Sensational Urban Fiction
Sensational Urban Fiction
Population. Although the United States remained a primarily rural nation, in the three decades before the Civil War the country’s urban population increased by a remarkable 700 percent, from about 500, 000 in 1830 to 3.8 million in 1860. Part of this growth represented an influx of immigrants from Europe, especially Ireland, but many of the new city dwellers were young people, primarily men, who came to the cities from outlying rural regions hoping to find employment as clerks, a generic title assigned to salaried retail or office workers. Because both clerks and their employers expected such positions to lead to larger financial rewards later, clerks in the early stages of their careers were paid very little and, if not housed by their employers, often lived in boardinghouses with other clerks. At a distance from their homes and families, with few resources, these young men were perceived to be at risk in the increasingly impersonal and potentially dangerous cities.
Advice Literature. To protect these young men, ministers and moralists published a wealth of advice literature designed to warn young people about the dangerous places and dangerous friends they were likely to encounter in the rapidly growing cities. Many of these authors urged their readers to remember their family’s hopes for their success and their mothers’ prayers as a way of directing their minds away from the theaters, taverns, gambling houses, brothels, and other temptations of the city. They also warned readers about the dangerous people who haunted the cities, on the lookout for naive young men who could be brought, unwittingly, into such dangerous places. These authors repeatedly stressed the danger of the “confidence man,” who could ensnare an unsuspecting youth by winning his trust and then leading him into any number of schemes designed to rob the victim of his money, his faith, his chastity, or even his life. Henry Ward Beecher’s Lectures to Young Men (1844) included descriptions of dangerous characters in a lecture titled “Portrait Gallery,” which warned of the hazards of befriending such people without getting specific about their particular crimes. Beecher referred to libertines, by which he meant men out looking to deflower sweet young girls, as “shapeless mud-monsters” and “poisonous toads” who “[hiss] at the purity of women,” but he prudently avoided going into any more-explicit warnings about the libertine’s actual activities.
George Lippard’s Quaker City: or, The Monks of Monk-Hall (1844–1845) was one of the most influential works of sensational urban fiction ever published in the United States. Lippard based his book on the 1843 case of Singleton Mercer, a young Philadelphian acquitted for the murder of Mahlon Heberton, who had lured Mercer’s sister into a house of assignation and then raped her at gunpoint. In Quaker City Lippard wrote to condemn upper-class men who took advantage of innocent women and girls, but he also used seduction as a metaphor for the oppression of the helpless. His stated purpose allowed him to escape responsibility for the titillating material that laced Quaker City, but his frank descriptions of seduction attempts seem to give the lie to his assertion that his novel was “destitute of any idea of sensualism.” Lippard’s lingering descriptions of “heaving bosoms” and attempted rapes may have been designed to outrage his readers and spur them to social and personal reform; if they helped to sell the novel, so much the better.
Sensationalism. Other authors were less squeamish, indeed. John McDowall, who in 1831 compiled the New York Female Benevolent Society’s first report on prostitution in New York City, was strongly criticized by other reformers for having provided too much information. By the late 1830s technological advances in printing and transportation had triggered the rise of cheap newspapers and magazines (the penny press) that served up lurid fictional and true-crime portrayals of urban vice. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald specialized in lurid criminal stories; in 1842 young journalist Walt Whitman called Bennett “a midnight ghoul, preying on rottenness and repulsive filth.” Sensational novelist George Lippard sharpened his writing skills as a criminal reporter for the Philadelphia sporting magazine Spirit of the Times. In 1845 T. B. Peterson and Brothers pioneered the production of pamphlet novels, usually published as serials, with portions of each novel appearing over a period of months or years. Peterson’s advertised themselves as the “Cheapest book house in the World” and published Lippard’s works along with T. S. Arthur’s temperance novels and the novels of popular female authors Ann Stephens and E. D. E. N. Southworth (who also wrote for Robert Bonner’s sensationalist New York Ledger ). Although Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale would describe Southworth’s writing as “beyond the limits prescribed by correct taste or good judgment,” Southworth’s works sold well.
Truth versus Fiction. The line between sensational journalism and urban fiction often blurred: one of the central storylines in Lippard’s best-selling novel Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk-Hall (1844–1845) was drawn from the highly publicized 1843 Singleton Mercer murder case. Similarly, in an appendix to his lurid Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1848) sensational writer Ned Buntline included the real addresses of New York brothels. Buntline claimed that he could personally vouch for the evil nature of each house and that he published the addresses so that reformers could more easily find and clean out these dens of vice. He even dedicated Mysteries to the clergy of New York City, claiming: “I wish to lay before you all the vice of the city, to lay open its festering sores, so that you and the good and philanthropic may see where to apply the healing balm; I wish to show where and how our young men are led away and ruined in the glittering gambling palaces; how many a poor, now wretched and degraded female, has been driven into the paths of infamy, by neglect, when one kind word and one helping hand would have saved her.”
Dangerous Places. Urban fiction, popular journalism, and advice literature alike described vice and virtue in spatial terms. Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk-Hall, for example, centered on the goings-on in evil Monk-Hall while George Foster, whose “New York in Slices” appeared in the New York Tribune in 1848 as a series of walking tours through the high and low spots of New York, created a portrait of a city sharply divided into zones of safety and zones of danger. By distinguishing between good places and bad, these genres suggested the possible existence of oases of safety and virtue in the city. By no means intending to redeem the cities, these writings nevertheless suggested the possibility of educated self-protection. For those adventurous souls interested in sampling the diversions available in the cities, these works also served—unintentionally, of course—as handy guidebooks.
The rising abolitionist movement in the United States gave an increasingly strong voice to African American writers. White abolitionists published and distributed autobiographical narratives written by slaves or former slaves. Describing the harsh and inhuman treatment they had received as slaves, and the difficulties and obstacles encountered during escape, the authors of these narratives spoke out against slavery while presenting white readers with emotionally involving stories that portrayed slaves as human beings deprived of domestic and civil rights. Two of the earliest African American novels emerged from this tradition of autobiographical narrative. After publishing his successful Narrative of William, W. Brown in 1847, William Wells Brown experimented with other genres before publishing his first novel, Clotel, in 1853. Another former slave, Frederick Douglass, published the first version of his influential The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845 before serializing his novella The Heroic Slave in 1853. Another slave narrative, Lewis Clarke’s Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke (1845), strongly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe, who interviewed Clarke several times and acknowledged that her Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) character George Harris was based on Clarke.
Source: Blyden Jackson, A History of Afro-American Literature, volume 1, The Long Beginning, 1746–1895 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978);
Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987);
David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).