American Mysterymania

When America Flunked Democracy: City-Mystery Origins of Political Gridlock

Table des matières


Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré’s illustrated book, London: A Pilgrimage, appeared in 1872, by which point readers would have been completely familiar with the concepts of London Labour and the London Poor, to name Henry Mayhew’s long running series.  Jerrold and Doré did not disappoint.  In chapter xiv, “Work-a-Day London,” Jerrold concluded,

The massing of the poor – the density increasing with the poverty – is at the root of the evils which afflict most of the great cities of Europe.  It is the striking and affecting feature of London especially, where in the lanes and alleys the houses are so full of children that, to use a wit’s illustration, you can hardly shut the street-door for them. In the poorest of London districts the men, women, and children appear, on entering, to have abandoned all hope. There is a desperate, ferocious levity in the air: and the thin, wan, woe-begone faces laugh and jeer at you as you pass by.1

By that time—the early 1870s—these observations were autopilot stereotypes that readers would have heard hundreds or thousands of times in the course of discussing London as the “city of the future.” Doré had become famous in England in part because of his illustrations of the English-language Bible in 1865 [Figures 1-3], with drawings like these [Figures 4-5]. Doré, only forty when the book appeared, obliged the public with skillful if predictable images of London the infernal.

Figure 1 : Gustave Doré, Cain Slays Abel. In The Holy Bible with Illustrations by Gustave Doré, engraving by H. Pisan. London: Cassel, Petter, and Galpin, 1866.

Figure 2 : Gustave Doré, Abraham & the Three Angels. In The Holy Bible with Illustrations by Gustave Doré, engraving by H. Pisan. London: Cassel, Petter, and Galpin, 1866.

Figure 3 : Gustave Doré, Abraham and the Land of Canaan. In The Holy Bible with Illustrations by Gustave Doré, engraving by H. Pisan. London: Cassel, Petter, and Galpin, 1866.

Figure 4 : Gustave Doré, East End, engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Figure 5 : Gustave Doré. Seven Dials, engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Jerrold makes a huge fuss of the adventure of moving into the world of the poor. In the chapter on Whitechapel, he and Doré “adopt rough clothes,” contact Scotland Yard, and arrive in the company of a detective, with whom “they reach the lanes and byways, dark and noisy, and swarming with poor”.2 They visit destitute lodging houses, gin mills, and opium dens, marvel at figures who seem to be simultaneously alive and dead, and consult with policemen on the causes of it all.  The police offer a contagion theory of moral vice: innocents arrive in London from Ireland or the English countryside, live, eat and sleep surrounded by fallen women and men, and rapidly fall themselves [Figures 6-8].

Figure 6 : Gustave Doré. London Family, engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Figure 7 : Gustave Doré. Harrow Alley, , engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Figure 8 : Gustave Doré. Asleep Under the Stars, engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Jerrold and Doré, in other words, offer no political or economic theory of London’s ongoing self-destruction through destitution and crime. The work of Mayhew, Engels, and Marx are completely absent. What we get instead are charitable figures. The final chapter is called “London Charity,” and Jerrold and Doré resolve the crisis they create in the Whitechapel chapter by visiting what we would call a homeless shelter [Figure 9] :

Figure 9 : Gustave Doré. Scripture Reader in a Night Refuge, engraving by H. Pisan. In London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

Surely there can be only good in this minimum of relief, offered by spontaneous charity to the houseless, in a whole city-full of poor!  They pass in one by one: the father and his footsore boy—the mother with her whimpering babe in her arms, that are so lean they must hurt the flesh of the little imp. The superintendent is a mild, but firm, intelligent, and discerning man.  He distributes the regulation lump of bread to the guests, and they pass on, by way of the bath—rigorously enforced for obvious reasons—to the dormitories set out like barracks, and warmed with a stove, which is always the centre of attraction. Here, when all are in bed, a Bible-reader reads, comforting, let us hope, many of the aching heads. […] I have paced these dormitories early and late, and have been with strong men who have burst into tears, as their eyes have fallen upon the rows of sleeping mothers, some with two—some with three infants huddled to their sides for warmth, or folded in their poor arms.3

The structure is familiar: the abject poor, the benevolent superintendent, coming like a presiding angel with food and hope.  To shift the terms, labor cannot fend for itself, but the bourgeoisie and its Christian charities can make things bearable. We have a picture of the enfeebled masses, aided not by themselves, but by an enlightened elite.

