Stories from PA History
The Power of Words: Writers and Publishers
The Power of Words: Writers and Publishers
Overview: The Power of Words: Writers and Publishers

Benjamin Franklin, half-length portrait, seated at table, facing left, reading documents
Benjamin Franklin, by David Martin, 1767.
Since the arrival of the first Quaker colonists around 1680, Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of the great revolutions of the modern world: of the struggle for religious freedom in the seventeenth century, the movement for natural rights and political liberties in the eighteenth century, the major social reforms and world-shaping industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, and the social and information revolutions and economic transformations of the twentieth century. To understand who we are as Americans today, we need to look to the words of those who lived through these world-shaping transformations.

Playwright August Wilson standing in front of his boyhood home (far right) on Bedford Street in Pittsburgh.
Playwright August Wilson standing in front of his boyhood home (far right) on...
The small flow of words that began with the first explorers and settlers in the seventeenth century grew into a rising stream in the eighteenth, and then an ever-growing flood in the centuries that followed.  A small handful of theologians, poets, letter writers, and political leaders who put pen to paper were followed by vast numbers of journalists, pundits, historians, novelists, short story writers, scientists, lyricists, advertisers, investigators in an ever-expanding range of fields, scriptwriters, and others who penned words for edification and for amusement, to be read in silent prayer and shouted from public squares, to ennoble the spirit and to inflame the passions, to clarify and to befuddle.

Composite Image
 Portrait of Demetrius Gallitzin [inset], his diary, memorandum book, and...
William Penn founded his colony as a Holy Experiment based on the tolerance rather than the suppression of different faiths. Here religious dissenters like German mystic Johannes Kelpius in the 1690s and minorities from across Europe found a home and gave voice to their vision of the Kingdom of God.  Here in the early 1800s Father Demetrius Gallitzen and Isaac Leeser penned their compelling defenses of the Catholic and Jewish faiths. Here, on a Susquehanna County farm, Joseph Smith wrote out The Book of Mormon; Pittsburgh's Charles Taze Russell gave voice to the Jehovah's Witnesses; and Allentown's Frank Buchman attempted to hold back the rising tide of Fascism through "Moral Rearmament."

Page two of the original seventeen amendments passed in 1789 and later changed to the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights.
Page 2, House of Representatives’ Original Proposal for a Bill of Rights,...
Pennsylvania was America's first multicultural society and Philadelphia the new nation's first capital of culture and science, as well as government.  In this most cosmopolitan of American cities, Thomas Payne presented his "Common Sense" argument for American independence, the Founding Fathers fashioned a Declaration of Independence and two Constitutions, and the nation's first free press engaged in fierce partisan battles or words.  Here, too, the notion of that authorship could be a profession was pioneered by the printer Benjamin Franklin and novelist Charles Brockden Brown.

In the early 1800s, Pennsylvania, a border state with close ties to the slave-holding states of the American South, continued as a great battleground in the American struggle for freedom and equality. Born out of the Quaker belief in the presence of the inner light of God in all people, the Commonwealth was the birthplace and nursery of the American movement to abolish slavery and to extend political and social equality to African Americans and women. 

Oil on mahogany board of an odd looking, bearded, little man standing in front of a hollow of a tree. He holds a book and a cane in his right hand.
Benjamin Lay, by William Williams, 1750.
Here, four German Quaker immigrants in 1694 penned the first formal protest against slavery and Quaker Lucretia Mott, excluded because of her gender from full participation in the abolition movement of the 1830s became a Founding Mother of the American women's rights movement. Here, too, black nationalist Martin Delany, Underground Railroad conductor and chronicler William Still, poetess and novelist Frances Harper, and other African American men and women added their compelling words to struggle for abolition and equal rights under the law.

A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists with Lucretia Mott [seated second from the right].
"A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists," circa 1846.
An economic colossus during the industrial revolution, Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century was the center of the nation's iron, coal, steel, and railroad industries, and the site of some of the most violent and prolonged battles between the growing millions of America's industrial workers and corporations of unprecedented size and power.  It should be no surprise then that Pennsylvanians were persuasive defenders and critics of American industrial capitalism.

