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Philadelphia writers, seen from the futureBY: Dan Rottenberg 06.01.2010
It was the dawn of a Golden Age: the Age of Fried and Bissinger, of Platt and Scottoline— yes, of Yoo and Santorum and countless other literary luminaries whose destinies converged on the bustling sidewalks of Nutter’s Philadelphia.
‘The Age of Scottoline,’ or:
“A lot of what we do as long-form journalists is read things that are really boring, but are interesting to us, and then try to figure out how you could write them interestingly and still have them be as accurate as the boring versions…. I’m trying to get people to call it ‘history buffed’.”
“The success I had with my first book is impossible to replicate…. Salinger just cut out after Catcher in the Rye. He was smart. I admire that.”
(The following is excerpted from The Age of Scottoline, Volume XXIV of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, scheduled for publication in the year 2250.)
The dawn of a new culture
At some point in each millennium, the world’s literary constellations converge in a manner that changes human perceptions for centuries. Athens under Pericles was one such crossroads; Elizabethan England was another. In our own millennium, such a place was Nutter’s Philadelphia.
It was the dawn of a new culture: The Age of Fried and Bissinger; of Platt and Scottoline, Kalmus and Saline, Zeidner and Cary; of Graham and DiBartolomeo— yes, of Yoo, Santorum and Smerconish. In that tolerant Quaker city’s bustling yet intimate sidewalks, parks, bookshops, coffee houses and theaters, the proximity of so many literary luminaries inevitably emboldened each to experiment with ever more daring new forms of writing. It was here that Fried first embarked on his quest, as he put it, “to write knowledgeably about each part of history, but still not become a nerd and make it really boring.”*
Like Columbus and Galileo before him, Fried was mocked by his contemporaries when he first proposed to buff history. Many historians insisted it couldn’t be done. Even Fried’s followers were mystified when Fried described himself as “on the real nonfiction end of nonfiction.” In the darkest moments of his lonely struggle Fried was heard to lament, “If I only wrote about one thing, maybe more people would know exactly what it means to read a book of mine.”
Only with the benefit of 200 years’ hindsight can we recognize, in Fried’s invention of history buffing, humankind’s first tentative steps upward from the clutter and confusion of our brutish ancestors to the suave sophisticates we are today.
The prism of basketball
While Fried buffed history, his fellow Philadelphians Platt, Bissinger and Graham blazed new pathways deep within the human psyche. Earlier, more primitive writers like Euripides and Shakespeare had relied entirely on narrow subjects like kings and princes as prisms through which to examine the human condition. But Bissinger and Platt achieved deeper insight through the far more accessible personas of large professional basketball players.
Bissinger ventured even farther afield, into the realm of large professional baseball players and medium-sized high school football players. Graham’s dramas in turn pushed these frontiers even further, delving into the fans who worshipped large professional athletes.
It was Bissinger and Platt, moreover, who developed new linguistic forms for cutting incisively to the heart of a matter. Compare, for example, Disraeli’s long-winded 19th-Century response to an anti-Semitic tormentor in Parliament (“When the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon”) to the brevity and concision of Bissinger’s 21st-Century rejoinder to a misinformed blogger (“Will, I think you’re full of shit”) or the pithiness of Platt’s heartfelt public plea for “a City Council that doesn’t suck.”
Like Jefferson and Hamilton in another century, Bissinger and Platt led the same revolution from rival command posts, Bissinger as patriarch of the excremental school of expression while Platt fathered the oral-genital school. Their devotion to their respective causes is attested by a Google survey in 2010 that found the word “Platt” linked to “suck” more than 35,000 times, and “Bissinger” linked to ”shit” more than 150,000 times.
It was also during Philadelphia’s Golden Age that Saline launched her monumental study of women’s role in the decline and fall of the American family with her first two classic works, Sisters and Mothers and Daughters. Indeed, the demise of the family unit is reflected with uncanny prescience in the titles of Saline’s subsequent works: Divorcees, Mistresses, Trophy Wives and the especially devastating Girls Who Just Want To Have Fun.
Scottoline’s “chick-lit” spoke, perhaps without precedent in human history, to an eternal but heretofore unarticulated yearning among women— and even men— to transcend time by remaining spiritually and physically youthful even as they reached and passed child-bearing age. Rarely can a mere writer be said to have altered the course of social history, but such was the case in the early 21st Century when Scottoline announced, “I love the middle lane. If I could live my life in the middle lane, I would. I avoid the fast lane at all costs, because I’m not that kind of girl.”
Towering above this yeasty intellectual stew stood the philosopher Lipson, whose essays, in the course of 40 years, formulated and reinforced a new recognition of the fundamental core values of Western society— specifically, the value of a fine tailor, a properly tied Windsor knot and a good interior designer, and conversely the threat posed to civilization by poor people, the handicapped and African-Americans.
Much of the ferment of Philadelphia’s Golden Age can be ascribed not only to writers but also to their patrons. The visionary publisher Tierney, for example, nurtured the literary careers of Yoo and Santorum at a time when no one else recognized their aesthetic talents— indeed, nurtured them so selflessly that Tierney’s own newspaper was forced into bankruptcy.
Lost to posterity
Like the dramas of the ancient Greeks, many written works of Philadelphia’s Golden Age survive today only in oral recollection. The rudimentary buffing machine where Fried conducted his early experiments was displayed for many years at the Smithsonian Institution before budget cutbacks caused it to be recalled into service at the Smithsonian’s shoeshine stand. Many of the works of Scottoline, Bissinger, Yoo, Santorum and Smerconish were destroyed in an unfortunate fire at the Philadelphia Inquirer building in 2018, shortly after that paper ceased publication.
In retrospect it is natural to wonder why these writers— these visionaries in so many literary respects— grasped so tenaciously to ephemeral ink on paper when they could have achieved immortality by digitizing their works. Yet in fact Philadelphia’s Golden Age does indeed survive today, centuries later, in the words and deeds of ordinary citizens as they interpret their everyday lives, inspired however subconsciously by that brief shining moment in human intercourse.
The Philadelphia literati were writers, yes; but above all they were role models for a troubled world, as Platt himself perceived in his paean to Barkley for Salon:
“Anyone who appears so utterly joyous exercising free speech, anyone so OK with his life as a very public work-in-progress and anyone in the insular, often homophobic world of jockdom who points out class distinctions by challenging the media to suck cock for money, well, that’s a role model worthy of emulation.”♦
*All quotations are taken from actual articles, interviews and blogs.♦
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