- Philadelphia Fire, or the Shape of a City
We translators, if we so choose, may have a patron saint Jerome who was the first to translate the Bible from the Hebrew into Latin. But we may also have a non-Christian patron king, the king of Egypt who probably asked for the Torah to be translated into Greek. 1 His name was Ptolemy II “Philadelph,” so named because he married his sister. 2 His father was the founder of the Alexandria Mouseion (Museum) 3 and Library. Philadelph generally improved on his father’s work. Many Philadelphias were then founded in Egypt and Asia, though not yet in America. Of course, some time later, William Penn put that right. And should not the French translator of Philadelphia Fire be forgiven if he believes Philadephia, Pennsylvania, was founded as a late homage to Philadelph?
With the Egyptian king in mind we shall examine the episode in Philadelphia Fire (44–45) where the protagonist Cudjoe is perched at the top of the steps leading up to the entrance of the Art Museum. Frequent mention will also be made of two other books by John Edgar Wideman: Reuben (1987) and Fever (1989). Indeed those three volumes of fiction, published in quick succession in three short years at the end of the 1980s, could be read as a Philadelphia Trilogy, a companion to the better known Homewood Trilogy which dates from the beginning of the same decade.
Although Philadelphia recognizably serves as a backdrop to the action in Wideman’s third published novel The Lynchers (1973), the name of the city appears first in Brothers and Keepers (1984). In Reuben all black men are said “to have a Philadelphia. . . . A brother trapped there forever” (93). Then the short story “Fever”—in size, almost a novella—centers on the 1793 plague outburst in Philadelphia, a theme taken up again in Wideman’s latest book, his 1996 novel The Cattle Killing. So over the last ten years Philadelphia has come to dominate his work, much as Homewood prevailed in the early 1980s. And looking into the shape of Wideman’s Philadelphia might help shed some light upon his fiction over the past decade.
As applied to Philadelphia, the word “shape” occurs twice within the couple of pages in Philadelphia Fire we have chosen to consider here. The episode comes halfway through Part One of the three-part novel. From the top of the Museum steps, the protagonist Cudjoe has a panoramic view of the city:
From this vantage-point in the museum’s deep shadow in the greater darkness of night it seems an iron will has imposed itself on the shape of the city.(44, emphasis mine)
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He [Cudjoe] can tell thought had gone into the design. And a person must have stood here, on this hill, imagining this perspective. Dreaming the vast emptiness into the shape of a city. (45, emphasis mine)
Wideman’s reader may take “a person . . . imagining this perspective” to be William Penn—a guess which appears to be borne out by the next paragraph, when Cudjoe is suddenly reminded of the Founding Fathers, “dead now. Buried in their wigs, waistcoats, swallowtail coats, silk hose clinging to their plump calves. A foolish old man flying a kite in a storm” (45). That last sentence of course refers to Benjamin Franklin rather than to William Penn, as Franklin is well-known for his experiments with a kite equipped with a metal point that led him to discover atmospheric electricity, invent the lightning rod and map the paths of storms over the American continent. But more of that “foolish old man” later. We shall stay first with William Penn, see what shape his Philadelphia was meant to be and why nothing is left of it after Wideman’s Philadelphia Trilogy.
In William Penn’s Instructions used as an epigraph to the novel, his vast ambitions come out forcefully:
Let every house be placed, if the Person pleases, in the middle of his platt . . . so there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or fields, that it may be a greene Country Towne, which will...