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  • How to Make the East Interesting:Poe and the Holy-Land Vogue
  • Milette Shamir (bio)

In the fall of 1829, Boston publishers Munroe and Francis released a volume entitled Antediluvian Antiquities: Fragments of the Age of Methuselah.1 Its contents were nothing short of sensational: the book presented to the public excerpts from epistles exchanged among the immediate descendants of Adam and Eve in the period before Noah's flood, discovered "among the ruins of the Ark . . . on the mountains of Ararat, in Armenia."2 These "fragments" revealed fascinating details from the lives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and other figures from the first five chapters of Genesis, all translated to modern English—as the title page explained—by an "American Traveller in the East. "

The American reading public, to its credit, was not fooled by this hoax; Volume One of Antediluvian Antiquities was never followed by the advertised second volume. In hindsight, the book is memorable less for its audacity than as a harbinger of a widespread print phenomenon. From the 1830s and continuing all through the nineteenth century, popular books, newspapers, and magazines were inundated with material about the lands of the Bible. To be sure, Holy-Land texts have been circulating among English readers for centuries. But now easier access to Ottoman Palestine together with a rapidly-growing commercial print industry created what one cultural historian called a "Holy Land Mania. "3 Thousands of printed and reprinted texts told old biblical stories in a variety of new and interesting ways: through the adventures of travelers to the east; through the imagination of fiction and poetry writers; by reporting new findings of geographers, philologists, and archeologists; or by gleaning information from encyclopedias and dictionaries. Publishers Munroe and Francis clearly identified this trend; they advertised Antediluvian Antiquities as "replete with information concerning the theology, philosophy, poetry, history, policy, laws, customs, geography, zoology, botany, arts, and literature, of 'The World before the Flood. '"4 They also seem to have been aware that this Holy-Land vogue was not propelled exclusively (perhaps not even primarily) by conventional religious sentiments, but by the readerly affects of surprise, [End Page 10] fascination, and excitement. It is revealing that Antediluvian Antiquities was not advertised as "valuable" or "edifying" in religious terms but instead as intended for "the gratification of all classes of the 'reading publick,'" particularly readers "that delight in novels and romances" who will find the book "alluring. "5 Indeed, it was the unstated premise of this volume that the age-old curiosity of the Christian reader about the mysterious lives of Adam and Eve needs to be augmented, or even superseded, by the contemporary enigma of the volume's authorship and authenticity.

Antediluvian Antiquities may not have fared well in the commercial market, but it did manage to attract the attention of one famous reader (and fellow hoaxer). Edgar Allan Poe found the volume interesting enough—or assumed that his readers would—to lift several fragments of it for eight of the miniature essays that form his Pinakidia (Writings, 2:1–106) and for one in Marginalia (Writings, 2:107–423).6 These extracts represent one example of Poe's several contributions—as writer, editor, and reviewer—to the American Holy-Land vogue. With few exceptions, that vogue has not yet been seen as particularly relevant to Poe's career, certainly not in comparison to the careers of Mark Twain and Herman Melville—who made pilgrimages to Palestine and wrote about them extensively—or even to such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose writing is saturated with biblical typology.7 Poe, who never travelled farther east than Europe, and whose reputation for Christian reverence was questionable at best, has seldom been read in relation to the nineteenth-century Holy-Land archive. While critics have had much to say about Poe's use of romantic orientalist convention—Arabian fantasy, arabesque designs, veiled ladies, Persian names, and eastern mysticism—less attention has been paid to his use of the overlapping but distinct discourse of biblical orientalism. The latter, unlike the orientalism that has been the focus of Edward Said and his followers, regards the east not as the fanciful...


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