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

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Eight
CULTURE OF SURFACES

Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains. … I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic. (Charles Darwin) 1

DESPITE ALL disagreements over art and ideology, most critics of detective fiction display a remarkable uniformity of purpose. Their mission, implicitly or explicitly proclaimed, is not so much to interpret a particular work, but rather to examine the flaws inherent in the form itself. Frequently this approach portrays the genre as a kind of literary vice that must be reformed or at least excused. Ernest Mandel begins Delightful Murder by “confessing” his craving for crime fiction, and then, as if to cure himself of an unseemly addiction, he rises to repudiate the form: “the common ideology of the original and classical detective story … remains quintessentially bourgeois. … The criminal is always caught. Justice is always done. Crime never pays. Bourgeois legality, bourgeois values, bourgeois society, always triumph in the end.” 2 In another classic denunciation of detective fiction, Edmund Wilson just says no to “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” 3 Even a critic such as Fredric Jameson, who avoids the ranking of genres and who views the detective story as “a form without ideological content,” nevertheless laments the genre's chronic banality. In a discussion of the commodification of contemporary fiction, Jameson invokes the detective story as something “you read ‘for the ending’—the bulk of the pages becoming sheer devalued means to an end—in this case, the ‘solution’—which is itself utterly insignificant insofar as we are not thereby in the real world and by the latter's practical standards the identity of an imaginary murderer is supremely trivial.” 4

In the detective story form therefore appears as a deficiency or limitation that must be acknowledged before all else. Other genres seem empowered by their stock of conventions and expectations, but for the detective story form is destiny: like a family curse, it arrests free development and condemns the victim to eke out an existence in the ghettos of mass culture. It is certainly possible to defend the genre—one might characterize a novel by Hammett or

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