For historical perspective on Poe, we turn to David S. Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor of English & American Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. Here, he writes about The Two Poes (click here for all guest posts):
In American memory, there are two Edgar Allan Poes: the popular writer who penned “The Raven” and tales of terror that thrill readers of all ages; and the highbrow aesthete whose ideas about literary art influenced intellectuals from the French symbolists to the Modernists. These Poes seem contrary, but they are not. Poe was an aesthete largely because he was a popular writer.
Poe emerged at a time when popular culture experienced a dramatic transformation. Changes in printing technology between 1830 and 1850 permitted rapid production of cheap newspapers designed for the masses. American publishers could now satisfy the public’s craving for news that was racy and sensational. A Mysterious Disappearance, a Double Suicide, Incest by a Clergyman, or an Awful Accident—anything zestful or intriguing was considered fit to print. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the era’s most popular paper, the New York Herald, found that Americans “were more ready to seek six columns of the details of a brutal murder, or the testimony of a divorce case, or the trial of a divine for improprieties of conduct, than the same amount of words poured forth by the genius of the noblest author of our times.” Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that Americans spent their time “reading all day murders & railroad accidents.”
Newspapers, which had formerly sold for six cents, were now widely available for one cent. Newspaper production and circulation surged. Poe claimed that the influence of the penny papers was “probably beyond all calculation.”
There were plenty of sensational stories for the penny papers to report, including the Maria Monk scandal, involving the alleged ex-nun who reported whoredom and infanticide in a Montreal nunnery; the trial of Richard Robinson for the murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett; and the diverting case of teacher John C. Colt, who in September 1841 axed to death the printer Samuel Adams and stuffed the corpse into a crate later found in the hold of a New Orleans-bound ship.
When juicy stories were lacking, the penny papers invented them. The most famous example was the moon hoax, a story that ran in the Sun in the summer of 1835 and was widely reprinted. Capitalizing on the public’s growing interest in curiosities, the reporter Richard Adams Locke wrote as fact the story of a powerful telescope through which a scientist, Sir John Herschel, could see society on the moon, featuring talking man-bats, a golden temple, blue unicorns, biped beavers, and odd birds and trees. The public gobbled up this fantastic story, sustaining interest in it even after it was revealed as false. Poe called the moon hoax “decidedly the greatest hit in the way of sensation—of merely popular sensation—ever made by any similar fiction either in America or Europe.”
Poe’s wording here—Locke’s story was a “merely popular sensation”-- speaks volumes about Poe, the one American of the period who produced sensational writings with lasting appeal.
Poe lived in the cut-and-thrust world of popular journalism. He once challenged a rival, William Lummis, to a duel, and he got into a fistfight with the poet Thomas Dunn English, who pummeled him so badly that Poe spent several days in bed. As an author or editor who worked for several magazines and newspapers in major American cities, Poe knew well the public’s thirst for the sensational. He published several hoaxes, like his April 1844 “Balloon Hoax,” which under the title “Astounding Intelligence…The Atlantic Ocean Crossed in Three Days!!” described the alleged transatlantic voyage of a gas balloon that flew from London to South Carolina in three days. Poe felt that “it is…the excitable, undisciplined and childlike popular mind which most keenly feels the original.” His tales teem with bizarre or macabre images: live burial, bloody murder, sadism, necrophilia, and so forth. Many of them were originally published in the popular press.
But Poe was a sensational writer with a difference. He avoided what he dismissed as “merely popular sensation.” It is useful to compare him to his Philadelphia friend George Lippard, the era’s most popular author of sensational novels. Lippard’s best-seller The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall, the most popular American novel of the 1840s, brims with violence and demonism. Its labyrinthine plot contains as many perverse moments as a score of Poe’s tales. Poe admired Lippard’s fiction but found it undisciplined. Regarding another of Lippard’s blood-soaked thrillers, The Ladye Annabel, Poe said it was “indicative of genius” but caviled, “You seem to have been in too desperate a hurry to give due attention to details.”
