I happened to “borrow” a several-months-old New Yorker at my gym this morning and came across this retrospective of Edgar Allan Poe, and his struggles to make a living as a writer in tough economic times.
There’s no question that things are lousy right now for everyone, and that includes those in the news, media and publishing industries. The media world is undergoing a seismic shift and downturns that come with layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs. There are dropping ad revenues for print, TV, radio and online news; newspapers, as we all know, are going out of business.
But it was instructive to read that there were times when things were just as bad for those in the media, if not worse. And not just for genius poets and writers of now classic thrillers and horror tales, but for the rest of all those ink-stained hacks. Back in Edgar Allan Poe’s prime, in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the United States was dealing with a cycle of horrific economic crises.
Of course, Poe didn’t do himself many favors. He was a drunk, a pathological liar, and he had an unfortunate habit of falling for women who were even crazier than he was, or young enough to make him a regular guy by the standards of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, but a felon by the standards of today.
This New Yorker article, “The Humbug,” sums up several new collections of Poe’s works and a new biography, published this year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth, in 1809. This article also comes on the 160th anniversary of Poe’s death. He left this world in Baltimore in 1849, at age 40. He collapsed, drunk, delirious, and down on his luck, in a tavern. But then, where else in Baltimore would you collapse, drunk, delirious and down on your luck?
The point of the article is that the economic times that Poe lived in shaped his art, as much as his own genius. For example, oe didn’t write his famous poem, The Raven, in the way he wrote it for some grand artistic gesture, “or not entirely.” He did it to make some money to keep from starving.
Poe’s struggles were intensified by the economic conditions in our still relatively new nation. Actually, as described by this New Yorker article, some of those conditions sound disturbingly similar to some that we’re dealing with now.
“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. … 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.”
In 1837, Poe was looking forward to the publication of a novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, about a Nantucket seafarer. He went to New York to work for a newsweekly called The New-Yorker.
Unfortunately, Poe arrived in New York just in time for the Panic of 1837: “Speculators had gone wild; in the West, there had been a land grab and in the East a housing bubble—in New York, real-estate values had risen a hundred and fifty per cent. When the crash came, in the last weeks of Jackson’s Presidency, bankruptcies swept the nation. … By the fall of 1837, nine out of ten Eastern factories had closed. Five hundred desperate New Yorkers turned up to answer an ad for twenty day laborers, to be paid at the truly measly wage of four dollars a month.
Poe’s novel was published, but it was a failure, critically and commercially. Seven years of economic depression followed, during which the price of books fell, on average, from two dollars to 50 centers. There was no financial pay-off for Poe to keep writing books, so he turned to churning out short stories. He tried to keep an eye on what sold and found that gothic, supernatural stories were the most popular.
Later, he pretty much invented the detective thriller, by creating an intellectually superior code-cracking French detective named C. Auguste Dupin with 1841’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The book was a hit, but it didn’t do much to change Poe’s fortunes as he struggled to get backing for his own literary magazine. He also drank whatever money he earned from his writing while his very young consumptive wife starved. Her death in 1847 pushed him over the brink into “lunacy,” and his life went from bad to worse.
I do know of one very talented reporter, who had long struggled with a drinking problem, and who wound up getting laid off. From what his friends tell me, things went from bad to worse after he lost his job, and his reason for being. He also had other health problems, but of course the drinking just made them worse.
Meanwhile, these economically tough times are forcing writers, editors, publishers, and print, TV and radio journalists to come up with new ways to share information and to create work. It will be interesting to see what new media, and forms of literature and art, arise out of this current “disruption” we’re living through. What are the mad geniuses going to come up with?
Any thoughts? I don’t think we’re heading into a “Nevermore” doomsday scenario, just a landscape that will be different.