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  • Revolution of Thought/Revulsion of Feeling:Edgar Allan Poe and the Interest Concept
  • Sean McAlister (bio)

Style to the idea is like enamel to the tooth.

—Victor Hugo, quoted by Edgar Allan Poe, “Critical Notices,” Southern Literary Messenger (1835)1

[R]eally valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.

—Charles Sanders Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1992)2

There is no indifference to material reality in Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, despite an older critical tradition that took his well-known opposition to “the heresy of The Didactic” to suggest otherwise.3 Poe’s protagonists—his lovers, his criminals, his cadavers and near-cadavers—almost always suffer from a variation of the “nervous intensity of interest” that leads Egaeus to fixate with ultimately disastrous consequences on the teeth of his eponymous beloved in “Berenice,” the tale at the center of my analysis in this essay.4 In his cosmological essays and his tales of mesmerism, Poe’s narrators and dialogists evince what Agathos, in “The Power of Words,” describes as a “deep interest” in the dizzying connectedness of the material universe.5 In his critical essays and reviews, too, Poe displays an abiding concern with the ways that readers invest, sustain, and are rewarded for their interest in reading, the material response to which he names “the poetic effect.” In all these instances of “interest” in Poe’s work, the foundations of disinterested aesthetic contemplation are being unsettled. But, as I will argue in this essay, Poe’s critique of disinterested contemplation should be read as a conformation or adaptation of the category of the aesthetic rather than a rejection of it. If, as Friedrich Schlegel observed [End Page 471] near the end of the eighteenth century, the aesthetic turn toward das Interessante was coeval with the historical emergence of the novel, Poe goes a step further by celebrating, in his own analyses of the psychological implications of Modernity on literary form, the forceful brevity and “unity or totality of effect” associated with the “short prose tale”:6 “During the hour of perusal,” he explains in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales, “the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”7 Readerly interest—and not disinterest, the more famous prerequisite of aesthetic judgment—turns out to be the key term for engaging Poe’s aesthetics of the literary commodity.

Some Poe scholars, including Meredith McGill and Terence Whalen, have minimized the significance and originality of Poe’s aesthetic theories, focusing instead on the ways his work responded to market instabilities, the cultures of piracy and reprinting, and other contingencies of antebellum authorship, as a kind of corrective to the long-running (and mostly Continental) trend of viewing Poe as an aesthete and an “isolato” (to borrow Herman Melville’s descriptor of himself and Hawthorne).8 Without contesting any of these historicizations, however, I’d like to suggest that Poe’s most enduring and innovative responses to what Jonathan Elmer calls the “figure” of mass print culture are aesthetic ones—that is, responses that treat the aesthetic as a field for experimentation with the new circumstances of authorship in the antebellum United States.9 This essay argues that Poe’s theory of interest—which he develops through a pattern of counterpoints to Kantian disinterest—constitutes one such significant structure of response to the bewildering state of aesthetic contemplation in mass culture. Poe’s writing can be figured, then, at the nexus of eighteenth-century aesthetic discourses that are grounded through Immanuel Kant’s disinterested and subjectively universal power of judgment and an emergent nineteenth-century aesthetics of interest that is antifoundational and more differentiable in its effects than the Kantian scheme.

A surprising consequence of Poe’s aesthetic adaptations, which I also examine, is that his theory of interest ends up resonating with some of the later-nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments in American thought that have come to be grouped as Pragmatism; the pragmatists’ recurring attention to interest, in this sense, can be understood as continuous—both conceptually and historically—with Poe’s own interested manipulations of the eighteenth-century category of the aesthetic. Writing about Poe’s frequent...


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