Pennsylvania Literature: “Wo Unto Sodom: The Last Day of the Quaker City”

Lippard, George. The Quaker City, or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime. Edited and introduced by David S. Reynolds.  Originally published 1845. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

The Quaker City (1845) was the most popular of what may be something of a Delaware Valley gothic literature.  It, drawing on an actual Philadelphia murder, provides a gruesome vision of the corruption, crime, hypocrisy, and poverty of 1840s Philadelphia, while, at the same time, showing us something of the period’s views of femininity and masculinity.


George Lippard (1822-1854)

George Lippard, its author, is today a poorly known author, editor, and reformer who was born in Chester County, grew up in Germantown, and lived in Philadelphia.  The antebellum period (before the Civil War) was characterized by reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, women’s suffrage, prison reform, public schooling, and the promotion of institutions for the mentally ill, deaf, blind, etc.  Lippard was part of this and The Quaker Cityreflects that reformist impulse.

While Lippard’s efforts are little known today, according to Lippard scholar David Reynolds, The Quaker City was the most popular American novel until the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.   It was translated and published in Europe as well. This novel then went on to inspire a whole genre of urban mysteries.

According to Reynolds, Lippard was not just popular, but also influential.  He certainly influenced his friend Poe.  He may have also have influenced Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, both of whose styles changed after the publication of The Quaker City.  Twain becoming satirical and made use of local color, for instance.  Both men read Lippard.  While there is no evidence that they read him, Lippard may have influenced Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne too.  For these reasons alone we should not forget Lippard and his Quaker City.

quakercityThe Quaker City is a a novel in the gothic tradition of America’s and Pennsylvania’s first novel Charles Bockden Brown’s Wieland; or, The Transformation: An American Tale (1798).  Wieland opens with a witness to the horrors of the story recounting them to us, asking us to believe in their reality.  Lippard offers us instead a story pulled together from the private papers of a witness.  Hawthorne would do the same just five years later in his Scarlet Letter.  But unlike Brown or other gothic classics, such as Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) or Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), there is nothing supernatural here – except for a single scene of astrological foreshadowing.  Instead, for Lippard, all evil comes from men themselves and the corrupting influence of wealth.  These evil men then inflict suffering and even murder on vulnerable women, the poor, and each other.

Lippard sees the republic threatened by slavery, hypocrites, and the rich.  He compares the conditions of wage workers in the North to actual, literal slaves in the South.  This was a common theme for northern reformers.  Lippard sees the corrupt leaders and wealthy of Philadelphia as betraying Wiliam Penn’s dream.  He characterizes Philadelphia as the city…

which William Penn built in hope and honor,– whose root was planted deep in the soil of truth and peace, but whose fruits have been poison and rottenness, Riot, Arson, Murder and Wrong…

White, virginal women are the primary target of the evil in this story and it is their vitue that must above all be protected.  While Lippard uses the most valued chastity of young women as a way to show the hypocrisy and corruption of the wealthy, in so doing, he portrays women as largely passive victims, always on the verge of fainting.  Lippard, through his physical characterizations and use of local color and slang, also makes uncomfortable characterizations of blacks and Jews.

While this book is long and at times torturous to read, it is worth it, at least for Pennsylvanians.  It springs from the very history and culture of Pennsylvania and especially Philadelphia.  Although its reputation has improved considerably, Philadelphia has long had a reputation for violence and corruption.  So it’s one of those, “the more things change…” sort of experiences reading The Quaker City.  Read this novel as a famous example of gothic literature, as a critique of America’s expanding market economy (then or today), or at the very least as a shocking and satirical portrait of antebellum Philadelphia.

“I vonders how that’ll vork?”

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