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

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