Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America

Article excerpt

Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. By Terence Whalen. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xii, 328. $55.00, ISBN 0-691-00199-5.)

Terence Whalen's impressive Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses is an important and carefully researched book on Poe, and it should appeal to a broad range of academic readers. Whalen is a remarkably well versed Poe scholar in terms of both primary and secondary texts. His elegantly and lucidly written book contains a broad array of historical discussions, all of which come to have consequences for U.S. literary production in general and for Poe's writing in particular. This book is sure to crucially influence the future shape of Poe studies. It offers important commentaries on such topics as Poe's relations to antebellum racism, northern literary hegemony, cryptology, currency issues, conventional politics, and the changing dynamics of the literary marketplace.

Whalen works to demonstrate the determining power of relations of production over both authors and their texts. For Whalen, in some ways a refreshingly old-fashioned Marxist critic, such relations mark most of social life. As a consequence, his book profitably focuses attention on such diverse topics as U.S. currency debates, on the role of information in the antebellum U.S. economy, and on the crucial need to develop more contextually responsive understandings of both northern and southern racism. The scope of these discussions will make the book valuable for readers not actively engaged in Poe scholarship. Though the book does delve into quite specific debates in Poe criticism, Poe becomes, in some sense, the text's representative subject as much as its final focus.

Because Whalen's fusion of wide-ranging antebellum history and Poe's professional agonies is such a generally successful one, the book is of methodological interest in terms of its account of the relation of literature and culture. …