Edgar Allan Poe once wrote an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” to explain why he wrote “The Raven” backwards. The poem tells the story of a man who, “once upon a midnight dreary,” while mourning his dead love, Lenore, answers a tapping at his chamber door, to find “Darkness there and nothing more.” He peers into the darkness, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” and meets a silence broken only by his own whispered word, “Lenore?” He closes the door. The tapping starts again. He flings open his shutter and in, “with many a flirt and flutter,” flies a raven, “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.”The bird speaks just one word: Nevermore. That word is the poem’s last, but it’s where Poe began. He started, he said, “at the end, where all works of art should begin,” and “first put pen to paper” at what became the third to last stanza:
“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! Prophet still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“The Philosophy of Composition” is a lovely little essay, but, as Poe himself admitted, it’s a bit of jiggery-pokery, too. Poe didn’t actually write “The Raven” backwards. The essay is as much an exercise as the poem itself, a contrivance, a flourish. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that. Nearly everything Poe wrote, including the spooky stories for which he’s most remembered, has this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom. Poe didn’t write “The Raven” to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason he wrote tales like “The Gold-bug”: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before “The Gold-bug” was published, he was begging strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat. “‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run,’” Poe wrote a friend,“but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug,’ you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” The public that swallowed that bird and bug, Poe quite strenuously resented.You either love Poe or you don’t but, either way, unless you happen to be, say, Coleridge, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers is hard to think of. “The nose of a mob is its imagination,” Poe wrote, “By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.”
Poe died, under very mysterious circumstances, in October 1849. Drunk and delirious, he seems to have been dragged around Baltimore to cast votes, precinct after precinct, in one of that city’s infamously corrupt congressional elections, until he finally collapsed. From Ryan’s tavern, a polling place in the Fourth Ward, Poe was carried, like a corpse, to a hospital. He died three days later. He was forty years old.
“My whole existence has been the merest Romance,” Poe wrote, the year before his death,“in the sense of the most utter unworldliness.” This is Byronic bunk. Poe’s life was tragic, but he was about as unworldly as a bale of cotton. Poe’s world was Andrew Jackson’s America, a world of banking collapse, financial panic, and grinding depression that had a particularly devastating effect on the publishing industry, where Poe sought his perch. Poe’s biography really is a series of unfortunate events. But two of those events were global financial crises: the Panic of 1819 and the Panic of 1837, the pit and pendulum of the antebellum economy. Poe died at the end of a decade known as “the Hungry Forties,” and he wasn’t the only American to fall face down in the gutter during a seven-yearlong depression brought on by a credit collapse.9 He did not live out of time. He lived in hard times, dark times, up and down times. Indigence cast a shadow over everything Poe attempted. Poverty was his raven, tapping at the door, and it was Poe, not the bird, who uttered, helplessly, another rhyme for “Nevermore.” “I send you an original tale,” Poe once began a letter, and, at its end, added one line more: “P.S. I am poor.”
Edgar Poe was born in Boston, on January 19, 1809, to a talented actress named Eliza Poe and her hapless husband, David, who deserted her. When Edgar was two, his mother died of consumption. The Poe orphans had little more to depend upon than the charity of strangers. The children were separated and Edgar landed in the home of a wealthy Richmond merchant named John Allan and his sickly, childless wife, Fanny. Allan, who ran a firm called the House of Ellis and Allan, never adopted the boy, and never loved him, either. Poe, for his part, took Allan’s name but never wanted it. (He signed letters, and published, as “Edgar A. Poe.”) In 1815, Allan moved his family to London, to take advantage of the booming British market for Virginia tobacco.11 Poe attended posh boarding schools. Then, during the Panic of 1819, the first bust in the industrializing nineteenth century, banks failed, factories closed, and Allan’s business imploded. The House of Ellis and Allan fell. Allan, plagued with two hundred thousand dollars of debt, sailed back to Virginia. Poe turned poet. The earliest verses in his hand that survive were written when he was fifteen. “Last night with many cares and toils oppress’d / Weary . . . I laid me on a couch to rest.” Adolescent melancholy, and nothing more. But those lines are scribbled on a sheet of paper on which Allan had calculated, just above Poe’s scrawl, the compound interest on a debt.
In 1823, Poe fell in love with Jane Stannard, the unhinged mother of a school friend. A year later, Stannard died, insane. Poe spent much time at her graveside. “No more” became his favorite phrase. (Poe would later insist that mourning the death of a beautiful woman is, of all sorrows, the most poetical; he loved to play with names.)14 In 1825, Allan inherited a fortune from an uncle. Allan rose; Poe kept falling. At sixteen, Poe went to the University of Virginia where he drank and gambled and, in a matter of months, racked up debts totaling more than two thousand dollars. Allan refused to honor them, even though Poe was at some risk of finding himself in debtor’s prison. Poe ran off. There followed a series of huffy pronouncements and stormy departures; most ended in Poe begging Allan for money. “I am in the greatest necessity, not having tasted food since Yesterday morning,” Poe wrote. “I have nowhere to sleep at night, but roam about the Streets.” Allan was unmoved. Poe enlisted in the army and served for two years as Edgar A. Perry. In 1829, Fanny Allan died. Andrew Jackson was inaugurated. Poe, while awaiting a commission to West Point—having sent an application, and Allan’s fifty dollars, to Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton—submitted the manuscript for a book of poems to a publisher, who told him that he would publish it only if Poe would guarantee him against the loss. Allan refused to front the money. Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his invalid grandmother; his aunt, Maria Clemm; his nine-yearold cousin, Virginia; and his brother, Henry, an alcoholic who was dying of consumption.
Jackson, meanwhile, refused to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, run by Nicholas Biddle. Biddle insisted on the need for federal regulation of paper currency. Jackson and his supporters, known as “gold-bugs,” wanted no paper money at all.15 (“Gold-bug” was also slang for millionaire.) Between 1830 and 1837, while Biddle and Jackson battled, 347 state-chartered banks opened across the country. They printed their own money. In 1832, the year Jackson vetoed the extension of the national bank’s charter, $59 million of paper bills were in circulation; four years later, that number had reached $140 million. All this paper was backed up by very little coin.16 At the end of Jackson’s two terms, American banks held $57 million in paper money and only $10.5 million in gold.
Poe, who was broke, didn’t need a bank. He could treasure up funds, he came to believe, in his own brain. He read as much as he could, charging books out of the Baltimore Library. “There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest for ever,” he once wrote. “Knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold.”18 Poe may have thought his mind was a mint, but when his book of poems was finally published, it earned him nothing (exactly what all his collections of poetry earned). He sold one of Maria Clemm’s slaves. “I have tried to get the money for you from Mr. A a dozen times,” Poe wrote to one of his many creditors, “but he always shuffles me off.” And then he added, lying, “Mr. A is not very often sober.”
“I have an inveterate habit of speaking the truth,” Poe once wrote. That, too, was a lie. (That Poe lied so compulsively about his own life has proved the undoing of many a biographer.) 21 In 1830, Poe finally made it to West Point, where he pulled pranks.“I cannot believe a word he writes,” Allan wrote on the back of yet another letter from his wayward charge. After Poe was court-martialed, Allan, who had since married a woman twenty years his junior, cut Poe off entirely. Poe went to New York but, unable to support himself by writing, he left the city within three months, returning to Baltimore, to live with Mrs. Clemm and little Virginia. He published his first story, “Metzengerstein.” He won a prize of fifty dollars from the Baltimore Weekly Visitor for “MS in a Bottle.” The editor, who met him, later wrote,“I found him a state of starvation.” In these straits, Poe wrote “Berenice,” a story about a man who disinters his dead lover and yanks out all her teeth—“the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice”—although this gets even grosser when, after he’s done it, he realizes she was still alive. It has been plausibly claimed that Poe wrote this story to make a very bad and cruel and long-winded joke about “bad taste.” Also: he was hungry.
John Allan died in 1834, a rich man. He left his vast estate, three plantations and two hundred slaves, to his second wife and their two children. He left Edgar A. Poe not a penny. The next year, Poe was hired as the editor of a new monthly magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger, in Richmond. He was paid sixty dollars a month, a modest salary but for him, a fortune. In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm. She was thirteen; he was twenty-seven; he said she was twenty-one. He called her his “darling little wifey.” (“I was a child and she was a child, / In a kingdom by the sea; / But we loved with a love that was more than love— / I and my Annabel Lee.”) Poe held the job at the Messenger for only fifteen months. He boasted that, under his editorship, the magazine’s circulation grew from 700 to 5,500, but, as the Poe scholar Thomas Whalen has discovered, this, too, was a lie. The magazine had thirteen hundred subscribers when Poe started, and eighteen hundred when he left.
