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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview
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EDGAR ALLAN POE and the Masses explores the relationship between literature and capitalism in antebellum America. Broadly concerned with the emergence of a national culture before the Civil War, the book focuses on Poe because he exemplifies, as much as anyone, the predicament of a “poor-devil author” in an age of social and economic turmoil. Through a series of far-reaching investigations, the book unfolds a new account of the American publishing industry, which had begun to regulate nearly all aspects of literary creation.

Poe was acutely aware of the consequences of the new publishing environment, for like his character Roderick Usher, he possessed an uncanny sensitivity to material powers in the world around him, powers which seemed to foretell the impending triumph of matter over mind. Sometimes Poe described this impending transformation in cosmological terms, but on other occasions he meticulously analyzed “the magazine prison-house” and the “horrid laws of political economy.” Contrary to his image as an artist who was “out of space, out of time,” Poe responded to his economic predicament in a variety of ways, ranging from theoretical pronouncements on literary value to practical ventures in the magazine business. Poe and the Masses accordingly departs from critical lore and instead depicts a writer who was both product and portent of an emerging mass culture.

Making extensive use of primary materials, the individual chapters offer several new contributions to our understanding of Poe and his world: the first fully documented interpretation of Poe's response to American slavery; the first accurate account of Poe's performance as a literary entrepreneur; a new explanation of Poe's ambivalence toward nationalism, exploration, and imperialism; a detailed inquiry into the conflict between “secret writing” and common knowledge in Jacksonian America; and a general interpretation of the social meaning of Poe's innovations in literature and criticism. As I suggest in the final chapter, Poe's inability to escape the “horrid laws of political economy” ultimately inspired his recurrent dream of a material language that could transport him beyond the bounds of capitalist regulation.

I am grateful to the many people who helped make this book possible. A reading group at Duke University gave me confidence to pursue this project; my thanks to Tito Basu, Joe Cole, Tim Dayton, Craig Hanks, Angela Hubler, Caren Irr, Carolyn Lesjak, Bill Maxwell, and many visitors. I am also grateful to Professors Cathy Davidson, Robert Gleckner, Ric Roderick, and


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


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