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REVIEW Literary Capitalism: A Material Rereading of Poe TerenceWhalen. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999. xi + 328 pp. $60.00. Cloth. There is a specter haunting contemporary literary studies-the specter of a surplus of interpretation. In the May 2000 issue of PMLA, Lindsay Waters, editor at Harvard University Press, argues that, despite the steady decrease of sales and despite the fact that normally “publishers resist producing books that people are unwilling to purchase or to insist that their institutional libraries purchase ,” the overproduction of books has persisted for many years now because the political economy of academic publishing knows pressures more profound than the bottom line: [Olverthe last thirty years literature departments learned how to outsource a key component of the tenure-granting process to university presses. . . . To a considerable degree people in departments stopped assessing for themselves the value of a candidate i ~ s a scholar and started waiting for the presses to decide. There were certain advantages to this way of doing things. One did not need to look directly at a colleague and say that the group of us read your work and found it wanting in the following ways, so please rebut us or you must go, despite the fact that you are a wonderful person. One could say instead something like this: although we all know that you are a wonderful person, unfortunately the university presses of America have decided that your work is not significant for reasons they know and have no doubt shared with you; therefore, you must go. [Lindsay Waters, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Books of the Members of the MLA from Being a Burden to Their Authors, Publishers, or Audiences,’‘ PMLA 115 (2000): 316-171 It is, as we all know, very important to remain a wonderful person, and clearly the best way to do this within a tenure-granting system is to be relieved of the burden of interpretation and judgment . But there are other explanations for this “outsourcing” as well: the flight from interpretive judgment is also a response to the sense that the humanities deal less and less in what might be called a “knowledgeeconomy,” in which a model of accretion can allow one to discern a genuine “contribution ,” and more and more in an “information economy,” in which recognition comes from novelty of approach, or the ingenuity with which older forms, themes, and methods are refitted and recombined . I think Terence Whalen would like this argument , since several of the motifs Waters presents find congruent expressions in Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses-the surplus of what Poe called “thinking material,” the antagonism between a residual economy of knowledge and an emergent (dominant ?) economy of information, the importance of thinking sales figures and gestures of deference and prestige together, as integrated within a political economy of literature or of academia. I should say at once, however, that Whalen’s study is not likely to be taken as an example of the overproduction Waters describes: quite to the contrary, if I had had the slightest fear that Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses would not have been bought by my university library I would have made sure they did so. Whalen’s book is clearly one of the most substantial and ambitious books on Poe to come out over the last decade or more, a coherent reinterpretation of Poe’s work within the context of the antebellum publishing industry, and what Whalen’s subtitle calls “the political economy of literature.” I cannot provide a more succinct inventory of the topics discussed in Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses than its author does: Making extensive use of primary materials, the individual chapters offer several new contributions to our understanding of Poe and his world: the first fully documented interpretation of Poe’s response to American slavery ; the first accurate account of Poe’s performance as a literary entrepreneur; a new explanation of Poe’s ambivalence toward nationalism, exploration, and imperialism; a detailed inquiry into the conflict between ‘secret writing ’ and common knowledge in Jacksonian America; and a general interpretation of the social meaning...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 65-70
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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