Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom

Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom

Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom

Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom

Synopsis

A historic and symbolic city on the border between slavery and freedom, antebellum Philadelphia was home to one of the largest and most influential "free" African American communities in the United States. The city was seen by residents and observers as the stage on which the possibilities of freedom would be tested and a post-slavery future would be played out for the nation. Philadelphia's charged setting produced a distinctive literary tradition that confronted issues of race, character, violence, and liberty. Verbal performance and social behavior assumed the weight of race and nation. The city's social experiments would have international consequences. This account of Philadelphia's literary history from 1790 to1860 brings together writers familiar (Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, John Edgar Wideman), lesser known (Hugh Henry Brackenridge, George Lippard, Frank J. Webb), and obscure (Mathew Carey, Robert Montgomery Bird, William Whipper, Joseph Willson). It draws on a host of diverse, often discounted expressive forms, from fever accounts and metempsychic fiction to caricatures and book covers. Samuel Otter's authoritative study considers the significance of geographical, social, and literary "place." It offers a model for thinking about the relationships between literature and history and among European-American and African-American writers. It challenges conventional narratives of American literary history. And finally, it establishes Philadelphia as fundamental to our understanding of not only the political but also the imaginative life of nineteenth-century America.

Excerpt

It is one of the strangest and most humiliating triumphs of human
selfishness and prejudice over human reason, that it leads men to
look upon emancipation as an experiment, instead of being, as it is,
the natural order of human relations.
—Frederick Douglass, “The Black Man’s Future in
the Southern States” (1862)

My goal in this book is to make Philadelphia as crucial to our understanding of U. S. literary history as Boston, Concord, or New York. Between the Constitution and the Civil War, Philadelphia was seen by residents and observers as the laboratory for a social experiment with international consequences. the city would be the stage on which racial character would be tested and possible futures would be played out for the United States after slavery. It would be the arena in which various residents would or would not demonstrate their capacities to participate in the life of the city and nation. in Philadelphia lived one of the largest and most influential free African American communities in the United States. For members of this group, who are at the center of the stories and debates in this book, the years between 1790 and 1860 were marked by social and economic achievement, political backlash, violence, decline, and resistance. the Philadelphia experiment in freedom produced a literary tradition of peculiar forms and . . .

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