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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Edgar Allan Poe has long been viewed as an artist who was hopelessly out of step with his time. But as Terence Whalen shows, America's most celebrated romantic outcast was in many ways the nation's most representative commercial writer. Whalen explores the antebellum literary environment in which Poe worked, an environment marked by economic conflict, political strife, and widespread foreboding over the rise of a mass audience. The book shows that the publishing industry, far from being a passive backdrop to writing, threatened to dominate all aspects of literary creation. Faced with financial hardship, Poe desperately sought to escape what he called "the magazine prison-house" and "the horrid laws of political economy." By placing Poe firmly in economic context, Whalen unfolds a new account of the relationship between literature and capitalism in an age of momentous social change.The book combines pathbreaking historical research with innovative literary theory. It includes the first fully-documented account of Poe's response to American slavery and the first expos¿ of his plot to falsify circulation figures. Whalen also provides a new explanation of Poe's ambivalence toward nationalism and exploration, a detailed inquiry into the conflict between cryptography and common knowledge, and a general theory of Poe's experiments with new literary forms such as the detective story. Finally, Whalen shows how these experiments are directly linked to the dawn of the information age. This book redefines Poe's place in American literature and casts new light on the emergence of a national culture before the Civil War.

Excerpt

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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