Nathaniel Popkin is a writer, editor, historian, journalist, and the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He’s the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine, as well as a prolific book critic—and National Book Critics Circle member—focusing on literary fiction and works in translation. He contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Millions, and the Kenyon Review, among other publications.
He’s the founding co-editor of t he Hidden City Daily, a web magazine that covers architecture, design, planning, and preservation in Philadelphia. He’s also the senior writer and story editor of the multi-part documentary film series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment for which his work has been recognized with several local Emmy awards.
Lion and Leopard followed two books of literary non-fiction, the 2002 Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and the 2008 essay collection, The Possible City (Camino Books).
Popkin has been a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellow and a writer-in-residence at Philadelphia University. He’s currently an editor-at-large at the Head and the Hand Press, and writer-in-residence at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, at work on the 2017 title Finding The Hidden City (Temple Press)
Exactly what does Philadelphia: The Great Experiment does that mean. Is it a social experiment, a political experiment, a cultural experiment, a democratic experiment, a scientific experiment?
Philadelphia: The Great Experiment was what we finally settled on after both a lot of discussion and a long email chain among historians - trying to come up with a smart pithy observational title that really captured your attention and framed Philadelphia’s history in perhaps a new way. A lot of ideas were collapsed into the title.
Philadelphia was a social experiment in terms of being a place for religious toleration which worked well in some ways and not in others.
It was a political experiment. William Penn was called the great lawgiver. His ideas were seized by those who followed him and eventually his ideas became part of the American framework of government at various points. Philadelphia was and is an experiment in city planning and urban development. William Penn brought very specific very interesting ideas about the hierarchies of space which got used, implemented, abused reimagined, and mythologized over time.
It was a cultural experiment in the sense that any city is. It is a breeding ground for ideas and art that responds to human experience of so many people piled up in one place.
The title originated with Sharon Holt, one of our experts. She came up with this notion that Philadelphia was the Research and Development Capitol of the world or of the nation. We incubated ideas on how to do things. From government to civil rights to technology and invention - in almost every area of city life. Even things like leisure, music, and sports were incubated here and put out into the world. All these were really incubated here. Philadelphia hasn’t always done a great job of always capitalizing financially or otherwise on these inventions.
Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is a present-day response to the long story of urban rise, decline, rise again. We thought about how to reconsider the city, how to tell the city’s story based on the most up to date and relevant scholarship and how to recognize history as a democratic medium. We asked who should tell the story and who the story is for. This becomes particularly apparent on a subject like how Philadelphia was a civil rights experiment in toleration. An experiment in legal toleration. After all, the first black owned building in America was a building at 6th and Lombard. Richard Allen purchased it
In terms of gender rights, too, Pennsylvania had very early property rights for women. Divorce rights. It had the earliest female pioneering physicians. So, I think in all these ways Philadelphia: The Great Experiment captures the spirt of Philadelphia but not in a way that confirms the inherited myth and cliché about the city. It does work with a kind of Ben Franklin convention and tableau that we’ve all inherited but it really goes beyond that in every era before and after Franklin.
I would also say one of the things I brought from the beginning is a strategy to disavow labels and myth and to approach in an honest way the city’s inherent contradictions—a place of great progression and reaction at the very same time. If you are a reader of the legendary or observational history, literary or otherwise, of the city, for example, there’s this idea that by the early middle of the 20th , say 1925, Philadelphia was a solemnly complacent city. I find any kind of label like that to cover up what is most remarkable about the city.
What makes Philadelphia unique vs. Boston or New York for this experiment?
Maybe nothing. You’re talking about three cities that rose up in approximately the same period, the same nation. Those cities inculcated the basic ideas about the nation - as a self-invented nation. Those three cities brought different things. Boston brought an insistence on federalism and puritanism and notions of intellectual life and education. New York brought a kind of coarse commercial life that built into our free society. Philadelphia brought a framework for our Constitution and a rational approach that if you look at the form of those cities is apparent.