Poe lied about the Messenger’s circulation because he was attempting to forge a career in the world of magazine publishing during very troubled economic times. And, plainly, he was a very troubled man. Quarreling with the publisher of the Messenger, Poe left the magazine and, in February 1837, moved to New York. The New-Yorker, a weekly magazine edited by Rufus Griswold, welcomed him, praising Poe’s work at the Messenger. Harper & Brothers was just about to publish Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Unfortunately, Poe arrived in New York just in time for Panic of 1837. With all that paper money, speculators had gone wild; in the West, there had been a land grab and, in the East, a housing bubble; in New York, real estate values had risen 150 percent. When the crash came, in the last weeks of Jackson’s presidency, bankruptcies swept the nation. In New York, riots broke out as the swelling ranks of the city’s poor broke into food shops. “Down with the panic makers,” one newspaper warned, promising, “A bright sun will soon dispel the remaining darkness.” But the skies didn’t clear. In April, one New Yorker wrote in his diary, “Wall Street. The blackness of darkness still hangeth over it. Failure on failure.” By the fall of 1837, nine out of ten eastern factories had closed. Five hundred desperate New Yorkers turned up to answer an ad for twenty day laborers, to be paid at the truly measly wage of four dollars a month.
Then Pym failed. Poe’s publisher had tried to pass the novel off as an authentic travel journal even as its author left a trail of clues to his oh-so clever hoax—“pym” being, for instance, an anagram for “imp.” This didn’t go over especially well. One reviewer called the book “an impudent attempt at humbugging the public.” Poe did not write another novel. He moved to Philadelphia and wrote more stories. During the seven-year depression that followed the Panic, as Whalen has shown, Poe wrote 90 percent fewer poems and twice as many tales. He insisted that this was an aesthetic choice. The tale, he insisted, affords “the best prose opportunity for display of the highest talent.” Any piece of truly worthy writing must be able to be read at a sitting in order to achieve a single dramatic effect, the Nevermore-ish end with which, Poe said,every work of Art must begin. Maybe. But writing a book was exactly the kind of long term investment Poe could not afford to make, especially with so little prospect of return. In the 1820s, books cost, on average, two dollars; during the depression, that price fell to fifty cents.
Poe had already started writing gothic stories before the economy collapsed. But, as a man of no independent means whatsoever, he was especially vulnerable to market forces, and he knew it. (That’s probably why he worked so hard at appearing so otherworldly, so Romantic.) Poe tried to deduce, from careful study, what sold best. “The history of all Magazines,” he concluded, “shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature—to Berenice.” Gothic stories—supernatural tales set, often, in medieval ruins—had been popular for decades.They were also rather interesting to write on a rainy day, as Mary Shelley discovered, and great fun to parody, as Jane Austen found out(both Frankenstein and Northanger Abbey were published in 1818, when Poe was in England). The genre had since gone to seed; most of it, in Poe’s lifetime, was fairly rotten. It did sell well, though. A philosophy of composition? No, what Poe developed was a philosophy of the literary marketplace. He had little choice. “The general market for literary wares,” he reported, during one of the worst years of the depression, “is in a state of stagnation.”
The problem with Poe comes to this. He needed to turn his pen to profit—his mind was a mint!—but he also wanted to signal, as with Pym, that he was lowering himself. Look! See! I’m brilliant! Even at writing dreck! This kind of thing isn’t usually terribly charming. Once in a while, someone attempted to point this out. Early on, a fellow writer explained to Poe why the brothers Harper had declined to publish Poe’s Tales of the Folio Club:
They object that there is a degree of obscurity in their application, which will prevent ordinary readers from comprehending their drift, and consequently from enjoying the fine satire they convey. It requires a degree of familiarity with various kinds of knowledge which they do not possess, to enable them to relish the joke; the dish is too refined for them to banquet on.
Poe found this advice difficult to take. In “How to Write an Article for Blackwood Magazine,” a story he wrote in 1838, he tried telling the joke more broadly. An aspiring writer of gothics visits Blackwood’s editor, seeking instruction. “Your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib,” the editor advises, then offers some examples of recent successes:
Let me see. There was “The Dead Alive,” a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman’s sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body—full of tact, taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin. Then we had the “Confessions of an Opium eater”—fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—deep philosophy—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible. That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote thepaper—but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper.
Still not so endearing.
Poe calibrated and recalibrated. Just how many ways can a writer insult his readers and get away with it? If you take Poe’s best horror stories at face value, they are terrifying, wonderfully, flawlessly, terrifying; they are masterpieces. They’re also dripping with contempt. “Half banter, half-satire,” is how Poe once described them.40 “The Tell-Tale Heart” reads more like three-quarters burlesque, especially when you think about the literary output of Juniper the baboon. A madman with super-acuity murders an old man and entombs the corpse beneath the floor. When the police arrive, the madman begins to hear the beating of his victim’s heart.
I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again—hark!
louder! louder! louder! louder!—
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the
deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of
his hideous heart!”
Most of Poe’s stories have this campy, floozy Boo! business at the end Poe knew these were cheap tricks. No one plays them better than he does. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste.The first editor to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” rejected it, writing back,“If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.”
Excerpted from “The Humbug,” first published in The New Yorker, and collected in The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.