Philadelphia Gothic Opening Reception

Opening remarks, 10/29/2008
By Library Company Director
John C. Van Horne

Welcome. I’m delighted to have such a large gathering here this evening to help us celebrate the opening of our Philadelphia Gothic exhibition, which will run for five-and-a-half months. And speaking of celebrating, I promise to have you out of here in plenty of time to get home before World Series Game 5 resumes; let’s hope it results in a final score worth celebrating.

Philadelphia Gothic Poster ImageOur new exhibition seeks to bring to some notoriety to the lives and careers of three somewhat obscure and very much underappreciated authors: Charles Brockden Brown, Robert Montgomery Bird, and George Lippard. These men worked from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th.  They were innovative writers who together created a genre that we’re calling “Philadelphia Gothic”, and they also influenced their near contemporary Edgar Allan Poe. Our authors introduced all sorts of bizarre and unsettling themes into their work, from somnambulism to ventriloquism, from serial killers to ghosts, and from Christian mysticism to the transmigration of souls.

The Library Company is the perfect home for Philadelphia Gothic, not only because we have a superb collection of early American literary texts, but also because the Library Company itself was an integral part of this city’s literary culture in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, in many respects, this library embodied the spirit of Gothic Philadelphia. Let me give some instances. First, Charles Brockden Brown was a shareholder in the Library Company, and we acquired all of his novels as soon as they were published, at least one as a gift of the author himself. None of the other writers in the exhibition were members, but you did not have to be a shareholder then (or now) to use the Library, and this was the only place in town if you wanted, like Poe, to “ponder, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” In fact the curators argue in our exhibition that the monumental bust of the Minerva, also known as Pallas Athena, that presided over our reading room in the 19th century (and now presides over me in my office) was the inspiration for the “pallid bust of Pallas” on which Poe’s Raven perched.

Lots of other Gothic characters frequented the Library Company in the old days. Our librarian John Jay Smith, for example, was one of the founders of Laurel Hill Cemetery, that consummately creepy place of eternal rest for so many outwardly upstanding Philadelphians, including another of our writers, Robert Montgomery Bird. But the most Gothic of all 19th-century Philadelphians was James Rush, the neurotic son of Dr. Benjamin Rush, and the ill-matched husband of Phoebe Ridgway Rush, who was the flamboyant daughter of the fabulously rich merchant Jacob Ridgway. This trio, whose portraits can be seen in the ‘air pump’ case in the Logan Room, were Charles Brockden Brown characters come to life. When Phoebe died, from an excess of the good things in life, James bequeathed her fortune to the Library Company to fund a new building on the condition that her bones and his would be interred in the foundations. That building still stands at the corner of Broad and Christian Streets, now the home of the city’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and though the style of its architecture is neoclassical, the basement under which the couple was buried resembles nothing so much as the crypt of a Gothic cathedral. Phoebe had no say is this disposition of her money and her remains, and, not surprisingly, her ghost haunted the old building until we moved out of it in 1965.  By a decree of the Orphan’s Court that allowed us to move from South Broad to Locust Street, we had to disinter Phoebe and James and rebury them in the foundations of this building. In the process, the coffins were opened, in a macabre effort to look for the diamond tiara rumored to have been buried with Phoebe. According to our late Librarian Edwin Wolf, when the lid of her coffin was lifted, there was Phoebe as stout as ever and still wearing the black dress she was buried in; but within a minute all had turned to dust. Since then her ghost has been quiet, but watch where you step – she is beneath us even now.

Some Acknowledgments: The principal “thank you” goes to guest curator Neil Fitzgerald; he came to us with the idea for this exhibition a great many years ago – about 25 he tells me.  As with many things at an institution as old as the Library Company, he had to await the fullness of time.  But I believe it has been worth the wait.

Dr. Fitzgerald holds a Ph.D. from Brown University in American Civilization and was an early Fellow at what is now the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn. Neil has had a wide-ranging career that includes stints as a reporter and professor of journalism, work for a top rare book dealer, work as a stockbroker and financial analyst, and now as the chief economist for a merchant bank.  He holds Brockden Brown’s share in the Library Company, is collaterally related to Brown, and has been a shareholder for over three decades.  Dr. Fitzgerald has lent to the exhibition from his own extensive collection, and worked closely with Librarian Jim Green to conceptualize the exhibition; he drafted the text for the labels identifying everything on the walls and in the cases in the gallery.  He and his wife Pamela have come in from Arizona to be with us this evening.   Kudos to Neil and Jim.

We also must thank the many lenders to this exhibition, including. guest curator Fitzgerald, Pamela Sinkler-Todd (also descendant of Charles Brockden Brown), Robert Montgomery Bird (descendant of ancestor of the same name), the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Rare Book Department of the University of Pennsylvania, the Atwater Kent Museum, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Finally Steve Tucker, exhibition designer, and Jennifer Rosner and her colleagues in our Conservation Deptartment, who installed the exhibition.

Christopher Looby, Professor of English at UCLA, will be our speaker tonight. Before moving to Los Angeles, Chris taught at Penn for 5 years. He has his Ph.D. from Columbia; held numerous fellowships (including at LCP); he’s published very widely, including editions of the works of two of our authors (R. M. Bird and G. Lippard). He’s also published “Voicing America: Language, Literary Form and the Origins of the U.S.” (1996), and is working on a book that will be called “Public Prints: Serial Form and American Fiction, 1792-1885.” This evening he will address “The Paradox of Philadelphia Gothic.”