Walter Benjamin, “The Flâneur,” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973), 35–66.
Who is Poe's “Man of the Crowd”?
Article first published online: 3 FEB 2012
© 2012 Washington State University
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 17–38, October 2011
How to Cite
FINK, S. (2011), Who is Poe's “Man of the Crowd”?. Poe Studies, 44: 17–38. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6095.2011.00034.x
- Issue published online: 3 FEB 2012
- Article first published online: 3 FEB 2012
The critical interest attending Edgar Allan Poe's tale “The Man of the Crowd” has come largely in the wake of Walter Benjamin's famous essay treating the Man of the Crowd and/or the narrator as the type of the flâneur, the desultory observer of the modern capitalist cityscape.1 Since then, it has become one of the more widely discussed and debated stories in the Poe canon. Yet while ambiguities and irresolution are clearly part of its modern appeal, I would argue that the story offers up more answers to its mysteries than have yet been acknowledged.
The narrator of the story sits in a London coffeehouse observing, identifying, and classifying the passing crowds, until he is arrested by the sight of an old man and what he describes as “the absolute idiosyncracy [sic] of … expression” on his face (Works, 2:511).2 Unable to identify or categorize the old man, the narrator follows him through the streets of London until, after a full twenty-four hours of wandering, he finally abandons the vain attempt to comprehend the stranger. He asserts that the Man of the Crowd is “the type and the genius of deep crime,” but he can penetrate the mystery no further and concludes with the remark with which he began his account, that “‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—it does not permit itself to be read” (Works, 2:515, 506).
Poe scholars have tended to focus on the character of the narrator more than on the old man himself, and in doing so they have analyzed the various ways in which the narrator is limited, inadequate, or unreliable; yet they have tended to accept the narrator's judgment that the old man and his crime must remain shrouded in mystery. J. Gerald Kennedy, for example, has argued that attention to the old man only obscures the real center of interest in the story, the narrator's conflicting and irreconcilable modes of perception, and Kennedy concludes that “the man of the crowd retains the ultimate inscrutability of Melville's white whale, symbolizing (if anything) man's inability to ascertain, by means of reason, any absolute knowledge of the world beyond the self.”3 Similarly emphasizing the stranger's inscrutability, Robert H. Byer writes, “Like an apparition in a dream, the old man seems to inhabit a world other than the narrator’s, one that the narrator cannot communicate with in ordinary ways yet that is ‘all-absorbing’ to him.”4 Stephen Rachman's insightful reading of Poe's story (which takes as foundational Benjamin's essay on the flâneur and “Robert Byer's equally wonderful Benjaminian reading of the tale”) concludes that “in the end ‘The Man of the Crowd’ leaves the reader with the figure of the old man (who effectively stands for the city itself) as an illegible book.”5 Whether because of the old man's seemingly innate incomprehensibility or the narrator's perceptual inadequacy, critics have not merely been incurious about pressing further to identify the Man of the Crowd, but have clung to the notion of his fundamental inscrutability. Richard Kopley would seem to be something of an exception in his recent source study suggesting that Poe's portrait of the Man of the Crowd draws heavily on the character of “Mr. Gordon” in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Pelham (1828); but even as he makes his case, Kopley concludes that “Poe brilliantly intensified the mystery of Bulwer's character, forbearing narrative explanations, intimating only the strange, the enigmatic, the diabolical.”6
From the point of view of the story's narrator, the old man is indeed inscrutable—but then Poe's fictive narrators are notoriously unreliable. I propose, therefore, that in spite of the narrator's limitations and his own abandoned attempt to decipher the stranger's identity, Poe as author provides clues (clues that the narrator observes but is unable to interpret) that should be sufficient for us, and particularly for his contemporary readers, to recognize and so in fact identify the Man of the Crowd. Condemned to wander endlessly, guilty of some unspeakable crime, the old man, I would argue, is Poe's version of the legendary Wandering Jew—a richly varied and versatile figure, the subject of centuries-old tales, and a figure that particularly fascinated Poe's contemporaries.
In truth, a few Poe scholars have briefly noted the affinity between Poe's Man of the Crowd and the legendary Wandering Jew, but they have stopped short of identifying Poe's character as the Wandering Jew and have tended to turn away from this connection in the pursuit of an alternative reading of Poe's tale. In her 1933 study, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, Marie Bonaparte interrogates the identity of the Man of the Crowd and suggests that, in spite of the requisite “mysterious atmosphere” of the tale, “Poe's description of his hero is sufficiently revealing,” and that the identity of the demonic old man is clearly Poe's stepfather, John Allan.7 Bonaparte essentially argues that this is an oedipal drama in which the son wreaks (fictive and posthumous) punishment on the father-figure for his psychosexual violence against the mother-figure, Frances Allan. As she explicates this psychodrama, Bonaparte contends that Poe's punishment of John Allan takes its form from the mythic archetype of the condemned eternal wanderer, as found in such figures as Cain, the Flying Dutchman, the Wild Huntsman, the Waltzmann, and the Wandering Jew. Of the similarities between the Man of the Crowd and the Wandering Jew, Bonaparte notes (somewhat inaccurately): “Both are filthy, old, and eternal wandering is the punishment for their crime. In the legend, the Wandering Jew has always some few pence in his pocket, which never increase or diminish: similarly, the Man of the Crowd wears a single diamond as a relic of past splendor.”8 But Bonaparte goes on to devote equal attention to each of the above-named legendary figures, each of whose crime, she says, is “basically … the same.”9 Thus, while Bonaparte recognizes some affinities between the Man of the Crowd and the Wandering Jew, she is more concerned with reading “The Man of the Crowd” as Poe's oedipal psychodrama, in which any and all of these archetypal legendary figures lead her back to identifying the Man of the Crowd as Poe's embodiment of John Allan.10 In more recent scholarship on Poe's tale, Dana Brand and John Frow both make passing reference to the similarities between the Man of the Crowd and the Wandering Jew as the type of the urban criminal, but (like the scholars cited above) both Brand and Frow are chiefly interested in expanding upon the Benjaminian reading of the flâneur in the modern city, and so focus on the urban landscape itself and on the tale's unreliable narrator. They do not pursue either the question of the old man's identity or his evocation of the Wandering Jew.11
In this essay I argue not merely that we can recognize how Poe may have drawn upon the archetypal figure of the criminal wanderer in creating his Man of the Crowd, but rather that Poe carefully and deliberately invokes the figure of the Wandering Jew and means him to be recognized as such. To make this case, I will first provide background on the legend of the Wandering Jew; discuss the legend's popularity among writers of the romantic period and in popular periodical literature of Poe's day; describe briefly the traditional and stereotypical representations of the Jew that persisted into the nineteenth century; and finally demonstrate how all of this material informs our reading of Poe's tale, leading to the recognition which Poe deliberately has his narrator miss but which, I argue, he anticipates that his reader—the true detective—will discover.
There are several excellent modern scholarly studies of the legend of the Wandering Jew, but I quote here the opening of an unsigned essay titled “The Wandering Jew” that appeared in the American Monthly Magazine in August 1836, both because it has the virtue of brevity and because it would have been readily available to Poe and his readers:
The wandering Jew is a fictitious personage, who figures in certain legendary tales founded on an occurrence which is traditionally said to have happened at Jerusalem at the time of Christ's crucifixion. According to the more current account, the Saviour, when fatigued by the burden of the cross on his way to Calvary, stopped to rest himself by reclining against the house of a Jew named Ahasverus. The zealous Israelite, enraged by this fancied profanation of his premises, rudely ordered Christ to leave the spot, and proceed, assailing him in his wrath with a torrent of denunciations and reproaches. Jesus cast a mild look at the passionate man, and said,—“Thou shalt wander on the face of the earth till I come!” Ahasverus, confounded by the rebuke from the Saviour's eye, and internally acknowledging the force and authority of the sentence, did not recover the use of his faculties until after the procession had passed on, and the streets were deserted and silent. Then, in obedience to the command, and impelled by remorse and an ardent, irrepressible longing for dissolution then first felt, he commenced his wandering career, and since wanders perpetually from place to place, and from country to country, in the vain search of a grave and repose. Thus the legend.12
The legend can be dated at least as far back as the thirteenth century, and versions of it are found throughout Europe into the modern period. It has proven to be a particularly malleable as well as persistent legend, manifesting itself in a wide variety of forms. All early accounts have as their foundation some version of the Jew's insult to Jesus on his way to the crucifixion, and Jesus's curse, “I go; but thou shalt tarry till I come” (that is, until the Second Coming), resulting in the character's eternally wandering the earth.13 Some versions represent the Wandering Jew as a penitent, a convert to Christianity, and in some cases a holy bishop. Others represent him as an impenitent, bitter, despairing wanderer, though sometimes credited with great worldly wisdom; this latter version is sometimes further conflated with elements of the Faust legend, in which the Wandering Jew seems to have allied himself with Satan and possesses tremendous powers, even as the curse still leaves him a despairing and isolated wanderer of the earth. Both strains of the legend persisted into the nineteenth century, and inevitably, elements of both are sometimes blended.14
Ballads of the Wandering Jew appeared in England in the early seventeenth century, one quite fully articulated version of which was later collected in Bishop Thomas Percy's popular and influential Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. The seventh stanza of Percy's ballad, which captures the essence of the legend (and anticipates my argument about Poe's story), reads:
No resting could he finde at all,No ease, nor hearts content;No house, nor home, nor biding place:But wandring forth he wentFrom towne to towne, in foreigne landes,With grieved conscience still,Repenting for the heinous guiltOf his fore-passed ill.15
The author of the 1836 American Monthly Magazine essay on the Wandering Jew gives a brief history of the legend, cites (skeptically) several folk accounts of recent supposed encounters with the Wandering Jew, identifies some of the important literary adaptations of the legend, and notes in particular the current vogue for the legend. He quotes in full a translation of the 1783 lyric “Der ewige Jude” by Christian Schubart, which was particularly influential on the next generation of romantic writers. Schubart briefly describes the Jew's insult and, in a slight variation on the conventional account, has Jesus himself remain “mute, in agony,” whereupon the “indignant” Angel of Death intervenes to pronounce the curse:
—“The rest thou dids't deny t’ the Son of Man;Be it denied, inhuman wretch! to thee;Till HE come, shalt thou tarry!”******A demon,Hell-born and black, since scourges AhasverFrom clime to clime—Mortality's repose,The grave's sweet peaceful sleep, to him denied!
Schubart's lyric goes on to provide a concise account of the epic wanderings of the Jew and his encounter with grand historical and natural events: the fall of Jerusalem and then of Rome; his inability to destroy himself by throwing himself first into the sea and then into Mt. Etna's “fiery gulf”; his witnessing various bloody battles involving Gauls, Germans, Saracens, and so on, through all of which he laments,
“Forbid to die! ha, ha, forbid to die!Forbid from life's long toil to seek repose;And doom’d this clay-clad frame, of death-like hue,With its infirmities and pains, to bearThrough waning centuries; ever to beholdThat yawning, withering monster—Sameness,And restless, genial, ravenous Time,For aye producing and devouring too!”16
Virtually all of the canonical romantic poets were intrigued by the legend and, drawing upon such sources such as Percy's Reliques and Schubart's poem, added their own versions to the growing body of literature on the Wandering Jew. The American Monthly Magazine's essay on the subject quotes at length from Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit, wherein he describes his early (but unrealized) ambitions to write a long poem on the subject; Wordsworth wrote a short lyric titled “Song for the Wandering Jew” (1800); Shelley introduces the character into his works on several occasions, including his 1810 lyric “The Wandering Jew's Soliloquy” (in which the Jew ferociously curses a bullying and unjust God) and his 1813 “Queen Mab,” influenced by Schubart's lyric; and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is recognizable as a derivation of the figure of the Wandering Jew. Among the most ambitious and popular poetical treatments of the day was a long tragic-romantic poem in four cantos by Mrs. Caroline Norton, titled “The Undying One,” first published in 1830, in which she describes her version of the Wandering Jew as a sojourner “Amongst men; but not with them; still alone / Mid crowds, unnamed—unnoticed and unknown.”17
The figure of the Wandering Jew was an appealing topic not only for poets but also for fiction writers, and particularly writers of gothic fiction. Although the Wandering Jew appears in only a few paragraphs of Matthew Lewis's 1797 gothic novel, The Monk, the popularity of this novel makes it one of the most influential gothic appropriations of the figure. The narrator observes that when he first encountered this mysterious stranger, “there was a something in his look, which the moment that I saw him, inspired me with a secret awe, not to say horror”; and, when subsequently interrogated, this strange figure laments: “No one … is adequate to comprehending the misery of my lot! Fate obliges me to be constantly in movement. … I have no Friend in the world, and from the restlessness of my destiny I never can acquire one. Fain would I lay down my miserable life, for I envy those who enjoy the quiet of the Grave: But Death eludes me, and flies from my embrace.”18 Two years after Lewis's novel was published, the Wandering Jew made another appearance, in William Godwin's romance St. Leon (1799). The title character of Charles Maturin's celebrated gothic novel of 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer, is a hybrid figure, part Wandering Jew, part Faust, part vampire, but still clearly recognizable as a variant of the legend and acknowledged as such by contemporary critics. In 1827, George Croly published an extremely popular historico-religious novel on the theme, titled Salathiel (and subsequently retitled Tarry Thou Till I Come; or Salathiel, the Wandering Jew). In his preface to the novel Croly writes, “There has appeared from time to time in Europe, during the last thousand years, a mysterious individual, a sojourner in all lands, yet a citizen of none; professing the profoundest secrets of opulence, yet generally living in a state of poverty; … —without lineage, or possession, or pursuit on earth—a wanderer and unhappy.”“That exile lives,” Croly insists, “that most afflicted of the people of affliction, yet walks this earth; bearing the sorrows of eighteen centuries on his brow,—withering in soul with remorse for the guilt of an hour of madness.”19 Another (though less popular) epic-length, historico-religious novel based on the theme was published in 1834, titled The Doomed.20
In addition to these, it should be noted that more ephemeral references to the figure of the Wandering Jew were common in the periodical literature of the day. A search of the American Periodical Series from 1800 to 1840 (when Poe's tale was first published), for example, yields 193 hits for the term “Wandering Jew.” These periodical texts represent a wide and varied range of references to the legend: journalistic essays rehearsing its history, fanciful sketches penned by the “Wandering Jew” himself, numerous poems elaborating versions of the character, brief anecdotal accounts of “sightings,” reviews or reprints of some of the works discussed above, and many merely passing references and instances of the Wandering Jew used as a simile in pieces not otherwise concerned with the subject. As the anonymous author of “The Wandering Jew,” a brief 1827 New-York Mirror item, claims: “Every body has heard the traditionary fable of the Wandering Jew. … This fable is still believed by many, among the ignorant, even in this country. … In this legend we may discover the origin of a great number of wild, romantic tales. … It is the father of that numerous tribe of unearthly romances, whose heroes are endowed or afflicted with supernatural longevity.”21 As a career magazinist, Poe could not have failed to recognize the popular currency of the figure.
In the decade after Poe's story first appeared, of course many more literary treatments of the Wandering Jew were published, including Hawthorne's tale “A Virtuoso's Collection” (first published in 1842), and—most famous of all—Eugène Sue's extravagant 1844 gothic novel, Le Juif Errant, which Poe himself excoriated in (unpublished) marginalia comments but which was immensely popular and gave rise to a whole new generation of treatments of the Wandering Jew.22
By focusing on examples that appeared prior to the publication of Poe's “Man of the Crowd,” I mean to suggest not merely their availability to Poe but also that a significant familiarity with the legend of the Wandering Jew would have been virtually unavoidable on Poe's part. Moreover, for readers familiar with Poe's tale, I hope that these descriptions of and quotations from accounts of the Wandering Jew have already sparked flashes of recognition. But before turning to Poe's tale, I also want to consider briefly the most salient images associated with the stereotypical Jew in Poe's day, for one of my contentions is that, in order to make his Man of the Crowd identifiable as the Wandering Jew, Poe invokes some of the stereotypes associated with Jews generally—apart from, or in addition to the characteristics unique to the legendary wanderer. For the persistent stereotype of the Jew, the most obvious touchstones in English literature are Chaucer's “Prioress's Tale,” Shakespeare's Shylock, and—among Poe's contemporaries—Dickens's Fagin. As Edgar Rosenberg points out in his study From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction, the Jew's “two dominant criminal guises … [are those] of mutilator and usurer.”“In Chaucer,” he notes, “the attributes of murderer and parasite, devil and usurer, already flourish side by side. … The crime at the heart of Chaucer's story [“The Prioress's Tale”] is one of blood sacrifice and mutilation with a knife, a staple of medieval balladry.”23
By Shakespeare's time, Rosenberg notes, murder and usury were often conjoined in the stereotype of the Jew: “The one crime, of course, did not exclude the other: the Jew's knife was now poised for purposes of extortion.”24 That is, Shylock the usurer is associated with both jewels (those which his daughter Jessica takes when she elopes, as well as Portia's three jewel caskets) and knives: Bassanio asks Shylock, “Why dost thou whet thy knife so earnestly?” And when Shylock explains that he intends to claim his pound of flesh, Gratiano adds, “Not on thy sole, but on thy soul, harsh Jew, / Thou mak’st thy knife keen.”25
Charles Dickens's Fagin, in Oliver Twist (1838), is, as Rosenberg points out, an essentially medieval type, the Jew as both murderer and thief, or fence—transported to the criminal underworld of nineteenth-century London. “Like Shakespeare,” Rosenberg writes, “Dickens juxtaposes the symbols of the jewel casket and the knife.”26 Recall that the morning after Oliver's first night in Fagin's lair, Oliver spies “the Jew” secretly opening his jewel box, examining “a magnificent gold watch, sparkling with diamonds,” as well as “other articles of jewelry”; and that when Fagin discovers Oliver watching him he seizes a knife: “Oliver could see that the knife quivered in the air” as Fagin threatened him to tell what he’d seen, “Quick! for your life!”27 Here again, these citations emphasizing the role of the jewel and the knife as the iconic emblems of the stereotypical Jew as usurer/thief and murderer should spark flashes of recognition for readers familiar with Poe's story.
Turning directly now to “The Man of the Crowd,” we can begin to trace in detail the clues embedded in the story that enable the reader to make the identification between Poe's mysterious old man and the Wandering Jew. I will take up the role and character of the narrator shortly, but let us assume for the moment that he reports what he observes more or less accurately, even if he does not know how to interpret or what to infer from that data, and that Poe has of course calculated just what data he wants his narrator to make available to the reader. The tale begins with the narrator quoting the striking description of a German book, “that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—it does not permit itself to be read” (Works, 2:506). For no particularly evident reason at this point, the narrator immediately shifts the object of this description from a book to certain people who, metaphorically, cannot be “read”; and he further insists that this indecipherability is associated with secrets, confessions, guilt, despair, hideous mysteries, and a horror-laden conscience so heavy that “it can be thrown down only in the grave” (Works, 2:506–7). We come to understand, of course, that this foreshadows his characterization of the Man of the Crowd. The Wandering Jew epitomizes such guilt and despair, to be relieved only by the grave, which, ironically and terrifyingly, is precisely what he is denied. But any specific identification comes, of course, only once the Man of the Crowd is actually introduced, which does not occur until after the narrator has indulged in an extended account of his leisurely afternoon observing and classifying the passing crowd. “Suddenly,” he tells us, he was arrested by the striking countenance of “a decrepid old man” notable for “the absolute idiosyncracy of its expression” (Works, 2:511). All the other passers-by observed by the narrator had fallen into readily identifiable social and economic categories or types—the opposite of idiosyncratic. But here is someone apparently unique in the world. The narrator goes on to describe him as a perfect image of “the fiend,”28 and says, “there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense—of supreme despair” (Works, 2:511). The narrator does not know what to make of these powerful impressions, however, and some critics have thus simply dismissed the narrator's observations as impossibly contradictory and thus unreliable.29 Yet we can recognize these traits as evoking the type of Faustian figure (the vast mental power, the triumph, the merriment and terror, and the despair) as well as the stereotypical demonic Jew figure (the caution, the penuriousness, avarice, coolness, malice, and blood-thirstiness) that merged in the “supreme despair” of the legendary Wandering Jew.
As the narrator observes and describes the man more closely, he remarks, “His clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but … I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture” (Works, 2:511–12). Here too the apparent contradictions are not irreconcilable but rather precisely revealing: they suggest not merely the avaricious and yet penurious demonic Jew figure (such as Fagin) but more specifically the conventionally described Wandering Jew. Croly, recall, describes the Wandering Jew as one “possessing the profoundest secrets of opulence, yet generally living in a state of poverty”; and a slightly later anonymous essay on “The Wandering Jew” states that in all the many accounts of this figure, “his dress, though ragged and torn, [is] said to retain traces of oriental finery.”30
Poe's narrator then says that “my vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a closely-buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and of a dagger” (Works, 2:512).31 These items arouse the narrator's curiosity, but he offers no explanation of them, and Poe scholars have added very little further interpretation. Robert Byer, for example, suggests that “the diamond and dagger that the narrator glimpses portend a gothic tale of crime and concealed identity,” but offers no further reading of these images or the “concealed identity.”32 Jeffrey Meyers observes merely that the dagger and the diamond represent “the weapon and the spoils, it would seem, of his criminal practice.”33 J. Gerald Kennedy seizes upon the “tantalizing ambivalence” of the narrator's observation and dismisses the images as an unreliable projection: “One of the many delusions plaguing the narrator is his intuition that the stranger (an incarnation of ‘the fiend’) conceals a terrible secret,” and “his perceptions begin to ‘confirm’ his suspicions.” Kennedy suggests that the narrator only thinks he sees a diamond and a dagger, when in truth he is a victim of his own delusions and has, like the narrators of “Ligeia” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” entered a “realm of fantasy and hallucination.” Even granting the point, Kennedy offers no further reading of the significance of the diamond and dagger specifically, other than that they serve (in the narrator's mind) vaguely as “emblems of the old man's sinister nature.”34 Yet the diamond and dagger are quite specific and deliberate images, and Rosenberg's analysis has shown us how iconic and persistent these conjoined images are to the stereotype of the demonized Jew as both murderer and thief, both violent and avaricious.35 Poe's narrator seems, in fact, to be a keen observer of details: the first part of the story, providing his analysis of the passing crowd, establishes this. Only in the case of the idiosyncratic Man of the Crowd is he unable to interpret, or read these signs. Yet this is not because, as he claims, “they do not permit themselves to be read”; while he is at a loss to explain what he (accurately) observes about the old man, these observations are sufficient clues for Poe's more astute readers.36
His curiosity aroused by these observations, the narrator “resolve[s] to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go” (Works, 2:512). The narrator's remark here seems, surprisingly, to be an allusion to Luke 9:57: “And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.” There are multiple ironies here, starting with the blasphemous inversion whereby this narrator vows to follow not Christ but rather the one man whose rejection of Christ left him cursed to endless wandering. Moreover, this man's promise to follow Jesus is an ironic counterpart to the Wandering Jew's “rudely order[ing] Christ to leave the spot, and proceed, assailing him in his wrath with a torrent of denunciations and reproaches” (for which the Jew is cursed to tarry till Jesus returns).
In the course of his subsequent trek through the city on the stranger's trail, the narrator refers to him specifically—if naively—as “the wanderer” (Works, 2:513); he tells us, “[the old man] rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged, and which put me to much trouble in pursuit,” and he “ran with incredible swiftness” through the streets, possessed “with a mad energy” (Works, 2:513, 515). Here again, if the narrator himself cannot explain the youthful energy of this old man, the reader familiar with the legend of the Wandering Jew has sufficient clues at least to suspect the identification. In Matthew Lewis's The Monk, for example, the character of the Wandering Jew explains one of the chief elements of his curse: “No one … is adequate to comprehending the misery of my lot! Fate obliges me to be constantly in movement.”37 Shelley describes the Wandering Jew (Ahasuerus) in Queen Mab as follows:
His port and mien bore mark of many years,And chronicles of untold ancientnessWere legible within his beamless eye:Yet his cheek bore the mark of youth:Freshness and vigour knit his manly frame;The wisdom of old age was mingled thereWith youth's primæval dauntlessness;And inexpressible woe,Chastened by fearless resignation, gaveAn awful grace to his all-speaking brow.38
And in a ballad widely reprinted in American magazines in the 1840s, the Wandering Jew explains to folk why he cannot pause with them for food and rest:
… “Believe me,I suffer bitter wo;Incessant travels grieve me;No rest for me's below;A respite have I never,But march on, on for ever!… … … …I cannot take your proffer,I’m hurried on by Fate.”39
As we traverse the city in the company of the narrator, on the trail of this mysterious stranger, we encounter every social stratum of the urban landscape.40 But even as the stranger is desperate not to be isolated from the crowd, he is never, in fact, a part of it. As Caroline Norton had described in her account of the Wandering Jew, he wanders “Amongst men; but not with them; still alone / Mid crowds, unnamed—unnoticed—and unknown.”41 In general, then, the narrator's description of the Man of the Crowd echoes, quite precisely at times if unwittingly to him, the character and description of the Wandering Jew that we find, for instance, in Percy's ballad, in Shubart's lyric, in Lewis's The Monk, or in almost any other of the familiar examples from which I have quoted in this essay. The Man of the Crowd is a ceaseless but aimless wanderer, a “singular being,” as the narrator describes him, with “something even more intense than despair … upon [his] countenance” (Works, 2:515).
Finally, after following the old man throughout all the neighborhoods and social strata of London, the narrator tells us that, “as the shades of the second evening came on, [he] grew wearied unto death” and at last abandoned his pursuit (Works, 2:515). And here again he seems clearly but unwittingly to provide just the terms that enable us to recognize the figure as the Wandering Jew himself, whose curse was precisely to be “wearied unto death” and yet to be denied both rest and death. The narrator is not, then, mistaken when he concludes that the Man of the Crowd “is the type and the genius of deep crime” (Works; 2:515); he simply lacks the knowledge needed to identify and name him or his crime—knowledge that Poe's readers would possess.
The brilliance of Poe's version of the story of the Wandering Jew consists, I think, in its compression, its distillation, and, finally, in his choice of a naive narrator. As we know, compression and unity of effect were cardinal principles for Poe.42 In traditional versions of the legend of the Wandering Jew, space and time are endless; the figure has traversed the globe over a period of two millennia. Some writers exploited the epic scale of this premise, narrating a series of potentially endless episodes as the Wandering Jew traveled from country to country, century after century, witnessing the rise and fall of empires, and all, for him, resolving themselves, as Schubart had memorably expressed it, into “that yawning, withering monster—SAMENESS.”43 In his encyclopedic study of the legend of the Wandering Jew, George K. Anderson observes:
It is a curious fact that most attempts to give the Wandering Jew a central position in a long narrative have failed. … The real problem, of course, is always that the Legend lacks the dramatic tension needed to build up a cumulative narrative capable of holding, for an extended period, the interest of the reader. Once all the circumstances accompanying the Jew's wanderings have been told, and the protagonist has begun his peregrinations, there is little more to do than to give him adventures in a structure demanding only a stringing together of incidents, letting him bemoan his fate in the meantime; and such adventures and lamentations cannot be drawn out indefinitely.44
Poe, however, compresses all the world into the microcosm of the vast city. Covering all social strata and districts, his London epitomizes the world. Similarly, the vast sweep of centuries is compressed into the span of the single day the narrator follows the Man of the Crowd. The narrator claims to be able to “read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years,” and in the arresting countenance of the stranger the narrator indeed sees the effects of the Wandering Jew's endless and despairing career: “‘How wild a history,’ I said to myself, ‘is written within that bosom!’” (Works, 2:511). Poe does not need to recount the particulars of the Wandering Jew's history, his terrifying encounters with the sea or volcanoes or wars. Their cosmic sameness, after all, is the terrifying point, epitomized by the character's endless and futile encounter with the crowd, which he desperately follows but which he can never really engage or be a part of. And a single twenty-four-hour period in the footsteps of this eternally wandering figure is sufficient for the narrator to be “wearied unto death.”
Finally, we need to return to Poe's narrator—the focus of most scholarship on the story. Walter Benjamin asserted that the flâneur, the stroller, evolves into the detective, giving the desultory observer a purpose and social utility.45 Several critics have taken Benjamin's hint and read Poe's narrator in this story as a detective manqué, who “reads” the outward clues identifying the passing crowds but who turns out to be, as Kennedy puts it, “no Dupin,” for he is unable to read the Man of the Crowd, and the tale ends with his simply giving up. And yet, as I have noted, Kennedy also accepts the Man of the Crowd's “ultimate inscrutability.”46 My claim, on the contrary, is that while the narrator is indeed “no Dupin,” the mystery is not inscrutable. Poe has provided enough clues to place the astute reader in a superior position to the narrator, a position from which he or she is in fact able to read the signs and discover that the Man of the Crowd is actually the Wandering Jew—in effect, to step in as “Dupin” where the narrator himself fails. This is not a unique or new narrative strategy for Poe, of course, and Kennedy is correct, then, insofar as he sees the narrator as unreliable. But Kennedy regards the narrator's unreliability as a matter of “delusions … fantasy and hallucination”47—whereas I would argue that the narrator's unreliability is simply a matter of what James Phelan would classify, in his taxonomy of types of unreliable narration, as the narrator's “underreading” of the Man of the Crowd, where “underreading” is defined as occurring “when the narrator's lack of knowledge, perceptiveness, or sophistication yields an insufficient interpretation of an event, character, or situation.”48 If this is the case, then the stranger need not remain inscrutable to the attentive reader. Rather, I would argue, we are intended to read and revise the assumptions of this narrator just as we do the cruder (and differently unreliable) failed perceptions of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, or the more ambiguous and complex misperceptions of the narrator of “Ligeia” (at least for those more “rational” readers who find sufficient evidence to resist a supernatural reading of this story).
In “The Man of the Crowd,” Poe taps into the pervasive familiarity of his age—its fascination, even—with the legend of the Wandering Jew. Like his romantic predecessors and contemporaries, he was drawn to craft his own version of this alienated, isolated, tormented and rebellious figure. Even more than many of his romantic contemporaries, Poe was quick to engage and exploit the fads and phobias of popular culture (from phrenology, to mesmerism, to Egyptology, to the fear of premature burial, for example). Moreover, Poe himself was profoundly drawn to the idea of the unnatural prolongation of life. (His explorations of this subject would include the obvious examples of metempsychosis in “Metzengerstein” and “Ligeia”; the return from the grave in “Berenice” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”; the resurrection via “Voltaic pile” in “Some Words with a Mummy”; and the unnatural prolongation of life via mesmerism in “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar.”) Given this fascination, it would be surprising, indeed, if Poe had not at some point taken up the legend of the Wandering Jew.
It is also noteworthy that almost all of the tales named here contain an element of hoaxing or having a joke at the reader's expense, an element I find in “The Man of the Crowd” as well. Cleverly and ironically reversing the occasional accounts of “sightings” of the Wandering Jew that appeared in the periodical press—and that provoked only amused skepticism on the part of sophisticated readers49—Poe here tells a tale in which the inadequate narrator-cum-detective fails to recognize what would be apparent (in spite of themselves) to those same sophisticated readers, thus disarming their skepticism and inviting the reader to indulge in that satisfaction that comes from discovering the solution to the mystery him- or herself. Just as the reader of “The Tell-Tale Heart” can smugly “correct” the narrator and say, in effect, “No, no—it's not the old man's heart beating beneath the floorboards, you fool—it's your own heartbeat you hear, or your own guilty conscience deluding your perceptions!” so the astute reader of “The Man of the Crowd” can say to the narrator, “No, no—this is not a book that does not permit itself to be read! This is the Wandering Jew you’ve been following! Read the clues! You’ve discovered him and don't know it!”
Admittedly, neither Poe's contemporary reviewers nor latter-day scholars seem to have read the clues much better than Poe's narrator. Among the published reviews of Poe's 1845 Tales, few even mention “The Man of the Crowd,” and none makes the identification of the old man with the Wandering Jew.50 Reviews, of course, are not a particularly reliable index of wider reader response, and we cannot know the extent to which individual readers recognized the Wandering Jew in Poe's Man of the Crowd. Perhaps Poe's mystery was simply too subtle for his own good, and his hoax failed because his readers were no more attentive to the clues he had so carefully planted than was his observant but obtuse narrator. Moreover, Poe's narrator is not the only red herring Poe uses in this tale to throw his reader off the scent: the title itself, “The Man of the Crowd,” seems a deliberately misleading, or at least deeply ironic, description of this radically alienated urban isolato; and it takes both a skeptical and an attentive reader to question the validity of the epigram with which the narrator so insistently both begins and ends his tale: “er lasst sich nicht lesen.” But as James M. Hutchisson suggests, “Just as the old man is ‘unreadable’ to the narrator but the narrator is nonetheless driven to interpret him, so too does Poe give us, here and elsewhere, stories that are encoded texts, books that invite scrutiny and analysis but give up their secrets … only by dint of patient and persistent inquiry.”51 Poe's contemporaries were actually very well equipped to solve the mystery of “The Man of the Crowd,” bombarded as they were with rich and varied accounts of the Wandering Jew, and I suspect that, while none seems to have left a written record of the fact, many did indeed find pleasure in out-sleuthing the narrator in solving this mystery.
Modern readers of Poe, and especially academic readers, are perhaps both more inclined and better equipped than Poe's contemporaries to scrutinize and analyze encoded narratives, but we are (like the narrator, it would seem) generally unfamiliar with the legend of the Wandering Jew that resolves the mystery of the old man's identity. Moreover, the mystery of that identity has been superseded for many twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers by an interest in Poe's “prescient” representation of the modern urban milieu and the flâneur as modern urban denizen52—an interest that has generated its own valuable and complex analyses of Poe's story that speak to our contemporary concerns. Finally, modern readers are drawn precisely to the sustained ambiguity and unresolved nature of this tale that is available only if we do not solve the mystery it poses. The fact that Poe does not solve the mystery for us is precisely what makes the tale seem “modern” and accounts in part for its greater critical stature today than in Poe's lifetime.53 Yet to engage the reader as an active participant in the construction of the narrative is also very “modern.” Poe deliberately refuses to let his narrator solve the mystery that he poses, but he provides the reader with all the evidence he or she needs to complete the seemingly incomplete tale. And it behooves us—modern, sophisticated readers that we are—not to miss the clues and so become the butt of Poe's joke, as is the naive reader in so many of his tales.
“The Man of the Crowd” was first published in both the Casket and Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in December 1840. As T. O. Mabbott explains: “George R. Graham, proprietor of The Casket, bought the Gentleman’s from Burton, and under Graham's editorship Poe's story appeared in both The Casket and the Gentleman’s for December. Both issues carried the new heading ‘Graham's Magazine’ on the first page of the text” (Works, 2:506). Poe's story was subsequently reprinted, with only minor authorial changes, in the 1845 Tales by Edgar A. Poe (Wiley and Putnam).
J. Gerald Kennedy, “The Limits of Reason: Poe's Deluded Detectives,”American Literature 47 (May 1975): 190.
Robert H. Byer, “Mysteries of the City: A Reading of Poe's ‘The Man of the Crowd,’” in Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 239.
Stephen Rachman, “Reading Cities: Devotional Seeing in the Nineteenth Century,”ALH 9 (Winter 1997): 657, 659. Rachman goes on to argue that the Man of the Crowd also “personifies mass culture and the urban newspaper” (660).
Richard Kopley, “Poe's Taking of Pelham One Two Three Four Five Six,”Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation 41 (2008): 112.
Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker (1933; London: Imago, 1949), 417.
Bonaparte, Life and Works, 421–22.
Bonaparte, Life and Works, 423. Stephen Peithman follows Bonaparte and notes that “‘The Man of the Crowd’ also shares something with the legend of the Flying Dutchman … particularly the notion of a man doomed to wander endlessly until his crime is expiated,” but does not mention the figure of the Wandering Jew (The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe[Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1981], 187).
“The son's Œdipus complex thus engendered, by projection, this legend of the father punished for the dual crime which the son is forbidden to commit; the seizure of the mother and the destruction of the troublesome rival; here, the son” (Bonaparte, Life and Works, 425).
Dana Brand, “From the Flaneur to the Detective: Interpreting the City of Poe,” in The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 79–105; John Frow, in “The City at Human Scale,”Critical Quarterly 51 (December 2009): 37–49. In discussing the figure of the urban criminal and the crowd, Brand invokes Bonaparte in noting that “Poe's ‘man of the crowd’ has also been associated with the Wandering Jew … and he may be associated with Cain” as a figure “excluded from the society of others by a crime he has committed” (86–87). Frow argues that “we should be wary of this narrator,” whose characterization of the old man is suspect because it imposes on and thus reads into him a purely “literary type, the type of the remorseful criminal,” such as Cain or the Wandering Jew (41). Frow goes on to point out that Poe would have known versions of the Wandering Jew legend from both Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Godwin's St. Leon, but these observations remain curiously undeveloped and unconnected to the rest of his essay. Both Brand and Frow, like Kennedy, take Benjamin's cue and analyze Poe's narrator as a proto-detective or detective manqué.
“The Wandering Jew,”American Monthly Magazine 8 (August 1836): 153.
The phrase attributed to Jesus in the legend, “I go; but thou shalt tarry till I come,” ultimately has its source in a conflation of John 21:22, in which Jesus replies to Peter, “If I will, that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (King James version), and Matthew 16:28, in which Jesus proclaims, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (King James version). The phrase appears in one of the earliest accounts of the Wandering Jew, Matthew Paris's thirteenth-century Chronica Majora, and became conventional in subsequent accounts of the legend. Paris is often quoted directly, as in the 1836 American Monthly essay discussed here (153), but the phrase also frequently appears without attribution in other nineteenth-century sources, including its paraphrase in the title of George Croly's popular 1827 version of the legend, Tarry Thou Till I Come; or Salathiel, the Wandering Jew, discussed below. So pervasive is the phrase in accounts of the Wandering Jew that it takes on the appearance of scriptural authority.
George K. Anderson's Legend of the Wandering Jew (Providence: Brown Univ. Press, 1965) is the most thorough and authoritative account of the legend. Eino Railo focuses chiefly on the gothic literary appropriations of the legend in “The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Never-Ending Life,” chap. 5 of The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (New York: Humanities Press, 1964), 191–217. The essays in Galit Hasan-Rokem and Alan Dundes's collection The Wandering Jew: Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986) take a broadly folkloristic approach to the legend. See also Edgar Rosenberg's discussion of the legend of the Wandering Jew in chapters 8 and 9 of his From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960); and Frank Felsenstein's chapter “Wandering Jew, Vagabond Jews,” in Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660–1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 58–89. None of the scholarship on the legend of the Wandering Jew, however, has taken note of Poe's “The Man of the Crowd.”
Thomas Percy, “The Wandering Jew,” in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. Edward Walford (London and New York: Frederick Warne, 1880), 253.
“The Wandering Jew,”American Monthly Magazine, 159, 161. On Schubart, see Anderson, Legend of the Wandering Jew, 171–73.
Mrs. [Caroline Sheridan] Norton, The Undying One, and Other Poems (London: R. Bentley, 1853), 36.
Matthew Lewis, The Monk, ed. Howard Anderson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 168–69. The stranger is subsequently identified explicitly as “the celebrated Character known universally by the name of the Wandering Jew’” (177).
George Croly, Salathiel: A Story of the Past, the Present, and the Future (London: Henry Colburn, 1828), v-vi. Following the original 1827 edition, the novel was republished under several variant titles.
While the August 1836 American Monthly Magazine essay on “the Wandering Jew” asserts that “in English literature, Salathiel, Melmoth, and the Doomed, are perhaps the more extensively known productions based on this legend” (155), the same magazine's review of The Doomed, two years earlier, had considered it “a work of more pretension than merit,” comparing it unfavorably to “Croly's magnificent novel of Salathiel.” See “The Doomed—A Novel,”American Monthly Magazine 4 (1 November 1834): 141–42.
“The Wandering Jew,”New-York Mirror, 20 October 1827, 118. In an 1842 review of a new poem on the Wandering Jew, “Ahasuerus,” the reviewer also notes that “few legends seem to have taken stronger hold of the popular fancy than this” (Southern Literary Messenger 8 [March 1842]: 237–40).
For the text of Poe's unpublished marginalia on Sue's Wandering Jew, see Jeffrey A. Savoye, “A ‘Lost’ Roll of Marginalia,”Edgar Allan Poe Review 3 (Fall 2002): 52–72. These marginalia (Stedman manuscript) are also reprinted as part of Poe's complete works on the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore's excellent web site.
Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 6, 24–25; emphasis added. In “The Prioress's Tale,” the “cursed Jew” apprehends an innocent Christian child and “kitte his throte.” The dead child miraculously continues to sing “O Alma redemptoris mater!” even as he acknowledges, “My throte is kut unto my nekke boon.” See The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 162–63. Felsenstein observes, “Typologically, the action of Abraham, the partriarch of the Hebrews, with his knife offering the child Isaac as sacrifice, became in the medieval mind a telling antecedent to the fatal sacrifice of Christ by the Jews” (Anti-Semitic Stereotypes, 32).
Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 25; emphasis added. Felsenstein also discusses “the coding of Jews as compulsive misers and ritual murderers” (Anti-Semitic Stereotypes, 159).
Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice IV.i: 121–24. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Afred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), 235.
Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 133. See also the discussion of Fagin and Jewish stereotypes in Felsenstein, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes, 238–43.
