Author Q&A: Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong

The KillersNext up in our ongoing series of Fall 2014 author Q&As (previously: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means) we have Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, who have brought back into print The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia, a novella by writer and labor activist George Lippard. Originally published serially in 1849, The Killers is rife with violence and intrigue, and depicts a Philadelphia nearly bursting at the seams in the run up to an infamous race riot.

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Penn Press: It’s clear that Lippard wrote with the interests of the labor movement in his thoughts. How does he compare to similarly interested American writers to follow, like Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck?

Matt Cohen: Like many U.S. writers about labor, Lippard was involved in labor organizing himself, so writing and publishing, organizing and leading were all woven together in his daily life. For much of his writing career, fiction seemed to Lippard to be a good way to reach audiences and transform public opinion about working conditions or the corruption rampant among those at the top of the capital chain. His style is a bit different from that of the writers concerned with labor that have made it into the canon: he’s a sensationalist, writing in the early years of the mass production of literature in the States, so his stories feature outlandish characters and scenarios, murders, rape, abduction, divorce—all the ingredients of the dark side of the city that appealed to the imagination of a broad spectrum of nineteenth-century readers. Upton Sinclair is good, but not this juicy. But it’s not just a difference of style, and here John Steinbeck’s a good contrast: Lippard is generally impatient to lay the moral of the story on you. There are some brief but delightful old-fashioned rants in works like The Killers, some put in the mouths of characters, and some straight from the narrator. And then, at the end of this story, the working-class characters survive the depredations of both the city and the fractured family and visit justice on the corrupt financiers who are at the root of social chaos—a happy ending of sorts.

Would you characterize Lippard’s novella as a work of realism? (The reality of the time—not least the coexistence of the industrial revolution and slavery—seems so surreal as to blur the distinction.)

Edlie Wong: Yes and no. Antislavery literature popularized the adage of “truth stranger than fiction” to make compelling arguments about the ills of slavery. We might argue that Lippard’s novella offers us a likeminded attempt at forging a literary medium capable of capturing the strange contortions of capital expansion in antebellum America. The Killers might be read as a proto-realist text, although it features Lippard’s trademark gothic flourishes.

How do the narratives surrounding street crime in the novel compare to contemporary narratives in Philly and Camden?

EW: In our introduction, we discuss Lippard’s novel as a literary precursor to Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, one of the earliest African American novels, which also centers its plot around the explosive complexities of urban violence and street crime as consequences of race and class strife in antebellum Philadelphia. Arguably, one might trace Lippard’s novella as initiating a long tradition of social fictions exploring Philadelphia urban unrest and disintegration that culminates in John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, a novel based on the 1985 police siege and bombing of a Philadelphia row house that was home to a black radical organization known as MOVE. Not unlike the climactic urban conflagration depicted in The Killers, the subsequent explosion and massive fire in the MOVE bombing destroyed a West Philadelphia residential block of sixty-one homes and killed eleven people, including five children.

MC: The Killers is also interesting because it came in two versions, each of which resonates with a different position you see taken on the question of street crime as it’s discussed today everywhere from hip-hop to Fox News. The short pamphlet version of the novella suggests that gang violence was a major urban problem; the longer novella suggests that street crime is a product of the exploitation of the working classes by the wealthy—and therefore that corporate or white-collar crime is where our ire and reform ought to focus. That difference of emphasis is one reason we felt we ought to include both versions.

How complicit or involved was the city of Philadelphia in the slave trade, exactly?

EW: The city of Philadelphia was complicit in the slave trade in a number of ways. Early colonial Philadelphia, along with New York, lay at the center of lucrative trading networks that linked the grain commodities-based economies of the mid-Atlantic colonies to England and the slave trade in the Caribbean. In fact, we might identify a literary precursor to the Killers’ villainous Jacob D.Z. Hicks in Olaudah Equiano’s narrative account of the Philadelphia-based Quaker merchant Robert King, who bought the twice-kidnapped Equiano on the island of Montserrat and later sold him his freedom. In the years before the Civil War, northern cities like Philadelphia remained highly popular destinations for slaveholders who travelled for recreation, health, and business. Although Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, it continued to protect the property rights of traveling slaveholders through lenient sojourner laws permitting slavery in such cases until 1847, during the height of Lippard’s literary output.

What seems most familiar in the story, to you? What seems constant in American life through to today?