Now we move in reverse a quarter century, to the 1840s, when the mysteries novel was taking form. And we travel from London across the Atlantic to Philadelphia [Figure 10]. Samel Otter has recently shown that Philadelphia was a cultural crossroads for competing definitions of freedom, and formed a venue for racial as well as class formation that was at least as dramatic as the New York of the period.4

Figure 10 : Philadelphia at 3rd and Chestnut Street, 1842, daguerreotype.

The Jerrold of that place and time was George Lippard [Figure 11]. Lippard was in his early twenties when he wrote The Quaker City (1845), which became the bestselling book in the history of the United States until Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared a few years later [Figure 12].

Figure 11 : Lippard ca. 1850-54, daguerreotype. Courtesy, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 12 : F. O. C. Darley, delineator. Frontispiece and title page wood engraving, from George Lippard’s The Quaker City; or The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson and Bro., 1845. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

London and The Quaker City share a Manichean division between rural and urban settings—figured by the frontispieces above—with the city serving as an already-stereotyped setting of social inferno.5 Lippard’s was based on a real case in which a man named Singleton Mercer shot and killed Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton, whom Mercer believed had raped his sixteen-year old sister at gunpoint some days before.  In the novel’s seduction scene, Lippard has his Heberton figure say to the girl,

there, Mary, in that quiet mountain valley, we will seek a home, when we are married.  As soon as summer comes, when the trees are green, and the flowers burst from among the moss along the wood-path, we will hasten to the mountain lake, and dwell within the walls of our quiet home.  For a home shall be reared for us, Mary, on a green glade that slopes down to the water's brink, with the tall trees sweeping away on either side. A quiet little cottage, Mary, with a sloping roof and small windows, all fragrant with wild flowers and forest vines!  A garden before the door, Mary, where, in the calm summer morning, you can inhale the sweetness of the flowers, as they breathe forth in untamed luxuriance.  And then, anchored by the shore, Mary a light sail-boat will be ready for us ever; to bear us over the clear lake in the early dawn, when the mist winds up in fleecy columns to the sky, or in the twilight, when the red sun flings his last ray over the waters6...

And so on. Love, purity, hope, and family life all depend on leaving the city and its heart of depravity, “Monk-Hall,” nicely described as “nothing less than a strobe-lit view of the subconscious, offering glimpses and fragments of the monsters that move around down there.”7  But since this contrast between country and city is the model espoused by a predatory seducer, Lippard presumably means his reader to question whether a republican woman like Mary needs to leave the city to find happiness, or simply avoid its pseudo-aristocrats.

Even this similarity between London: A Pilgrimage and The Quaker City dissolves on closer inspection.  Where Jerrold and Doré in the 1870s locate danger and depravity in the London poor, Lippard in the 1840s locates it in predatory elites. Mary is seduced and abandoned by a bored upper-class rake.  When elites are not despoiling society directly, they are despoiling it by making working-class people try to become élites themselves. The remarkable character, Dora Livingstone explains, “Did you never read in books, that the first love of a strong minded woman, when divested from its proper source, turns to the gall and bitterness of worldly ambition?  I felt in my inmost soul, that I was destined from my birth to rank and station, to the sway of hearts and the rule of power”.8 Readers have sometimes been sidetracked by Lippard’s soft-porn descriptions of Dora’s beauty (“ah ha! The bust! How it heaves beneath the careless folds of the satin gown slowly, slowly, higher and yet higher, like a wave hidden by a snowflake! [...]”, etc.).9 But Dora is more directly the embodiment of the depredations of upward mobility, of economic ambition as such.  The possession of wealth, as in the seducer Lorrimer, or the desire for wealth, as in Dora Livingstone, is in Lippard’s mystery novel destroying Philadelphia and America.10

Thus a critic like David Reynolds, writing twenty-five years ago in Beneath the American Renaissance (1988), identified Lippard as a representative of the “Subversive” imagination that expressed radical-democrat and egalitarian views coming from popular working-class culture. Lippard in this view offered an egalitarian imagination that proclaims itself in the exposure of corrupt, depraved, predatory elites. This is not Victorian bourgeois charity for working people, but the independent spirit of working people themselves rejecting both greed and their would-be greedy masters—democracy adapted, in the mysteries novel, for city life.

