter one of Nicola J. Watson, T
he Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007).

Shakespeare’s gravestone was so well known to even Americans that some travel accounts of visits to Stratford omitted its description for fear of boring readers. See "The Birthplace of Shakespeare," The New York Times 15 Aug 1860.