The western world changed more drastically in Edgar Poe's lifetime than in any other brief period in human history. Instantaneous communication, engine- powered transportation, photography, and other technological miracles undreamed of before all made their appearance and their impact within Poe's short life. Industrialization and other aspects of modernized society tore apart traditional assumptions and altered the structure of families, the nature of work, and the "feel" of life itself. With the transformation came a sort of specialization which is familiar to us, but which was new to people then. Artists of Poe's time were immediately aware of the special threat to their role. In traditional societies, artists were felt to have access to power and knowledge: 19th-century artists knew that from their grounding in classical literature and from the new information being developed in the maturing fields of anthropology and archeology. Now, however, they were in danger of becoming narrowed and diminished, of being nothing more than one more kind of specialist, whose job was to produce pretties. Inconsistent, Poe sometimes argued for that specialization, as when he wrote that the business of poetry is neither truth nor duty, but only beauty. In this important tale, however, he vigorously defends the broad importance of the artistic person. The Prefect of police is a narrow specialist. His methods will never locate the purloined letter.
To learn the truth, one needs Dupin; Poe carefully emphasizes that Dupin is not only learned, but also a poet. So "The Purloined Letter" can be read as Poe's version of that argument one sees in so many Romantic authors: the world needs "inspired " artists for their power and their wisdom. The plea is there in writers as different as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Percy Bysshe Shelley; it is nowhere made more strongly than in this detective tale, which serves, among other things, as a "Defense of Poetry."
It has other important characteristics as well; no one genre will contain it fully. Though it is famous as a detective tale, "The Purloined Letter" is also one of Poe's vengeance stories; Dupin has scores personal and political to settle with his friend the mathematician-poet-minister The tone of the closing paragraphs of the tale is bitter, and the final allusion literally bloodthirsty. Compare this tale with other vengeance stories, such as "Hop-Frog" and "The Cask of Amontillado."
|The Gift, September 1844 (dated 1845)|
|Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, November 30, 1844 (abridged)|
|Littell's Living Age, January 18, 1845|
|The Spirit of the Times, January 20 and 22, 1845|