It was as a reviewer of numerous writings by popular authors that Poe honed his aesthetic theories. Poe commented on all sorts of fiction and poetry, from the moralistic to the sensational. Popular literature of the day was divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic literature and adventurous or sensational fiction. Poe attacked works on both extremes. He denounced what he called “the heresy of The Didactic.” Imaginative literature must not preach; that was the province of nonfictional writing. At the same time, Poe criticized what he regarded as the excesses of popular sensational fiction. He had no toleration for the common character type of the likable or justified criminal—the evildoer shown in a positive light. For instance, he wrote that his “principal objection” to Joseph Holt Ingraham’s Lafitte: the Pirate of the Gulf, was that its hero was “a weak, a vaccillating [sic] villain, a fratricide, a cowardly cut-throat,… Yet he is never mentioned but with evident respect.” Nor did he approve of fiction that harped at length on gore or physical suffering. He charged the novelist William Gilmore Simms with “villainously bad taste” for describing the “minutest details of a murder committed by a maniac” who suffocates his victim in mud, an act “dwelt upon by Mr. Simms with that species of delight with which we have seen many a ragged urchin spin a cockchafer [i.e., a may bug] on a needle.” Simms, wrote Poe, shows “a certain fondness for the purely disgusting or repulsive, where the intention was or should have been merely the horrible.”
Poe’s own tales are uniquely horrific but removed from “the purely disgusting or repulsive.” The narrators of his murder stories are so clearly insane or deluded, as in “The Black Cat” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” that they thrill us without winning our sympathy. The sadism and perversity of which they are guilty is communicated not through extensive descriptions of blood but through portraits of their diseased psychology. Unlike Lippard or Simms, Poe at his best brings order and control to the horrific or sensational. He carefully sculpts terror, using controlling devices such as the first-person narrator, understatement, and singleness of effect. His invention of the detective genre stems from his effort to apply logic and intuitive reason to crimes of the sort that were commonly reported in the penny press. In poetry, his careful regulation of rhyme, meter, and other techniques, famously described in “The Philosophy of Composition,” structures emotion even in poems of wild passion like “The Raven.” Another controlling device is geographical distancing, by which he chooses foreign cities as settings even for sensational events based directly on reports in the American penny papers—as in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” his Parisian take on the widely reported murder of the New York cigar saleswoman Mary C. Rogers. His fascination with codes, cryptograms, puns, and the like show his overriding concern with various kinds of logic.
His response to mass-oriented sensationalism parallels his politics. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised in luxury by the Virginia merchant John Allan. Poe’s erratic lifestyle caused a falling out with Allan, but Poe never lost the sense that he had an aristocratic heritage. He became a Southern Whig, and he stood opposed to what he saw as the flattening effect of Jacksonian democracy. In “Mellonta Tauta” he described “a fellow by the name of Mob” as a horrible despot, “a giant in stature—insolent, rapacious, filthy; had the gall of a bullock with the heart of an hyena and the brains of a peacock.” “Democracy,” he writes, “is a very admirable form of government--for dogs.” “The queerest idea conceivable,” Poe writes, is that “all men are born free and equal—this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly pressed upon all things both in the moral and physical universe.” According to these laws of gradation, certain individuals naturally separate themselves from the crowd. Just as certain races were superior to others, in Poe’s view, so genius towered above mediocrity.
To this extent, he stood opposed to the populist impulses of Jacksonian democracy. Mobs and crowds in Poe’s stories are negative symbols. In “The Man of the Crowd” a bustling city crowd made up of all social classes becomes a symbol of depressing anonymity and anomie; Poe’s narrator spends a day following around a thin old man who find it impossible to separate himself from the crowd—Poe calls him “the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone.” The man is, in a sense, the typical Jacksonian, absorbed into the masses.
For Poe, he is a terrifying example of the loss of individuality threatened by the rise of the modern masses. Poe, then, was in the ambivalent position of a writer completely immersed in the popular culture of Jacksonian America and yet in some ways repelled by it. His relation to popular culture paralleled his relation to alcohol: he was dependent on it, yet he struggled to separate himself from it. Several times he joined temperance groups and had periods of sobriety, but he regularly backslid, and his habit contributed to the downward spiral that led to his death at forty, possibly after an alcoholic binge. In his writings, he swung between vilifying popular tastes and catering to them. He was simultaneously the alienated genius and the panderer to the mass audience. As magazine editor, fiction-writer, and poet, he knew he had to emphasize the sensational themes that captivated popular readers. He borrowed freely: “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance, was indebted to “A Man Built in a Wall,” a grisly magazine tale by the popular author Joel Tyler Headley. Poe declared that “the truest and surest test of originality is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.” He hated popular themes when they were handled ineptly, without control.
By asserting such control in his own works, he produced enduring literary art. And by explaining his techniques in essays like “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle,” he denounced the excesses of didacticism and sensationalism with such finesse that he became a guru of the art-for-art’s sake school.
Poe never could have been so eloquent an aesthete unless he had been immersed in a vibrant popular culture that he powerfully adapted and critiqued.