The great fatal flaw in American history is that we are a country built on twin pillars. One pillar is the legacy of slavery, and the other is the genocide of our Native Americans, which in large part led to those imperial designs that drove our “Manifest Destiny,” to be a country “from sea to shining sea.”
Of the antebellum era, three major canonical literary figures come to mind: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. With the exception of Fenimore Cooper, none gave much space or effort in addressing those issues associated with those twin pillars.
The politics embraced by Edgar Allan Poe are largely an enigma. His politics are not readily apparent or discernible from his fiction, non fiction, or poetry. On the one hand, Poe wrote many stories about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. On the other hand, Poe, as a Southerner who grew up surrounded by slavery, did line up behind the racist writing of James Kirk Paulding. However, there is some reason to believe Poe’s attitudes were subject to revision. He certainly grappled with the issue in his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and there is some sketchy evidence that he had a friend who was black, Armistead Gordon. Otherwise, Poe rarely dwelled on the matter, though he was intelligent and well traveled enough to be capable of critical thinking.
As I have suggested in my own fiction, Poe had been influenced, or given pause to reflect, by others, particularly by Delaware author and poet John Lofland, a staunch Abolitionist. In his travels between Virginia and New England, Poe was exposed to new views and perspectives on the subject.
In 1841 – 1842, Poe was editor and critic at Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia during this time that Poe met George Lippard. Poe and Lippard were two authors who shared literary styles. Both wrote gothic tinged subject matter, combined with a uniquely American romanticism. These were stories about the underbelly of American life. However, Lippard wrote with a different purpose.
Recently the University of Pennsylvania published a new edition of Lippard’s long out of print novel The Killers. Originally published in 1850, the novel is set during the events leading up to a race riot in Philadelphia the previous year. The time frame is also during the same election cycle, ironically enough, when Poe was “cribbed” in Baltimore in an incident that eventually led to his death.
The plot of The Killers involves Philadelphia street gangs, one of the most vicious of which was “the Killers," located in the Moyamensing district of that city. Major characters are a set of half brothers, one brought up in abject poverty and the son of an absentee rich woman who has turned to a life of crime. The other brother has become the leader of “the Killers.” The father of the former son, whom he discovers only shortly before the incidents described in Lippard’s novel, is a manipulative banker who had made a fortune off the illegal slave trade. During the riot in which the white gang of “Killers” descends upon blacks in a nearby neighborhood, burning and pillaging it, rich banker Jacob D. Z. Hicks kidnaps Kate Watson, the common law sister of his long lost and abjectly poor son, in an attempt to drive her into a like of prostitution. Through a rather complex set of circumstances, a black man variously known as Black Andy, or “the Bulgine,” saves her from a burning building.
George Lippard was a strong anti-slavery advocate, and in The Killers he demonstrates the extent of the greed of those who sought to benefit from the illegal slave trade, along with other illegal activity stemming from it. One is reminded of similar implications suggested by today’s illegal drug trade as well as the gluttonous and unregulated arms trade, especially in terms of spawning other out of control illegal activity. As a result, corruption was rampant even among “respectable” politicians and businessmen.
Lippard, unlike Poe, was called a “reformer” in some circles, and a “muckraker” in others. He clearly saw the relationship between chattel slavery and wage slavery. In fact, near the end of his life he formed one of America’s earliest labor unions, The Brotherhood of the Union, which drew its inspiration from the principles of the revolutions that spread throughout Europe in 1848. One must wonder at how much Lippard’s attitudes rubbed off on Poe.
George Lippard was born April 10, 1822 in a place called Yellow Springs in Chester County, which directly borders New Castle County, Delaware. He died, probably from tuberculosis, on February 9, 1854. During his short life he wrote over a dozen novels. Of them was Blanche Of Brandywine, set during the Battle of the Brandywine during our Revolutionary War. His most noteworthy novel was The Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall, a Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery & Crime. In this novel, Lippard exposed widespread corruption in Philadelphia.
Throughout his works, Lippard displayed progressive thinking still relevant today. At one point in The Killers he declares that those elected to Pennsylvania state government “might go there as especial hirelings of Bank speculators, paid to enact laws that give wealth to one class, and poverty and drunkenness to another.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
One wonders how our history might have been shaped had Lippard’s literary works remained in print and given greater consideration by publishers and in the halls of academia. Certainly Lippard wrote within an important historical context, especially a local one.
We don’t often understand the genesis of some of America’s historical events. For example, T. S. Arthur’s 1854 novel Ten Days in a Barroom, and What I Saw There was as popular as Lippard’s novels and their contemporary novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Arthur’s novel is often credited with bringing the issue of temperance into prominence, culminating decades later with Prohibition during the 1920s. Incidentally, T. S. Arthur was also one of Poe’s acquaintances, and is an author who is largely forgotten. Thus, we are also deprived of better realizing the tightly knit nature of the literary world during Poe’s time within the confines of a smaller United States than the one from “sea to shining sea” that we take for granted today.
Our current literary canon is inadequate. We could have a better understanding of who we are by giving a better understanding of where we’ve been. Every region of our country has authors and poets who have represented, portrayed, or depicted our past experiences. If an expanded national canon might be considered too unwieldy for academia, then might we begin to build one on a regional basis? Here, in the mid-Atlantic, in the birthplace of the United States, there are plenty of forgotten authors who could tell us more about ourselves from the perspective of our past history. George Lippard is another one of those.