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Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom
Oxford University Press, 2013
408 pp., $30.95
Some time ago we would have called this book a literary history. Samuel Otter positions Philadelphia, along with Boston and New York, as a capital for writers and artists in the 19th century. He argues that in the city we can see the development of the authentic American voice. It pronounces on the uncertain and always hesitant growth of human freedom that will get one prominent expression in the Civil War. The book takes us from the 1790s to the 1850s.
But Philadelphia Stories is literary history on steroids. Otter expands dramatically the scope of "the literary." This enlargement now figures in a pretty standard way in university departments of English but has noteworthy features nonetheless. In the old days we would have begun with America's first novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, who wrote a novel of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Arthur Merwyn; or Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799, 1800). Now Otter looks at memoirs, news reports, and medical documentation, scrutinizing them with the same care he later gives to Arthur Merwyn. As his monograph moves into the 19th century, the author carries on with the examination of the novel as a genre but also considers diaries, advertisements, political pamphlets, scientific reports, and accounts of public meetings. He joins observations about these written works to analyses of other expressive productions such as museum exhibits, cartoons, and pictures to enrich our understanding of the city's writerly culture. And finally Otter has read extendedly in historical works about Philadelphia.
In part, Otter is interrogating texts in terms of context; he grasps the literature as it arises from the political and economic history of the city. Otter has connections to the American Studies movement, which traditionally combined history and literature. So he explores the junction between facts and symbols, the intersection between 19th-century Philadelphia and 19th-century depictions of it. In the end we get Otter's appraisal of ...