Our Philadelphia/Chapter 7

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Our Philadelphia
The Social Adventure: The Assembly

CHAPTER VII: THE SOCIAL ADVENTURE: THE ASSEMBLY

I

I AM too good a Philadelphian to begin to talk about the Assembly in the middle of a chapter. It holds a place apart in the social life of Philadelphia of which annually it is the supreme moment, and in my record of my experiences of this life, however imperfect, I can treat it with no less consideration. It must have a chapter apart.

To go to the Assembly was the one thing of all others I wanted to do, not only on the general principle that the thing one wants most is the thing one cannot have, but because to go to the Assembly was the thing of all others I ought to have done. There could be no question of that. You were not really out in Philadelphia if you did not go; only the Friends could afford not to. And Americans from other towns felt much the same way about it, they felt they were not anybody if they were not invited, and they moved heaven and earth for an invitation, and prized it, when received, as highly as a pedigree. A few honoured guests were always at the Assembly.

Philadelphians who are not on the Assembly list may pretend to laugh at it, to despise it, to sneer at the

THE HALL, STENTON

snobbishness of people who endeavour to draw a social line in a country where everybody is as good as everybody else and where those on the right side may look down but those on the wrong will not be induced to look up. And not one among those who laugh and sneer would not jump at the chance to get in, were it given them, at the risk of being transformed into snobs themselves. For the Assembly places the Philadelphian as nothing else can. It gives him what the German gets from his quarterings or the Briton from an invitation to Court. The Dancing Class had its high social standard, it required grandfathers as credentials before admission could be granted, the archives of the Historical Society of Pensylvania supplied no more authoritative assurance of Philadelphia respectability than its subscription list, but the Dancing Class was lax in its standard compared to the Assembly. I am not sure what was the number, what the quality, of ancestors the Assembly exacted, but I know that it was as inexorable in its exactions as the Council of Ten. It would have been easier for troops of camels to pass through the eye of a needle than for one Philadelphian north of Market Street to get through the Assembly door. I am told that matters are worse to-day when Philadelphia society has increased in numbers until new limits must be set to the Assembly lest it perish of its own unwieldiness. The applicants must produce not only forefathers but fathers and mothers on the list, and the Philadelphian whose name was there more than a century and a half ago cannot make good his rights if his parents neglected to establish theirs. And to be refused is not merely humiliation, but humiliation with Philadelphia for witness, and the misery and shame that are the burden of the humiliated.

It is foolish, I admit, society is too light a matter to suffer for; it is cruel, for the social wound goes deep. But were it ten times more foolish, ten times more cruel, I would not have it otherwise. Philadelphians preserve their State House, their Colonial mansions and churches; why should they not be as careful of their Assembly, since it has as historic a background and as fine Colonial and Revolutionary traditions? They are proud of having their names among those who signed the Declaration of Independence; why should they not take equal—or greater—pride in figuring among the McCalls and Willings and Shippens and Sims and any number of others on the first Assembly lists, since these are earlier in date? Besides, to such an extremity have the changes of the last quarter of a century driven the Philadelphian that he must make a good fight for survival in his own town. When I think of how mere wealth is taking possession of "Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine," how uptown is marrying into it, how the Jew and the alien are forcing their way in, I see in loyalty to the traditions of the Assembly of Philadelphian's strongest defence of the social rights which are his by inheritance. Should he let go, what would there be for him to catch on to again?

"PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF"

It would be different if what Philadelphia was getting in exchange were finer, or as fine. But it is not. The old exclusiveness, with its follies, was better, more amusing, than the new tendency to do away with everything that gave Philadelphia society its character. It was the charm and the strength of Philadelphia society that it had a character of its own and was not just like Boston or New York or Baltimore society. Nobody, however remote was their mission from social matters, could visit Philadelphia without being impressed by this difference, whether it was to discover, with John Adams, that Philadelphians had their particular way of being a happy, elegant, tranquil, polite people, or, with so unlikely an observer as Matthew Arnold, that "the leading families in Philadelphia were much thought of," and that Philadelphia names saying nothing to an Englishman said everything to every American. Who you were counted in Philadelphia, as what you knew in Boston, or what you were worth in New York, and there was not an American of old who did not accept the fact and respect it. Philadelphia society clung to the Philadelphia surface of tranquillity, of untroubled repose whatever might be going on beneath it, and in my time I would not like to say how disturbing and agitating were the scandals and intrigues that were said to be going on. They were rarely made public. It was not in Philadelphia as in London where next to everybody you meet has been or is about to be divorced, though it might be that next to everybody you met was not making it a practice to keep to the straight and narrow path, to be as innocent as everybody looked. Logan Square could have told tales, if the Divorce Court could not.

