Next 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 Edie 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.)
Edie 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.