Scott Peeples


On his book The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021

In a nutshell

The Man of the Crowd is a biography of Edgar Allan Poe that focuses on the four American cities—Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—where he made his career as a writer and editor. Poe lived in a time of rapid urbanization, and I contend that his life and work are best understood in terms of that development, and in terms of what was happening in these particular cities in the 1830s and 1840s.

The book chronicles Poe’s entire life, but I arrange his story into chapters corresponding with specific cities. In the first chapter, I highlight, among other things, the fact that Richmond was a center of the domestic slave trade; Poe grew up and later worked within blocks of auction houses, jails, and hotels that provided the infrastructure for that trade. I speculate that some of the physical cruelty and sadism that shows up in Poe’s later fiction might have been inspired by the dehumanizing practices associated with slave auctions.

In the chapter that centers on Baltimore, we see Poe experiencing real poverty as a man in his early 20s. There he began writing fiction for magazines—not a very reliable way to make a living, but it was what he would do for the rest of his life. He also found a family with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia, whom he would soon marry.

In the third chapter, on Philadelphia, I describe Poe hitting his stride as a fiction writer. Philadelphia was a city whose image depended on orderliness and Quaker probity, but urban squalor was barely hidden behind grand façades, and mob violence was a constant threat. I trace that contradiction through discussions of some of Poe’s lesser-known satires as well as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the proto-detective story “The Man of the Crowd”, which gives my book its title.

Poe moved to New York in 1844 to be at the center of American publishing, and much of his writing during his years in Manhattan comment on the world of magazines, literary reputations, and the terms of success and failure. Poe even wrote a series of gossipy personality profiles called “The Literati of New York City”, while fomenting scandal and rivalry with the Boston literary establishment.

The final chapter is titled “In Transit”—though still ostensibly living in New York (specifically, in what would become the Bronx), Poe spent about half of this period traveling, visiting Philadelphia and Richmond before his life ended tragically and mysteriously in Baltimore.

Throughout the book, I stress the influence not just of these cities but of the city as a phenomenon of the early nineteenth century, and I see Poe, for all his genius, as a man who, like many others, saw opportunity in rapidly growing urban centers but more often than not found frustration and disappointment.