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.
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