Thursday, May 21, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe and the Economy of Horror

Edgar Allan Poe and the Economy of Horror

“My whole existence has been the merest Romance,” Poe wrote, the year before his death, “in the sense of the most utter unworldliness.” This is Byronic bunk. Poe’s life was tragic, but he was about as unworldly as a bale of cotton. Poe’s world was Andrew Jackson’s America, a world of banking collapse, financial panic, and grinding depression that had a particularly devastating effect on the publishing industry, where Poe sought a perch. His biography really is a series of unfortunate events. But two of those events were transatlantic financial crises: the Panic of 1819 and the Panic of 1837, the pit and the pendulum of the antebellum economy. Poe died at the end of a decade known, in Europe, as “the Hungry Forties,” and he wasn’t the only American to fall face down in the gutter during a seven-year-long depression brought on by a credit collapse. He did not live out of time. He lived in hard times, dark times, up-and-down times. Indigence cast a shadow over everything he attempted. Poverty was his raven, tapping at the door, and it was Poe, not the bird, who uttered, helplessly, another rhyme for “Nevermore.” “I send you an original tale,” Poe once began a letter, and, at its end, added one line more: “P.S. I am poor.”

Jill Lepore has written a compelling essay on Poe's manipulation of the then contemporary media. Jill asks "Was the man an utter genius or a complete fraud?" She has good reason. However, if we compare Poe's journalistic efforts in 1840s media to today's free-for-all, we would find him an abject amateur at manipulation. Again, perhaps Poe is the true originator of media explotation. Perhaps he is the grandfather of our contemporary exploitive media? I don't mind Jill's criticism. But Poe was trying to make a buck in a time when real writers were hardly and barely paid. Like most writers, he worked for money and he wrote miracles at home.

But please read the essay. Jill's work illuminates so much of Poe not known to the average public. She reveals much of the true Poe. She even concludes by questioning herself, which I think is the best role of a critic.

Poe: Visionary or Humbug?

The New Yorker - The Humbug: A Critic at Large by Jill Lepore

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