Because its outrageous humor is of a sort which is popular again in our commercial media, this story suggests how modern Poe's United States was: linked together by electric communication, with a largely literate populace served by printed periodicals of all sorts, it was a society which knew and discussed the daily news. Such a place was ripe for a joker who could exploit current events. "Von Kempelen and His Discovery" is a precursor of the news- comedy we associate with The New Yorker, television news-parody, and the political-humor "comics." Poe said that his piece was pure hoax, designed only to deceive, and that deception was his only goal in it. He wrote it early in 1849, at the height of the Gold Rush, calculating that it would create a considerable "stir." Yet his "exercise" (as he called it) in fooling readers is also filled with private jokes and references to people whom Poe knew-- Burton Pollin (5) patiently worked them all out. Does this mean that "Von Kempelen and His Discovery" should be called a satire aimed at small targets and not a broad hoax? Our sense is that the broad joke was more important, but that in searching around for fictitious names and places, Poe naturally thought of issues and people he was concerned with or troubled by; there is even--see note 7--a private reference to the sad death of his young wife. The result is a dense web of plausible but elusive allusions and references, as well as picky quarrels about points no reader could be expected to follow because they are generated primarily out of Poe's professional experience and memory. An annotated edition should explain such references, but we do not want to give the impression that they are what the story is "about," for it remains a hoax. Lurking in it are some private jokes for those very familiar with Poe's life and works, but for almost all readers even in his own day, the story is a media gag which capitalizes on the California Gold Rush of 1849.
The Flag of Our Union, Boston, April 14, 1849