“Strike through the mask!” famously orders Ahab. In “The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime” (1844), Lippard does just that by imagining an American equivalent of the Hell-Fire Club. “The sinful actions of the large cast of Monk Hall regulars,” writes Gura, “include seduction, rape, incest, cannibalism, murder, counterfeiting, robbery, drunkenness, opium use — all indulged in by Philadelphia’s finest and described in graphic detail. Albert Livingstone, a regular visitor at the hall, finds his social-climbing wife, Dora, asleep naked on a divan with her lover, a man masquerading as an English lord. The Reverend F.A.T. Pyne drugs and tries to rape a young woman named Mabel, whom he has raised as a daughter. The reader learns that she is the illegitimate child of Devil Bug, a feral African American who is the chief pimp at Monk Hall.”
Such gothic excess mirrors the sinful desires lurking in all our souls and thus, somewhat paradoxically, our common humanity. But what is sinful? The Utopian socialist Charles Fourier imagined communal societies founded on the gratification of every desire, and many American followers attempted to create versions of his “phalansteries.” In Mayo’s “Kaloolah” (1849), which combines exotic travel narrative with Lost World romance, the intrepid hero discovers a perfectly harmonious civilization a la Fourier hidden deep in the heart of Africa.