But now Philadelphia has strayed from its characteristic exclusiveness; gone far to get rid of even the air of tranquillity. With the modern "Peggy Shippen" and "Sally Wister" alert to give away its affairs in the columns of the daily paper, it could not keep its secrets to itself if it wanted to. And it does not seem to want to—that is the saddest part of the whole sad transformation. It rather likes the world outside to know what it is doing and, worse, it takes that world as its model. Its aim apparently is to show that it can be as like every other town as two peas, so that, drinking tea to music at the Bellevue, dancing at the Ritz, lunching and dining and playing golf and polo at the Country Clubs, the visitor can comfortably forget he is not at home but in Philadelphia. The youth of Philadelphia have become eager to desert the Episcopal Academy and the University for Groton or St. Paul's, Harvard or Yale, in order that they may be trained to be not Philadelphians but, as they imagine, men of the world, forgetting the distinction there has hitherto been in being plain Philadelphians. At the moment when in far older towns of Europe people are striving to recover their character by reviving local costumes, language, and customs, Philadelphians are deliberately throwing theirs away with their old traditions. The Assembly is one of their

BED ROOM, STENTON  THE HOME OF JAMES LOGAN

few rare possessions left, and strict as they are with it in one way, in another they are playing fast and loose with it, holding it, as if it were a mere modern dance, at a fashionable hotel.


II

If I now regret, as I do, never having gone to the Assembly, it is because of all that it represents, all that makes it a classic. But at the time, my regret, though as keen, was because of more personal reasons. I could have borne the historic side of my loss with equanimity, it was the social side of it that broke my heart. I have had many bad quarters of an hour in my life, but few as poignant as that which followed the appearance at our front door of the coloured man who distributed the cards for the Assembly—far too precious to be trusted to the post—and who came to leave one for my Brother. It was an injustice that oppressed me with a sense of my wrongs as a woman and might have set me window-smashing had window-smashing as a protest been invented. Why should the Assembly be so much easier for men? My Brother had but to put on the dress suit he had worn it did not matter how many years, and as he was, like every other American young man, at work and an independent person altogether—a millionaire I saw in him—the price of the card in an annual subscription was his affair and nobody else's. But, in my case the price was not my affair. I had not a cent to call my own, I was not at work, I was denied the right to work, and, the Assembly coming fairly late in the season, my white tarlatan and Second Street silk showed wear and tear that unfitted them for the most important social function of the winter. Philadelphia women dressed simply, it is true; that used to be one of the ways the Quaker influence showed itself; they boasted then that their restraint in dress distinguished them from other American women. But simplicity does not mean cheapness or indifference. The Friends took infinite pains with their soft brown and silvery grey silks, with their delicate fichus and Canton shawls. The well-dressed Philadelphia woman knows what she has to pay for the elegance of her simplicity. And the Assembly has always called for the finest she could achieve, from the day when Franklin was made to feel the cost to him if his daughter was to have what she needed to go out "in decency" with the Washingtons in Philadelphia.

