Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The Gold Bug" Published 1843

"The Gold-Bug" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Set on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, the plot follows William Legrand, who was recently bitten by a gold-colored bug. His servant Jupiter fears him to be going insane and goes to Legrand's friend, an unnamed narrator who agrees to visit his old friend. Legrand pulls the other two into an adventure after deciphering a secret message that will lead to a buried treasure.

The story is often compared with Poe's "tales of ratiocination" as an early form of detective fiction. Poe became aware of the public's interest in secret writing in 1840 and asked readers to challenge his skills as a code-breaker. Poe took advantage of the popularity of cryptography as he was writing "The Gold-Bug" and the success of the story centers on one such cryptogram. The character of Jupiter has been criticized as racist from a modern perspective especially because his speech is written in dialect and because of his often-comical dialogue.

Poe submitted "The Gold-Bug" as an entry to a writing contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. His story won the grand prize and was published in three installments, beginning in June 1843. The prize also included $100, likely the largest single sum Poe received for any of his works. "The Gold-Bug" was an instant success and was the most popular and most widely-read of Poe's works during his lifetime. It also helped popularize cryptograms and secret writing.

Plot summary

William Legrand becomes obsessed with searching for treasure after being bitten by a scarab-like bug thought to be made of pure gold. He notifies his closest friend, the narrator, telling him to immediately come visit him at his home on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. Upon the narrator's arrival, Legrand informs him that they are embarking upon a search for lost treasure along with his African-American servant Jupiter. The narrator has intense doubt and questions if Legrand, who has recently lost his fortune, has gone insane.

Legrand captured the bug but let someone else borrow it; he draws a picture of the bug instead. The narrator says that the image looks like a skull. Legrand is insulted and inspects his own drawing before stuffing it into a drawer which he locks, to the narrator's confusion. Uncomfortable, the narrator leaves Legrand and returns home to Charleston.

A month later, Jupiter visits the narrator and asks him to return to Sullivan's Island on behalf of his master. Legrand, he says, has been acting strangely. When he arrives, Legrand tells the narrator they must go on an expedition along with the gold-bug tied to a string. Deep in the wilderness of the island, they find a tree, which Legrand orders Jupiter to climb with the gold-bug in tow. There, he finds a skull and Legrand tells him to drop the bug through one of the eye sockets. From where it falls, he determines the spot where they dig. They find treasure buried by the infamous pirate "Captain Kidd," estimated by the narrator to be worth a million and a half dollars. Once the treasure is safely secured, the man goes into an elaborate explanation of how he knew about the treasure's location, based on a set of occurrences that happened after the discovery of the gold bug.

The story involves cryptography with a detailed description of a method for solving a simple substitution cipher using letter frequencies. The cryptogram is:


The decoded message is:

A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat
forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north
main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head
a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.


"The Gold-Bug" includes a cipher that uses polyphonic substitution.[1] Though he did not invent "secret writing" or cryptography (he was likely inspired by an interest in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe[2]), Poe certainly popularized it during his time. To most people in the 19th century, cryptography was mysterious and those able to break the codes were considered gifted with nearly supernatural ability.[3] Poe had drawn attention to it as a novelty over four months in the Philadelphia publication Alexander's Weekly Messenger in 1840. He had asked readers to submit their own substitution ciphers, boasting he could solve all of them with little effort.[4] The challenge brought about, as Poe wrote, "a very lively interest among the numerous readers of the journal. Letters poured in upon the editor from all parts of the country."[1] In July 1841, Poe published "A Few Words on Secret Writing"[5] and, realizing the interest in the topic, wrote "The Gold-Bug" as one of the few pieces of literature to incorporate ciphers as part of the story.[6] Poe's character Legrand's explanation of his ability to solve the cipher is very like Poe's explanation in "A Few Words on Secret Writing".[7]

The actual "gold-bug" in the story is not a real insect. Instead, Poe combined characteristics of two insects found in the area where the story takes place. The Callichroma splendidum, though not technically a scarab but a type of Cerambycidae, has a gold head and slightly gold-tinted body. The black spots noted on the back of the fictional bug can be found on the Alaus oculatus or click beetle, also native to Sullivan's Island.[8]

Poe's depiction of the African servant Jupiter is often considered stereotypical and racist from a modern perspective. Jupiter is depicted as superstitious and so lacking in intelligence that he cannot tell his left from his right.[9] Poe likely included the character after being inspired by a similar character in Sheppard Lee (1836) by Robert Montgomery Bird, which he had reviewed.[10] Black characters in fiction during this time period were not unusual, but Poe's choice to give him a speaking role was. Critics and scholars, however, question if Jupiter's accent was authentic or merely comic relief, suggesting it was not similar to accents used by blacks in Charleston but possibly inspired by Gullah.[11]

