Race, Nativism, and the Making of Class in Antebellum City-Mysteries

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This study analyzes white working-class identity construction in antebellum popular print culture and offers a fresh perspective on race relations in the antebellum period. By analyzing anti-slavery and nativist political discourses in popular fiction and newspapers of the 1840's and 1850's, I argue that sensational novels by such writers as George Lippard, Augustine Duganne, and Ned Buntline provided space whereby working-class whites could articulate their anxieties toward wage labor and critique the professional classes through a sympathetic identification with free, northern African Americans. My first chapter reveals how city-mysteries, largely bereft of heroic, white working-class agents of change, rely upon dynamic black male protagonists and the racially ambivalent discourse of "wage slavery" to appeal to the multi-racial working classes. In this context, I discuss Lippard's The Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk-Hall and New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million, in which Lippard mounts class critique through representations of the "Herculean" black male hero that resonate with contemporary depictions of the white laborer and through class-inflected minstrelsy discourse. My second chapter examines the role of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativist discourse in city-mysteries' economic critique of chattel slavery. When Lippard, Duganne, and to a lesser extent, Buntline, present their white working-class characters as the victims of literal and figurative enslavement plots by Catholic officials and dissipated, slave-owning merchants, nativism proves a flexible rhetoric that reinforces the texts' racial sympathy and helps to develop class protest against the professional classes. My third and final chapter illuminates the cross-racial strategies of class protest among early labor newspapers, early African-American newspapers, weekly story papers, and nativist newspapers--an array of under-studied print sources that register the potential and the limits of cross-racial solidarity during the antebellum period.