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Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

It's not for nothing that Edgar Allan Poe's works figure prominently in COVID-inspired reconsiderations of the figure of pandemic in literary social history. He lived through one of the worst cholera outbreaks to ever reach the US, lasting from 1832 well into the 1840s, and he has long been remembered as the master of what one might call "pandemic affect" in characters experiencing dread of the unknown, claustrophobia, and mourning.

In this essay, however, I want to argue that to best read Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist; not that of the practitioner or inventor of Gothic tropes, but one making a comment—in my reading, one of the darkest imaginable—on the possibility of getting anything but cash for the work of writing on such horrors, and anything but a temporary escape from reading it.

For Poe, the question may not be what we read, or how our reading enables us to do or see things differently (our consciousness now raised!), but simply where we read. It is very different, Poe's life and work tell us, to read under a tree in the Italian countryside, in Boccaccio's time, than in a damp tavern in the city; very different to read in a suburban home office, in our own time, than on a bus commuting to one's "essential" job in a meat-packing plant.

Like George Packer, Zak Cheney-Rice, and in different ways, Sari Altschuler and others writing about the pandemic today, Poe's works would have us look beyond the mere effects of what ails us at the moment to underlying conditions of US society that this pandemic has "revealed [as] already broken": "brutal inequalities" that give the lie to any idealized sense of disease as the "great equalizer" (Tensley). "By almost every metric," Cheney-Rice summarizes, "those getting the sickest and dying most frequently and being plunged into dire financial straits at disproportionate rates are the same people who were vulnerable and marginalized" before the pandemic: "lower income workers, minority communities, communities of color, folks working in service jobs…living in public housing"—in a word, the poor.

COVID-19 image by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Granted, few of us imagine a writer as famous as Edgar Allan Poe as that poor. We've heard he drank too much—but so did lots of great writers. Perhaps we imagine him properly dressed, sitting at an ornate desk, pen in hand, with books everywhere, and sure, that pet Raven perched like a sculpture beside him. Politely contributing to the facade of civilized intellect he cultivated in all his writing, kind contemporaries remembered him as hard-working, punctual, and even fastidious in his dress.

But the truth is, after his break in 1829 with his foster father John Allan, an import-export tycoon who would certainly be ranked in today's "1%", Poe fell straight and hard into a life of desperate penury that lasted his remaining 20 years. Evicted from one shared lodging to the next throughout his adult life, he survived on little more than bread and molasses for weeks at a time. One reason he wore his jacket buttoned all the way to his chin was that at times, he did not own a shirt (Fisher 75, Quinn 211).

While some biographers consider it a dramatic performance, lines from Poe's letter to his foster father on his dishonorable discharge from West Point foretell his future all too accurately: "I have no more to say—except that my future life...must be passed in indigence and sickness"(cited in Quinn 172).

Re-adopted in Baltimore in 1831, this time at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, by his retired aunt Maria, her drunken son Henry, and a girl cousin named Virginia who would become his wife, he found himself the only candidate for family bread-winner. He looked for positions teaching, or doing hack work for magazines, and there is even some evidence that he did some manual labor, but the mark of his entry into the class of "vulnerable and marginalized" persons is certainly his near total disappearance from the historical record. Biographers have barely any evidence of Poe's movements in the year 1832, the year cholera came to the United States for the first time, and the year he may well have written "King Pest" (1835), a story patently designed to address those currently experiencing a modern pandemic.

Dead-Serious Satire: "King Pest"

Lost places by MichaelGaida (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

"King Pest" is set not in Poe's Baltimore but in London, during the Black Plague. Looking backwards in this way, it might seem to invite readers to see themselves beyond the cholera, or in a position of privilege in comparison to those facing a disease that five centuries before killed more than a third of all humanity. Likewise, in a setting that suggests Cheney-Rice's critique of pandemic's economic bias, we find London mostly "depopulated" and those remaining poor, diseased, dying, or dead. The plot follows two drunken sailors, Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin, skipping out on their bill at the "Jolly Tar" and fleeing into "the most noisome" districts of the city under Pest-ban.

But at this point, readers expecting serious description or reflection on the conditions or psychology of pandemic in Poe's time may be disappointed to find the thing turn silly.

