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  • The Depths of Astonishment:City Mysteries and the Antebellum Underground
  • Lara Langer Cohen (bio)

When we dream of the heights we are in the rational zone of intellectualized projects. But for the cellar, the impassioned inhabitant digs and re-digs, making its very depth active. The fact is not enough, the dream is at work. When it comes to excavated ground, dreams have no limit.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

About halfway through George Lippard’s New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million (1853), the narrator extends a dubious invitation to the reader: “Let us descend into the subterranean world, sunken somewhere in the vicinity of Five Points and the Tombs. Open a scarcely distinguishable door,” he instructs,

Descend a narrow stairway, or rather ladder, which lands you in the darkness, some twenty feet below the level of the street. Then, in the darkness, feel your way along the passage which turns to the right and left, and from left to right again, until your senses are utterly bewildered. At length . . . after groping your way you know not how far, you descend a second ladder, ten feet or more, and find yourself confronted by a door. You are at least two stories under ground, and all is dark around you—the sound of voices strikes your ear; but do not be afraid. Find the latch of the door and push it open. A strange scene confronts you.

The Black Senate!

(116) [End Page 1]

The Black Senate, we learn, is a sensationalized version of the vigilance committees organized by antislavery activists in the 1830s and 1840s to aid fugitives traveling north and defend African Americans against kidnappers. With his characteristic mixture of political radicalism and casual racism, Lippard portrays the Black Senate as both comical and formidable, a shadow government composed of “representatives from all parts of the Union” that metes out justice the official government cannot or will not (117). A vivid fantasy of the midcentury’s burgeoning political undergrounds, it is all the more striking because its underground character is twofold: as the novel’s extended description of its location emphasizes, the Black Senate conducts its subterranean activities “at least two stories under ground.”

This essay explores the strange conflation of the metaphorical and the literal, the political and the topographical, in nineteenthcentury undergrounds like the Black Senate. Images of the underworld date back to antiquity, and oppositional cultures have existed as long as there have been dominant cultures. But in the US, the figurative use of “underground” to signify a movement operating secretly or from below only became common in the 1840s, when the Underground Railroad gave it wide circulation. It was quickly picked up by sensationalist city guides like George G. Foster’s New York by Gas-Light (1850), which purported to show readers “the lower stratum—the under-ground story—of life in New York!” (69). But most of all, this emergent underground vision took shape in city mysteries like Lippard’s New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million—the cheap, lurid literature of urban modernity that exploded in the US in the wake of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842–43). Sue’s serial novel was a hit in Europe, where it spawned several imitators, but the genre caught fire in the US, and soon most major cities, along with many small towns, could claim mysteries of their own.1 Thus, we have not only mysteries of cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, but also more unlikely entries such as the anonymous The Mysteries of Nashua (1844), Osgood Bradbury’s The Mysteries of Lowell (1844), and Frank Hazelton’s The Mysteries of Troy (1847). The popularity of city mysteries even spawned a seemingly paradoxical variation: the rural city mystery. Often products of the same set of authors and publishers as their urban counterparts, rural city mysteries simply translated their formulas into more remote settings, usually in the western or southern US. Chronicling secret lives, clandestine activities, and insurgent political movements, city mysteries offer some of the earliest, most sustained visions of what we would now call American subcultures.2 Yet their fantastical, insistently spatial...


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