I had the common sense to understand my position and not to be misled by the poverty-stricken, but irresistible Nancies and Dollies who were enjoying a vogue in the novels of the day and who encircled empty bank accounts and big families with the halo of romance. To read about the struggles with poverty of the irresistible young heroine might be amusing, but I had no special use for them as a personal experience. It would have been preposterous for me to think for a moment that, without a decent gown, I could go to the Assembly and, to do myself justice, I did not think it. But by this time I knew what coming out

THE TUNNEL IN THE PARK

and being out meant and, therefore, I appreciated the social drawback it must be for me not to be able to go. It explained, as nothing hitherto had, how far I was from being caught up in the whirl, and it is only the whirl that keeps one going in society—that makes society a delightful profession, and I think I realized this truth better than the people so extravagantly in the Philadelphia whirl as to have no time to think about it. All that winter I never got to the point of being less concerned as to where the next invitation was to come from than as to how I was to accept all that did come. There is no use denying that I was disappointed and suffered from the disappointment. One pays a heavier price for the first foolish illusion lost than for all the others put together, no matter how serious they are.


III

When the season was over, I had as little hope of keeping up in other essential ways. If society then adjourned from Philadelphia because the heat made it impossible to stay at home, it was only to start a new Philadelphia on the porch of Howland's Hotel at Long Branch or, as it was just then beginning to do, at Bar Harbor and in the camps of the Adirondacks, or, above all, at Narragansett. "It may be accepted as an incontrovertible truth," Janvier says in one of his Philadelphia stories, "that a Philadelphian of a certain class who missed coming to the Pier for August would refuse to believe, for that year at least, in the alternation of the four seasons; while an enforced absence from that damply delightful watering-place for two successive summers very probably would lead to a rejection of the entire Copernican system." If Philadelphians went abroad, which was much more exceptional then than now, it was to meet each other. I know hotels in London to-day where, if you go in the afternoon, it is just like an afternoon reception in Philadephia, and hotels in Paris where at certain seasons you find nobody but Philadelphians talking Philadelphia, though the Philadelphian has not disappeared who does not want to travel because he finds Philadelphia good enough for him. And it has always been like that.

But I could not follow Philadelphia society in the summer time any more than I could go with it to the Assembly in the winter. I had reason to consider myself fortunate if I travelled as far as Mount Airy or Chestnut Hill out of the red brick oven Philadelphia used to be—is now and ever shall be!—from June to September. It was an event if I got off with the crowd—the linen-dustered, wilting-collared crowds; surely we are not so demoralized by the heat nowadays?—to Cape May or Atlantic City, to enjoy the land breeze blowing, from over the Jersey swamps, clouds of mosquitoes before it so that nobody could stir out of doors without gloves and a veil. These, however, were not the summer joys society demanded of me. The further I went into the social game, the less I got from it, and I had decided that for the poor it was not

THE BOAT HOUSES ON THE SCHUYLKILL

worth the candle at the end of the first year,—or was it the second? That I should be uncertain shows how little my heart was in the business of going out.

I did not necessarily give up every amusement because I did not go out. In fact, I cannot recall a dance that amused me as much as many a boating party on the Schuylkill in the gold of the June afternoon, or many a walking party through the Park in the starlit summer night. There also remained, had I chosen, the staid entertainment of the women who, for one reason or other, had retired from the gayer round, and whose amusements consisted of more intimate receptions, teas, without number, sewing societies. And it was the period when Philadelphia was waking up to the charms of the higher education for women,—to the dissipations of "culture." I had friends who filled their time by studying for the examinations Harvard had at last condescended to allow them to pass, or try to pass; others found their sober recreation by qualifying themselves as teachers and teaching in a large society formed to impart learning by correspondence: all these women keeping their occupation to themselves as much as possible, not wishing to make a public scandal in Philadelphia which had not accustomed itself to the spectacle of women working unless compelled to;—all this quite outside of the University set, which must have existed, if I did not know it, as the Bryn Mawr set exists to-day, but which, as far as my experience went, was then never heard of except by the fortunate and privileged few who belonged to it.

But this new amusement required effort, and experience had not made me in love with the amusement that had to be striven for, that had to be paid for by exertion of any kind. There was an interval when Philadelphia would have been searched in vain for another idler as confirmed as I. Having found nothing to do, I proceeded to do it with all my might. I stood in no need of the poet's command to lean and loaf at my ease, though I am afraid I leaned and loafed so well as to neglect the other half of his precept and to forget to invite my soul. To those years I now look back as to so much good time lost in a working life all to short at the best.