MC: The sense this book offers readers of a world in which people who have money and power and people who don’t are at odds with each other is powerfully reverberant today. In our introduction, we compared it to the Occupy Wall Street movement—it’s the mood of this story that really resonates with the U.S. economy, employment patterns, stigmatization of labor or the incarcerated. The violent outbreaks as a result of racism and competition among immigrant and minority populations for urban resources, space, and legal protection are also depressingly continuous, very familiar. And the way Lippard depicts a world in which gang violence, international flows of money and illicit goods, and urban politics are all tied up with each other is strikingly close to home. But beyond the content of the story, there is also a way in which The Killers has a kind of appeal or urgency, a page-turning absorbingness, that must have been part of its draw at the time and that we still enjoy in fiction.

Why has Lippard been widely forgotten, at least relative to his contemporary popular authors?

EW: Lippard was the best-selling American author before Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He achieved commercial success by targeting a young working class audience; yet, he, like Stowe, was largely forgotten and dismissed by later critics who commended him for quantity as opposed to quality. Interest in American women’s popular fiction—spurred on by the spirited Jane Tompkins–Ann Douglas debate over sentimentalism—led to the recovery of Stowe for a new generation of scholars, marking the resurgence of a long understudied popular genre. Lippard is overdue for a similar critical renaissance, especially given the increased attention to social inequities and widening class divisions in society today. As a writer, Lippard may have been forgotten but his tales lived on in the popular consciousness. Ironically, many of Lippard's historical fictions are often misquoted as historical fact, even to this day. For example, the iconic image of the Liberty Bell as a relic of the proclamation of American independence sprung from Lippard’s short story, “Fourth of July, 1776” (1847), which depicts an elderly bellman jubilantly ringing the Liberty Bell to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Are there lessons, applicable to today’s social issues, to be taken directly from this story?

MC: Never try to open the private records of a corrupt capitalist without wearing a bulletproof vest! Yes, I think that The Killers depicts a world in which it’s hard for those displaced, exploited, or injured by what we today call “the system” to bridge their differences, to combine forces in an effort to change things. And it also shows just how deep-seated some of our problems today are, such as the ways in which the prison system grounds a racialized mode of control over both the U.S. population (in terms of mobility or even our imagination) and, at the same time, the U.S. economy. It also asks us to think hard about how our habitual use of banks, or periodicals, or the theatre, or the ballot box are woven into a much larger world of exchange, much of which works in the end to the disadvantage of people like ourselves. Lippard urges us to think about social problems in a global context, and about our daily lives as a series of acts that either consent to or resist our own domination. So in that way, as in much sensational or sentimental writing (in Lippard’s time and ours), there are lessons for us both as communities and as individuals.

To what extent do you consider the story a work of early pulp fiction, if at all?

EW: Although pulp fiction emerged from the explosion of “cheap” magazine culture from the early twentieth century, giving rise to popular subgenres such as detective fiction and science fiction, the term might be suitably applied to Lippard’s work as well. Lippard directed all his writing towards a mass audience, and The Killers first appeared in serial installments in his story paper, The Quaker City. The novella is clearly influenced by the lurid tales found in comparable British “penny-bloods” or “penny dreadfuls,” cheaply printed sensational novels aimed at the increasingly literate working classes. And, like twentieth-century pulp fiction, Lippard’s works often claimed to be fictionalized exposés of corruption and villainy, although they reveal a commitment to educating and radicalizing mass readers in addition to entertaining them.

The Hollywood Question: would it make a good movie?

MC: It would either make an awesome movie—you would forget Gangs of New York—or a horrible one. Maybe the Coen brothers could do it. I definitely think we should send a review copy of the book to Michael Moore. And of course you would need exceptional consultants for the film—at the least, a textual scholar and a specialist on the history and literature of slavery, race, and immigration—to keep it real. I see Edward Norton, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Cee-Lo Green, Chloë Moretz as Kate Watson, and perhaps William Levy as Don Jorge.

What kind of reception or renewed attention would you like to see for Lippard’s work?

MC: If Lippard’s disappearance from the center stage of literary history teaches us anything it is that you can’t control reception! But that said: In the grand scheme of things, Lippard is one of the nineteenth-century writers most in need of renewed attention, and getting this short, fast-paced, slightly crazy novel out there is a bid for a greater share of scholarly and popular attention for his work and what it has to show us about U.S. society and our shared literary past. So of course we hope that teachers at all levels will read this book and consider assigning it for what it offers in the way of teaching how literature mediates race, class, immigration, and urban politics. But there’s a broader popular appeal to this book, one Lippard built into it from the start, that means people interested in horror, or mystery, or the gothic, or drama, or suspense will find it a magnetic read; people who are curious about the history of Philadelphia will be by turns charmed and appalled; and people who want to know more about American history, and in particular its dark and contentious side, will find it hard to put down. And a Hollywood movie would be great.

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Matt Cohen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England.

Edlie L. Wong is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel.