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Hidden City's Nathaniel Popkin delves into the sordid history of Philly's art world in debut novel

Lion and Leopard

Prolific storyteller Nathaniel Popkin has written about the city of Philadelphia in multiple mediums -- as a journalist at City Paper, an architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the author of two non-fiction books, founder and co-editor of Hidden City Daily, and script writer for the documentary film series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. Now Popkin is publishing his first work of fiction, Lion and Leopard, a historical novel set in the Philadelphian art scene in the early 19th century.

Lion and Leopard explores the developing rift between Philadelphia's established art community, led by Charles Wilson Peale, and proponents of the new Romantic and naturalistic styles. German artist John Lewis Krimmel paints subversive urban city scenes and clashes with Peale prior to his mysterious untimely death.

Popkin decided to focus his novel on the life and death of John Lewis Krimmel after seeing Krimmel's work in historian Gary Nash's book First City

"I commiserated with his project, as I've done a good deal of street photography," says Popkin. "Then I saw he died tragically, at 32, drowning in a mill pond in Germantown. I was intrigued. It was a mystery. It seemed apocryphal -- his death coincided with the end of nature and the beginning of the mass exploitation of the natural world with industrialization. It seemed like hidden history that I could explore through fiction."

Popkin did not hesitate to re-imagine the lives of iconic Philadelphians, such as Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts founder Peale. Rather, he found that by interpreting the "reality" of history, he was able to bring characters to life in a way that would resonate with modern readers.

Despite Popkin's prolificacy and reputation, his idea for a historical novel set in Philadelphia was not immediately well-received by publishers. Then he met Nic Esposito of The Head and The Hand, a startup press based in Fishtown. 

"I wanted a publisher who would help me get the book right, produce it and sell it in a mindful, intentional way, and that's what they have done," explains Popkin. “They're a Philly press. I happen to believe that we need more Philly presses with national vision to publish literature if we're going to become a good book city. 2013 was a tremendous start for the press."

"No one looks askance when a New York publisher publishes a novel written by a New Yorker that's set in New York," he continues. “No one wonders if that isn't a bit provincial. Philadelphia -- or any particular place well-conceived in fiction -- is enticing to publishers looking for something new. We have plenty of delicious material."

Writer: Nicole Woods
Source: Nathaniel Popkin
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