Gary B. Nash. First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Early American Studies Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 383 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8122-3630-0.
by William Pannapacker
Philadelphia has one of the richest collections of long-established historical institutions in the United States: the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the American Philosophical Society (1743), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1805), the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (1814), the Franklin Institute (1824), and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1824), not to mention the University of Pennsylvania, and a host of smaller institutions and private collections. Many of the builders of these institutions—the descendants of the 18th-century mercantile and banking fortunes—tended to look on their own times as post-heroic, even degenerate; their past was a period of ideals (and social deference), now sadly lost amid the grime and avarice of industrialization, immigration, labor unrest, and racial tension. They regarded Philadelphia in terms that evoke Thomas Cole’s famous series of paintings, The Course of Empire (1834-36), in which an orderly, neoclassical metropolis rises out of the wilderness, only to be destroyed by barbarians and left in melancholy desolation.
Gary B. Nash’s First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) describes how local institutions, controlled by social elites, constructed a misleadingly coherent and hero-worshipping narrative of Philadelphia history in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means of consolidating the legitimacy of their authority in periods of rapid social transformation. By the nineteenth-century, as Nash observes, “Penn’s ‘greene country towne,’ the town of their grandparents and great-grandparents, had become a sprawling turbulent, heterogeneous city” (17). As a result, the messy reality of Philadelphia’s documentary and material culture—the relics of struggles based on race, ethnicity, religious, gender, class—were not preserved in a representative fashion. Instead, institutions have constructed a backward-looking civic mythology that privileges the utopian visions of William Penn and the “Founding Fathers” as opposed to aspirations of succeeding waves of inassimilable “outsiders.”
Nash is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angles, and Director of the National Center for History in the Schools. He is also a distinguished scholar of Philadelphia history and culture, having written, among many other books: Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in Pennsylvania, 1690-1840 (1991); Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (1988); The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979); and Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726 (1968). Nash has also been involved with the cultural life of Philadelphia for many years, serving recently as an historical consultant and writer for the “Lights of Liberty” sound and light tour. Most recently, Nash has offered judicious public commentary on the construction of the new Liberty Bell pavilion, which—with tragic irony—will partially cover the remains of George Washington’s slave quarters.
Nash’s First City is not intended as a substitute for Russell F. Weigley’s comprehensive Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (1982), but it is an essential corrective for the historical blindspots that inevitably emerge from the variability of archival practices over long periods. Compiling his extensive research for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s exhibition, “Visions and Revisions: Finding Philadelphia‘s Past” (1991-99), Nash explores “how people of widely diverse origins, of all classes and conditions, came to Philadelphia, lived there, and contributed to its making” (8). Chapters one and two examine the early colonial period of Pennsylvania and the emergence and growth of Philadelphia’s maritime commerce. Chapters three and four examine Philadelphia during the American Revolution and during the brief period when it was the United States capital. Chapters five and six describe the industrial growth of the city in the years leading up to the Civil War, which is covered in chapter seven. Chapter eight examines the memorialization of the war over succeeding decades, paying particular attention to the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Essentially, First City is an account of the historiographical and preservationist practices of Philadelphia institutions from the colonial period to end of the Gilded Age, supplemented and challenged by the records of people excluded from the “historical memory” produced by these institutions.
Overall, the methodology of First City—the New Social History—is familiar to historians (though Nash’s audience is surely wider than the academy). Nash’s major thesis is that history is not objective; it is constructed out of evidence, which is selectively preserved according to the political interests of institutions charged with this responsibility. “Philadelphians, in their growing diversity,” observes Nash, “came to understand that memory-making was neither a value-free and politically sanitized matter nor a mental activity promising everyone the same rewards” (8). Moreover, different groups leave different kinds of records (material as well as textual), but institutions, even today, tend to favor groups that leave written records. First City uses both textual and material artifacts to demonstrate and correct the exclusion of “women, racial and religious minorities, and laboring people” from Philadelphia’s historical memory (9). If the method is not strikingly original, Nash amasses a prodigious amount of evidence demonstrating how history is a tool in the hands of competing interest groups. How it serves to reinforce prevailing power structures. How, as a result, we should look at history as narrative, as primary as well as secondary literature, subject to historical contextualization and analysis rather than naive credulity.
First City is an inclusive work in its use of materials as well as in its recognition of urban diversity. Nash’s serious consideration of images and artifacts is often exhilarating and liberating; it provides an excellent model of what urban history could become under the right institutional circumstances. The illustrations (138 b&w) are unusually well described; they take on an equal importance with the textual evidence. I often wished that First City had been more sumptuously produced with full-color photographs (it would make an excellent documentary film). Many of the images are completely new to me. Nash is a marvelous collector of anecdotes about the recovery of historical artifacts. First City contains many moments of sheer antiquarian delight. Throughout, Nash’s authorial persona calls to mind the curator of Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in his Museum (1822, though curiously misdated in Nash as “1779” ). If some passages in First City suggest recycled exhibition catalogue copy (e.g., the provenance of the “Laetitia Penn” doll, 19-20), taken as a whole, Nash’s many digressions constitute a scrupulously inclusive Whitmanian catalogue of the historical memory of the city. Most importantly, First City is a convincing demonstration of the historical value of material artifacts. A coffeepot is potentially worth more than a thousand words when trying to understand the lives of people who left few written records.
