- Sensationalizing the Urban West: City-Mysteries and Urban Boosterism
Popular antebellum city-mysteries by authors like George Lippard and George Thompson often highlighted the vices and squalor that oppressive factory conditions and sexual exploitation created in cities. However, other texts in the genre foregrounded different sights, curious for their inclusion in otherwise sensational, lurid narratives. For instance, a city-mystery set in Lowell, Massachusetts titled Norton, or The Lights and Shades of a Factory Village (1849), spares no opportunity to point out the beauty of Lowell’s “New Canal.” In addition to the frontispiece, appropriately titled “A View of the New Canal, Lowell,” the narrator explains that the area had only recently been “a mere swamp, sending forth pestilential vapors from its stagnant waters,” but now “the swamps drained and filled up, were covered with immense cotton mills, teeming with life and complicated machinery” that made up a city, “the moral system and character of which had become celebrated throughout the world.”1
Many antebellum city-mysteries set in, and produced by, smaller urban areas like Lowell—and especially the dominant cities of the American West—read as if they responded to perceived regional distinctions between the West and the urban hubs that Thompson, Lippard, and Ned [End Page 561] Buntline depicted. In works set in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, authors and publishers imaginatively collapse the social and reputational distance between the eastern and western United States. By social and reputational distance, I mean the belief that eastern cities contained developed civic infrastructures and were vibrant economic centers imagined in opposition to a diseased and unruly western frontier. Additionally, many Americans envisioned plague-ridden western towns and frontier violence, whereas they imagined eastern cities’ ills comprising trash piling up in the streets, unruly rioting immigrants, and far-reaching prostitution rings in places such as New York and Boston. Such distinctions often prevailed in fiction, regardless of the fact that each region’s cities shared similar economic modes and immigrant populations, and the fact that, by 1840, Cincinnati was the nation’s fourth-largest publishing area.2 In what follows, I argue that city-mysteries became a counterintuitive and sensationalized form of boosterism, a means to demonstrate imagined urban legitimacy.
Paralleling the lack of antebellum literature about western cities, today’s studies of antebellum urbanism typically focus on the East Coast or New Orleans.3 Despite economic and civic development and population growth, in the 1840s and early 1850s many Americans perceived western cities as emerging from a barren wilderness and retaining elements of that past. Historian Daniel Aaron writes that “the mass of people on the seaboard seemed to know more about China than about the land west of the Alleghenies” and notes that many residents were familiar only with what eastern newspapers described as “a combination of fevers, freshets, bad water, poverty, and rough people.”4 As cities like Cincinnati and Louisville grew in population and industry, publishers and local historians often evinced a desire for recognition from the reading public, local and distant. In the preface to The History of Louisville (1852), Ben Casseday claimed that print could [End Page 562] democratically bolster urban reputation: “Other cities have great attractions, and there is no reason why these should not be known; the gospel itself requires publication; but in this democratic country are we to allow any other city to take a higher position than that to which she is entitled by her skill, strength and capacity? Is it not high time to advertise the cheapness and goodness of our wares?” Idealizing literature as a democratizing force, Casseday espouses the idea that each city can be represented no matter its size. He later asks if “the name of [Louisville]” might be added to “the catalogue published in Europe.”5 At stake in Louisville’s regional history, according to Casseday, is the city’s global reputation.
As American cities grew, the city-mystery, a subgenre of the gothic novel, proliferated. Amid a growing industry of cheaply produced sensational fiction, these texts formed part of what Michael Denning has called “one of the first mass media” and a “central component of the emerging culture industry.”6 Works from...