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Middle-class City Mysteries and Porn-Gothic Fiction

Middle-class City Mysteries and Porn-Gothic Fiction
© Photograph by Angie Griffin

Sensational novels, fiction for an audience of artisans and labourers, came into existence in the late 1830s and early 1840s in the wake of the sensational press. The publishers of such stories competed fiercely for the audience and experimented with various types of fiction. The first genre that attracted a wide following and mass success was the “city mysteries.” These novels, mostly serialized, revealed the mysteries of the city by telling the tales of criminal underworlds and decadence of elites and other dark, unsettling aspects of urban life. They were inspired by Marie-Joseph Sue’s ‘Les Mysteres de Paris,’ published in 1845, which became pirated and imitated in Germany, United Kingdom and the United States of America. In the United States of America, the city mysteries gained extreme popularity, and a whole school of popular fiction concerning the mysteries evolved. Between 1844 and 1860, more than fifty novels concerning the city life appeared. The most popular settings were Boston, New York and Philadelphia, but the sensational novelists exploited a wide array of other American cities — New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco, Lowell or Rochester.

The extreme popularity of sensational novels in antebellum America can be illustrated by the success of George Lippard’s ‘The Quaker City, Or, the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime.’ When it was published in 1845, it sold 60,000 copies in its first year and at least 10,000 copies annually for the next decade. Its alleged twenty-seven printings make ‘The Quaker City, Or, the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime’ the most popular American novel before the appearance of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

Sensational novels or city mysteries did not escape the attention of the major writers of the period, but despite its enormous impact on popular culture, they were ignored by literary critics and historians for a long time. Several reasons explain this neglect. First of all, many examples of the genre disappeared since the sensational fiction was designed for rapid reading and disposal. Moreover, prudish censors, fighting against everything even remotely linked to pornography, destroyed the plates of many sensational novels. Another reason is that the sensational fiction violated traditional canons of critical taste, and literary critics were drawn to authors such as Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Only the rise of new historicism and cultural studies opened the way for reconsideration of a non-canonical literature. City mysteries novels were an important part of an antebellum working-class culture, and the texts are a valuable source of conceptions of class identity and class relations in the period.

A more appropriate term for the sensational genre would probably be urban porno-gothic. Several novels can be placed in the genre of popular pornography. The stereotypical image of an antebellum American is that of an uptight prude who cannot tolerate even a hint of sexuality. The fact is that sensational novel readers widely consumed pornographic fiction. The authors such as George Lippard or George Thompson vividly evoked homosexuality, miscegenation, group sex, child pornography or sadomasochism. They were reacting against the middle-class culture that was, in some ways, absurdly prudish. Because of the censorship, their pornography was of the “soft” variety, according to today’s standards. The male characters of George Thompson’s works voyeuristically gloat over “snowy globes” or “voluptuous busts” of women disrobing, coming out of the bath or standing naked in front of the mirror. The sex scenes are rather suggestive than explicit and they are usually finished with sentences such as “we will not inflict upon the reader the disgusting details of that evening’s licentious extravagances” or “that night was one of guilty rapture to all the parties; but the particulars must be supplied by reader’s own imagination.”

As far as the gothic aspect is concerned, the authors of city mysteries replaced haunted countryside and supernatural terrors with bleak cityscape and the horrors of urban poverty and crime. American cities lacked mysterious places, and American authors were at a disadvantage to their European counterparts. Philadelphia or New York could not compare to Paris or London with having several sites associated with history and mystery. Therefore, the authors of sensational novels had to create imaginative places of mystery and set them in a real urban landscape.

According to Michal Peprník, the place of mystery “is like an energy field whose charge organizes, to a large extent, the development of the plot — it generates curiosity or anxiety and fear since it threatens to destabilize the existing order, it calls for its own investigation, it makes some characters its victims, and turns others into investigators. It contains and hides a story, creates suspense, invites the reader to participate in its decoding, activates his experimental potential, and opens paths of associations normally closed or unused.”

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