Evoking place and time

The novel I’m working on is the story of a family in a specific place and several interwoven ages in time: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between 1880 and 1920.

I like to think of this book as a love letter to the city of my forefathers. I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and 1960s; I left it in 1975, relocating permanently to Vermont, where I’d summered all through my childhood and most of my teens, with my maternal grandparents.

Both places have formed me and informed my work, but Phiadelphia tugs at me from a deeper place than Vermont: The City of Brotherly Love is where I encountered most of the painful and difficult aspects of life as a human among humans.  It is where I first knew grief and empathy, shame and self-sufficiency, fear and the possibility of freedom from fear.  I grew up there, insofar as that phrase means anything at all.

It also was, and remains, my father’s place.  I will write here and elsewhere about this remarkable man, but at this time it suffices to note that this book is based partly on the stories he told me about his own growing up in one of Philadelphia’s oldest–and poorest–neighborhoods: Southwark.

He was fifty-one when I was born, and, as I got older and proved an attentive listener, he made me the repository of his memories.  Some of his stories he told no one else, not even my mother.  Many had clearly been refined by repeated retelling.  Some were dredged up in response to new or newly-perceived stimuli: often a story would arise when we saw a building or block being torn down in what he called, with unselfconscious irony, “Urban removal.”

In our drives and walks around the city, my father chronicled  the centuries for me: the particular history of his family and of that place, its politics, its populations, and its possibilities, both realized and abandoned.  I learned about William Penn and the Quakers, about Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress and the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention first not from history textbooks but from my father, who took me to every historic site in the city and told me its story, making events 200 years behind us seem freshly minted.  He could conjure up these visions like a time-traveler, which speaks to his native talent and curiosity: for a man whose formal schooling took him only through the third grade, his grasp of history was far more extensive than most better-educated people’s.

And I learned also something just as valuable historically and personally: what life was like for the ordinary people of our shared past, the working classes whose sweat and blood earned Philadelphia the title she bore all through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth: “The Workshop of the World.”  These were my father’s ancestors, men and women like that tradesman and artisan Ben Franklin, not born to privilege or power but gifted with dogged persistence, native intelligence and curiosity, and a desire to be part of the creation of a better world.

(My father believed, and often said, that science and technology would one day make hunger and sickness and  poverty things of the past.  I am not sure that he was right, but I am sure that this belief in progress was one that he shared with old Ben.)

Here is a question that has occupied my mind for decades: Why are there so few American novels about the urban working classes?  I can name a few: Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” James T. Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” series.  I know that others exist, but there remains a gap, certainly where Philadelphia’s white working classes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are concerned.  This book is my attempt to partially address that gap.

The Philadelphia I knew is now as much a place in and of the past as the one I am attempting to reconstruct in fiction.  Those several Philadelphias–mine, my father’s, his parents’ and their forebears’–are both historical and fictional.  The stories that my dad told about his first dozen years in the part of the city known as Southwark were his constructed narratives, shaped not only by his own recollections but by the actual passage of time, since time profoundly alters everything.

Yet Philadelphia is also a bit like the land that time forgot, a place where the past is indeed present, a palimpsest of brick and stone and concrete and steel and glass, of layers of people and experience and language and sensation through which the story glimmers like a fish swimming in a river of memory, now here, now there, appearing and disappearing before the viewer’s dazzled and defenseless gaze.

How do I convey the sounds and smells of Southwark in 1900, year of my father’s birth?  The visual part is a bit easier; not only are there photographs that I can view, courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia, of private collections, of sites like Phillyhistory.org, but I can stand on the very street where my father was born and look at the house where he first saw light.  It is still there.  The block is still there.

If I walk east a few blocks, or “squares,” I can reach the waterfront where my father watched ships sail off to other ports, the wharfs where merchantmen unloaded cargoes of sandalwood and teak, copper and iron, cotton and wool and silk, tea and coffee and chocolate.   At other piers, ships disgorged people in an unending stream, from Ukraine or Russia or Ireland or Jamaica, from London and Liverpool, Naples and Palermo, Montreal and Martinique.  The flood of human cargo mingled with timber from Maine and Chesapeake oysters, with French wines and English china.  Immigrants from Livorno and Liberia jostled stevedores rolling barrels of rum or pushing handcarts stacked head-high with cans of olive oil or crates of machinery. Schooners’ masts stuck up into the sky above the Delaware like clusters of giants’ toothpicks, Daddy said, and the thrum of steamship engines made the ground tremble under your shoes.

Over the teeming variety of complexions and costumes, the Babel of tongues struck the ear as people clamored and wailed, argued and pleaded, blustered and acquiesced.  Men in fezzes and silk tussore suits, gold-ringed hands gesturing; women with shawled heads, babies tied to their backs and wicker baskets in their arms.  Children with thin arms and storklike legs.  Hugely-muscled Geechee sailors, plum-black, flashed white teeth at Irishmen like bantam roosters, while Greeks and Poles and Spaniards and Sicilians all talked constantly and at once, so that after a time the ear simply gave up trying to sort out the different sounds and wring any sense from them.

The smells are harder to conjure: the greeny-brown brackish Delaware water itself, flavored with engine oil and salt-crusted canvas, tarred rope and old sweat and urine; rotting fruit, sawdust, bilge.  The unwashed bodies and clothing of people emerging, dazed, from a week or more of confinement in steerage. Cheap hair-oil, gin, rosewater, coffee; cigar smoke and garlic and overcooked cabbage. Coal oil and factory chimneys.  Damp wool and dead fish and spilt beer.  Wet wood and new paint.  A symphony of smells, with all the discordant notes and odd harmonies and abrupt modulations of the new century.

(to be continued)