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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
AVERAGE RACISM
POE, SLAVERY, AND THE WAGES OF LITERARY NATIONALISM

Public opinion consists of the average prejudices of a community. (Coleridge)

We would therefore propose that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization… (Fredric Jameson)

IN RECENT YEARS the political and racial meaning of Poe's work has been the focus of intense critical debate, and undoubtedly the positions generated from this debate will have enduring consequences, not only for Poe scholars, but for all those investigating the importance of race in American culture. As I have suggested in previous chapters, Poe's lifelong struggle with the publishing industry constitutes a kind of deep politics that should matter more than his awkward and infrequent forays into partisan rhetoric. Poe, that is to say, should be distinguished from the public-spirited intellectuals of his age, for whereas these intellectuals embraced a wide variety of civic and political causes, Poe's political agenda was conspicuously confined to problems of production, ranging from the poverty of authors to the corruption of publishers to the emergence of a vaguely ominous mass audience. To put such a theory to the test, it is necessary to consider what is conventionally seen as the single most important political struggle of antebellum America, namely the struggle over slavery that divided North from South and that culminated, a dozen years after Poe's death, in a catastrophic civil war. In this chapter I argue that any investigation into Poe's racial views should begin by acknowledging that in the 1830s, there were multiple racisms and multiple positions on slavery even in the South. In order to understand the complex relation between race and literature, moreover, it is also necessary to account for the pressures of literary nationalism and a national literary market, because these pressures put constraints on commercial writers in all regions and contributed to the always unfinished formation of what might be called average racism. For Poe and other antebellum writers, average racism was not a sociological

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