Text: Christopher J. Forbes, “A New Look at George Lippard,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:16-18


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[page 16, column 2:]

A New Look at George Lippard

David S. Reynolds. George Lippard. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1982. xi + 150 pp. $15.95.

During the 1970’s several critical attempts were made to establish George Lippard as an important antebellum novelist. By building on the work of such critics as Heyward Ehrlich, Leslie Fiedler, and J. V. Ridgely, this latest study of Lippard by David S. Reynolds attempts to secure a legitimate literary reputation for America’s “most immoral” writer of the 1840’s and ‘50’s. Reynolds’ study is especially valuable because it sets out to justify, or else dispense with, many of the “specious or irresponsible” (p. 11) connections critics traditionally have made between Lippard’s Quaker City and the urban-directed fiction of such writers as Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Theodore Dreiser, and Norman Mailer. This new look at George Lippard is, unfortunately, not without its own significant misreadings and inaccuracies; nevertheless, a major step is taken here toward a long overdue analysis of Lippard as “a complex writer whose life and works merit close scrutiny on their own” (p. 12 0) .

Readers will find that the biography of Lippard in Reynolds’ first chapter is by far the best available. Even those who know Lippard well are presented with much that is of interest here, for Reynolds adds a good deal of original material to prior studies, sharpening and expanding the previously fragmented portrait of Lippard’s life. Lippard’s career as a highly unconventional social reformer [page 18:] cannot, of course, be fully understood without some knowledge of his constantly-frustrated personal background. His childhood was unsettled and unhappy; he failed at careers in the ministry and law; in his short thirty-two years of life, he was never entirely free from such burdens as “financial worries, family deaths, and illness” (p. 4). These factors clearly influenced Lippard’s reformist vision and largely explain the psychological to ots of his populist diatribes against social injustice as he perceived it. It might be argued, however, that Lippard’s 1842 experience as a reporter for the Spirit of the Times affected his career as significantly as anything else, since it was here that Lippard “tested several literary voices and themes he would develop more extensively” (p. 5) in the fight for social reform he conducted “through the medium of popular literature” (p. 17).

Lippard was by no means alone in this mission. In fact it was common for other antebellum writers like John Chumasero, A. J. H. Duganne, Thomas Dunn English, George Foster, and James Rees to borrow from newspaper materials, or else develop their own, while creating a host of reform-minded, popular “expose” novels of urban life in the 1840’s and ‘50’s. Little attention has been given to the concurrent and related rise of publications like the Spirit of the Times, Philadelphia’s Public Ledger, the Boston Daily Times, and New York’s Herald and Tribune. These antebellum penny papers, as Frank Luther Mott observes, “constituted a great social change” by providing lower and middle-class working persons with news of urban worlds which the more expensive dailies — the Boston Post, New York Evening Journal, the National Intelligencer — “scarcely touched” [American Journalism: A History, 1690-1910 (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1947), p. 2431. If little attention has been paid to these papers, even less has been devoted to the ways popular writers like Lippard characteristically transformed and heightened topical newspaper exposes of social abuse into wholesale novelistic denunciations of urban society at large. It is therefore to Reynolds’ credit that he does more than simply assert this connection. By presenting a bibliography of Lippard’s myriad penny press contributions, Reynolds provides both an index to Lippard’s overall career and an invaluable, time-saving source of materials scholars can build upon in future studies of the important relations between antebellum popular newspapers and the urban expose novels.

What makes Lippard stand out from his contemporaries? One major reason is that The Quaker City, which Lippard began to publish serially in 1844, was by far the most spectacular and commercially successful urban expose novel of them all; as such, this one novel literally gave birth to an entire genre of popular American literature. Yet Lippard is rarely studied in light of this remarkable achievement. Instead, as Reynolds points out, most “scholarly interest in Lippard during the twentieth century” stems from his relationship with a more “famous contemporary,” Edgar Allan Poe (p. 102) .

Noting that “concrete biographical evidence of this relationship is slim,” Reynolds still uses it effectively. If Poe was not aware of Lippard in 1842, as he might well have been, a friendly letter from Poe to Lippard proves their connection in 1844 (pp. 8, 102). In July 1849, a sick and desperate Poe sought out and received Lippard’s assistance [column 2:] in Philadelphia; before he died in October of the same year, Poe would write of being “indebted” to Lippard “for more than life” (pp. 19, 103). Reynolds also discusses literary connections between the two men: “both were interested in mesmerism and magnetism . . . both wrote fiction that explored dream psychology, irrational states, Gothic terror, necrophilia, and the death of beautiful women” (p. 105). But here a necessary cautionary note is added, for Reynolds correctly points out that “whereas Poe constantly strived for stylistic precision, Lippard was willing to sacrifice beauty and even grammar in the interest of communicating” his ideas (p. 106); thus Lippard’s “sprawling novels . . . were light years distant from Poe’s symmetrical tales” (p. 110).

