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Revising the Public Sphere: George Lippard, Class, and U.S. Nationalism
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George Lippard’s The Rose of Wissahikon was first published on July 4, 1847 in Philadelphia’s most popular story paper, the Saturday Courier. The novel appeared in its entirety, but even so, it covered only two and a half of the paper’s eight large pages. There is, however, no mistaking the importance of Lippard’s contribution to the special holiday edition. The eye of casual customers and dedicated followers alike would have been captured by the huge, half-page cover illustration of the novel’s climactic scene: the first reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of Philadelphia’s own State House, now known as Independence Hall (Fig. 1). By this time, Lippard was at the height of his popularity as a writer of Revolutionary War “legends,” and the topic seemed particularly suited to capture the patriotic spirit of Independence Day and revive interest in Philadelphia’s heritage of nationalism. But if his readers expected an easy, flag-waving narrative, they were in for a surprise from this tale. While true in spirit to the history of the Declaration’s drafting, Lippard’s novel added a wildly imaginative narrative frame, involving a counter-revolutionary effort to arrest the drafters and install George Washington as King, as well as murders on the frontier and the possible seduction and rape of the title character, Rose.

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Figure 1. 

George Lippard. “The Rose of the Wissahikon.” The Semi Annual Pictorial Saturday Courier. (Philadelphia, July 4, 1847), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The stakes of Lippard’s historical revisions can be seen in the Saturday Courier’s illustration, which shows a group of founders elevated above a crowd. The scene is hardly auspicious. Jefferson slouches against the wall, apparently trying to avoid attention. Benjamin Franklin is identifiable, and John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress, addresses the crowd. However, it is among the gathered audience that Lippard’s revision employs its greatest creativity, and where the picture’s most interesting actions are located. Far from being enraptured by the appearance of the founders on the stairs, the members of the crowd are engaged with their own concerns. Many hold private conversations with their backs to the speaker, and one pair has even come to blows at this important moment. Rose, the leading female character and the only woman in the illustration, stands attractively posed toward the reader. The imposing Native figure next to her is her long lost brother, Mayaniko, a character who desires to claim both Anglo and Native origins. And finally, Gerald Moynton, Rose’s would-be seducer, leers at her from the background. The image juxtaposes figures associated with public, national history and Lippard’s characters’ private, individual interests.

In what follows, I consider how Lippard’s Rose of Wissahikon reimagines political participation, transforming the terms and conditions of the eighteenth-century public sphere into a type of politics more befitting the emergent mass culture-industry taking shape in the 1840s. I argue that Lippard’s prolabor politics become manifest in the novel as a rejection of a “republic of letters,” leading him to emphasize the exclusions inherent in state power and representational democracy in his retelling of the Revolution’s history. Although this places the realm of free political discourse in crisis, by surrounding the (semi-authentic) history of the Declaration of Independence with layers of intrigue Lippard presented his nineteenth-century readers with a vision of the nation’s origin reopened to the world of necessity, private interest, and class struggle. Ultimately, The Rose of Wissahikon makes a case for the political power of imagination when faced with the abstract, institutional authority of the state.

In literary scholarship, Lippard is best known as a writer of the city-mystery, a genre he used to promote his version of labor politics and to expose the “corrupt social system” of his day. His most-studied novel, The Quaker City; Or, The Monks of Monk Hall, was a social phenomenon born from the lower-echelon of Philadelphia’s publishing world. The novel appeared serially, like many stories for the cheap fiction marketplace, in pamphlet form. It was sold from the shelves of a small...

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