Though the story is often included amongst the short list of detective stories by Poe, "The Gold-Bug" is not technically detective fiction because Legrand withholds the evidence until after the solution is given.[12] Nevertheless, the Legrand character is often compared to Poe's fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin[13] due to his use of "ratiocination."[14][15][16] "Ratiocination," a term Poe used to describe Dupin's method, is the process by which Dupin detects what others have not seen or what others have deemed unimportant.[17]

Publication history and reception

Poe originally sold "The Gold-Bug" to George Rex Graham for Graham's Magazine for $52 but asked for it back when he heard about a writing contest sponsored by Philadelphia's Dollar Newspaper.[18] Incidentally, Poe did not return the money to Graham and instead offered to make it up to him with reviews he would write.[19] Poe won the grand prize; in addition to winning $100, the story was published in two installments on June 21 and June 28, 1843, in the newspaper.[20] His $100 payment from the newspaper may have been the most he was paid for a single work.[21] Anticipating a positive public response, the Dollar Newspaper took out a copyright on "The Gold-Bug" prior to publication.[22]

The story was republished in three installments in the Saturday Courier in Philadelphia on June 24, July 1, and July 8, the last two appeared on the front page and included illustrations by F. O. C. Darley.[23] Further reprintings in United States newspapers made "The Gold-Bug" Poe's most widely-read short story during his lifetime.[20] By May 1844, Poe reported that it had circulated 300,000 copies,[24] though he was likely not paid for these reprints.[25] It also helped increase his popularity as a lecturer. One lecture in Philadelphia after "The Gold-Bug" was published drew such a large crowd that hundreds were turned away.[26] As Poe wrote in a letter in 1848, it "made a great noise."[27] He would later compare the public success of "The Gold-Bug" with "The Raven," though he admitted "the bird beat the bug."[28]

The Public Ledger in Philadelphia called it "a capital story."[22] George Lippard wrote in the Citizen Soldier that the story was "characterised by thrilling interest and a graphic though sketchy power of description. It is one of the best stories that Poe ever wrote."[29] Graham's Magazine printed a review in 1845 which called the story "quite remarkable as an instance of intellectual acuteness and subtlety of reasoning."[30] Thomas Dunn English wrote in the Aristidean in October 1845 that "The Gold-Bug" probably had a greater circulation than any other American story and "perhaps it is the most ingenious story Mr. POE has written; but... it is not at all comparable to the 'Tell-tale Heart'—and more especially to 'Ligeia.'.[31] Poe's friend Thomas Holley Chivers said that "The Gold-Bug" ushered in "the Golden Age of Poe's Literary Life."[32]

The popularity of the story also brought controversy. Within a month of its publication, Poe was accused of conspiring with the prize committee by Philadelphia's Daily Forum.[24] The publication called "The Gold-Bug" an "abortion" and "unmitigated trash" worth no more than $15.[33] Poe filed for a libel lawsuit against editor Francis Duffee. It was later dropped[34] and Duffee apologized for suggesting Poe did not earn the $100 prize.[35] Editor John Du Solle accused Poe of stealing the idea for "The Gold-Bug" from "Imogine; or the Pirate's Treasure", a story written by a schoolgirl named Miss Sherburne.[36]

"The Gold-Bug" was republished as the first story in the Wiley and Putnam collection of Poe's Tales in June 1845, followed by "The Black Cat" and ten other stories.[37] The success of this collection inspired[38] the first French translation of "The Gold-Bug" published in November 1845 by Alphonse Borghers in the Revue Britannique[39] under the title, "Le Scarabée d'or," becoming the first literal translation of a Poe story into a foreign language.[40] It was translated into Russian from that version two years later, marking Poe's literary debut in that country.[41] In 1856, Charles Baudelaire published his translation of the tale in the first volume of Histoires extraordinaires.[42] Baudelaire was very influential in introducing Poe's work to Europe and his translations became the definitive renditions throughout the continent.[43]


"The Gold-Bug" inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel about treasure-hunting, Treasure Island (1883). Stevenson acknowledged this influence: "I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe... No doubt the skeleton [in my novel] is conveyed from Poe."[44]

Poe played a major role in popularizing cryptograms in newspapers and magazines in his time period[3] and beyond. William F. Friedman, America's foremost cryptologist, initially became interested in cryptography after reading "The Gold-Bug" as a child - interest he later put to use in deciphering Japan's PURPLE code during World War II.[45] "The Gold-Bug" also includes the first use of the term "cryptograph" (as opposed to "cryptogram").[46]

