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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
THE HORRID LAWS OF POLITICAL ECONOMY

The brilliancies on any one page of Lalla Rookh would have sufficed to establish that very reputation which has been in a great measure self-dimmed by the galaxied lustre of the entire book. It seems that the horrid laws of political economy cannot be evaded even by the inspired, and that a perfect versification, a vigorous style, and a never-tiring fancy, may, like the water we drink and die without, yet despise, be so plentifully set forth as to be absolutely of no value at all. (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841) 1


I. THINKING MATERIAL

WRITING BEFORE the Great Depression had cast a shadow over previous economic calamities, R. C. McGrane ranked the Panic of 1837 as one of the most severe crises in American history. According to McGrane, the panic “marked the close of one epoch in our industrial history, and the beginning of a new era. It engulfed all classes and all phases of economic life within its toils; and for seven long years the people of this land struggled to free themselves from its oppression.” 2 As illustrated by his personal and professional struggles, Edgar Allan Poe was also entangled in this web of economic distress. Frequently forced to beg for loans and to perform literary hack work, Poe understood better than most the “sad poverty & the thousand consequent contumelies & other ills which the condition of the mere Magazinist entails upon him in America—where more than in any other region upon the face of the globe to be poor is to be despised.” 3 Unfortunately, many attempts to interpret the literature of this period assume that “culture” and “capitalism” designate realms that are somehow discrete or even autonomous. But if Poe is correct in claiming that “the horrid laws of political economy cannot be evaded even by the inspired,” then any study of antebellum literature must consider the totality of economic and ideological pressures affecting those who signify in the course of social labor. In what follows, I emphasize two aspects of this totality: (1) the power of economic forces to influence the thoughts, feelings, and creativity of all workers, including commercial writers; and (2) the complex relation between commercial writers and the various embodiments of capital in the publishing industry and the expanding U.S. economy. During the period in question, these embodiments of capital

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