So if London: A Pilgrimage is the mysteries novel turned upside down, all we have to do is use The Quaker City to turn it right-side up again? Unfortunately not. America’s elites may be destroying its working class, but Lippard’s working classes are just as bad.  There is of course the master of ceremonies of Monk Hall, Devil-Bug, a regular citizen who responds to the loss of his daughter by becoming a satanic tormentor of others, rich but also poor.  

And there is Ravoni, the master of “Magnetism,” the prophet of natural religion who denounces the slaughter of Native Americans and calls for an apparently democratic post-Christian natural religion :

“All men from the slave to the prince, from the dull boor to the man of genius, are connected with each other by an [sic] universal sympathy, an invisible influence on which souls float and undulate like rays in the sunshiny air.  This influence of sympathy, call it what you will, is the atmosphere of souls, the life of intellects!” [...]

“[Great souls and prophets] demonstrated the great truth, that the AWFUL SOUL having created us, hath left us all to our own salvation or our ruin, as we shall by our deeds determine; thus we shape our own destinies; that we are the masters of our own lives; that we, by developing the mysteries implanted in our bosoms, may walk the earth superior to the clay around us, each man a GOD in soul!”11

Ravoni is a kind of Ralph Waldo Emerson, preaching transformative self-reliance for “nature’s nation.”  And yet things go bad very quickly.  On the next page, Ravoni says: “As ye all may be gods, so am I a God!  As ye all may look into the bosom of the Universe, and make the secrets of nature your own, train the lightnings to your will, and sweep the souls of men in adoration at your feet, so have I done! ”.12

Ravoni turns out to be a demagogue.  Here I’ll define demagogue as someone who becomes a despotic figure with the full cooperation of the working masses. His new prophetess of an egalitarian society is a woman whom he has kidnapped (Devil-Bug’s daughter, Mabel, renamed Izolé), and who will be falsely recognized as the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Livinsgtone) so she can marry Luke Harvey as an heiress, and achieve wealthy married status.  This was hardly how democratic, working American republicanism was supposed to function.  Ravoni is the kind of revivalist that regularly seduced working people away from economic and political struggle into narcissistic quasi-religious distraction that would allow them to avoid democratic self-governance.  

Here is where this leaves us. Lippard’s elites are corrupt.  But they are corrupt with the consent of the city’s working masses, who are weak, confused, gutless, and unreliable. In spite of his professed politics, Lippard’s actual descriptions of the masses in action is hardly different from those of Jerrold and Doré.  Lippard certainly displays a Jacksonian democrat sense that the moneyed interests routinely conspire against the liberty of the people. This is not an abstract issue in political theory for him: It’s also about sexual domination of republican women, the destruction of working families—and, last but not least, the incitement of free black residents to riot.  But ordinary citizens of the republic show no capacity of resistance or self-management.

This is a huge problem for Lippard’s ability to imagine democracy.  It is nicely highlighted by Otter’s particularly lucid summary of the Quaker City narrative:

There is no evidence of debate over the terms or conduct of the Philadelphia social experiment. Its consequences, though, are registered in the tension and violence that suffuse daily life, especially in the presence, through figure and allusion, of the riots directed at antislavery efforts and black achievement.  Lippard’s narrator vilifies chattel slavery, as well as what he and others termed ”wage slavery,” and he sides with the abolitionist victims of 1838 and the African American casualties of 1842.  [...] Like many labor reformers, though, Lippard was uncomfortable with the abolitionist movement, insisting on the priority of support for the white working class and concerned about the threat to national unity.13

This seems quite right about Lippard’s conflicted position.  I would suggest that Lippard did not believe enough in democratic self-governance to imagine Black self-rule, and that to a lesser extent he could not represent working-class self-rule either.   

Philadelphia of all places is supposed to support this image of American democracy—reasoned debate among free (white) males at Independence Hall [Figure 13]. Back in real life, Lippard structured democracy as his Brotherhood of the Union—democracy protected from the public by a strict membership referral system in a closed, even secret society. To put the point in traditional political terms, Lippard’s text suggested that both political theories of American exceptionalism are wrong.

Figure 13 : Engraving, The Hall of Independence, Philadelphia, 4 July 1776 (19th century Print).

Republicanism is wrong, because elites have no civic virtue themselves, and are incapable of passing virtue on to the poor or anyone else.

Liberalism is wrong, because what Michael Sandel has called “procedural government,” working hand in hand with “neutral” market orchestration of self-interest, leads to predatory anarchy, manifest in the “woe unto Sodom” destiny of Lippard’s city-mysteries.14

Taking Lippard as my example, I argue that popular mysteries-lit shows a U.S. society that has no workable political theory of itself.  Elites are too mercenary and predatory to rule.  The democratic masses are too disoriented and dangerous to rule themselves.  In Democratic Discontent, Sandel claims that the republicans and liberals of Lippard’s period—roughly, Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats—shared an underlying belief in the formation, through education, of the virtuous citizen who would be capable of uncorrupted self-governance.  I agree with Sandel about US political theory. I don’t agree about US political culture: when a writer like Lippard has to come up with even a fictional representation of figures capable of self-rule, he fails.   It is one thing for Jerrold and Doré to offer up the masses as incapable victims for the Victorian bourgeoisie.  It is another for a committed radical like Lippard to flunk the test of showing the democratic masses in the act of rational and virtuous self-rule.  

When I first read Lippard years ago as part of what I ended up calling The Emerson Effect, I made explicit that Lippard the radical democrat and Emerson the advocate of “natural aristocracy” shared a fear of the masses, which led, in Lippard’s case, to “reveal” democracy as a homosocial mob. Interestingly, many Cold War critics of the American Renaissance understood this: analysts like Leslie Fiedler, Richard Slotkin, and Ann Douglas treated class insight as façades behind which lurked unresolved forces of conquest, sex, death, and murder. They saw how the period writing, whether by Lippard or Harriet Beecher Stowe, rips the veil off a pseudo-democratic consensus that was as phony in the 1840s as in the 1950s.15  These and later critics, such as Saidiya Hartman, Stephen Best, Jeannine de Lombard, and others, would also say race, race, and race—racial guilt, rage, fear, and desire, largely unaddressed and completely unresolved, makes democratic relations more or less unimagined.

I would add now that for all the period’s talk of formation and education—Horace Mann being the most famous example—educated Americans such as writers, regardless of their stated politics, did not think the working masses could educate themselves into self-governance.  

We can and must analyze the roots of America’s impossible democracy in gender and especially racial anxiety.16  [Figure 14] It is a democracy that seems to have rested on a permanent sense that “a white man is being shot.”

Figure 14 : California House Riot, 1849. From: The Life and Adventures of Charles Anderson Chester: the notorious leader of the Philadelphia "killers," etc. Philadelphia: Printed for the publishers, 1850. Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Books and Pamphlets Collection.

Racial and other sources of this view are beyond my scope here, and I can say only that an American democrat like Lippard simply could not manifest a belief in American democracy.  If we want to figure out why the American model of democracy has now petered out, we could do worse than look to the mutually assured destruction of elites and workers in the dead democracy of George Lippard.

(University of California, Santa Barbara)

Works Cited

Primary Sources

BLANCHARD, Jerrold, DORÉ, Gustave, London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872.

LIPPARD, George, The Quaker City, or, The monks of Monk Hall: a romance of Philadelphia life, mystery, and crime, ed. David S. Reynolds, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

MAYHEW, Henry, TUCKNISS, William, London Labour and the London Poor, A cyclopædia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work, London, Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861–62, 4 vols.

Secondary Sources

ALTSCHULER, Sari, “‘Picture It All, Darley’: Race Politics and the Media History of George Lippard’s The Quaker City.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 70, No. 1, June 2015, p. 65–101.

FIEDLER, Leslie A, Love and Death in the American Novel, NY, Stein and Day, 1966.

HARTMAN, Saidiya V, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, NY, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

---, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, NY, Oxford UP, 1997.

KOVEN, Seth, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton (NJ), Princeton UP, 2004.

NEWFIELD, Christopher, The Emerson Effect, Individualism and Submission in America, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

LASCH, Christopher, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, NY, Norton, 1991.

