Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Some Things I've Learned About Society Hill

Today I went down to see a movie at the Ritz, Once, which was a lot better than it had any right to be, like a bum who charms you into giving them a quarter you should have spent on the bus and you're sort of mad later but wasn't he a lovable bastard, really? But that's an issue for another post. This post has to do with Society Hill, which the Ritz borders, and which has been, for as long as I know it, an incredibly upscale section of the city. I mean, Jesus, the name says it all. They ought to host debutante balls on the roof of the Ritz, overlooking the river and the roofs of the old colonial houses. For someone like me who doesn't know much about architecture, most of the houses seem to be impossibly old, and it's not hard to imagine that everyone in this neighborhood has been more or less rich and powerful since the beginning of America.
So it came as some surprise to me to find, during my recent research into Philadelphia's history, that Society Hill used to be a pretty down-on-its-heels kind of neighborhood. In fact, for pretty much all of the first half of the twentieth century, Society Hill was basically in the same state that parts of West Philly are in now, and that the part of West Philly I live in was in before it was subsumed under the umbrella of University City.
One of the major differences was that the population was predominately white. The 1937 Home Owners Loan Corporation Study called it a primarily white working class neighborhood. From 1900 onward, what is now Society Hill was full of tenements and shops catering to the people who lived in them. A "seedy, skid-row district", according to a website celebrating the work of Sidney Williams, who photographed a bunch of historic buildings in accordance with the City Planning Commission and their desire to revitalize the neighborhood.
And revitalize they did. They tore down tenements and replaced them with gated housing developments. They put up the Society Hill towers, which are now the tallest buildings in the area. They set the stage for the enormously successful transformation of the area into a residential space for urban professionals.
Not that this is anything altogether striking, really. Plenty of neighborhoods have received this kind of treatment. What gets me about Society Hill, though, is both the scale and character of its success. If what the history books claim is true, then Society Hill has fooled me for my entire residence in Philadelphia into believing that the neighborhood has existed more or less as it appears now for centuries.
Of course, this is exactly what the planners intended. Not only did they try their best to create houses that would fit into the overall 18th century scheme, while doing their best to remodel whatever old houses they could, but they went to the trouble of installing period lighting, benches, and masonry all over the district. Society Hill was intended to fool me, as it was intended to fool all of us. The planners of the Society Hill revitalization wanted those who moved in to feel as if they were really a part of a historic neighborhood, a history that failed to take into account the last fifty to a hundred years of the district.
This sort of historical tomfoolery is really interesting to me. I really do not want to give the impression that there is something wrong with Society Hill being the way it is. I think there are plusses and minuses to all urban revitalization. I just wish I had had my eyes opened a little earlier, and I wonder if anyone else my age knows what Society Hill used to be like. I also wonder if the massive restructuring of the neighborhood has something to do with the fact that businesses open and close along the lowest blocks of Market Street as often as flu season. Society Hill has undoubtedly become a bastion of the Center City revitalization, which is the main bright spot for Philadelphia planning in the last half-century. But, along with the Independence Park project - which I think needs a separate post entirely - the way the city has dealt with the lower stretch of Market and the whole historic district has been troubling. Even someone with no knowledge of city planning like myself can see that making Old City into a destination for tourists and Society Hill a home for urban professionals - the recent demographic study posted on the Society Hill Civic Association website shows that residents live in mostly single member households, and less than 10% boast more than two members - avoids the issue of the dead zone that stretches almost unbroken down Market St., all the way from City Hall to Independence Hall.
Obviously, I need to do some more research on this. Luckily, the Penn archives have detailed census studies for 1950 and 1960, and I plan on seeing if old Society Hill had more families than it does now, right when renewal commenced. When I figure out something more it will be posted. Until then, check out the lampposts when you wander through Society Hill, and pay good attention to the houses. See if you can spot the fake and the real. Maybe we can have some sort of history geek contest.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Herman Melville, American Failure

Having recently finished a really good biography of Melville by Andrew DeBlanco, I've come to a place of extreme respect for the man. My own affection for the subject notwithstanding, DeBlanco is an able biographer and keeps the pages turning; I'd suggest reading the book - Melville, His World and Work - if you have even a passing interest in literary history. The fact that Melville and his era represent such a fascinating set of subjects just makes the book more enjoyable, and one gets the sense, reading DeBlanco's prose, that the biographer is having just as much fun as the reader.

