Awesome Men Throughout History: George Lippard
I normally hate it when writers write about writing. I really do. Unless it’s meant for advisory or educational purposes, like Stephen King’s On Writing, or to shine a spotlight on obscure books, like the literature chapter of John Waters’ Role Models, it just comes off like a cheap shortcut.
Still, there was a time when writers could be, and often were, notorious badasses who disregarded social expectations in really obvious ways. They lived and wrote in eras where writers weren’t confined to academia as a means of support, so they didn’t have to be respectable and behave themselves all the time. But while some writers wallowed in their own miseries (Poe, Hemingway) or excesses (Hunter S. Thompson, Poe again), others tried to use their pen as a pulpit for social change. Which brings us to this week’s subject of Awesome Men Throughout History: George Lippard.
Lippard was born in Pennsylvania in 1822, and dropped out of both the Methodist religious ministry and law school to work odd jobs and squat in abandoned buildings. Life as a penniless bohemian gave him valuable insight into how badly the urban poor were getting hosed, and he decided to become a voice for their interests.
Of course, unlike today, Lippard was able to find employment from homelessness, getting a job with a Philadelphia daily newspaper called Spirit of the Times, to which he contributed court reporting and sketches. He also wrote “historical fictions,” basically his own wildly inaccurate re-imaginings of historical events, which met with great response from the readership. Some people, including Ronald Reagan, even thought his stories were true; during his 1957 commencement address at Eureka College, Reagan pulled a quote from Lippard’s “Speech of the Unknown,” in which fiery words from an anonymous delegate inspired the rest of the Second Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Okay, so you might be thinking that Lippard’s screwing around with history didn’t accomplish much for the working man. And you’d be right. But Lippard was also a novelist, and his most famous book, The Quaker City, was a dense slab of eat-the-rich sentiment. Published in 1845, the book meant to expose the upper crust of antebellum Philadelphia as a bunch of sadistic, adulterous hypocrites. Consequently, it was the best-selling novel in America prior to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Part of The Quaker City‘s admittedly confusing plot was torn from the headlines. After following the trial of Singleton Mercer, who used the insanity defense to get away with killing someone who had allegedly seduced (or perhaps raped) his sister, Lippard got the idea of using seduction to represent the oppression of the helpless. This idea also gave him the excuse to fill his book with numerous drooling descriptions of “heaving bosoms,” and provided one of the greatest sentences in American literature: “his face was clammy with the death-sweat.”
Tasteless? Sure, but it worked – the book prompted genuine social and legal reform, and Lippard used his success to relentlessly advocate for social justice. He lectured frequently on the subject of labor organization, was a participant in the National Reform Congress and the Eighth National Industrial Congress, and founded the Brotherhood of the Union in 1850.
Given the dire economic and political situation we’re in now, which is frightening similar to the economic and political situation back then, we could use a few more fearless muckrakers like George Lippard. The guy dedicated his life and career to raising the bar for us all, and mixed that table-pounding social commentary with lurid stories full of sex and murder. Can’t beat that with a stick.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.