As the introduction and conclusion of First City show, Nash‘s approach underlines some difficult contemporary dilemmas. It is no coincidence that Nash has been an important historical conscience in the recent dialogue over the new Liberty Bell pavilion. “The post-World War II restoration of Philadelphia’s old commercial center” is also criticized by Nash, for it “whisked slave history aside as cleanly as did the creation of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s” (53). Nash’s inclusive vision of history leads him to celebrate the collections of the Atwater Kent Museum and the Mercer Museum over the more genteel—but historically less representative—public exhibitions of other regional institutions. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, for example, owns two muskets and a pike carried by the abolitionist revolutionary leader John Brown and his sons at Harpers Ferry, but, Nash writes in a telling caption, “these items have never been shown in Philadelphia and are now stored in a warehouse, along with the Historical Society’s entire artifact collection” (197). Even though Philadelphia celebrated its role in the Civil War before the conflict had even ended, the un-exhibited relics of John Brown are a telling reminder that most Philadelphians were ambivalent about the abolition of slavery. Should institutions teach the conflicts or construct a unifying myth for our period of social upheaval? Where is the middle ground?
And what, one might ask, does this book offer to scholars of Walt Whitman? Unfortunately, the poet is not mentioned once by Nash, even though the poet and his circle of friends and admirers might have provided some insight into the culture of the city after the Civil War.
Whitman’s personal connection with Philadelphia began in 1873, when a stroke forced the debilitated poet from Washington, D.C., to Camden, New Jersey, where his brother George lived with his wife Louisa. The relationship of Camden and Philadelphia must have echoed the relationship of Brooklyn and Manhattan Whitman had known before he moved to Washington. And the “City of Brotherly Love” should have sounded appealing to a poet of Quaker descent who celebrated comradeship. Yet, as Nash shows, Philadelphia in the years before and during Whitman’s arrival was bloodied by divisions in race, ethnicity, religion, and class, including pitched battles between Irish Catholics and Protestant mobs. Philadelphia was as bereft as any major city in the nation of a Whitmanian vision of universal love. How did the experience of living near Philadelphia shape Whitman’s later career?
As he recovered from his stroke, Whitman began to build connections with the culture of the street and the cultural elite. He made friends on the ferries that regularly crossed the Delaware between Camden and Philadelphia, visited Philadelphia’s Mercantile Library, frequented the downtown printing offices, and befriended people on the streetcars that traveled Market Street. He also sought a prominent role in the Centennial Exposition of 1876, when national attention would be focused on Philadelphia. Whitman might have found common cause with the African-Americans and women, described brilliantly by Nash, who were largely excluded from the event. The Centennial provided an ideal moment—in an ideal location—to demonstrate the unifying power of the utopian vision framed but not enacted by the “Founding Fathers.”
Although Whitman was not invited to speak at the Exposition, he soon found admirers among leading Philadelphians such George W. Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger; John Wien Forney, owner of the Philadelphia Press; and Anne Gilchrist, an English admirer who came to Philadelphia to be near the poet. In later years, Whitman's Philadelphia supporters would include Talcott Williams, a journalist for the Philadelphia Press; Robert Pearsall Smith, a glass manufacturer; Thomas Donaldson, a lawyer; H. H. Furness, a literary scholar at the University of Pennsylvania; George Henry Boker, a dramatist, poet and diplomat; Charles Godfrey Leland, a nationally known writer; and Thomas Eakins, former director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While Whitman had many friends who were not social or cultural elites, it was, more often than not, these elites—many of them from Philadelphia—who would establish Whitman’s reputation in the years after his death in 1892 as the major American poet. And they would do so in a manner that was consistent with their vision of Philadelphia as the Peaceable Kingdom envisioned by Penn and the early Quakers. A century after the first publication of Leaves of Grass, support was strong enough among Philadelphia’s cultural leaders to override popular resistance—including openly homophobic ridicule—to naming a bridge after the poet who was, arguably, as much a Philadelphian as he was a New Yorker.
For anyone interested in Walt Whitman’s Philadelphia, First City is an important book, particularly its concluding chapters. It is well written and beautifully illustrated (albeit in b&w). It is an excellent introduction to the institutional resources of the city. It is a notable affirmation of the need for more representative reconstructions of the past. And it is a demonstration of the value of material culture as well as textual records in any act of historical recovery.