On this blog and in my new book Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature, 1789-1897, I have written extensively about the City Mysteries novel genre, which began with French author Eugène Sue’s blockbuster The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843). Sue’s novel inspired a chain of novels ranging from two novels of the same title, The Mysteries of London, one by French author Paul Féval, one by George W. M. Reynolds, and then numerous more imitations from authors around the world.
In the United States, the city mysteries genre was first taken up by George Lippard (1822-1854), although he shied away from copying Sue’s title, naming his novel The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall. It was issued in monthly parts from August 1844 to May 1845. Its circulation began after Féval began serializing his novel, and so it is possible it was somewhat inspired by it, but it was completed before Reynolds began his novel. The Quaker City would be extremely popular and lead to many more city mystery novels in the United States, including Ned Buntline’s The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1848), written under the pseudonym Edward Zane Carroll Judson.
While similarities exist between Lippard’s novel and those of Sue and Féval, the reader, especially an American reader knowledgeable of American literature and particularly antebellum literature, is bound to be struck by what a very American novel it is in its themes. All the Gothic trappings of Sue, Féval, and Reynolds are here, but the novel’s setting in the United States makes the concerns over the criminal world and immorality all the more relevant because they threaten not only society and domestic happiness but the very ideals upon which the American Republic was based. Throughout the book, Lippard decries how Philadelphia, the Quaker City (Lippard appears to have coined the name), and setting of the novel, no longer reflects the ideals of the American Revolution. Lippard plays on scenes like Washington crossing the Delaware to have a criminal pursued on the river to have revenge taken upon him. In a terrible vision, another character foresees the destruction of Philadelphia, with Independence Hall standing in ruins and in the sky written in flaming letters the words: “WO UNTO SODOM.” The novel then serves as a warning to the American people of where the Republic is headed, mourning the lost ideals of the Founding Fathers and even having the President replaced with a king in the vision of the future. As a result, its exposure of crime and vice and its calls for reform make it the first muckraking novel in the United States.
A summary of The Quaker City’s plot would be difficult to follow, but like his city mystery predecessors, Lippard provides multiple storylines, each of which surrounds some crime or attempted crime ranging from abducting innocent women or bamboozling them into fake marriages to adultery to characters disguising themselves to con others and religious deceivers.
Throughout, Lippard pays homage to other great Gothic authors. He makes reference to Ainsworth as a master of plot and references both Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton. That much of the novel’s action takes place in the fictional Monk Hall may be a nod to Matthew “Monk” Lewis. It is surprising Lippard makes no references to Sue or Féval since at least the former, and probably both, inspired his work. He dedicates the book to Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first Gothic novelist who was from Philadelphia and set his novel Arthur Mervyn there. He also references James Fenimore Cooper, but notes that critics complain that more people in the United States read Ainsworth than Cooper, and he defends Ainsworth in the process. Surprisingly, he avoids mentioning his own American Gothic contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Lippard was himself a good friend of Poe’s, and while the novel was published before Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter and his other novels, Lippard must have known Hawthorne’s short stories since Poe reviewed them. Based on The Quaker City, it surprises me that Lippard is not a household name along with Poe and Hawthorne, for his novel is more thoroughly plotted and complicated than anything either of them wrote, and if he is not the equal in style and depth to Hawthorne, I feel he exceeds Poe in his greater vision of society and he keeps the reader in suspense without the boredom Poe too often creates.
Literary critic and historian Stephen Knight, in his chapter on the novel in The Mysteries of the Cities, notes that many critics have dismissed Lippard, but such critics have not really read him. The novel is actually wonderfully plotted and Lippard is a master of pacing, something in keeping with the writing of Ainsworth, as well as Sue, Féval, and Reynolds, and far exceeding the plotting and pacing of anything Dickens had achieved at this point in his career. That the novel was written by Lippard when he was only twenty-two to twenty-three years of age is remarkable, and really gives him genius designation with other brilliant young authors like Mary Shelley. By comparison, Dickens did not write The Pickwick Papers until he was twenty-five and it is a nearly plotless book. Furthermore, because Lippard wrote quickly, his work has been seen as inferior, but in my opinion, it just adds to his genius that he was able to keep so many plot strands straight and weave them together so effortlessly. Anthony Trollope also wrote quickly but only because he dedicated himself to daily writing. Nor should a novelist be decried for writing a novel in a year when it takes another author three years to do so since we cannot know how many hours of writing and contemplative thinking about the novel took place within either time frame.
A few plot points and characters from The Quaker City deserve mention. The novel begins a few days before Christmas when two men go to see a fortune-teller and are told that one of them will die by the other’s hand at the hour of sunset on Christmas Eve. The novel unfolds from there as these two seeming friends discover that neither is who the other thought and one greatly wrongs the other, leading to the dramatic murder scene on the Delaware River, said to be based on a true murder case in Philadelphia.
