This was in last week’s New Yorker but I just got around to reading it this week. It’s a long piece by Jill Lepore called “The Humbug: Edgar Allan Poe and the economy of horror.” This year is the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, and so there are a few new editions of his work out, as well as a biography, all of which seem only of passing interest to Lepore. Her real interest is in Poe himself, and his efforts to survive by his pen in an era of constant economic flux, where the literary market was always especially grim. When Poe wanted to bring his first book of poems out, his publisher demanded a guarantee against losses. Magazines and journals stopped paying their contributors. In short, the picture of the literary world that Lepore paints seems–to me anyway–more the same than different, compared to our own. I thought that readers here–irrespective of your particular interest in Poe–might find something heartening in that knowledge, or at least take some cold comfort in trans-generational commiseration.
“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 a perch. His biography really is a series of unfortunate events. But two of those events were transatlantic financial crises: the Panic of 1819 and the Panic of 1837, the pit and the pendulum of the antebellum economy. 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.