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Monday, 16 February 2004

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TRAVEL
AMERICAN NOTES: Travelling with Dickens
(Part IV and the Last Part in a Series)

That same day, after the hotel reception, Dickens would have his ugliest moment in Philadelphia. That was a visit to Eastern Penitentiary, the notorious prison at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue. Dickens knew a thing or two about the barbarity of prison life (his father had been locked up in 1824 for outstanding debts), but what he saw at Eastern State exemplified a new level of inhumanity -- solitary confinement to promote penitence.

The Eastern State model of incarceration was attracting the interest of some penal `reformers´ in Britain, and Dickens would have none of it. Over several days, the author interviewed a number of inmates. Of one, he said, `He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the meantime dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.´

Eastern State, in modern times, went on to confine Willie Sutton and Al Capone, and it continues, now in its contemporary reincarnation as a museum, to be as creepy and chilling as when Dickens toured the fortress-like structure.

Still, Dickens found that Philadelphia had its redeeming qualities. He praised the city's `fresh´ water, thanks to the Waterworks in Fairmount Park. (The Waterworks are now reopened, as well, as a museum).
The author also toured Pennsylvania Hospital, admired the Sully and West pictures that hang there (to this day), and commented on the `great benefits´ the hospital, the first in America, provided. He also visited `a quiet, quaint old Library, named after Franklin.´ (Probably, the Library Company). Dickens´ highest encomium went to Girard College, then on the city´s outskirts. `If completed according to its original design,´ Dickens declared, the school `will be perhaps the richest edfice of modern times.´

Despite his mixed reviews of Philadelphia, the local folk were still gaga over Boz. The celebrity author visited the city again in 1868. An astounding 6,000 fans turned out for a reading. About 30 years after Dickens death in 1870, Philadelphia further cemented its bond with the author by erecting a statue -- the only full-sized statue of Dickens anywhere! -- in West Philadelphia´s Clark Park.

Philadelphia´s ties are also underscored by an extensive collection of the author´s books, letters, manuscripts, and memorablia -- even his writing desk and his stuffed pet raven ´Grip´! -- housed in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library.

The question invariably comes round to whether Dickens was prophetic as Tocqueville in envisioning the American dynamo of the 20th century. Maybe not. But Dickens was perhaps yet more clever in judging our institutions of that past era with foresight and prescience. He was right in his condemnation of slavery. He was right in ridiculing the injustices of Eastern State´s penal theories. And, of course, he was right in criticising Philadelphia´s monotonously boring grid pattern.

Crooked streets are an urban dweller´s joy. That's why my favourite guide to London is one that documents its every road, track, and footpath, the `A-Z Street Atlas & Index´.

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