June 2, 2011
Was Georges Lippard "cool" before "cool" meant "cool"?
by Melville House
At The Rumpus, Nicholas Rombes discusses the titillating, gothic, sexploitative 19th-century bestseller, The Quaker City written by of Georges Lippard. Here’s Lippard introducing the novel in his preface:
What shall I say? Shall I tell how it has been been praised—how abused—how it has on the one hand been cited as a Work of great merit, and on the other, how it has been denounced as the most immoral of the age?….I determined to write a book, founded upon the following idea: That the seduction of a poor and innocent girl is a deed altogether as criminal as deliberate murder….The results of my labors was this book, which has been more attacked, and more read, than any work of American fiction ever published….I know give it to my countrymen, as an illustration of the life, mystery, and crime of Philadelphia.
One of Rombes main fascinations in the book is the seemingly anachronistic use of the word “cool” in The Quaker City. Rombes provides two instances of the word being used in a way to suggest it means “great” or “good” rather than merely “calm” or “collected,” a connotation the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t find in print until the 1940s. Here’s one example, as presented by Rombes:
The set-up is this. Two watchmen—Smeldyke and Worlyput—come across Byrnewood Arlington (whose sister Mary has been seduced by Gustavus Lorrimer, soon to be revenge-killed by Arlington)—lying prostrate in the middle of the street, passed out. They kick him awake:
“Mary there is death in my path, but I will save you!” he [Byrnewood] shouted, springing from the grasp of the watchmen. “I will save you yet!” And with a speed that defied pursuit, he darted down the street, dashing his arms wildly overhead, and shouting madly as he was lost to view in the shadows of the street.
“Mary!” the name was borne upon the winter wind.
“Well, if that ai’nt cool!” ejaculated Smeldyke.
“[P]erhaps,” Robes speculates “for some brief time, the word ‘cool’ circulated in spoken-word on the streets of Philadelphia as a sort of secret slang, its usage predicting the ‘cool’ jazz of the 1940s and 50s? Could ‘cool’ have been used in the vernacular in 1845 in a way that wasn’t ‘supposed’ to occur for another 100 years?”