Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Philadelphia Literature?

"There is no good literature on Philadelphia,” said David Leatherbarrow over dinner at Greenville, South Carolina, the day before giving his lecture at Clemson University Architecture Department's Critical Practice for the Next Generation (Feb. 22, 2008). Dr. Leatherbarrow (my undergraduate mentor and theory hero) made this comment in relation to a class he is currently teaching at Penn, where the students read city-specific writings on architecture and literature. David’s comment put me into a query, and since it’s Philadelphia that I call home, I struggled for some bibliography.

There are, of course, Christopher Morley’s writings from the 1920s, edited by Ken Kalfus (Christopher Morley’s Philadelphia, 1990). Kalfus’ most recent novel A Disorder Peculiar to This County (2006) deals with 9/11 (hence a New York focus). Some of his previous works narrates personal experiences from the Soviet Union, where he resided with his wife, the Moscow correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time -- see Pu-239 And Other Russian Fantasies (1999), the title story of which was made into an HBO movie and premiered November 17, 2007. I first saw Kalfus on Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses taking place at the Rosenbach Library. He read with his wife, Inga Saffron who is currently the architectural critic of the Inquirer. They both live in Philadelphia and are spotted on the street with their daughter (who seems like the coolest teenager in the world). Saffron’s blog, Skyline Online provides the BEST update on what’s happening on Philadelphia’s architectural scene. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next best Philadelphia fiction does not come out of the pen of Ken Kalfus. I’m impatiently waiting for a Philadelphia Ulysses.

In the meantime, I want to suggest a couple of quintessential urban Philadelphia works, not necessarily novels. For instance, my recent most favorite has to do with the Mummer’s Parade of 2008. Space 1026 is a funky art collaborative on Arch Street, whose importance was recognized in a 2002 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Members of the group formed the Vaude-Villains and entered the Parade with the theme “Eaglize It.” The resulting confrontation between old and new, straight and gay, working class and art class is so incredibly Philadelphia; I cannot think of a better manifestation of the city’s new greatness. For a full coverage of this project, see Ryan Creed, “Never Mind the Sequins,” The City Paper (Dec. 26, 2007).

A slightly older book which grows from Philadelphian experiences is The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power (2002). Although from Chicago, Travis Hugh Culley lived in Philadelphia while writing this memoir. The book is very intelligent, exploring the bike-messenger as the ultimate new urban hero, but also revisiting the American city and the persistent suppression of anything non-automotive throughout its history. It is not surprising that Philadelphia has the hippest track-bike culture in the US. How can anyone resist buying a bag from R.E. Load, a grass-roots manufacturing company. The neo-Arts & Crafts movement is shaping up in Philadelphia.

Consider, moreover, that not all of the editors of n+1 (the recent literary journal) live in New York. Some live in Philadelphia; and they are producing masterpieces. Mark Greif’s “Afternoon of the Sex Children" (N+1, no. 4, Spring 2006) is one of the best things I’ve read for a while. Not only was it reproduced in Harper’s (Nov. 20060, but also selected for The Best American Essays 2007, ed. David Foster Wallace. Two year earlier, Greif’s essay “Against Exercise’ (n+1, no. 1, Fall 2004) was selected for The Best American Essay 2005, ed. Susan Orlean and Robert Atwan. I may be mistaken but either Mark Greif or Marco Roth lives in Philadelphia. At least I want them to live in Philadelphia.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States