Poe had been stationed at Fort Moultrie from November 1827 through December 1828 and utilized his personal experience at Sullivan's Island in recreating the setting for "The Gold-Bug."[47] It was also here that Poe first heard the stories of pirates like Captain Kidd.[48] The residents of Sullivan's Island embrace this connection to Poe and have named their public library after him.[49] Local legend in Charleston says that the poem "Annabel Lee" was also inspired by Poe's time in South Carolina.[50] Poe also set part of "The Balloon-Hoax" and "The Oblong Box" in this vicinity.[48]


The story proved popular enough in its day that a stage version opened on August 8, 1843.[51] The production was put together by Silas S. Steele and was performed at the American Theatre in Philadelphia.[52] The editor of the Philadelphia newspaper The Spirit of the Times said the performance "dragged, and was rather tedious. The frame work was well enough, but wanted filling up."[53]

In film and television, an adaptation of the work appeared on Your Favorite Story on February 1, 1953 (Season 1, Episode 4). It was directed by Robert Florey with the teleplay written by Robert Libott. A later adaptation of the work appeared on ABC Weekend Special on February 2, 1980 (Season 3, Episode 7). This version was directed by Robert Fuest with the teleplay written by Edward Pomerantz.[54] A Spanish feature film adaptation of the work appeared in 1983 under the title En busca del dragón dorado. It was written and directed by Jesús Franco, using the alias "James P. Johnson."[55]

"The Gold Bug" episode on the 1980 ABC Weekend Special series, which starred Roberts Blossom as Mr. LeGrand, Geoffrey Holder as Jupiter, and Anthony Michael Hall, won three Daytime Emmy Awards: 1) Outstanding Children's Anthology/Dramatic Programming, Linda Gottlieb (executive producer), Doro Bachrach (producer), For episode "The Gold Bug"; 2) Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming, Steve Atha (makeup and hair designer), For episode "The Gold Bug"; and, 3) Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming, Alex Thomson (cinematographer), For episode "The Gold Bug."


1.^ Hutchisson, 112
2.^ Rosenheim, 13
3.^ Friedman, William F. "Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: 40–41. ISBN 0822313111
4.^ Silverman, 152
5.^ Sova, 61
6.^ Rosenheim, 2
7.^ Rosenheim, 6
8.^ Quinn, 130–131
9.^ Silverman, 206
10.^ Bittner, 184
11.^ Weissberg, Liliane. "Black, White, and Gold", Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 140–141. ISBN 0-19-5137116
12.^ Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941: 9.
13.^ Hutchisson, 113
14.^ Sova, 130
15.^ Stashower, 295
16.^ Meyers, 135
17.^ Sova, 74
18.^ Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson. The Literary History of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1906: 239.
19.^ Bittner, 185
20.^ Sova, 97
21.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Louisiana State University Press, 1998: 189. ISBN 0807123218
22.^ Thomas and Jackson, 419
23.^ Quinn, 392
24.^ Meyers, 136
25.^ Hutchisson, 186
26.^ Stashower, 252
27.^ Quinn, 539
28.^ Hutchisson, 171
29.^ Thomas and Jackson, 420
30.^ Thomas and Jackson, 567
31.^ Thomas and Jackson, 586–587
32.^ Chivers, Thomas Holley. Life of Poe, Richard Beale Davis, ed. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1952: 36.
33.^ Thomas and Jackson, 419–420
34.^ Meyers, 136–137
35.^ Thomas and Jackson, 421
36.^ Thomas and Jackson, 422
37.^ Thomas and Jackson, 540
38.^ Silverman, 298
39.^ Salines, Emily. Alchemy and Amalgam: Translation in the Works of Charles Baudelaire. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2004: 81–82. ISBN 904201931X
40.^ Thomas and Jackson, 585
41.^ Silverman, 320
42.^ Salines, Emily. Alchemy and Amalgam: Translation in the Works of Charles Baudelaire. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2004: 82. ISBN 904201931X
43.^ Harner, Gary Wayne. "Edgar Allan Poe in France: Baudelaire's Labor of Love", Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990: 218. ISBN 0961644923
44.^ Meyers, 291
45.^ Rosenheim, 146
46.^ Rosenheim, 20
47.^ Sova, 98
48.^ Poe, Harry Lee. Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories. New York: Metro Books, 2008: 35. ISBN 978-1-4351-0469-3
49.^ Urbina, Ian. "Baltimore Has Poe; Philadelphia Wants Him". The New York Times. September 5, 2008: A10.
50.^ Crawford, Tom. "The Ghost by the Sea". Retrieved February 1, 2009.
51.^ Bittner, 186
52.^ Sova, 268
53.^ Thomas and Jackson, 434
54.^ ""ABC Weekend Specials" The Gold Bug (1980)".
55.^ IMDb: En busca del dragón dorado


Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0801857309
Rosenheim, Shawn James. The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780801853326
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0060923318
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. New York: Dutton, 2006. ISBN 0-525-94981-X
Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987. ISBN 0-7838-1401-1

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