Unaccountably following a series of "wild…fiendish shrieks" into a cellar beneath an abandoned undertaker's shop, the sailors discover a phantasmagoric party going on around a long dining table, where a company of diseased caricatures posing as royalty—"King Pest the first", "Queen Pest", the "Arch Duchess Ana-pest", etc.—engorge themselves with what is left of the former tenant's wine cellar. Offended at the "commoners'" intrusion, King Pest declares (in what has to be a formula Poe remembered from his raucous days at University of Virginia) that they must leave "forthwith"—or to remain, must each chug a gallon of "Black Strap". Violence ensues, and knocking the company down with the bones of a skeleton-candelabra hanging from the ceiling, the sailors run off, each with one of the dropsical "ladies" by the waist. Curtain.

Read as a transparent comment on the disease Poe experienced in Baltimore, "King Pest" seems to be a frank celebration of social irresponsibility that might appeal more to spring break crowds on Miami Beach today than to anyone suffering under cholera in the 1830s.[i] The reckless abandon of his protagonists may also testify to the desperation of those without hope of escape in such conditions (wasn't Ishmael at the very end of his own economic rope when he boarded the Pequod in Moby Dick?), but the tone is baffling.

Still, there is far more here in the story's "underlying conditions". As Terry Whalen reminds us in Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (1999), the underlying conditions of all Poe's professional writing are those of the US publishing industry in the 1830s and 40s—unorganized, undercapitalized, and hardly "literary" (Whalen 3-21). Without the ability to help fund the publication of his work or a network of powerful friends behind him, the Poe who knew by 1831 that he was better at writing than brick-laying set about producing what was mostly likely to "draw the public attention", and prove himself a good investment to magazines in need of subscribers. In this light, rather than see "King Pest" as anything like an "original" comment on the cholera, we ought to view it as a work frankly written to sell—taking advantage of the topic's "currency".

As early as 1835, the relative novice Poe advised an editor who found his writing distastefully graphic that what the magazine reading public craved was not "simplicity", but "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque, the fearful coloured into the horrible" (cited in Quinn 211). Hence, perhaps, the skull-and-bones frat party here.

But what makes the point of "King Pest" clearer—and what relates it to both the conditions of Poe's writing and the pandemic—is its original context--and its original subtitle ("A Tale Containing an Allegory"). There is excellent evidence that the story was conceived as part of a collection Poe briefly advertised as "The Folio Club"—a book meant to parody the popular "saleable" styles of writing in the early magazine industry (Hammond, Scherman). Here a "club" of swell editors meets at dinner to judge each other's (mostly derivative) work. Every month, the writer whose work is judged "best" hosts the next meeting, while the writer judged worst (a rotating newcomer) has to pay for all. The collection results, according to the plot, from the revolt of the latest loser, who sweeps all the manuscripts from the table and rushes out to publish them together to appeal to the good sense of the public.

Out of context, a story like "King Pest" may seem bafflingly unserious, but precisely as an "allegory" it was likely central to this collection he never published, featuring the same table around which an imperious group of powerful pretenders "judge" poor-devils coming in from the pestilential conditions outside. Indeed, the plague setting makes this circle of secluded sociability a blatant, bitter parody of Boccaccio's Dacameron, revealing hardly the life-affirming preservation of story-telling communities outside the walls of plague-ridden Venice, but a reflection of the monstrous injustice of monied publishers in New York or Baltimore carelessly deciding the fate of desperate authors like Poe over bottles of expensive port.

Form Against Substance: "The Mask of the Red Death"

Red skull by cattusniger (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

A decade into the cholera, Poe wrote another tale of pandemic entitled "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) at a time when he had achieved, if only for 18 months, a position as magazine editor (Quinn 331). While the serious tone of this story might seem to reflect the point of view of a now responsible writer who has joined the "club" of influence and privilege—who might warn readers of our need for mutual care—instead, Poe invites readers of Graham's Magazine (a magazine already featuring color plates of the latest women's fashion) to enjoy some of his most exquisite artistry, while retaining his deep resentment of those whom pandemics rarely touch.

Irresponsibility returns "royally" here in the form of Prince Prospero (compare "Fortunato" from "The Cask of Amontillado"), who, at the height of a plague named "The Red Death", "summons to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends" to join him in his well-provisioned castle, the doors of which are welded shut. "The external world could take care of itself", sneers the narrator. "In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think".

As in "King Pest", there is a party—this time a fantastic "masqued ball" attended by grotesques—"figures with unsuited limbs and appointments", "delirious fancies such as a madman fashions". The most outrageous of all is a figure who has evidently dressed up to resemble a victim of the Red Death itself, inspiring in the assembled guests first "disapprobation", then disgust, and finally terror. The Prince pursues the figure, and is mysteriously killed by his own dagger as he attempts to execute "justice" in the most remote room of his suite. Perversely crowding into the space, guests attempt to un-mask the mummer but find the mask "untenanted by any tangible form". Everyone dies:

...one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness, and Decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Doubtless it is tempting to draw the quiet moral that "the Red Death/the plague/the virus/the disease" "knows no boundaries", and thus the privileged should be as interested in eradicating it from our land as the poor. But what we need to notice in this conclusion—and the whole tale—is actually Poe's obsessively careful word choice, and his insistence on his words' aesthetic and psychological effects.

The work is a model of rhythm and compactness, its last syllable ("all"), for example, doubling the sound of someone's last gasp, which is itself repeated twice ("hall" and "fall") in the closing paragraph. Moreover, those attentive to Poe's words (and mine) will note that as it ends up, the figure of the "Red Death" has no "tangible form".

And again, there is a sub-title to help us: "A Fantasy". With this hint, Poe reminds us that his work points not to the real—the "outside" of literature where actual sickness and death occur—but rather to the power of his writing to evoke suspense and horror from words placed under our eye that might cause us to "buy" it all. We have not been taught anything but rather fallen for the horror of a facsimile—a "Read" death. If one is concerned about one's exposure to a horrifying reality (poverty, pandemic, or death itself), perhaps reading such a tale (or writing one) offers something to hide—sure, "Mask"—us momentarily from the real thing.

The Riddle of Our Privilege: "The Sphinx"

If these readings of what "underlies" Poe's work seem too pessimistic (for even the most critical writings about the class divide and pandemic seem to insist on a silver lining), consider Poe's last tale on pandemic called "The Sphinx", published in 1846, and try not to groan like a dying reveller in "Masque". Here the narrator and his friend escape the "Cholera in New-York" in a cottage on the Hudson, "passing the time pleasantly enough", save when "word arrives" of "the decease of some acquaintance".

Gazing out the window one day, the narrator makes the horrifying discovery of a winged monster hundreds of feet long climbing the hills in the distance, and reports the sighting to his friend. In a minor detective move, his companion seats himself at the same window and demonstrates, with quick reference to a synopses of Natural History at hand, that the narrator's perspective has been the culprit: the "monster" is a tiny insect climbing a spider's thread just before his eye.

Spider Silhouette by mohammad_hassan (Pixabay License /Pixabay)

This time Poe cannot resist a moral—if it can be called that—and it can hardly be explained without reference to the tale's pandemic setting and the class experiences revealed here once again. "The source of error in all human investigations", the detective explains, is our "liability to under-rate or over-value the importance of an object [by] misadmeasurement of its propinquity." For example, he continues, "the influence to be exercised on mankind at large by the thorough Diffusion of Democracy". By the time "we" achieve Democracy, Poe's narrator suggests, most of us will be long dead.

It could be argued, of course, that it is an elite perspective whose distance from the victims of pandemic under-estimates the possibilities of democracy—of societal transformation. Bbut Poe places the "Natural History" there to question the idealist perspective that continues to believe, despite the evidence of our history, that the reading of literature—in cottages, offices, and classrooms, or even buses—has much chance of inspiring social change at the level of the economic divisions that determine who survives and who dies before, during, or after pandemic.

So who, if anyone, for Poe, can "profit" from their reading? Looking back at "King Pest" for the first time in some decades, it took this pandemic perspective for me to notice that one of the first things we learn about Poe's desperately poor protagonists is they cannot read.

Works Cited:

Cheney-Rice, Zak. "Are You Rich Enough to Survive This Pandemic?" Intelligencer. New York Magazine. 27 April 2020.

Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. Poe in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. University of Iowa Press. 2010.

Hammond, Alexander and Fisher, Benjamin Franklin . "Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Folio Club: The Evolution of a Lost Book". Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society. 1978. pp. 13–43.

Packer, George. "We Are Living in a Failed State". The Atlantic. 1 May 2020.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 1941.

Scherman, Timothy H. "The Authority Effect: Poe and the Politics of Reputation in the Pre-Industry of American Publishing". Arizona Quarterly: 49/3. Autumn 1993. pp. 1-19.

Tensley, Brandon. "How Coronavirus Is Deepening American Inequality". CNN, Cable News Network, 6 April 2020.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: the Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton University Press. 1999.


[i] In a recent article for The Atlantic and a longer essay in American Literature (2018), Sari Altschuler has brilliantly traced the effects of the cholera pandemic of this period into politically problematic new conceptualizations of "global" health in the US. Her approach to Poe's work, grounded in the context of generic or scientific discourses, lead her to more hopeful conclusions, however, than the more strictly materialist analyses here.

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