Poe in the City

The Man of the Crowd, by Scott Peeples, has something for everyone. It should be equally attractive to Edgar Allan Poe scholars, aficionados, and those who simply want to read more of Poe’s stories, poems, and essays. The volume is pitched so that it is of value to academics and lesser mortals alike: For scholars, Peeples fills a lacuna in Poe scholarship, much of which is devoted to overinterpreting Poe’s stories and poems by psychoanalysis at a distance. For aficionados and general readers, the text is accessible, informative, and encourages the reader to read more, this time with the discrimination and insight that Peeples provides.

Understanding Edgar

Peeples convincingly supplies an important balance to those who explain Poe as largely unmoored from any meaningful human or physical connections, an imaginer who drew only upon his uneasy interior life. It is true, as Peeples notes, that Poe “relocated approximately thirty-five times in his forty-year life,” but Peeples demonstrates, nonetheless, that contrary to what some assumed, “Poe was not so much uprooted as unrooted.” 

In a sense, Peeples’ thesis seems so much common sense: it would be odd if Poe’s literature was vacuum-sealed from his surroundings; and, the fact that Poe moved as much as he did makes it all the more sensible that the cities in which he lived, each with its own sublimity and squalor, should have some connection with his work. How could it not? In pursuing his thesis, Peeples does not downplay Poe’s tendency for “self-sabotage,” which includes his alcoholism and his propensity to turn on his friends and colleagues—not to mention Poe’s plain bad luck. Peeples, though, declines to psychoanalyze Poe and diagnose his work in terms of the abandonment of his father, the early death of his mother, the death of his foster-mother; and, his foster-father’s disinclination to adopt Poe as his own. Others have taken that ball and run with it, at times farther than is necessary or appropriate.

Poe, like the rest of us, was a social animal, just as Aristotle in the beginning of the Politics says that he should be.  

The Man of the Crowd, then, as the author explains, is a “compact biography of Poe that reconsiders his work and career in light of his itinerancy and his relationship to the principle cities where he lived,” namely Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. The urban environment of Poe’s time, Peeples explains, lent itself to the mood of many of his stories since “cities were dangerous, mysterious places: they were constantly changing, easy to get lost in, and hard to comprehend”—not unlike Poe’s stories. Where possible, Peeples’ narrative of Poe’s peregrinations is illustrated by photographs of those locales, taken by his colleague Michelle Van Parys. Both Peeples and Parys are faculty at the College of Charleston in which vicinity Poe both briefly lived and set at least one of his stories. 

An annoying habit in literary scholarship occurs when the author’s personal life or circumstances are presumed to explain more of the author’s work than is warranted. Scholars strain to claim causation in every instance of correlation. Some, for example, have assumed that Flannery O’Connor must have endured a dysfunctional relationship with her widowed mother because of all the single matrons in her stories who are the “victims” of the author’s violent grace; when, by contrast, O’Connor was devoted to her mother and the two enjoyed a close daily friendship. O’Connor was once asked by a high school English class the meaning of the black hat that her protagonist, Haze Motes, wore in the author’s first novel, Wise Blood. O’Connor explained that the purpose of the hat was “to cover his head.”

Peeples then, expertly tacks a course between Poe’s various locales and the way in which they might reflect his stories, or may have influenced them. In most cases, Peeples explains the stories that were produced in each of the principal cities in which he lived, or the way in which the character of those cities might be suggested in various Poe stories; he may even go so far as to suggest correlations and affinities. For the most part, however, Peeples lets the reader draw his own conclusions regarding the extent to which those places might have influenced the 19th century writer. It is always nice when readers are treated like adults.

In the chapter “Richmond (1809-1827),” the author explains that city’s role as a hub of slavery. Relevant then, is the degraded status of the Negro valet in the darkly satirical “The Man That Was Used Up.” Other stories develop the theme of physical abuse and torture, an all-too-common slave experience. Even more horrifying, “Berenice” describes the internment and mutilation of a woman who is yet alive. The opening lines of that story certainly might be informed by the institution of slavery: “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” Peeples also notes other stories that are preoccupied with the abuse of the human body, such as the morbid and comical “A Decided Loss,” about a man who cannot catch his breath sufficiently to speak, and is thus defenseless against the physical intrusions upon his body that reach the point of  vivisection. 

After joining the army, Poe was briefly stationed at Fort Moultrie, a series of revolutionary era fortifications located on Sullivan’s Island, adjacent to Charleston, S.C. The island provides the setting of Poe’s ingenious story of buried treasure, “The Gold Bug.”  Peeples might have added that Sullivan’s Island was the Ellis Island of slaves, as 40% of those unfortunate human beings traveled through that port on their arrival in the Americas. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the story’s ignorant and subservient Negro servant, who doesn’t know his right hand from his left, is insulted and demeaned. Baltimore seems less connected to Poe’s writing, although “King Pest,” populated as it is with peculiar characters that would have been comfortable in a Lewis Carroll novel, is set during the plague in the 14th century. Peeples notes, though, that it was most probably incited by one of the several epidemics that broke out in Baltimore. 

