Monday, February 9, 2009

Poe's Philadelphia friend

It is more than a small annoyance that George Lippard has been thinly defined solely as "Poe's Philadelphia friend" in recent years. Though that fact can't be disputed, there's so much more to his story!

Lippard was inspired to become a writer specifically by the Panic of 1837. Witnessing the difficulties that befell average working-class Americans, he decided he wanted to write for them - not for the critics, nor for the upper class. It was this decision that made him one of the most successful writers of the first half of the nineteenth century.

He first worked for Philadelphia newspaper The Spirit of the Times. Though its readership was wealthy sporting men (not the group he wanted to write for), the experience was important in developing his story-telling style. He was a crime reporter at a time when Philadelphia was transforming from the picturesque seat of democracy and idealism to a seedy urban scene of murder and intrigue. Lippard's first major work of fiction, The Ladye Annabel (1842), reflected that new image. These "Legends" as he called them rewrote history, mixing in just enough of the lurid to whet readers' appettites, but also infused with a lot of Philadelphia patriotism and pride. It made Lippard popular, and this popularity hit its peak in 1847.

In 1847, Lippard released The Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall (recently reprinted) - an unapologetically trashy novel exposing a secret underbelly of Philadelphia, a world of sin, sex, greed, and murder. It was fiction, of course, but had just enough elements of reality that local Philadelphians recognized the basis of many of Lippard's characters.

And, of course, the book sold immensely.

How well? 60,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. To qualify that, consider this: The Quaker City was the best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. Lippard wrote for the masses, remember, and he gave them what they wanted, overtly or not. A stage adaptation was planned, but was infamously canceled.

Lippard was popular, even if you haven't heard of him today, other than the minor few who know the connection to Poe. Popular enough that one of his stories created a legend that still permeates today. It was George Lippard who suggested in one of his "legends" in 1847 that after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, enthusiastic Founding Fathers ran up the steeple to ring the bell. In their excitement, the bell cracked - and that's how the Liberty Bell got its famous crack.

Or, so says Lippard. The story is completely false. Have you heard that one before?

Poe, of course, loved Lippard's writing. The two likely met in 1842, and Poe encouraged the young man's writing, praising him and offering constructive criticism. Of The Ladye Annabel, Poe wrote: "You seem to have been in too desperate a hurry to give due attention to details and thus your style... is at times somewhat exuberant - indicative of genius in its author." Lippard admired Poe enough that when he started his own journal (named, quite logically, The Quaker City), he included a series called "Literary and Political Police" featuring a character named "Justice Poe," who punished literary criminals (including Rufus Griswold).

The most famous story of Lippard and Poe occurred in July 1849, just a few months before Poe's death. Lippard walked into his office in the morning and there found Poe, "sitting at the table in one corner, his head between his hands." His friend was in a terrible state, and missing a shoe. Lippard, understanding Poe's situation (because of his own empathy over victims of the Panic of 1837), asked several people to loan some money, including the publisher Louis Godey (of Godey's Lady's Book) and the portrait artist John Sartain.

After Poe's death, Lippard was one of his many defenders. But, he had more to his story than his connection to Poe, and more than his best-selling novel. In 1850, shortly after Poe's death, Lippard became a labor organizer (remember he was inspired by the Panic?) and founded a union called The Brotherhood of the Union. Inspired by secret societies and rituals, the organization flourished in some form or another until about 15 years ago. Lippard's title in the organization, by the way, showed his interest in the Founding Fathers. He was known as "Supreme Washington."

George Lippard died on this day, February 9, in 1854. He was 31 years old.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Darn it, I would STILL pay money to see The Monks of Monk Hall: THE MUSICAL.