OTTER, Samuel, Philadelphia Stories, America’s literature of race and freedom, NY, Oxford UP, 2010.

“Quaker City Focus”,, consulted August 10, 2016.

REYNOLDS, David S., Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, NY, Knopf, 1988.

ROMBES, Nicholas, “There Is a Head Rolling over the Platform: The Strange Case of George Lippard’s The Quaker City,” 1 June 2011,’s-the-quaker-city/

SANDEL, Michael J., Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Cambridge (Mass), Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1996.

WILENTZ, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, NY, Norton, 2005.


1  Gustave Doré, Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage, London, Grant & Co., 1872, p. 119-20.

2 Ibid., p. 142. For a reading of Jerrold and Doré’s continuation of James Greenwood’s reporting and sensation descent into the workhouse nights (published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1866), read along with Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1902) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton (NJ), Princeton UP, 2004, p. 74–83.

3 Ibid., p. 142.

4 Samuel Otter, Philadelphia Stories: America’s Literature of Race and Freedom, NY, Oxford UP, 2010.

5 The stereotype is handled with self-awareness in a story like Nathanial Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” in which the city/country contrast creates pitfalls for both the characters and the reader.  Neither Jerrold nor Lippard seem as aware of instabilities in the dichotomy.

6  George Lippard, The Quaker City, or, The monks of Monk Hall: a romance of Philadelphia life, mystery, and crime, ed. David S. Reynolds, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, p. 129–30.

7 According to Nicholas Rombes, see his blog on The Rumpus, 1 June 2011:’s-the-quaker-city/. And the whole section on the Quaker City in the Philadelphia gothic site:

8  Lippard, The Quaker City, op. cit., p. 188.

9  Lippard, The Quaker City, op. cit., p. 251.

10 Standard accounts of the period’s “workingman” hostility to upward mobility and to narrowly economic definitions progress include Christopher Lasch, Sean Wilentz, and Michael Sandel.

11 Lippard, op. cit., p. 447.

12 Ibid., p. 448.

13 Otter, Philadelphia Stories, op. cit., p.  181.

14 In Democratic Discontent, Sandel claims that the republicans and liberals of Lippard’s period—roughly, Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats—shared an underlying belief in the need to form and protect the civic virtue that enabled uncorrupted self-governance.  I agree about the respective group’s official theory. But it is impossible to find either canonical or “subterranean” antebellum texts that sustain this confidence in their narratives of characters and their deeds.  On this, see my book The Emerson Effect (1996).

15 It is worth remembering how entrenched this feeling has been in American Studies: Fiedler, who edited a new edition of The Quaker City in 1970, was especially interested in white America’s deep “desire to fall,” driven by a fixation on “the manly violence of the frontier, paired with “the desire for the dark spouse” and “the white man’s perverse lust for the Negro.” Nor was it only felt the same way about Harriet Beecher Stowe:  “The chief pleasures of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are, however, rooted not in the moral indignation of the reformer but in the more devious titillations of the sadist; not love but death is Mrs. Stowe’s true Muse. For its potential readers, the death of Uncle Tom, the death of Little Eva, the almost-death of Eliza are the big scenes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for they find in the fact and in the threat of death the thrill once provided by the fact or threat of sexual violation. Death is the supreme rapist who threatens when all other Seducers have been banished to the semi-pornographic pulps”, Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, NY, Stein and Day, 1966, p. 396-97, p. 266.  The setting did not matter either—the urban and working-class mysteries share a language with wilderness and frontier dramas of every kind. In film, one might think of Apocalypse Now and Django Unchained as also representing deranged American conquest ruling its declared allegiances to democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law.

16 Sari Altschuler has shown just how racially volatile Lippard’s characters were as they changed from the serial and theatrical to the novel version of The Quaker City (see her article in this volume), and “‘Picture It All, Darley’: Race Politics and the Media History of George Lippard’s The Quaker City,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 70, No 1, June 2015, p. 65–101.

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Christopher Newfield, « When America Flunked Democracy: City-Mystery Origins of Political Gridlock », American Mysterymania, sous la direction de Catherine Nesci, avec la collaboration de Devin Fromm Médias 19 [En ligne], Dossier publié en 2018, Mise à jour le : , URL: