It is not easy to say exactly what this strange and wonderful story means: its vision of some unnamed horror in the heart of the city reminds one of the descent into New York in Melville's Pierre; its catalogue of social classes is Whitmanesque; and its refusal to moralize is very modern--one thinks of Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" and other visions of urban loneliness. Although it illustrates some of Poe's least attractive attitudes, it also suggests that the artist had within him the capacity for spiritual growth. For alongside the usual condescension and racism there is in "The Man of the Crowd" an unmistakable compassion: Poe pities the poor, the prostitutes, the city's underdogs.
The old cliché about Poe's otherworldliness crumbles before passages of almost Dickensian genre characterization, such as the long social catalogue which begins in paragraph five. Poe, we must remember, was an urban man, who, if he did not know the London in which this story is supposedly set, knew Philadelphia and New York very well. Like other Romantics, he reacted strongly to the new kind of city which modernization and the Industrial Revolution were creating.
Critics from 1847 on have noted the apparent implausibility of the events of "The Man of the Crowd"; they ignore the paragraph indicated by note 3, in which the narrator tells us that he has been ill--indeed, is still recuperating-- and is in a strange and hyperacute state. This is the familiar Poe device of providing a "margin of credibility" through a peculiar state of mind: we can believe what happens, or assume that it is partially a delusion, the result of the narrator's illness.
A note of explanation : We feel that Poe, who had no firsthand knowledge of London (he had lived in England only briefly, as a child--see "William Wilson"), leaned very heavily on William Maginn's sketch "The Night Walker," published first in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in November 1823. The narrator takes the reader on a tour of the busy places in London throughout the night; it begins in the theater district and moves through less respectable forms of entertainment. As in the Poe story, too, there are catalogues of trades and occupations and a telling of the hours; Maginn shows which people are seen at each hour.
Now, Blackwood's was an unusual magazine, witty, disputatious, satirical, brilliant. Poe loved it, and seems to have known some volumes almost by heart. Its writers had pet nicknames for one another. The code-name for the proprietor, William Blackwood, was "ebony"--black wood. We have a strong hunch that Poe's very puzzling roundabout sentence concerning Tertullian's "ebony style" has nothing to do with Tertullian (see note 8); rather, it seems to be Poe's way of tipping his hat to the wits of Edinburgh.
Moreover, we think it possible that his colleagues across the Atlantic recognized and appreciated his gesture, for when Blackwood's in 1847