Helwig Publishes Major Book
Timothy Helwig is a Professor in the Department of English at Western Illinois University. He specializes in nineteenth-century American literature and antebellum print culture, with an emphasis on working-class identity and cross-racial sympathy in the works of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, George Lippard, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Frank J. Webb. He has held visiting research fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Timothy serves as the Midwestern Regent for Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society (2014-2022), and the Treasurer for the Research Society for American Periodicals (2015-2021). His new book Cross-Racial Class Protest in Antebellum American Literature was recently published by the University of Massachusetts Press, and he spoke to The Mirror & the Lamp about his research topics and his writing experiences.
M&L: Congratulations on the publication of Cross-Racial Class Protest in Antebellum American Literature. Could you give us a brief overview of your book?
TH: My primary focus is looking at how white and African American authors alike used similar rhetorical strategies to protest chattel slavery in the south and “wage slavery” in the north in the two decades leading up to the Civil War. George Lippard, George Thompson, and Augustine Duganne are three white working-class authors who were very popular and appealed to the multi-racial working classes in the late 1840s and early 1850s amidst emergent industrial capitalism. Lippard’s The Quaker City, published as a complete novel in 1845, was the best-selling novel in America until 1852, and both Lippard and Duganne spoke out at public meetings in Philadelphia to protest the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Their sensational city-mystery novels, along with Thompson’s, regularly link the exploitation of multi-racial workers in the urban northeast and the horrors of chattel slavery as the two curses plaguing the nation. At the same time, African American authors such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Frank J. Webb employed the conventions of sensational novels in their writing that protested chattel slavery and appealed to the white working classes to become allies in the fight. Douglass, in particular, increasingly linked the efforts to end slavery in the south with the efforts to ameliorate the working conditions of free African Americans in the north, and he attempted to establish an industrial school in New York for children of all races to receive an education and prepare for a career in the workforce.
M&L: Your work finds you reading a popular literature that was widely read at the time but often forgotten today. What got you interested in reading this literature, and what is most surprising about it?
TH: I first encountered George Lippard’s The Quaker City, a surreal novel that never wavers in its critique of the excesses of industrial capitalism, that progressively features an African American anti-hero, and that employs Gothic horror to entertain the reading masses, in a graduate course in 1995. I always enjoyed reading and studying nineteenth-century American literature—canonical figures like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman—and Lippard’s sensational writing so committed to immediate social reform was new to me. You can think of Lippard’s writing as Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tales “on steroids,” but with a didactic message that Poe may not have appreciated. Lippard and Poe were professional friends, and Lippard was one of the last authors Poe saw before his death in Baltimore in 1849, but their writing has very different literary concerns.
M&L: What were some of the challenges you faced researching your book?
TH: Many of the sensational novels that I study were serialized in weekly story papers before being published as complete novels, and sometimes the only copies that have survived are those in the story papers. And issues of story papers, as well as African American newspapers, are often incomplete or not yet digitized by their respective holding libraries, so I made trips to the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, and historical societies in Pennsylvania in order to read the primary texts and relevant context sources. Fortunately, websites like Accessible Archives offer a complete run of Frederick Douglass’s newspapers and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, so I had access to these sources and could run word searches to expedite my research. Additionally, the librarians at the various archives were instrumental in providing me with resources when I could not travel. For instance, the American Antiquarian Society provided me with a digitized copy of Lippard’s last novella, Eleanor; or, Slave Catching in the Quaker City, which was serialized in a weekly story paper and offers one of the strongest condemnations of chattel slavery by a white working-class author in the 1850s.
M&L: Did you have any experiences teaching that made you think about the book you were writing differently?
TH: While I am grateful to Western Illinois University with providing me a year-long sabbatical and research stipends to write my book, I am equally appreciative of the conversations I had with my dynamic undergraduate and graduate students over the past 12 years about the books and newspapers central to my project. Those conversations and the students’ final essay projects helped to remind me of the limits of the cross-racial sympathy evidenced in the primary texts that I study, and they gave me a deeper appreciation for the power of Frank J. Webb’s representation of ordinary African American middle-class life in his 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends.
M&L: If a student were interested in knowing more about this work, where should they begin? What would be a great novel or journal to dive into?
TH: A number of George Lippard’s novels, such as The Quaker City, have been recovered by American literature scholars since the 1980s, but if you prefer to start with a shorter city-mystery novel, Lippard’s The Killers was recently reprinted by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Walt Whitman’s dark temperance novel Franklin Evans, reprinted by Duke University Press, also employs the Gothic and takes up the cultural issues I focus on, although, as my book indicates, Whitman’s 1842 novel is not nearly as progressive as Lippard’s on representations of race or class critique. Frederick Douglass’s 1853 novella The Heroic Slave offers an excellent example of cross-racial correspondence with sensational city-mysteries, and Douglass’s speeches and essays have been digitized and made available to the public on Indiana University’s Frederick Douglass Papers, an archive I now use regularly in my classes.
M&L: Both labor relations and race relations are deeply strained today. Does the argument of your book suggest perspectives to you that might be useful as we think about these issues today?
TH: Yes, I believe my research uncovers a moment in American literature where white and African American writers transcended racial lines in their efforts to further positive social reform, both in terms of ending chattel slavery and improving the lives of working people in America. In our current political climate, it can be instructive to study the rhetorical effectiveness of writers like Lippard and Douglass who appealed foremost to our common humanity.