The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 164-166
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Poe, Literature, and the Marketplace
Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. By Terence Whalen. Princeton: Princeton UP 1999. xi + 328 pp. $55.00.
Poe is a divided figure in many ways: the partisan of southern literature who identified himself as "a Bostonian," the sensitive artist who pursued a military career, the highly efficient magazine editor and the hopeless drunk. Among these oppositions is the one between the Poe who personified the "angelic imagination" (Allen Tate's phrase), the uncompromising follower of pure art, and Poe the man of business, shrewdly calculating the wages of literary endeavor. Terence Whalen's Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses is a consistently and surprisingly illuminating effort to understand Poe's work in relation to this last division, to understand his imagination in relation to his economic life.
The success is surprising because this topic generates, for me at least, rather low expectations: must we be told again that art and business sometimes conflict and that Poe felt trapped in "the magazine prison house"? But Whalen moves well beyond both romantic lamentations about the selling of beauty and grim Marxist demonstrations of the determining force of economic forms, and indeed seems on his way to inventing a new way of talking about the economics of literary work. He argues that market forces didn't so much confine Poe's imagination as infiltrate it; and he demonstrates that this infiltration was not always a bad thing: that some of Poe's most characteristic attitudes, and some of his most successful works, arose from his efforts to explore the implications of an economic and discursive world where imagination was a form of capital.
The author documents, of course, Poe's continual economic woes, his [End Page 164] frantic productivity, and his always-frustrated desire to found his own magazine. But he does a lot more, shedding light on many subjects and solving several longstanding mysteries of Poe studies. At times Whalen seems less a scholar than a kind of detective—indeed a Poe detective, to make a recognition that the author may expect of us. Examining the legend of Poe's genius as a magazine editor, he painstakingly establishes the actual circulation figures of the Southern Literary Messenger before, during, and after Poe's brief editorship, conclusively disproving the oft-told story of his miraculous rehabilitation of the magazine. He shows, in a way that ought to settle the matter for good, that a notorious review published in the Messenger in 1836, the smoking gun in recent efforts to convict Poe of ardent pro-slavery sentiments, was not composed by Poe at all but by Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (about whom, by the way, Whalen knows a lot, as he does about dozens of other subjects peripheral to his own—this book is a deep mine of information about the antebellum literary world). In a theatrical display of ingenuity, Whalen breaks one of Poe's supposedly un-crackable codes and translates a cryptogram in the essay "Secret Writing," revealing the decoded text as an aspect of the author's effort to win a patronage job in the Tyler administration. At these turns, and many others like them, Whalen is the Prefect of Parisian Police, patiently dismantling the Minister's apartment in search of the purloined letter. But these methods, we know, are insufficient when trying to apprehend a poet, who is likely to hide the most incriminating evidence in plain sight. And at his best Whalen becomes Dupin, bold enough to gamble that the key to Poe's imagination is not secreted away in some never-confessed political loyalty or psychological disorder, but hidden indeed in plain sight, in the author's lifelong, open preoccupation with the antebellum literary marketplace.
Poe, like us, lived during an information revolution, one in which the speed and cheapness of printing, and resulting literary overproduction, threatened to render any individual work of literature nearly valueless. He was not the only writer to lament these conditions...