Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Red City (The)

Written by Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) and published in 1908, The Red City: A Historical Novel of the Second Administration of President Washington is a historical romance, a genre whose plot typically consists of a quest, followed by trials, and ending in marriage. Mitchell presents a view of Philadelphia in the 1790s as politically divided between the Federalists and the Republicans and serving as a refuge for French émigrés, all the while managing to glorify his native city, which served as the nation’s capital. Philadelphia is the red city of the novel’s title, so-named for its red brick buildings.  

A photographic portrait of S. Weir Mitchell, a respected Philadelphia doctor, nuerologist, and a popular writer.

Silas Weir Mitchell, author of The Red City, was a respected Philadelphia doctor and neurologist. He was also a popular writer whose genres included psychological realism and historical romanticism. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Set during the French Revolution, The Red City tells the story of Vicomte Rene De Courval, a French émigré. After a Jacobin mob murders his father, and Carteaux, the villain of the novel, exposes him as an aristocrat, De Courval travels to America with his ailing mother. While boarding in the home of the Quaker widow Mary Swanwick and aided by Hugh Wynne—the protagonist of Mitchell’s novel Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker (1897)—Rene learns about this new country, works hard, and endures hardships that help to usher him into manhood.

Rene also experiences Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which devastated the city and killed an estimated 5,000 people, and sees the effects of the slave revolt in Santo Domingo when white French residents and their slaves arrive in Philadelphia, fleeing the rebellion. Ultimately, he foils the treacherous Carteaux. As dictated by the novel’s genre, the plot sees the hero, Rene, marry the commoner Quaker Margaret Swanwick, and return to his aristocratic position in France, becoming a general in Napoleon’s army.

The author Mitchell was a respected Philadelphia physician in addition to being a popular writer. Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker proved to be the most popular of his novels, but The Red City sold over 50,000 copies and was serialized for $12,000, the highest price paid for any of his works. The importance of this particular work is its presentation of a post-Revolutionary America and the struggle to unite the new country despite the differences in people’s moral and political values. It also demonstrates how America, despite winning its own independence, was disrupted by revolutions occurring abroad as émigrés arrived on American soil.

Joanna Kolendo is an Assistant Professor of Library and Information Services at Chicago State University, where she works as a Reference & Electronic Resources Librarian.  She received an M.S. from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and an M.Phil. from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.


Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Cervetti, Nancy. S. Weir Mitchell, 1829-1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician. University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.

Griffith, Kelley. “Weir Mitchell and the Genteel Romance.” American Literature 44. 2 (1972): 247—61.

Hayne, Barrie. “S[ilas]. Weir Mitchell (1892-1914).” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 2.2 (1969): 149–155.

Thomas, George E., Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis.  Frank Furness: The Complete Works. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Walls, Laura Dassow. “S. Weir Mitchell (15 February 1829-4 January 1914).” Nineteenth-Century American Fiction Writers. 202. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

Collections

Silas Weir Mitchell Papers, Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 S. Twenty-Second Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

President’s House Site (Independence National Historical Park), Sixth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

Germantown White House (Independence National Historical Park), 5442 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Really good. I’ve come across his name often, but was not sure of his contribution. Cool stuff.

    Norman E. Donoghue Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:46 am

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  1. By Philadelphia’s Scarlet Streak on October 24, 2016 at 8:01 am

    […] usually in a positive way. S. Weir Mitchell titled his Philadelphia-based historical romance The Red City. Elizabeth Robbins Pennell waxed in Our Philadelphia, a book-length love letter, how […]

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