This might seem cruel at first, considering that, more than anything else, Melville's life is a portrait of failure. From a series of early, moderate successes - a series of South Sea adventure stories, the most notable being Typee - his career abruptly descended into a protracted bout of frustration, critical misunderstanding, and popular disinterest that would last the rest of his life. His publishers were confused about his inability to produce what the public expected of him, breezy sea stories with more than a hint of the erotic, and his insistence on handing over what they saw as unwieldy allegorical novels. His closest friend, Hawthorne, ended up essentially giving up on him as a gloomy bastard. By the end of his life he was working as a customs agent and producing page after page of gloomy poetry with strict, clumsy rhyme schemes.

Most people like to focus on the adoration Melville has recieved since his death, as if to say that good writing gets its due, that true genius is usually recognized. The picture one usually gets of Melville is of a person transcending earthly shortcomings to reach a sort of heavenly literary afterlife, with a sly little observation here and there about American geniuses being more than a little neglected in our notoriously anti-intellectual culture.

What I find fascinating about Melville, though, isn't so much the transcendence of failure but the failure itself, exemplified by the evolution of Moby-Dick, which a lot of people have read and many more people have heard of and silently decided to avoid. (It's really good, by the way, and livelier than you might expect.)

What DeBlanco explains quite well in his illuminating sections about Melville's masterpiece is that Moby-Dick started out as the kind of adventure story both his publishers and the reading public expected from him. One can even tell, from the cartoonish beginning of the novel, with Quequeg and Ishmael sharing a bed and a pipe, and the tongue-in-cheek descriptions of taverns constructed from whale skeletons. The pursuit of whales on the high seas, all swashbuckling and derring-do. Melville had, in fact, almost finished a complete draft of Moby-Dick in this style when something altogether unexpected happened.

Melville decided, all of a sudden, to become an absolutely amazing writer. Whether it was because he was tired of being dismissed as a light novelist of adventure stories, or whether he was reading both Shakespeare and his buddy Hawthorne's wildly inventive short stories, it's not for me or DeBlanco to say. Regardless of his motivation, he went ahead and ripped apart the draft he had created and began wildly experimenting. He inserted dramatic monologues, bits of group narration, and fictional devices that wouldn't be widely used for decades to come. He drafted an absolutely nutso preface by a sub-sub-librarian. He inserted long, only tenuously connected riffs on the habits and lives of whales. And in the process he wrote one of the strangest and most experimental pieces of work ever to be accepted fully into the American literary canon.

And, in response, both critics and readers totally spurned him. Moby-Dick was a huge financial disaster for Melville; readership flagged, and critical praise was scant. One could argue that Melville, in re-writing Moby-Dick, had gambled with writing a great novel that could also sell, and that his gamble failed.

I would argue that Melville knew that the gamble wouldn't succeed.

Anybody who's read Moby-Dick can tell you that it reads like no other book published in the nineteenth century. At turns comic, tragic, ironic, and totally earnest, it switches perspectives, tones, and forms at the drop of a hat. It's often hard to follow, even for a twentieth century reader trained on college-level modernism; one shudders to think how a reading public that still expected relatively straight-forward narrative form would have recieved it. (On second thought, perhaps things haven't changed that much.)

I find it hard to believe that Melville, who was no dope when it came to understanding the world around him, wouldn't have realized how unlikely it would be for any large number of readers - or critics, for that matter - to appreciate such an essentially ludicrous book. I think he knew, going in, that savagely ripping apart his adventure story would seriously risk damaging his career. And he did it anyway, because he loved Shakespeare and Hawthorne, because he had something to say, or just because he felt like it.

That sort of literary courage is something we could use a little more of these days. Contemporary writers complain a lot about the narrow-mindedness of the American reading public, or about the low cultural capital of books. When Melville was writing, the market for American fiction was even leaner than it is now; almost everybody bought books by Brits instead. If he could risk everything he had to create a masterpiece in the middle of the nineteenth century, surely we can do the same in the early twenty-first, right?

Herman Melville: American Failure, American Badass. Sink your own life for the chance at greatness.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Speaking on the topic of myself, personally...

After a few months of posting my short stories on another blog, I've finally decided to start up another one, with the goal of talking a little more informally and personally about things that are going on in my life, books I've read, philosophies of the world, the usual. I'm not actually very good at this sort of thing, usually. Having spent most of my writing life trying to construct tight, effective stories, I tend to start second guessing myself whenever I try to venture off into more personal territory. "Won't people be bored?" I think. But I guess that's forgivable. And the more I've been reading people's posts in the last few weeks, the more it strikes me that almost everybody's comments are thoughtful and well worth reading. So, here we go.