The Local Lens
• Wed, Jul 30, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Now that I’ve finished my book on Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia (the publication date is September 8th), I find my mind drifting back to a few of the most important people in the book.
One of them is 19th Century Philadelphia writer George Lippard. Not many people have heard of Lippard, unlike the multitudes who have heard of Edgar Allan Poe, who was a close friend of Lippard’s. Lippard was born in Chester County, and received a haphazard education in a Methodist seminary at fifteen years old in upstate New York before deciding that he really didn’t want to be a preacher. Lippard discontinued his studies and headed back to Pennsylvania but not, as it turns out, to live with his parents, who were very ill—his mother had TB and his father was severely crippled—but with his grandfather and two aunts in Germantown.
The young writer-to-be loved Germantown and the woods around the Wissahickon Creek, so it is likely that much of his time was spent hiking and exploring the area, especially the old Indian trails there. This idyllic interlude was cut short at his father’s death in 1837, when Lippard was not given any part of the estate. The empty "last gesture" from his father caused young George to become penniless. Although he would work as a law assistant at various city law firms, the work was sporadic and not enough to support him, so he wound up on the streets of the city, a virtual vagabond, sleeping in the open, in abandoned buildings, under trees or along the banks of the Delaware. His life for a period of time was much like the lives of the aimless drifter types we see standing in front of convenience stores today offering to hold the door for you (for a tip), or the traffic panhandlers who carry cardboard "I am homeless" signs while parading through traffic lanes on Aramingo Avenue.
All of this happened during the horrible Depression of 1837-1844, but the experience provided Lippard with a sense of how poor people are treated by the very rich, and how difficult it is for poor people to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" when confronted with the biases and barriers set up by the wealthy ruling class.
Despite these difficulties, Lippard managed to find time to write a novel, Lady Annabel, which his friend Edgar Allan Poe read and didn’t think half bad, despite Poe’s somewhat condescending attitude towards his writer friend. Since writing novels rarely brings in a lot of cash, Lippard found a newspaper job at the (Philadelphia-based) Spirit of the Times newspaper, where he wrote satirical columns that attacked the rich and other writers. He also did crime reporting, something that appealed to his somewhat lurid imagination, since Philadelphia at the time had passed from her former Colonial glory to a much lower status, often described as a "place for murder and intrigue."
Lippard’s writing courted a lot of controversy, although he soon became a best selling novelist, despite the fact that literary critics, those arbitrars of taste (librarians perhaps?) called much of his work "trashy." He also cut a daring personal figure because he resembled the young poet Lord Byron with his thick eyebrows almost connecting above the bridge of his nose, and his long straight hair framing an angular face which many were quick to describe as poetically dreamy and good looking. Lippard, as a columnist for "The Spirit," had plenty to say if only because homelessness had made him aware of the terrible treatment of the down and out in the City of Brotherly Love. This fact set him on a mission: to become a writer "for the masses."
While the so-called master of the macabre, Poe, may have condescended to Lippard as a "lesser version of himself," many readers today who have had a chance to read Lippard’s novels and essays come away with the feeling that, "Lippard makes Poe look like Mother Goose." Appreciation for Lippard, in fact, has had a "sleeper" quality to it—unlike Poe’s meteoritic rise immediately after his death (he was especially praised and appreciated in France). To this day, Lippard is often referred to as "Poe’s Philadelphia Friend," although many have come to appreciate his unique sensibility.
Lippard, in fact, wrote of the way that Poe was treated during his life in an essay published after his friend’s death. "…One day, news came that the poet was dead. All at once the world found out his greatness. Literary hucksters who had lied about him, booksellers who had left him to starve, gentlemen of literature, who had seen him walk the hot streets of Philadelphia without food or shelter—these all opened their floodgates of eulogy, and slavered with panegyric the man whom living they would have seen die in the next ditch without one effort to save him. This is the joke of the thing," Lippard concludes.
In his travels about the city, Lippard loved to wear colorful, flamboyant capes, under which he always carried a dagger or two. He also carried a cane in the shape of a sword and had a belt or brace of loaded pistols around his waist. Such shenanigans today would get him thrown into the back of a police wagon or sent to the psyche ward at Friends Hospital. But Lippard had no interest in writing for critics or for the upper classes—or, if there had been a Free Library system when he was writing, in obtaining a speaker’s slot in a literary lecture series. Lippard, in fact, had his eye set on the working class masses and put his energy into becoming an early labor union organizer, forming the Brotherhood of the Union in 1849, an organization that sought "the unity of all workers." By October 1850, there would be Brotherhood chapters in nineteen states.
