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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
THE CODE FOR GOLD
POE AND CRYPTOGRAPHY

A writer must have the fullest belief in his statements, or must simulate that belief perfectly, to produce an absorbing interest in the mind of his reader. That power of simulation can only be possessed by a man of high genius. (Poe reviewing himself, October 1845)

Suppose I could make people believe that I have mountains of gold, then I could arrive at the same end as if I really had that gold. … This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it doesn't exist. (B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) 1

If you have looked over the Von Kempelen article which I left with your brother, you will have fully perceived its drift. I mean it as a kind of “exercise,” or experiment, in the plausible or verisimilar style. Of course there is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end. I thought that such a style, applied to the gold-excitement, could not fail of effect. (Poe to Evert Duyckinck, March 8, 1849)

NEAR THE END of Poe's best-selling tale “The Gold-Bug,” William Legrand explains what inspired the quest that led him from an old piece of parchment to the climactic recovery of Captain Kidd's buried treasure. According to Legrand, he realized that he had stumbled upon a coded pirate letter written in invisible ink when he accidentally discovered a death's head “signature” at the bottom of the seemingly blank parchment. Intrigued by the significant absence of signs, he then set out to recover the body of the letter or, in his phrase, “the text for my context” (PT, 585). Legrand therefore engages in a kind of reverse historicism, and his quest serves as a critique—or parody—of those interpretive approaches which proceed in the opposite direction by exploring the historical context of a text that is already visible. In a somewhat different spirit, this chapter also seeks to brush historicism against the grain, first by recounting the political and economic context of a tale that explicitly celebrates the contrary practice of decoding, and then

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