Edgar Allan Poe and popular culture in the age of journalism: Balloon hoaxes, mesmerism, and phrenology
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This study attends to Edgar Allan Poe's interest in pseudo-science, pseudo-information, and popular culture, such as hot air balloons, mesmerism, and phrenology, and examines both the way he uses them in his work and their relation to American urbanization and a revolution in journalism. Chapter One centers on how Poe's balloon stories, such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" and "The Balloon Hoax," can be understood in the context of the revolution in American journalism as well as the rise of a novel understanding of what constitutes news at the dawn of modernity. Poe's balloon stories register the turbulence of the coming modern age or "paper age," as Thomas Carlyle called it, reflecting the hope and anxiety that surrounded the unpredictable future of Jacksonian democracy. Connecting two newsworthy objects made out of paper—hot air balloons and newspapers—Poe describes both the fluidity and uncertainty of the paper age and his struggles with being a professional writer in the midst of the "puffing system" of journalism. Mesmerism, which claims interpersonal interfusion through a "rapport," is another example of popular science that was all the rage in Poe's time. In Chapter Two, I discuss three Poe stories concerning mesmerism; "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," "Mesmeric Revelation," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," along with "The Fall of the House of Usher," The Man that was Used Up," and Eureka. I argue that Poe's literary idea of "single effect," cosmology, human/machine hybrids, and the trans-boundary relationship between the living and the dead are all, in some way or other, affected by his interests in mesmerism. I demonstrate, for instance, that while mesmeric unification in Poe's works implies the possibility of boundary erasure between readers and writers, this side of the text and the other, the organic and the inorganic, it also introduces the romantic dilemma of suspension of will and loss of identity, since interfusion with others is inevitably accompanied by the partial loss or temporal suspension of one‘s will, just like the will of mesmerized patients in a somnambulant state is temporarily suspended and controlled by a mesmerist. Chapter Three focuses on the relationship between Poe‘s detective stories and American urbanization as represented in the popular culture of phrenology and physiognomy. I explore how his employment of phrenology is connected to both urbanization and Poe‘s central literary themes of uncertainty and perverseness. Living and writing in the 1830s and 1840s, when hypocrisy and fraudulent disguise were rife in the marketplace, Poe‘s detective fictions employed the analytical power of phrenology and physiognomy in order to provide a safe place to enjoy identifying a hidden crime taking place in urban space. But as real detectives‘ autobiographical stories show, phrenological or physiognomic readings were hardly successful in identifying people in reality. I demonstrate that Poe's innovative creativity or his romantic realism can be seen in the way in which he did not ignore these realities, instead debunking his fictional constructions and reintroducing urban anxiety at the story‘s end. Poe‘s central literary themes of perversity and uncertainty are performed not only as an object of literary writings but also as a critical gaze trained on his own creations. Pseudo-science and pseudo-information, which contain uncertainty at their core, are effective ways of developing this air of perversity and uncertainty.