Another notable character is Devil-Bug. This depraved criminal is illiterate, unintelligent, and mostly the slave to superior criminals, yet he is perhaps the closest thing the novel has to a main character. As Stephen Knight notes, he is almost the reverse of Eugene Sue’s hero Rodolphe, who is a prince in disguise. Devil-Bug is not moral, but he is haunted by his past, continually seeing the ghosts of those he has killed. He also once was in love and had a daughter who was lost to him. By the end of the novel, we will learn not only what became of his daughter, but he will manage to save her and see her happy and prosperous, a marked contrast to how Rodolphe is unable to save his daughter, who ultimately dies of shame because of her past. Devil-Bug is also the character granted the vision of the future in the novel.
Perhaps the most interesting character for me, however, is Signor Ravoni. Did I not know that this novel was published before Alexandre Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo (1846-1848), I might have thought Ravoni was inspired by Dumas’ sorcerer character because Ravoni is also a sorcerer and has the same mesmeric abilities as Balsamo. However, as Stephen Knight notes, more likely Ravoni’s name is a play on Zanoni, the Rosicrucian hero of Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). Like Zanoni, Ravoni claims to have lived a long life—two centuries. He is a voice of atheism in the novel, wishing to rid the world of the old religions and replace it with a religion of man for man, which may sound like a sort of religion of reason akin to the Goddess of Reason during the French Revolution. However, he intends to use his new religion to gain power over other men, and to do so, he uses supernatural powers, attempting to resurrect the dead to win over followers who claim they will worship him if he can do so. He manages to bring about a faked resurrection, and he also mesmerizes a young woman, holding her in thrall similarly to how Svengali will hold power over Trilby half a century later in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby. The scenes where Ravoni is worshiped by his followers in a mass meeting also eerily reminds me of scenes in the Swedish version of Dracula, Powers of Darkness, where Draculitz tries to create a new world order. In the end, Ravoni is stabbed and dies, but not before he gets his followers to promise to carry on his new religion and he appoints a successor. (I discuss these novels by Dumas and Bulwer-Lytton and Powers of Darkness in Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides.)
The Ravoni plot does not get introduced into the novel until the fifth of the six books, and it is not as closely tied to the main plots as it might be, but it is interesting for its religious message that seems anti-Christian, anti-religion, and pro-man if not pro-reason, wishing to raise man from the groveling servitude that religion often places him in, and yet Ravoni is a type of hypocrite in wishing to be worshiped like a god. It is also telling that American culture has always been highly religious due to its Puritan roots, ironic given the novel is set in a city founded by Quakers. The role of religion in the novel needs far more attention by future critics.
While my interest in The Quaker City is primarily in its Gothic elements, it is worth noting that like Sue, Lippard was a voice of reform and one who spoke out for the poor and downtrodden. He mocks those ready to send off missionaries to Hindoostan when there are outcasts at home who know nothing of the Bible. He also shows the sad state of racism in the country, some of the characters finding it a lark to burn down negro churches or abolitionist headquarters and create race riots. He is not afraid to speak out against the many wrongs that afflicted American society in the 1840s, even if those wrongs also gave him fodder for creating his novels.
The Quaker City was a phenomenal success in its day. It was the best-selling novel in America until the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. It sold 60,000 copies in the first year and at least another 10,000 in the following decade per Wikipedia. According to Stephen Knight, in London, Lloyd, the leading low-level publisher, republished it, much reduced and sensationalized, as Dora Livingstone (1845) (Dora is the adulteress character in the novel), and the German popular writer Franz Gerstacker translated it as Die Geheimnisse [“The Mysteries”] von Philadelphia (1845), taking credit as the author. In America, it spawned numerous more city mysteries novels.
As for George Lippard, he had published five previous books and would go on to publish at least twenty more before his untimely death in 1854 of tuberculosis. A list of his works is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lippard. Not listed, however, is The Mysteries of Florence, which is available at Amazon and was published under his name. I intend to explore that novel and other works by Lippard in the future, along with several other city mysteries novels.
Lippard, in my opinion, deserves a prominent place in early American literature alongside fellow novelists Charles Brockden Brown, Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne. Few scholars pay much attention to him today, but for more information on The Quaker City, I recommend Stephen Knight’s The Mysteries of the Cities which discusses not only Lippard’s novel but several other city mystery novels. Two books about Lippard’s life and writings I have not read but hope to explore are Roger Davidson’s George Lippard and R. Swinburne Clymer’s George Lippard: His Life and Works. References to Lippard can also be found in biographies of his friend Edgar Allan Poe.
While I have mostly focused on British and French Gothic works at this blog, American Gothic literature was alive and well in the nineteenth-century, though mostly overlooked today. Certainly, it deserves far more attention beyond the works of Poe and Hawthorne. I will try to remedy that in some of my future posts.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature, King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other fiction and nonfiction titles. Visit Tyler at http://www.GothicWanderer.com, http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and http://www.MarquetteFiction.com.