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April 27, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe and the Cruddy Economy of the 1840s

It's last week's issue by now, but Jill Lepore's New Yorker piece on Edgar Allan Poe and the dreadful economy he lived in is well worth a read. Poe, a perennially broke, hard-core alcoholic, isn't exactly a poster boy for how to survive tough times; he died at 40 in 1849, a few days after having been, evidently, "dragged around Baltimore to cast votes, precinct after precinct, in one of that city's infamously corrupt congressional elections, until he finally collapsed." He'd sunk so low partly because of his longstanding habit of infuriating employers and others with his arrogance, which tended to interfere with his success as a writer and editor for hire.

But it's still fascinating, and instructive in its way, to view him in the context of his era, which has parallels to our own:

Poe died at the end of a decade known, in Europe, as "the Hungry Forties," and he wasn't the only American to fall face down in the gutter during a seven-year-long depression brought on by a credit collapse. He did not live out of time. He lived in hard times, dark times, up-and-down times.

Those times included as well a shift in people's reading habits, and Poe aimed to take advantage of that change by starting a magazine:

What Poe sensed was the commercial and stylistic ascendancy of magazine literature, despite the morbid financial times. The era of the magazine, with its clipped prose, relentless currency, and swift circulation, had arrived. No more "the verbose and ponderous." The "energetic, busy spirit of the age," Poe wrote, "tended wholly to the Magazine literature--to the curt, the terse, the well-timed, and the readily diffused."

Sound familiar?
April 27, 2009 6:58 AM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

If you don't mind, I'd like to clear up some things.

First, it's quite unfair to call Poe a hard-core alcoholic. Alcoholism is a disease and Poe fought against it in an age before self-help books, 12 steps, and meetings. He was aware of his drinking problem, and therefore tried to avoid alcohol as often as possible - even going so far as joining a temperance society to take a public vow of sobriety. By one calculation, he was sober 18 months; up to four years in one stretch has also been suggested. That's the side of Poe's alcoholism that seems forgotten.

The idea that Poe was part of an election fraud right before his death is generally dismissed as myth these days (though Lepore doesn't seem to question it). If it were true, however, it would not be kind to justify why "[Poe']d sunk so low partly because of his longstanding habit of infuriating employers and others with his arrogance, which tended to interfere with his success as a writer and editor for hire." If Poe was part of this election fraud, he was not a willing participant but a hapless victim - other victims in similar frauds did, in fact, died of being abused by their captors. In fact, the nickname granted this practice is "cooping" - the poor men pulled into this scam were locked in coops while transported to polling stations. No matter how low Poe fell, he did not join this "cause" purposely.

If you want my opinion, generally speaking, Lepore's article is a great overview of 19th-century publishing economics and politics - but a horrible article on Poe.

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