Market Street: Fodder for Literary Legends

Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (
Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (

Do Philadelphia streets have distinct personalities? We know they do. Are they potent enough to stand out in the literary imagination? In 1920, Christopher Morley thought so.

Morley considered how Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry James might have sung the praises of (or, in the case of Poe, bemoaned fears about) a Philadelphia thoroughfare.

But which street had the requisite robustness to nourish literary posterity? Which embodied stature, range, resilience and vitality? Morley’s choice, in Travels in Philadelphiawas Market Street.

“I see the long defile of Market street,” Morley imagined Whitman writing. “And the young libertad offering to shine my shoes (I do not have my shoes shined, for am I not as worthy without them shined? I put it to you, Camerado.)” …

“In a window I see a white-coated savan cooking griddle cakes, And thinking to myself, I am no better than he is, / And he is no better than I am, / And no one is any better than anyone else / (O the dignity of labor, / Particularly the labor that is done by other people; / Let other people do the work, is my manifesto, / Leave me to muse about it) / Work is a wonderful think, and a steady job is a wonderful thing, / And the pay envelope is a wonderful institution, / And I love to meditate on all the work that there is to be done, / And how other people are doing it. / Reader, whether in Kanada or Konshocken, / I strike up for you. / This is my song for you, and a good song, I’ll say so.”

(You didn’t really expect Morley to mount an earnest channeling of Whitman, did you?)

He imagined the return of Poe: “During the whole of a dull and oppressive afternoon, when the very buildings that loomed about me seemed to lean forward threateningly as if to crush me with their stony mass, I had been traveling in fitful jerks in a Market street trolley; and at length found myself, as the sullen shade of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy tower of the City Hall. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”

And for Henry James (known for his long sentences) Morley reveled in a few of his own making: “Thorncliff was thinking, as he crossed the, to him, intolerably interwoven confusion of Market street, that he had never—unless it was once in a dream which he strangely associated in memory with an overplus of antipasto—never consciously, that is, threaded his way so baffling a predicament of traffic, and it was not until halted, somewhat summarily, though yet kindly, by a blue arm which he after some scrutiny assessed as belonging to a traffic patrolmen, that he bethought himself sufficiently to inquire, in a manner a little breathless still, though understood at once by the kindly envoy of order as the natural mood of one inextricably tangled in mind and not yet wholly untangled in body, but still intact when the propulsive energy of the motortruck had been, by a rapid shift of years and actuating machinery, transformed to a rearward movement, where he might be and how.”

“’This is Market street,’ said the officer. ‘Market street! Ah, thank you.'”

“Market street! Could it be, indeed? His last conscious impression had been of some shop—a milliner’s, perhaps?—on, probably, Walnut street where he had been gazing with mild reproach at the price tickets upon the hats displayed… So this was Market street. …

“Market street? How interesting.”

Yes, Morley did think of Market Street as especially interesting.

In another piece, this time entirely of his own creation and credit, Morley considered a midnight scene: “Market street is still lively. A ‘dance orchard’ emits its patrons down a long stair to the street. Down they come, gaily laughing. The male partners are all either gobs, who love dancing even more than ice cream soda; or youths with tilted straw hats of course weave, with legs that bend backward most oddly below the knee, very tightly and briefly trousered. … The girls all wear very extensive hats, and are notably pretty. ‘Which way do we go?’ is the first question on reaching the street. It is usually the way to the nearest soda fountain.”

When it comes to Market Street one hundred years later, what do we experience? Which way do we go?