PHILADELPHIA: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 by John Lukacs

PHILADELPHIA: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950

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Like other Europeans he summons up, historian Lukacs (1945: Year Zero, The Last European War, 1939-1941, etc.), a postwar arrival, found Philadelphia ""an unexpected city""; and the result is this odd, tantalizing-and-off putting package: profiles of seven assorted 20th-century Philadelphians framed by impressionistic essays on the city in 1900 and 1950. That Philadelphia was, at the turn of the century, ""provincial and patrician,"" Lukacs conveys with panache--the absence of the ""fierce rhythm of metropolitan life,"" the ""determination to preserve something of a country atmosphere,"" the ""preference for amateurism."" He also, more dubiously, sees in Philadelphia a ""paradoxical duality"" spawned by ""the contemplative humanitarian"" William Penn and ""the utilitarian eager beaver"" Benjamin Franklin. And that far-too-simple reading of the character of both men is behind his selection of severn modern figures as at once patricians-and-philistines. Each, however, is worth looking into; what curdles some of Lukacs' profiles is his obsession with correcting the record--and his bias against tainted stock. The yield, then, is very mixed: a broad-swathed portrait of the personality of well-born, coarse political boss Boies Penrose-insightful, but lacking in detail and context; a marvelous appreciation of forgotten essayist Agnes Repplier--which just goes on much too long; an unnecessary put-down of the Saturday Evening Post's smug Edward Book; a questionable tribute to ""outcast,"" ""cynical,"" ""impenitent"" diplomat William Bullitt (which becomes a vehicle for Lukacs' political and other views); a forgettable write-up of not-quite-quintessential Philadephia lawyer George Wharton Pepper; a serviceable account of Owen Wister, melancholic author of heroic tales; and a very contentious, very long apologia for obstreperous art collector Albert Barnes. Concluding, Lukacs deems 1950 Philadelphia much changed by conforming to ""the natural pattern of progress""--but not entirely: ""certain civilities of the heart remain."" Unfortunately, we read on the next page that the one thing all his subjects had in common was a strong mother. The reductive tendentiousness and the intellectual urbanity are at war to the end.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1981
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux