Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Scott Peeples is a professor of English at Charleston. He has a particular interest in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Peeples has published two other books on Poe. His current work is a book that bears an identical name to Poe’s story. To compound the confusion, Peeples includes a chapter on Poe’s The Man of the Crowd story in the book I am reviewing.
Scott Peeples claims that The Man of the Crowd is “not a work of academic criticism or a comprehensive biography or complete overview of the Poe canon” (10). I wonder why he felt it necessary to include that assurance as few readers would interpret his work in terms such as these. What Peeples appears to have given us is an account, expressed in academic language and pitched in a tone appropriate to the author’s purpose, of a nineteenth-century writer who never settled in a particular locality, never found his ‘Home, Sweet Home’, but followed a vagabond existence in search of an elusive livelihood.
To understand Peeples’s arguments readers need to know something about the story itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd examines human existence in different city environments. It is a story about the quixotic behaviour of its narrator, whose perceptions have been influenced by illness. The story is about ambiguity, presented in images of doubleness in which art repeatedly undercuts earlier attempts to perceive.
This review is not examining Poe’s story directly. That is a task for another day. My focus is Scott Peeples’s work. He makes the point that a rootless life was most unusual among Poe’s contemporaries. He lists the names of fashionable writers who did not ever experience the career-long poverty that Poe faced. For various reasons, potential starvation being one of them, Poe moved from city to city. Peeples describes his book as “a compact biography of Poe that reconsiders his work and career in light of his itineracy and his relationship to the cities where he lived” (5). That relationship tests the reader’s patience since the stories Poe produced often were in vague or imaginary locations or cities where Poe had never been. Cities were chosen, Peeples tell us, for specific reasons. Furthermore, the title The Man of the Crowd emphasizes the physical and social environment to separate Poe from a pervasive impression of isolation, a view that many critics saw, of a man divorced from his surroundings.
According to Peeples this impression was false. In Chapter 3 the author traces a man through the crowded streets of London. The man keeps moving. It is night. Such a scenario allows the author to indulge in a clinical description of the scenes to be met and the people encountered while “focusing on this one man who, paradoxically, stands out for the extent to which he blends in or embodies the crowd” (9).
The chapters that follow treat Poe’s interaction with each of several cities. Richmond and Baltimore saw the dire poverty of the 1830s, along with Poe’s initially happy marriage. Poe appears to have been a difficult man; he left Richmond in anger, in Baltimore he sought to sell his stories to magazines by badgering them. This is not evidence that Poe was a shy, retiring creature with minimal contact with society. The conventional image of an impulsive, even rebellious young man does not appear when he served in the army. The very name of Peeples’s book stakes the claim that he was ‘of the crowd’ i.e. not separate from it but an integral part of society.
When Peeples writes about a particular city, his focus firms, briefly, on the city per se. Poe is not mislaid like some uninteresting parcel but, rather, we are led, for several pages into the urban history and geographical heart of this great city. Similar statements could easily be made about each of the locations Poe visited – Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Poe immediately regains the limelight. It seems that there is a fixation in Poe’s mind on structures that are strong, unassailable, and stable but, nevertheless, busy, while their inhabitants chase goals that are not always identifiable but, to them, real. I wonder if Poe contrasts his own uncertain life, in which his livelihood depends on selling stories to magazines, the antithesis of stability.
Scott Peeples examines a topic that is extraordinarily complex, explaining the motives and actions of a person long dead, using only the written material his subject has left behind. A bold enterprise!
By Scott Peeples
$US22.00; 224 pp