Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Poe's "Diddling" and the Depression: Notes on the Sources of Swindling

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Poe's "Diddling" and the Depression: Notes on the Sources of Swindling

Article excerpt

In a recent article for Poe Studies, John E. Reilly discusses the possible sources for Poe's satire on swindling, "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences."(1) Disputing previous assumptions, Reilly argues that Poe's story may be derived from actual newspaper reports rather than from James Kenney's 1803 farce Raising the Wind. I would like to bring forward additional evidence concerning the background of Poe's tale and the representation of swindling in antebellum American culture. The pertinent texts appeared in the Corsair and the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, publications with which Poe was generally familiar. Tales in these two magazines help to clarify the popular meaning of such terms as "diddling" and "raising the wind," and they also provide further evidence about the composition date of Poe's tale and its possible debt to Kenney's play. More importantly, these texts serve to enlarge the frame of reference for Poe's tale, thereby facilitating the crucial transition from a literary source to the full context of literary production.

The Corsair was a short-lived New York weekly founded by Timothy O. Porter and N. P. Willis; as suggested by its name, the "sailing orders" dictated that the magazine "overhaul every craft on the literary seas - ransack her lading - take out of her what is valuable, and send her on her voyage."(2) On January 25, 1840, the Corsair published "The Romance of a Day: A Passage in the Life of an Adventurer." The story is important because it translates elements of Kenney's farce into a form more suitable to mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. The central character is named Dick Diddler, "distant connexion, by the mother's side, of the famous Jeremy, immortalized by Kenney." Unlike Kenney's somewhat bumbling rogue, Dick Diddler is described as "a shrewd, reckless adventurer, gifted with an elastic conscience that would stretch like Indian-rubber, and a genius for raising the wind unsurpassed by AEolus himself" (p. 733). Penniless and beset by creditors, Dick Diddler convinces Priscilla - a rich, "ancient virgin" - to elope with him at the end of the story. Reilly points out that Kenney's play ends with a moral about the need for "poor idle rogues" to engage in "honest industry."(3) "The Romance of a Day," however, eschews such didacticism, concluding instead with a very different kind of "moral" lesson: "Thus he who at nine o'clock in the morning was an adventurer without a sixpence in his pocket, by the same hour in the evening was a gentleman in possession of a woman worth eight hundred pounds per annum! - Gentle reader, truth is strange, - stranger than fiction" (p. 736).

On the one hand, then, the Corsair provides further substantiation for Reilly's rejection of Kenney's farce as a source. "The Romance of a Day" demonstrates that "Jeremy Diddler" and "raising the wind" were sufficiently well known to appear without annotation in the popular press. On the other hand, however, the story demonstrates that concepts in transition simultaneously look back to old sources and forward to new connotations. Since "The Romance of a Day" borrows so heavily from Kenney's Raising the Wind, Poe might have known something about the plot of the original farce even if he had never seen it performed. This in turn would have made Poe aware of the differences between the original Jeremy Diddler and the contemporary association of "diddling" with crime, financial panic, and the breakdown of moral order.(4) Thus it is difficult to say if ignorance or opportunism inspired Poe to make these differences even more extreme - and more extremely rational - in "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences."

The Corsair is important for other reasons. The August 10, 1839 issue, for example, contains Richard Johns' "The Raven," a bad gothic poem about a flesh-eating bird (p. 337). Other issues contained such titles as "Robbery of Love Letters" (p. 731), "Cursory Cogitations Concerning Cats" (p. …

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