- Inside the Temple of Ravoni:George Lippard's Anti-Exposé
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George Lippard's 1845 novel The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall is usually characterized as a city-mysteries novel, a genre that introduced readers to the seamy underside of antebellum cities while protesting the economic exploitation of the urban poor. But the city-mysteries label as applied by modern commentators fails to account for the full scope of Lippard's ambitions in this complex and overwrought text. Another way of opening The Quaker City to interpretation is to view it through the lens of the exposé, a generic classification that straddles traditional lines between fiction and nonfiction and between periodical literature and book publication. The term exposé, which appears repeatedly (along with such variants as "exposed" and "exposure") in publishers' catalogs of the 1840s and 1850s, helps to clarify the relationship between The Quaker City and other forms of literature next to which it was marketed and from which it borrowed certain conventions. This reading strategy brings to light one of Lippard's unacknowledged accomplishments in the novel, his remarkable experimentation with the exposé format—in particular as practiced by authors who claimed to expose the secret crimes of Mormons and Catholics. Apparently troubled by its tendency to promote sectarian violence, Lippard structures a demystification of the exposé format around one character, an enigmatic cult leader named Ravoni the Sorcerer.
As it developed in the penny press of the 1830s and 1840s, [End Page 2] the exposé form constituted itself in the author's claim to bringing shocking, hidden truths to light. George Lippard first worked within this genre at the Philadelphia penny paper the Spirit of the Times. Working as a crime reporter under the pseudonyms Toney Blank and Billy Brier in 1842, Lippard initially affected a jaunty, ironic tone as he introduced readers to the beatings, thefts, and prostitution that plagued their city at night. Lippard soon realized, however, that this material could be exploited for more serious literary ends. Such ambitions found voice in "The Love of Nancy Phillips—A Novel—Edited by Brier," wherein Lippard's pseudonymous Brier boasts that the sordid tale of a black woman seeking revenge against her ex-lover is "done up in Bulwerian style" and that he sometimes thinks he's "cut out for a novelist."1 Lippard took another step toward novelizing such material in a series called "Our Talisman," in which a magical ring allows its possessor to become invisible and read other people's thoughts. In this series, the pseudonymous "Flib" sits in on the meetings of (generically identified) Bank Directors, documenting the machinations by which they reward their large investors while defrauding poor widows and honest mechanics. Lippard foregrounds the language of exposé in these pieces, as in "Our Talisman, No. 6," where one of the corrupt Bank Directors whispers, "The 'Times' has exposed us to the Legislature," while another warns, "If our little secrets are to be exposed this way to the public . . . it will naturally destroy the institution." In other articles from the series, Flib exposes a corrupt postal official who embezzled money and hired his own relatives, a theater owner who cheated a starving actress, and various other shady, reprehensible characters that normally hold a place in respectable society.2 This series shows Lippard striking the note of radical populism that would become characteristic of his city-mysteries novels.
With the 1844 publication in English of Eugène Sue's popular novel The Mysteries of Paris (originally published in Paris as Les mystères de Paris, 1842–43), Lippard and likeminded novelists saw the possibilities for adapting exposé materials to full-length fiction.3 Writing a novel (even one based loosely on actual events), Lippard could dispense with the flimsy contrivance of the talisman and report hidden crimes from the vantage point [End Page 3] of an omniscient narrator. The American version of the city-mysteries novel, with its characteristic blending of violence, illicit sexuality, and a social reform agenda...