In the late 1800s, millions of Americans embraced Philadelphia-born Henry George's single-tax "Gospel of Christ" to reverse the nation's growing economic inequalities. Pittsburgh steel baron Andrew Carnegie persuaded others, through his "Gospel of Wealth" (1889), that those men who had proven themselves the "fittest" were best able to lead. In Pennsylvania, Ida Tarbell exposed the predatory rise to wealth and power of John D. Rockefeller in her best-selling The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), and Frederick Winslow Taylor conducted the time and motion studies published in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) that explained how employers could maximize worker productivity and minimize labor costs.

Henry George cartoon
"The Working Man Between Two Fires," Judge, 1886.
In the twentieth century, Pennsylvanians' words continued to resonate in the great debates about the meaning and nature of America. Native Pennsylvanians, newcomers, and outsiders also attempted to make sense of the meaning and nature of Pennsylvania to the larger world through their short stories, novels, poems, histories, motion pictures, and plays.

Head and shoulders image of a woman wearing glasses and a feathered wrap
flip zoom
Essayist Agnes Repplier, 1910.
It was their love of the woods and fields of their Pennsylvania childhoods that under laid the western novels of Conrad Richter and Edward Abbey, and nature writing of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1963) helped launch the modern environmental movement. Novelists Jessie Redmon Fauset, John O'Hara, and John Updike all used the worlds of their Pennsylvania childhoods as the inspiration for their great works of fiction.  And successive generations of writers, including Agnes Repplier, Nathaniel Burt, E. Digby Baltzell, and John Edgar Wideman tried to make sense of the enigmatic nature of the City of Philadelphia.

Half length portrait of Hale.
flip zoom
Sarah Josepha Hale, painted and engraved expressly for Godey’s Lady’s...
In the twentieth century, film and television replaced literature as the most popular storytelling media. As Pennsylvania became a symbol of deindustrialization and economic decline in the latter years of the century, filmmakers used the worlds of working-class Pennsylvanians to explore the troubles of ordinary people in hard times.  Rocky (1976), for example, told the story of a down-and-out boxer from Philadelphia's Italian-American community who triumphed against almost impossible odds, and The Deer Hunter (1978) presented a vivid picture of a Russian-American community in the southwestern Pennsylvania steel town of Clarion and the harrowing experiences of three young men sent to Vietnam. Both films won Oscars for best picture.

Front cover
flip zoom
“The Ayer Idea In Advertising,” N. W. Ayers & Son, Philadelphia,...
The state historical markers are the puzzle pieces with which we must work to write our history of the Commonwealth's writers and publishers.  This story, then, is more a sketch than a blueprint. We have no historical markers, for example, for Charles Brockden Brown, George Lippard, and the other Pennsylvania writers who helped shape to the early American novel. None for John Fenno, Benjamin Franklin Bache, or the other acid-tongued journalists who scourged the nation's Founding Fathers when the City of Brotherly Love was the nation's literary as well as its political capital. There are no markers for Grahams or Godey's, the most popular men's and women's magazines of antebellum America, or for Godey's Sarah Josephus Hale, the nation's first great female editor.

George Korson recording staged hoedown in Pennsylvania, with anthracite miners playing fiddle and guitar.
flip zoom
Anthracite miners playing fiddle and guitar for George Korson at the Newkirk...
For the twentieth century, no markers commemorate Thomas Bell, whose Out of this Furnace (1941) many literary historians consider the greatest novel ever written about the city of Pittsburgh, or for John Updike, who set his best selling Rabbit novels in a fictionalized version of his hometown of Reading. We have no markers to explore the role that Pennsylvanians played in the history of the American advertising industry-- one of the most prolific and influential producers of words in the modern world--and no markers commemorating the state's folklorists, including Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958), the first great collector of Pennsylvania folk stories and songs, or George Korson (1899-1967), the pioneering collector of the songs and stories of Pennsylvania's industrial workers and labor movements. Nor do we have the markers needed to tell the history of the state's once vast newspaper industry or the Philadelphia Inquirer, the nation's third-oldest surviving daily.

The state marker program limits itself to those no longer with us, so for the most recent history of Pennsylvania writers and publishers you will have to explore elsewhere.  Even acknowledging the many absences, this story offers a broad introduction to the history of the written and printed word in Pennsylvania history, and includes a rich collection of documents that capture events as they were lived and ideas as they were still unfolding.

Back to Top