Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Edgar A. Poe (1809-1849) A Marxist View

Poe was born 200 years ago, and died 160 years ago this week. He is an "acquired taste", and is usually acquired by teenage boys who grow up to become critical theorists.
Poe's truth goes marching on. Had he been born 30 years later, he might have had the career of a Hearst, or at least a William Dean Howells. His idea of a national monthly literary magazine had only to wait for the organization of a nation-wide capitalist market after the U.S. Civil War.

For all the politics, my thoughts this week about Poe's work are about those aspects of it that have always thrilled the teenage boys: the cyphers, the social disasters, the frustrated carnalities, the grandiose rhetorical flourishes. And of course the great moral point groped-toward by the Antebellum southern intelligentsia: It is later than we think...

Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. By Terence Whalen. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xii, 328. $55.00

reviewed by SCOTT S. DERRICK
Rice University


Terence Whalen's impressive Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses is an important and carefully researched book on Poe, and it should appeal to a broad range of academic readers. Whalen is a remarkably well versed Poe scholar in terms of both primary and secondary texts. His elegantly and lucidly written book contains a broad array of historical discussions, all of which come to have consequences for U.S. literary production in general and for Poe's writing in particular. This book is sure to crucially influence the future shape of Poe studies. It offers important commentaries on such topics as Poe's relations to antebellum racism, northern literary hegemony, cryptology ....

Whalen works to demonstrate the determining power of relations of production ....
....For Whalen, in some ways a refreshingly old-fashioned Marxist critic, such relations mark most of social life. As a consequence, his book profitably focuses attention on such diverse topics as U.S. currency debates, on the role of information in the antebellum U.S. economy, and on the crucial need to develop more contextually responsive understandings of both northern and southern racism. The scope of these discussions will make the book valuable for readers not actively engaged in Poe scholarship. Though the book does delve into quite specific debates in Poe criticism, Poe becomes, in some sense, the text's representative subject as much as its final focus.

Because Whalen's fusion of wide-ranging antebellum history and Poe's professional agonies is such a generally successful one, the book is of methodological interest in terms of its account of the relation of literature and culture. The idea that figures such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, and, later, Henry James were traumatized by the literary marketplace is certainly not a new one. Whalen's contribution lies in his success in making questions of literary production internal to so many issues in Poe criticism and to so much of Poe's literary output. In ignoring many conventional biographical concerns in Poe scholarship as matters of "mere intimacy," Whalen produces a case worth considering for the perhaps scandalous proposition that, "from the standpoint of the commercial writer, nothing is more intimate than production" (p. 22). It remains to be seen how successfully this argument might be extended to other nineteenth-century figures whose relation to the market seems less abjectly unsuccessful. Whalen's vision of Poe as generally a captive figure obsessed....

I am also struck by the near total absence in the book of references to gender, which mediates in important ways the relations of most nineteenth century male writers to the market. The implications of gender can be psychological and belong to what Whalen dismisses as "intimacy," but gender also operates, I would argue, like race, as a material, public fact. Absense gender considerations, though perhaps not totally unexpected in the context of a Marxist analysis, strikes me as a troubling feature of a generally fine and compelling book that I recommend with enthusiasm.

The table of contents from Whalen's book gives a good sense of its breadth and usefulness:

Pt. 1 Capitalism and Literature
Ch. 1 Introduction: Minor Writing and the Capital Reader
Ch. 2 The Horrid Laws of Political Economy
Ch. 3 Fables of Circulation: Poe's influence on the Messenger
Ch. 4 Poe and the Masses
Pt. 2 Race and Region
Ch. 5 Average Racism: Poe, Slavery, and the Wages of Literary Nationalism
Ch. 6 Subtle Barbarians: The Southern Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe
Pt. 3 Mass Culture
Ch. 7 The Code for Gold: Poe and Cryptography
Ch. 8 Culture of Surfaces
Ch. 9 The Investigating Angel: Poe, Babbage, and "The Power of Words"


Amateur video tour of Poe's Baltimore house on Oct. 7, 160th anniversary of his death.

Requiescat in pace

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