7/13/09 - george lippard

In today's excerpt - George Lippard (1822-1854) was the best-selling author in America in the 1840s. His popularity came from his belief that the common man was the true hero of America—not the generals or the politicians:

"Born of obscure parents in 1822 near Philadelphia, George Lippard in his early twenties flashed across the literary sky like a meteor. A callow, crusading journalist, he took up labor's cause during the latter stages of the severe depression of 1837-1844. Sharpening his skills as a writer for the penny newspaper Spirit of the Times, whose motto was 'Democratic and Fearless', Lippard turned into a 'literary volcano constantly erupting with hot rage against America's ruling class.' His Quaker City or the Monks of Monk Hall became a best seller in 1844. A muckraker before the term was coined, Lippard described Philadelphia as a stomach-turning subversion of American democracy and an insult to the old ideal of the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia's venerated leaders charged Lippard, displayed a 'callow indifference to the poor' that was 'equaled only by their private venality and licentiousness.' The book made him the most widely read author in the nation. His sales far exceeded those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Washington Irving; in fact Lippard's books sold more than those of all the authors of the transcendentalist school put together.

"In 1846, Lippard began churning out legends of the American Revolution. ... Mixing hair-raising descriptions of the terrors of war with florid portraits of American battlefield heroism, Lippard presented the Revolution as a poor man's war, one that he hoped would provide inspiration for mid-nineteenth century labor reformers whom he admired and promoted. His stories in Washington and His Generals; or Legends of the American Revolution (1847) and Washington and His Men (1849) gave Washington his due, but it was the common man on the battlefield who was the true hero. ... 'The General who receives all the glory of the battles said to have been fought under his eye, who is worshiped in poetry and history, received in every city which he may enter by hundreds of thousands, who makes the heavens ring with his name; this General then is not the hero. No; the hero is the private soldier, who stands upon the battle field; ... the poor soldier ... whose skull bleaches in the sands, while the general whose glory the volunteer helped to win is warm and comfortable upon his mimic throne.' Lippard cautioned his audience to 'worship the hero ... [and] reverence the heroic; but have a care that you are not swindled by a bastard heroism; be very careful of the sham hero.'

"Lippard gave polite history a bad name; but the public loved him. He became their cultural arbiter and provided their understanding of the American Revolution. ...

"Lippard's stories ... extended his lesson about heroes and heroism. 'You may depend upon it,' he wrote 'John Smith, the rent payer, is a greater man, a truer hero than Bloodhound the general, or Pumfrog the politician. True,' Lippard continued, 'when John is dead there is only another grave added to the graves of the forgotten poor, while your general and your politician have piles of white marble over their fleshen skulls. But judging a hero by the rule that he who suffers most, endures most, works most, is the true hero ... When you read the praises of Great Statesmen, in the papers, don't be fooled from the truth by these sugar-tits of panegyric. These statesmen are not heroes.' "


Gary B. Nash


The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create america


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Gary B. Nash


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