Welcome to Sodom: the cultural work of city-mysteries fiction in antebellum America
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation will examine a genre of popular fiction from antebellum America known as the “city-mysteries” novel. These novels, which enjoyed great popularity from the early 1840s to 1860, appeared in the wake of several European examples, most notably Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1840-41) and G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London. While written about a wide range of American cities, from the burgeoning metropolitan areas of the Eastern seaboard to small New England towns to rising Western cities, these novels shared a concern with “removing the veil” from the hidden operations of urban life. In their presentation of the process of urbanization, this body of literature helps reveal the ways that popular writers, as well as elite thinkers, were coming to terms with the sudden increase in the size, density, and diversity of urban areas in antebellum America. The dramatic changes wrought in the lives of many ordinary Americans by the growth of cities raised a number of questions of ethical and religious significance that these novels help address: Is it possible to be a “good” American in a large city? A good neighbor? A good republican? A good Christian? These novels, along with the vast body of tracts, sermons, reform literature, newspapers, children’s books, and other popular print forms, offer a window onto how everyday Americans thought about the urban environment. While these novels were written and purchased in large part for their entertainment value, and their depiction of both how enjoyable and frightening city life could be, they also contained a great deal of information—both accurate and false—about the cities that they described that would have shaped the thoughts and imaginations of their readers. In the process, these texts would have shaped what antebellum Americans expected city life to be like, and would have influenced how they might have prepared themselves to make the shift from a rural to an urban setting in the period of America’s first great wave of urbanization.