The Unanswered Question of Race in Edgar Allan Poe’s Writing

It is seldom mentioned that Poe came of age in a slave society, in a household where slaves were present. Poe does nothing to draw attention to the fact. An account of the business interests of Poe’s foster father, John Allan, quoted by the biographer Jeffrey Meyers, notes that he and his partner “as a side issue were not above trading in horses, Kentucky swine from the settlements, and old slaves whom they hired out at the coal pits till they died.” This last item suggests that Poe might not have been particularly sheltered from an awareness of the ugliness of the system. Charles Baudelaire has encouraged the notion that Poe was an aristocrat manqué. But John Allan was a successful immigrant merchant—by no means the type of gentleman planter who stood in the place of aristocrat in the self-conception of antebellum Virginia. Poe’s aristocrats are surrounded by mists and parapets, never by a society or an economy, and they are always the decadent last flowering of an endless lineage, not offspring of the parvenus of colonial settlement. With the single exception of “The Gold-Bug,” Poe did not write about the South, at least explicitly. But in Pym he does address the matter of race, an issue of great currency at the time.

-From an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books. In it, Robinson explores the unknowability of Poe and his work, and the difficulty in interpreting Poe’s unusual and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which, among other things, is considered to be one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

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