Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Poe's World

posted by Sharon Wildwind

Poe probably didn’t sit down in 1840 or 1841 and say to himself, “I’ll start a new literary tradition: the rational detective, familiar with the ways and by-ways of an industrialized city, who solves crimes by examining evidence and delving into the criminal mind.” What he wrote came out of the political and social issues of the time, and the ideas of other writers, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson.

1840 was a relatively good time in Poe’s life. “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” had been published. His wife had yet to undergo her final illness. He was literary editor of “Graham's Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine.” (Embellished with the Finest Mezzotinto and Steel Engravings, Elegant Embossed Work, Fashion and Music); in other words, a prestigious publication, catering to men and women of substance.

Slavery, black laws, and abolitionist and anti-abolitionist mob violence topped the political agenda. On the same day---March 9, 1841---that “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first printed in Graham’s Magazine, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Amistad case. The Justices decreed that the Africans who seized control of the slave ship, Amistad, had been taken into slavery illegally and, that after a year in prison, they were released as free men. The responsibility for a master toward his slave was being examined in the courts, in newspapers papers, and in private homes.

People in those same private homes, where a good many of Graham’s readers lived, were also disturbed by the huge number of people who were moving from the country to city factories. Prosperous men feared that cities could not survive, that the social structure would descent into criminal anarchy under the sheer weight of too many people. The time was ripe for an urban fiction, which included how a man might survive in the new social structure.

Ralph Waldo Emerson published his “Essays” is 1841 and two essays reflected ideas that found resonance in what Auguste Dupin brought to detection. In “Compensation” Emerson argued that when circumstances push a man beyond what he easily knows, when the unknown torments and defeats him, he has a opportunity become a better man. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson stressed that the internal mind has the potential for a flash of brilliance, but that most men don’t possess the confidence to develop their mind fully. (Do we hear premonitions of Sherlock Holmes, thirty years later, saying that the mind is an attic, which should not be filled with useless information?) Emerson also mentioned a mob mentality. A mob is a group of people deprived of reason and voluntarily descending to the nature of the beast.

Enter Auguste Dupin. Why a French detective? Because Poe was a Francophile, and because he could use Paris as an archetypal city; far enough away from his own New York to be exotic and mysterious. We have the literal beast roaming the city in the escaped orangutan; the responsibility and culpability of the master in the sailor who let the beast escape; the city landscape---often viewed at night, which Emerson referred to as the time of the mob---as the labyrinth which hides both crime and the criminal; and the tormented detective who must rely on a flash of brilliance to make the world right again. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” may be translated as “Murders in the street where the morgue is,” but I like to think that Poe had the alternative translation of “Morgue” in mind when he named his story: “Murders in arrogance street.” I think he was quite aware that he was writing about the arrogance of a rational man trying to contend with the dark underbelly of city life. It was a great start, not only for the traditional detective, but a literary marker for the “mean streets” of noir fiction as well.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Love your description of the times and Poe's work, Sharon. Thanks!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, I love the thought of the detective as Emersonian and also anchoring the moment when mystery fiction began to the Amistad case. Several times at the movies recently I've seen the trailer for a new movie about the abolition of slavery in England (a lot earlier than the US and without a civil war), with Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce, the guy who made it happen, and an almost unrecognizable Albert Finney as the former slavetrading sea captain who wrote "Amazing Grace." I don't write historicals, but as a reader, I find very interesting the tension between the drive to solve an individual murder (and see justice done) and the macro stage of world events, which so often include mass murder, even genocide, as well as times and places where human life is simply cheap. Liz

Julia Buckley said...

How interesting, Sharon, especially your theory about the translation of Morgue. This certainly is a recurring theme in Poe's work--the idea of the peeling away, even the disintegration, of the rational. What fun it is, really, to speculate over works that can provide endless hours of pleasure and scholarly questioning.