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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
POE AND THE MASSES

No individual considers himself as one of the mass. Each person, in his own estimate, is the pivot on which all the rest of the world spins round. (Poe, 1849 review of Lowell's A Fable for Critics)

THROUGHOUT HIS career, Poe struggled in open and subtle ways to elude the worst excesses of the “magazine prison house.” Initially, Poe imagined that he could slip his economic burdens by invoking the pure pleasure of art, but he soon realized that it was necessary to please the Capital Reader first in order to survive as a commercial writer. Confronted by this living embodiment of capital, Poe staked his hopes on technological advances and especially on magazine ventures. As demonstrated in the previous chapter, the entrepreneurial Poe was no more successful (nor more authentic) than the romantic visionary, but the magazine campaigns nevertheless reveal Poe's willingness to carry his struggle into new fields and practices. Poe's criticism is especially important in this regard, for here the general economic predicament, having penetrated literature and attained symbolic form, was finally confronted on the more familiar terrain of writing itself. Even a cursory glance at Poe's criticism betrays a preoccupation with the uses of texts, a preoccupation motivated primarily by a dramatic increase in production and a corresponding crisis in literary value. This crisis obliged him to reconsider the ramifications of purveying pleasure to the mass audience. As shall become clear, Poe's persistent struggle to influence the taste of the reading public was not so much a reactionary attempt to resurrect old aesthetic standards but rather an effort to institute a new order of criticism that would enable the evaluation and sorting of a new supply of literary commodities. This helps to explain why his theories of literary value frequently focus on the details of literary consumption, including the experience of novelty, the effect at which literature should aim, the proper length of the reading session, and ways to speed up the rate of reading. Throughout all of his critical writings, however, there is a barely repressed enmity toward the reading public, an enmity closely linked to his struggles with capital and the Capital Reader. In this chapter I accordingly take a closer look at working conditions in the industry of letters, for these working conditions contain the secret behind Poe's uneasy relation to the literate masses.

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