As if the formerly homeless writer didn’t have enough to do, he was also a newspaper publisher and editor, publishing the Quaker City weekly for some 15,000 readers, a publication that enhanced his reputation as a radical reformer against the elite.
A true romantic, he married his sweetheart, Rose Newman, 26, on a large rock overlooking Wissahickon Creek. The couple had one child but both Rose and the child died from TB in 1851 right around the time that his sister Harriet and her two children died from the same disease. Suddenly, life’s tragedies became too much for the fearless writer. He found it hard to go on. It is said that in his despondent state he became suicidal and came very close to throwing himself off Niagara Falls but was talked out of it by friends.
Lippard’s role as a "working class hero" did not preclude a talent for eloquent and powerful public speaking. When I read references to Lippard’s talents as a speaker, I can only conclude that he spoke the King’s English, meaning that he didn’t cut corners or fall into a world of embarrassing grammatical and rhetorical blunders, such as saying youse for you.
He contributed much to the mythology of the city. For one thing, he gave Philadelphia its sobriquet, "The Quaker City," and his short story, "Ring, Grandfather, Ring," (published in 1847) details the doings of the Second Continental Congress at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and ends with a bit of fiction, or how the Signers of the Declaration rang the Liberty Bell atop Independence Hall so hard after the signing that the bell actually cracked.
Lippard’s "how the Liberty Bell got its crack" story still fools people, but at the same time it is a testament to the power of Lippard’s pen that fiction and myth has been allowed to override historical truth.
Lippard died at 31 years of age in 1854 of TB just like his wife, sister and child before him. His death came well before the start of the Civil War although it is said that his writings on slavery awakened Abraham Lincoln to the plight of slaves. Lippard’s Gothic sensational style and his interest in esoteric spirituality give many of his works a prophetic ring. In his book, "Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime," Lippard wrote that it was his intention to write a book that "describes all the phases of a corrupt social system, as manifested in the City of Philadelphia."
Lippard writes: "To the young man or young woman who may read this book when I am dead, I have a word to say: Would to God that the evils recorded in these pages, were not based upon facts. Would to God that the experience of my life had not impressed me so vividly with the colossal vices and the terrible deformities, presented in the social system of this Large City, in the Nineteenth Century…"
These are damning words, enough to make one wonder if his criticism of the city perhaps helped to seal his fate when it came to the cultivation of his legacy by politicians and those same "elite" legacy-makers that he once railed against.
I thought of George Lippard recently when I came across a series of online articles about a July 2013 exhibit entitled Philadelphia Literary Legacy at the Philadelphia International Airport in Terminal A-East. The purpose of the exhibit was the celebration of 200 years of Philadelphia writers, past and present, and to display for one year photographs, book covers and biographies of 50 authors, playwrights and poets from the time of the Declaration of Independence.
Sounds like a great idea to boost the city’s legacy, doesn’t it?
The writers chosen to be part of the exhibit were picked by a number of librarians in the Philadelphia Free Library system. While the names of widely known historic authors, like Thomas Paine, are predictable shoo-ins, the exhibit’s selection process slipped into dicey mode when it came to contemporary writers. Were authors chosen on the number of books they sold? Does a chick lit novelist or politically appointed city poet compare to an I.F. Stone (chosen) or to a Pearl S. Buck (chosen), or even to a George Lippard (chosen, thank God) or to an Agnes Repplier (chosen), once the leading essayist in the United States and often referred to as the Jane Austen of America?
Politics are always involved in selections of this nature, and that’s why it gets dicey when city and governmental bodies get into the business of designating who is (and who’s not) a literary cultural icon.
Think for a moment of the librarians who recommended what writers to include in the exhibit. Librarians are not writers or literary critics. If anything, they are book processing technicians who tend to skim books for shelving purposes. Yes, you read that correctly, they are book processing technicians. They may be experts on the latest abbreviated reviews (of books), and they may be opinionated as to what books they think are good or bad, but this is as related to authentic literary insight as a fly is related to a Wissahickon hiker.
Just ask George Lippard!