Poe in His Prime

Philadelphia, which then still retained its stifling Quaker ambiance, was an especially productive time for Poe—an incredible “creative streak.” There, Poe further developed as a literary critic, and in Philadelphia he honed his technique of the short story that has defined his legacy. Produced in Philadelphia, “Ligeia,” is a succinct story of obsessive love, unrelenting death, the human will—and opium. In addition, Philadelphia’s literary atmosphere gave occasion to Poe’s lampoon of female writers, “The Psyche Zenobia;” and, the absurdist depiction of Philadelphia business life, “Peter Pendulum, the Business Man.” Unfortunately, during this time Poe’s drinking became excessive, severely damaging his career, a pattern that would repeat itself.

The title of this book is taken from one of Poe’s more psychologically subtle stories written in Philadelphia, “The Man of the Crowd,” about an eccentric old man who seems comfortable only in human congestion. Peeples does not identify Poe with the character but he does use the story as the occasion to explain that Edgar Allan Poe was no recluse, nor did he prefer to live in seclusion, although for brief times he seemed to find stability in a rural life. Rather, Poe, like the rest of us, was a social animal, just as Aristotle in the beginning of the Politics says that he should be.  

Poe was a human being, not so different from many others who share at least some of his weaknesses and predilections.

Poe longed for a stable family life, having been deprived of one at an early age. The best family he was able to construct was with his young cousin Virginia, whom he married when she was only fourteen; her mother Maria lived with them and at times Poe regarded her as the mother he never had. Even if Poe too often stooped to self-destructive behavior with his friends and colleagues, he also drew energy from the urban milieu in which he usually dwelt, though those urban centers were never permanent. 

Poe occupied several residencies in greater New York City, apparently changing places more than he did in other cities, living, for example, in Greenwich and the Bronx. Poe wrote for several newspapers about ordinary issues in Gotham that included wooden street paving and the tasteless new style of painted white pine homes. Peeples notes that such mundane writing seems to contradict our expectations of the “‘Poe-esque’ style.” These interests seem so ordinary. Similarly, and also surprisingly ordinary as well, are Franz Kafka’s technical writings while he was an attorney with the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, about the regulations and the hazardous conditions of exploited Prague factory workers. The “kafaesque” style, for example, of the mechanical torture machine in “The Penal Colony,” may have been inspired by the mechanical associated injuries suffered by the factory workers, whose conditions Kafka worked to improve. 

Later Poe moved to the rural outskirts of the city. While living at the Brennen farmhouse, Poe wrote his most famous poem, “The Raven.” The room described in the poem is thought to have been based upon Poe’s chamber in the farmhouse where he wrote the poem. There were several objects in his cottage that seem to reappear in the poem, but perhaps more importantly, Peeples notes that the “inner activity” of the poem’s narrator may reveal the “seclusion” and “isolation” of working outside of New York City. Peeples also notes that “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” an agreeable, subtly written tale about inmates who take over an asylum, might have been prompted by Poe’s proximity to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, only a short walk from the Brennan farmhouse. 

In a sense, Peeples humanizes Edgar Allan Poe, a welcome characterization given the mystique that surrounds the American author. Poe is known as a drunk, a troubled personality, and a creative genius with a brooding interest in the morbid. In other words, a human being, not so different from many others who share at least some of his weaknesses and predilections. At the least, Peeples helps us to see that Poe’s imagination was stoked by his external surroundings as well as by his interior life. 

Man of the Crowd was a delight to read. I took it as an occasion to revisit those poems or stories of Poe’s that had escaped me, or to occasionally re-read the ones I had enjoyed decades ago, as each was introduced in turn in Peeple’s text. Spoiler Alert: the author may at times tell you more of a story than you may wish to hear. Accordingly, if you want to read it afresh, or read it for the first time, as Peeples introduces each work in turn, it may be best to stop, read, and then enjoy the insight that Peeples’ book may lend. To be sure, Van Parys’ competent, and occasionally artistic photographs lend an important complement to the volume. It would have been nice if this book might have been issued as a hybrid between a scholarly book and a coffee table volume so that Parys work might be better appreciated. That, though, would create the opposite problem because people pick a beautiful book up off the coffee table to enjoy the pictures, not so much to read the text. Compromises aside, this interdisciplinary endeavor convinces the reader that Poe indeed was “a man of the crowd.”