- Response to D'Alessandro's "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell':Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City"
What a delight to be writing one of the inaugural Letters for J19, and an especial pleasure to be writing it about Michael D'Alessandro's terrific essay "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell': Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City" (Fall 2017). For me, one of the major achievements of this essay is that it bridges what has long been a major gap in nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies—that between scholarship on the printed word and work on the theater. That's not to say that there's no overlap within the work of specific scholars: Robin Bernstein, Brigitte Fielder, Laura Mielke, and others move elegantly between genres. But there are rarely attempts to put the two genres in conversation with each other. Indeed, for a field that pulls into its orbit a congeries of genres (sermons, autobiographical narratives, ledger books, diaries, primers, promotional pamphlets, scientific dissertations, letters, religious scriptures of all kinds), as well as a wide variety of nonliterary entities (animals both wild and domestic, rocks, medical instruments, clothing, dolls, food, blood, fingerprints), it is surprising how little nineteenth-century US literary studies has put dramatic texts and theatrical productions on the one hand, and novels and other literary texts on the other, in conversation with each other.
D'Alessandro's essay does that important work with brio. He recognizes that for working-class men in the middle third of the nineteenth [End Page 233] century, the theater was a central site of imagination and sociality. While the novel was the guide for bourgeois (and bourgeois-aspiring) readers, the stage, as I've argued elsewhere, was the conduct manual for the white working class, teaching men how to act, how to relate to each other, and how to understand the machinations of power. Moreover, in the 1830s, theaters went from being mixed-class (though working-class dominated) to separating into elite houses such as the Chestnut Street Theatre and the Astor Opera House, and "low houses" like the Bowery and the Walnut Street Theatres. D'Alessandro brings a nuanced and detailed knowledge of this literary and theatrical history to his reading of George Lippard's Quaker City.
Lippard wanted laborers to read his novel, and he wanted them in their reading to identify with it and understand the mechanisms of oppression under which they suffered. His main obstacle was that it was serial fiction, not a genre that typically appealed to working people. As D'Alessandro meticulously shows, Lippard scattered theatrical allusions and set-pieces throughout the novel as a way to both appeal to working audiences and signal his awareness of their cultural milieu. The program from the Walnut Street Theatre, the leading playhouse frequented by working men; the liberal borrowing of the tropes of melodrama; the repeated references to Monk Hall as a theater and Devil Bug as its primary audience member: all of these functioned as a kind of masonic handshake between Lippard and his readers. As D'Alessandro argues, "By composing a novel that acknowledges and often imitates a local, working-class melodrama, Lippard attempts to reproduce theaters' physical separation of workers from the social elite" (213), thereby constructing Quaker City as a seemingly paradoxical text: a novel for working people.
Despite these strengths, there are a few elements that, for me, fall short. Drawing on Bruce McConachie's field-defining work on the antebellum melodrama, D'Alessandro claims that by invoking the tropes of what McConachie calls "apocalyptic melodrama" (sensationalist plays that end in epic disasters such as the explosion of Vesuvius or floods or military invasion, all fully represented on stage), Lippard wants to "instruct [his] working-class followers that their shared experiences of oppression with others can carry rebellious power" (219). I'm not altogether convinced by this. McConachie himself is, in the final analysis, pessimistic about the power of the theater to foster meaningful solidarity among its working-class audiences; he ends Melodramatic Formations with the glum acknowledgment that working people were increasingly edged out of theatrical spaces...