THE MAN OF THE CROWD: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

By Scott Peeples

ISBN 978-0-691-18240-7   Princeton  £22

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

William Carlos Williams, quoted towards the close of this study, believed Poe invented American literature by sweeping away the colonial inheritance. He is also, of course, widely viewed as the originator of the detective story: Hitchcock claimed it was his liking for Poe’s tales which inspired his films. The details of his life are well known and perhaps Julian Symons’ The Tell-Tale Heart remains the seminal guide, but Peeples has set out to do something different: to relate his life and work to the cities he inhabited. It’s a fascinating approach and one which Peeples carries out with aplomb. The book is impeccably researched, satisfyingly structured and written in a clear, robust, jargon-free style.

Peeples recognizes that the city was the locale of change during Poe’s lifetime. The transformation, simply in terms of population growth, was extraordinary. What it meant for human relations is unconscionable. The key cities in the writer’s life were Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, though he was born in Boston, spent time as a child in London and inhabited others for a while. Ironically, Poe wasn’t particularly fond of the city. It wasn’t by natural inclination he was drawn to it as a place to live, but rather because of his determination to be a writer, which meant not just getting the stuff down on paper, but earning a living from it. Peeples has made a wise and clever choice: by relating Poe’s life to the cities he lived in, usually for a fairly short spell, he focuses on Poe the writer, which is what is of interest.

Poe harboured a long-standing ambition to edit a magazine. He gave it two potential titles: The Stylus and The Penn, but he never launched it. Poe’s instinct was correct: there was a multitude of magazines in existence in the early years of the nineteenth century in the US, most short-lived, but nonetheless, an exciting phenomenon. Why not throw in your lot ? Though his own journal never came to fruition, he was a magazine man, meeting Thomas H White of the Southern Literary Messenger where he published, and becoming assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. If he was going to live by writing, he needed outlets, but he was trying something never done before. No American author had subsisted solely on literary earnings. Poe almost made it, but it was perilous and he was often in debt.

Poe’s parents were actors, his mother Eliza the more talented and feted. His father abandoned the family and his mother died when he was three. Poe was fostered by the Allans. His foster father was a wealthy man who became much wealthier in 1825 when he inherited a fortune from an uncle. Had the relations between the two been sweeter, perhaps Allan might have subsidised his foster son’s literary enthusiasm; he could certainly have afforded to. After leaving home aged eighteen, Poe did appeal to his guardian for money, but Allan was disdainful of Poe’s instability – heavy drinking, debt – and finally cut him loose. It could be that Poe engineered this, more or less unconsciously, out of a desire to be a professional writer, but he was up against it: the absence of international copyright laws meant American publishers could pirate English works. Perhaps Poe was aware of how the literary culture needed to change to give writers a chance and set out to be the catalyst.

His first publication at 18 was a chapbook : Tamerlane and other poems. Only 50 copies were printed. It attracted hardly any attention. A copy today will cost you over half a million dollars. Such are the vagaries of literary fortune in the market. Poe didn’t garner much praise or interest until he published The Raven in 1845, when he became a sensation. Eliot, commenting on the subsequent essay in which Poe explained his mode of composition, made a sniffy comment but the poem has retained its power, even if Eliot may be right about its structure here and there.

Poe was proud of Eureka: a prose poem (1848) in which he offered what is claimed to be the first convincing explanation of Olber’s paradox. Poe was no genius scientist, however. His intuition, that the universe must be expanding and of finite age and therefore the light from distant stars hadn’t reached us, was just that. Much of the “science” in the book is apparently decidedly cod.

Poe was known to be uncomfortable with the transcendentalists, understandably given his inclination to tales of death, mystery, the bizarre, the extreme. Emerson, equally understandably, found nothing in The Raven. The transcendentalists were attracted to the light, they were daytime thinkers and writers who loved reason and balance. Poe wasn’t like that at all. The portraits of him are always slightly reminiscent of Chaplin and of Baudelaire (whose translations account for much of his popularity in France). He has a somewhat chétif look, though in his youth he was an astonishing athlete. Perhaps his face, though, betrays the inner conflict which drove him to drink and may have caused his early death. Was it the early loss of his mother which unsettled his mind? He seems to have been obsessed by the death of beautiful women. Was it the death of his child and cousin bride Virginia from tuberculosis? Poe certainly experienced more than his share of trauma. Individuals always deal with that in their own way, some more successfully than others. What is sure is that a remarkable talent was taken when it had much more to accomplish.

Peebles sites his book in the cities of Poe’s life, yet his subject was essentially peripatetic. It is one of the great strengths of this study that it embraces that paradox comfortably. Peebles brings to life the era and locale of Poe’s efforts to make himself a literary man. He succeeded, posthumously. Peebles book will endure too.