Because Reynolds’ main intent is to demonstrate that Lippard’s works merit close scrutiny on their own — not merely in conjunction with sophisticated contemporaries like Poe — three full chapters are devoted to this purpose. Here the results are mixed. The strictly literary assessment of Lippard in chapter 2 is, for example, often illuminating. Reynolds makes the valid point that the heavy thread of “sensationalism” running through all of Lippard’s works is not entirely gratuitous, having “roots deep . . . in the human psyche” (p. 27). It is also true that the urban landscape Lippard creates in novels like The Quaker City assumes “mythic proportions” because of its dual, “appalling and fascinating” nature (p. 50). Perhaps the most impressive part of this chapter involves Reynolds’ analysis of Lippard’s “consciously disruptive” literary techniques (p. 48). Attempting to debunk the idea of Lippard as “merely an undisciplined writer who had no control over his plot and characters,” Reynolds interprets Lippard’s fiction as manifesting an “assault on the rational” that is carried out by an intentionally “alinear style” (pp. 44-47).

The case Reynolds makes is not altogether convincing, however, and those who have read Lippard’s novels will find it even more difficult to accept related ideas, in chapters 3 and 4, where Reynolds examines Lippard as a radical social critic and exponent of “a secularized Christianity” (p. 73). Here we are told that Lippard’s “unusual brand of urban fiction” was “clear eyed in its social commentary” (p. 51), while his historical tales of the American Revolution show Lippard “to some degree possessed the historical consciousness that Marx prized” (p. 64) . Reynolds goes even further in his discussion of Lippard’s religious views: The Quaker City “advances a death-of-God humanism in some ways akin to twentieth century existentialism” (p. 89).

This order is difficult to fill for even the most sophisticated writer, and such inflated, questionable claims obfuscate the essential qualities of Lippard that Rqnolds initially sets out to discuss. Rather than presenting “clear eyed social commentary,” Lippard’s fiction inevitably features formulaic conflicts between archetypal social villians and heroes. It is also difficult to balance Reynolds’ assessment of Lippard’s Marxian consciousness, or his “egalitarian social commentary” (p. 64), with Lippard’s jingoistic support of the Mexican American War. An even more serious problem occurs when Reynolds accepts Lippard’s critical or philosophical statements at face value. For example, Reynolds quotes Lippard directly to illustrate the author’s disgust with Calvinist doctrine (p. 75). But by unhestitatingly accepting [page 18:] this quotation as adequate evidence of the author’s viewpoint, Reynolds badly misreads The Quaker City: he is unable to see how this novel’s urban portraiture — wherein Philadelphia progressively corresponds in its physical structures to the darker sides of the city’s residents — is clearly shaped by Lippard’s own manichean, Calvinist view of human nature. The same problem occurs when Reynolds assumes that The Quaker City did not imitate Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, simply because Lippard denied the charge (p. 97). Yet to read the Mysteries is to understand just how richly Lippard deserves his title as the “American Eugene Sue.”

What is most bothersome about Reynolds’ defensive approach to Lippard is the way it avoids, or glosses over, certain facts about Lippard as a writer. He did imitate Eugene Sue, just as America’s other urban expose novelists would imitate Lippard; indeed, during his career Lippard obviously imitates himself in vain efforts to recreate the success of The Quaker City. Furthermore, Lippard’s literary style is frequently slapdash, tedious, and repetitious, as a consequence, the sexual and violent sensationalisms one finds in Lippard’s urban fiction become at times gratuitous, as they are in Blanche of Brandywine, where one heroine’s “all unbared white bosom” rises “slowly into light” and competes for the reader’s attention with “mangled bodies with shattered limbs, . . . eyes scooped from their sockets.” Finally, even though it is true that Lippard’s fiction, taken as a whole, touches upon practically all of the topical issues of his time, out of this emerges an at-best febrile kind of social commentary, indicative of an extraordinarily interesting yet confused mind.

The point, however, is that there is no need to apologize for these characteristics of Lippard’s mind and art. They only become deficiencies when critics attempt to place Lippard within an intellectual realm or literary continuum where he does not properly belong. To understand Lippard, to establish for him the secure place in American literature that he deserves, it is necessary to set this writer within the context of the culture that produced and explains him. In this sense Lippard was, as Reynolds puts it, “the epitome of the popular writer” whose works “appealed to a lowbrow taste” (p. 93) . But rather than militating against this fact, as Reynolds finally does, scholars must begin with it. Lippard’s fiction, in general, provides valuable indices of a popular antebellum mind that was as vibrant, madcap, and contradictory as Lippard’s own. Lippard carves out a place for himself through his urban-directed novels, where he established a symbolic model of the city that explained the social abuses it sensationalized while reinforcing belief in the essential rectitude of the middle-class American system represented by cities like New York and Philadelphia, in spite of their flaws. This was the message that sold so well in The Quaker City, and future studies of Lippard need to focus more clearly than Reynolds does on the extent to which his novels and others like them, presenting threatening yet at-bottom reassuring versions of the American city, acculturated mid-nineteenth-century Americans into accepting an increasingly urbanized way of life.

Christopher J. Forbes, Northeast Louisiana University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]