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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 139-147

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Reading Poe, Reading Capitalism

Meredith L. McGill
Rutgers University

Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. By Terence Whalen. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. 328 pages. $60.00 (cloth).

PERHAPS NOTHING BETTER DEFINES THE MAIN CURRENT OF AMERICAN POE criticism than the complaint that Poe has been left "quite outside the main current of American thought" (58), whether by Vernon Louis Parrington (who coined this phrase and critical posture in 1927), by F.O. Mathiessen who found Poe ancillary to the democratic ambitions of The American Renaissance (1941), or by the myth-and-symbol school of American studies. 1 American critics continue to be haunted by the suspicion that Poe is not, and never has been, entirely their own, frequently attributing their sense of dispossession to the superior or misguided enthusiasm of French authors and theorists. Poe had to be rescued from Charles Baudelaire's romantic identifications and from Marie Bonaparte's psychoanalytic speculations long before his tales became exemplary texts in poststructuralist debates over the relations of language and truth. American Poe scholarship has experienced successive waves of attempts to reclaim Poe for the study of American culture, beginning with Arthur Hobson Quinn's magisterial Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941; repr. 1995), which "tried to tell the story of Poe the American, not the exotic as he has so often been [End Page 139] pictured, especially by European critics" (xix). Quinn's depiction of Poe as "a hard-working writer of fiction" (198) was followed by a series of studies that placed Poe at the center of the pressures and intrigues of the antebellum literary marketplace. Perry Miller's The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (1956), though considerably more devoted to the Whale than the Raven, nevertheless regarded Poe as an important voice in the debate over the development of a national literature. Sidney Moss's Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu (1963) examined Poe's struggle to maintain an independent criticism in the midst of the bitterly competitive New York publishing coteries, while Michael Allen's Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969) traced many of Poe's distinctive authorial postures and generic experiments to his attempt to capitalize on the American popularity of the British quarterlies. 2 If Poe's tales proved difficult to integrate into thematic studies of American literature, Poe himself could be reclaimed through his undisputed importance to American publishing history.

The most recent wave of books seeking to repatriate Poe was heralded by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman's essay collection, The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1995), which broke new ground by insisting that Poe's French legacy was crucial, not antithetical, to the task of understanding Poe's place in American culture. This group of essays, which sought to reach across the divide between literary theory and literary history, was followed in quick succession by two studies that repositioned Poe's writing at the highly charged nexus of literary culture, technologies of mass-communication, and democratic society. In Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe (1995), Jonathan Elmer argued that Poe's tales centrally address the problem of the disembodiment of power under democracy and offer crucial insights into the affective dynamics of an emergent mass-culture, while in The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet (1997), Shawn Rosenheim located a "concrete historical source" (3) for poststructuralist interest in Poe in the cryptographic puzzles at the heart of his detective stories, tracing the cultural ramifications of Poe's popular narratives of encryption through such twentieth-century phenomena as psychoanalytic reading, Cold-War espionage, and fantasies about electronic communications.

If, as Michael J. S. Williams has suggested, poststructuralist Poe studies placed a premium on questions about "the relationship between [End Page 140] language and the self, the problematics of writing, the displacement or dispersal of origins, and the nature of...


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