Reading and Not Reading "The Man of the Crowd": Poe, the City, and the Gothic Text

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HOW MANY THINGS begin with Poe?", Borges asked. The question is of course rhetorical. Posed in an essay called "The Detective Story" (1) it builds up a by-now familiar argument, that, in a few stories written in the early 1840s, (2) Edgar Allan Poe initiates the genre of detective fiction, an invention which Borges considers part of a more important innovation: the notion that literature must be "considered as an operation of the mind, not of the spirit." (3) But Borges's question applies on a wider scale, too. Poe can also plausibly be considered the pioneer of science fiction, the horror film, the short story, Symbolism, modern prose romance, modernism, perhaps even modern American literature itself. (4)

Like many individual Poe stories, his enigmatic 1840 tale, "The Man of the Crowd," has its own particular claims to originality. A line of critics (whom I shall come to in due course) have agreed with Borges's opinion that it is central to Poe's "invention" of detective fiction, as if the story is the very "question" to which the three Dupin stories, which followed in the years immediately after (1841-44), provide an answer. It has also been persuasively linked to the origins of cinema, noir, and "metaphysical" detective fiction. (5) But it enjoys a special status in cultural criticism as a foundational text in the documentation of a new urban social formation which demands a distinctive form of "reading" one's surroundings in order to make sense of the mass of people and stimuli in the modern city. This leads to the ultimate claim for the story's originary credentials: its concern with the "urban text" means that it would seem to capture nothing less than the beginnings of modernity itself--in conjunction with related works by other authors, such as Baudelaire's "The Painter of Modern Life" (1863), which it partly inspires, and works by Dickens (e.g., Sketches by Boz [1836]), or Melville ("Wakefield" [1835]).

In what follows I do not intend to challenge the assumption of the story's "originary" status in these traditions, but I do want to query how it has been read. Often, I think, the story has been read selectively, or even and this is a word one ought to use with great care in relation to readings of Poe--erroneously. Caution is required because to suggest that there is a correct way of reading any particular Poe story is to fall into a well-known trap: Poe's opaque texts have the capacity to seduce readers into what Joseph G. Kronick refers to as "identifying the interpretation with the text." (6) A concern with what we might call the "seductions" of reading has been something of a mainstay of Poe criticism since the 1980s, when his work became re-appropriated by poststructuralist critics. This approach is typified by the influential collection The Purloined Poe, which appeared in 1988. (7) In a 1980 essay reprinted for that collection, Shoshana Felman argued that what is unique about Poe's influence "is the extent to which its action is unaccountably insidious, exceeding the control, the will, and the awareness of those who are subjected to it." (8) The "insidious" effect is most obvious in T. S. Eliot's efforts to pigeonhole Poe in his 1949 essay "From Poe to Valery," which begins with the disparaging assertion that studying Poe has influenced no poets apart from Edward Lear, but soon doubles back on itself to observe that "one cannot be sure that one's own writing has not been influenced by Poe." (9)

The "insidious" effect of "The Man of the Crowd" is what interests me in this essay. This is a story about reading which has also been the subject of a great many readings the majority of which acknowledge "reading" as the dominant theme. Yet, curiously, despite the critical scrutiny, the focus on reading in the tale has tended to involve working with a model of reading which is rather impoverished. What one might call literary reading the engagement with the complexities of narrative form and polysemic language, and an understanding of the "self-reflexive" capacity of literature is neglected in favor of a more simplistic model of reading as a primarily visual method of mastering (or failing to master) one's surroundings, which is at odds with the opaque, seductive quality of Poe's prose and, especially in the case of "The Man of the Crowd" with the looping structure of the story. …