restricted access The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet (review)
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Reviewed by
Shawn James Rosenheim. The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. ix + 264 pp.

In the introduction to the book, Rosenheim points out that the origin of this work could be described as “an attempt to answer a presumably straightforward question”: what is the source of the popularity of detective fiction? As he anticipates, the answer has proved more complex and far-reaching than it might seem at first sight, since it encompasses politics and literature, technology and critical theory. The link that Rosenheim uses to connect all these elements is, apart from cryptography itself, Edgar Allen Poe. If Poe expressed his passion for cryptography in his writing, Rosenheim betrays his passion for Poe by taking the latter’s work as the point of reference that illuminates and organizes the vast scope of this study. Remarkably enough, the term cryptograph is Poe’s own coinage.

Thus, Rosenheim traces back the growing influence of cryptography on contemporary culture to Poe’s cryptographic imagination: just as the importance of Poe’s cryptographic impulse is greater than the literary value of his individual texts concerned with secret writing, recent effects of the cryptographic imagination can be found not only in literary works such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Auster’s City of Glass but also in Internet technology and Cold War Espionage.

In order to carry out this ambitious analysis, Rosenheim has divided the book into two sections: the first (“Genre”) focuses on different [End Page 1074] types of cryptographic fiction (the cipher adventure, detective fiction, and science fiction), which are explained through readings of Poe’s representative texts. The second (“Effects”) examines the effects of Poe’s secret writing on readers as diverse as L. Doten, T. S. Eliot, and W. Friedman, showing, among other things, how electronic communications on the Internet reproduce features anticipated in Poe’s texts.

Once more following Poe, Rosenheim concludes the book with a science-fiction-like outlook on future developments such as computerized steganography and quantum cryptography. To facilitate the reading, there is a glossary that includes abstruse terms like those mentioned above. Last but not least, the volume is completed with 18 figures (black and white photographs and varied cryptographic illustrations), which are a great help in exemplifying and clarifying the theoretical explanations of the text.

In my opinion, the first section is more literary-oriented, deeper; it could constitute a work by itself. In fact, its chapters cover much more than Poe’s secret writing, since they explore not only his dedication to cryptography, but also his relation to literary history and criticism. Thus, chapter 2 analyses Defoe’s influence on Poe’s use of cryptography, but also includes references to ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs, the Bible, and Sherlock Holmes. Nevertheless, what makes Rosenheim’s study even more valuable is his concern with contemporary critical theory: one of the author’s central contentions is that, whereas critics have often acted as if Poe’s texts were just pretexts for validating claims advanced by Derrida, Lacan, and others, it was Poe who, many years before, used his cryptographic writing to carry out a systematic investigation into the nature of language. Throughout the book, Rosenheim underlines how Poe’s emphasis on textuality, encryption, and abstraction reemerges in present-day critical theory and technology. If Poe’s obsession with the dissociation of body and language is reproduced by the analytic procedures of psychoanalysis, his understanding of telegraphy resurfaces in twentieth-century science fiction (for example, Gibson’s Neuromancer).

The second section is more descriptive: critical theory gives way to Cold War politics and electronic technology. Nevertheless, Rosenheim manages to keep Poe’s principle of “unity of effect” throughout, regardless of the subject. Among others, he discusses the figure of [End Page 1075] Colonel Friedman, a codemaster, “poet and mathematician” (like Poe’s Dupin), who became the chief cryptanalyst for the War Department and had a passion for Shakespeare and Poe. Rosenheim argues that Poe could be taken as a war hero, since his influence on cryptographers such as Friedman helped end World War II and shape the political culture of the...