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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter One
INTRODUCTION
MINOR WRITING AND THE CAPITAL READER

I. THE TRUTH OF SURFACES

ALTHOUGH HE trafficked in arcane and mysterious lore, Poe also liked to shock his readers by celebrating the truth of surfaces, that vast realm of superficial knowledge which is visible out of the corner of one's eye. Those who gaze intently into the nighttime sky see only the star, but someone who “surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below—its brilliancy and beauty.” 1 This method is useful for surveying Poe's own work, for by focusing less intently on a single text, the oblique perspective is in many ways more able to register a multitude of historical forces and to trace their subtle dominion over everyday life. So instead of beginning with a canonical text, I shall take a wayward glance at the working conditions of the 1836 Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe landed his first full-time job in the publishing industry. And instead of concentrating exclusively on the major author himself, this introduction shall also investigate the work of Lucian Minor, a progressive Southern intellectual whose forgotten writings Poe edited and sometimes imitated. Successive chapters of this study explore larger issues in the political economy of literature—ranging from the rise of a capitalist publishing industry, to the role of slavery in literary nationalism, to the creation of new narrative forms such as the detective story. But all of these issues are in some way prefigured by the casual association of Poe and Minor. Brought momentarily together by an intricate web of circumstances, the two writers soon encountered differences that prevented them from sharing a common destiny. These differences are especially significant, for although Poe and Minor were products of the same culture and candidates for the same editorial job at the Messenger, they disagreed markedly about the fate of literature in a developing capitalist economy. The contrast between Poe and Minor reveals much about the rise of a mass culture in antebellum America, and this in turn casts new light on the relation between the production of literature and what has been thought of as production in general.

Such an oblique beginning would perhaps be unnecessary were it not for the vast accumulation of critical and cultural sediment which threatens to distort Poe's historical situation beyond all hope of recovery. This sediment derives from a variety of sources, ranging from the French appropriations of

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