Charles Dickens, “Oliver Twist,”Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art 33 (May 1838): 136–37. The first English edition of Oliver Twist was published by Bentley in 1838; the first American edition by Lea and Blanchard (Philadelphia) in 1839, but it had been serialized in Philadelphia's Museum of Foreign Literature beginning in May of 1838—the edition cited here as the first American edition that would have been available to Poe. In some later editions, Dickens describes Fagin's watch as “sparkling with jewels” rather than “diamonds.” See Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966), 51–52.
Specifically, the narrator says, “I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding [the old man's expression], was that Retzch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictorial incarnations of the fiend” (Works, 2:511). German artist Friedrich August Moritz Retzch (1779–1857) was most famous for his illustrations of Goethe's Faust, first published in a German edition of 1816 and first translated into English in 1820 in an edition that was widely circulated and frequently reprinted. Thus Poe not only identifies the old man with the “fiend” but also indirectly invokes the Faust myth (seemingly presuming his readers’ familiarity with the popular Retzch illustrations), which, as I have noted, had come to have a strong influence on one strain of the legend of the Wandering Jew.
J. Gerald Kennedy regards the narrator as an unreliable and “deluded” observer, a failed detective, and characterizes the narrator's description of the Man of the Crowd as “only conflicting impressions” that demonstrate the narrator's inability to “maintain a critical detachment” (“Limits of Reason,” 188). Dana Brand makes a similar argument (“Reconstructing the ‘Flâneur’: Poe's Invention of the Detective Story,”Genre 18 [Spring 1985]: 41). Yet, as Felsenstein contends in his study of early English stereotypes of Jews, “a stereotype is almost invariably bipolar”; moreover, he also notes, in passing, a 1933 Princeton University study in which students “selected out of a list of eighty-four bipolar attributes the following adjectives as characteristics that they associated with Jews: shrewd, mercenary, industrious, grasping, intelligent, ambitious, sly” (Anti-Semitic Stereotypes, 13, 23).
Croly, Salathiel, v. The anonymous essay on “The Wandering Jew” referred to here originally appeared in Bentley's Miscellany 13 (1843): 48–52 and was reprinted numerous times in American magazines: see Eclectic Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art 1 (March 1843): 423–26; Brother Jonathan, 11 March 1843, 290–91; Casket, 26 August 1846, 158–59; Ladies’ Garland 6 (September 1846): 75–79.
In the original 1840 version of the story, Poe had written “a glimpse either of a diamond, or of a dagger” (emphasis added), but in one of the few substantive revisions he made for the 1845 Tales, Poe pointedly changed this to “both a diamond and a dagger” (emphasis added). See “The Man of the Crowd,”Graham's Magazine 7 (December 1840): 269. Poe's revisions for the 1845 Tales were careful and deliberate, and he did not alter this revision in the J. Lorimer Graham copy of that volume, which Mabbott uses as the copy text (Works, 2:506–18).
Byer, “Mysteries of the City,” 223.
Jeffrey Meyers, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992), 116.
Kennedy, “Limits of Reason,” 189. While Kennedy's reading might actually have been reinforced had he cited Poe's “either/or” language of the 1840 version of the story (which he does not), the fact is that Poe's subsequent revision seems expressly designed both to reduce the ambiguity of the perception and to reinforce the actual conjunction of the dagger and diamond. But even the 1840 wording, while it may call into question precisely what it is the narrator sees, succeeds in bringing the images of the dagger and diamond into conjunction in the reader's mind.
As the narrator observes through the coffeehouse window the parade of the city's denizens, in descending social order, he observes—near the bottom of the scale—“Jew pedlars, with hawk eyes flashing from countenances whose every other feature wore only an expression of abject humility” (Works, 2:509). Felsenstein's chapter “Wandering Jew, Vagabond Jews” is especially good at documenting the historical emergence of Jewish pedlars in England, the dominant stereotypes used to characterize them, and the blurring of stereotypes of the Jew pedlar and the mythic Wandering Jew. Poe's old man is clearly not simply one of these Jew pedlars of London, however, even as they too share some stereotyped characteristics. Neither in traditional accounts nor in Poe's tale is the Wandering Jew identified as part of the Jewish community—he is a radically isolated and solitary figure, belonging to no human community, even as he is described with conventionally “Jewish” attributes.
Peithman observes: “When [the narrator] comes close (literally) to an understanding of what the man symbolizes, he retreats, offering as an excuse that there is nothing left to be learned. There may indeed be much more to learn, but the narrator may not be ready for it” (Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, 194).
Lewis, The Monk, 169.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, with Notes (New York: Wright and Owen, 1831), 48–9.
This ballad is included in the anonymous essay “The Wandering Jew,” which originally appeared in Bentley's Miscellany in 1843 and was widely reprinted in American magazines, as cited in n. 30 above; the text used here is “The Wandering Jew,”Brother Jonathan, 11 March 1843, 290. While the essay appeared after Poe's story was first published, it conveys the essential trope with which Poe would have been familiar, as he certainly was with the Lewis and Shelley works.
Concomitant with critical interest in the narrator's relation to the figure of the flâneur, a great deal of attention has been paid to Poe's descriptions of London and his representation of the modern urban milieu per se, and it is generally accepted that he drew rather heavily upon Dickens's Sketches by Boz for some of his scenes and descriptive language. While this indebtedness is noted by Mabbott, the most meticulous and provocative accounts of it are Stephen Rachman's “‘Es lässt sich nicht schreiben’: Plagiarism and ‘The Man of the Crowd,’” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 49–87; and Rachman's “Reading Cities.” Stuart Levine and Susan Levine also suggest that Poe's narrative and descriptions owe much to William Maginn's sketch “The Night Walker,” published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 14 (November 1823): 507–11); see Levine and Levine, eds., The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), 253–54. In neither Dickens nor Maginn, however, do we find a source or analog for Poe's mysterious old man.
Norton, Undying One, 36.
Among the clearest of Poe's articulations of these principles in the prose tale is his (second) review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, in Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 20 (May 1842): 298–300.
Christian Schubart, “Der ewige Jude,” as quoted in “The Wandering Jew,”American Monthly Magazine 8 (August 1836): 161.
Anderson, Legend of the Wandering Jew, 171.
“If the flâneur is thus turned into an unwilling detective, it does him a lot of good socially, for it accredits his idleness. He only seems to be indolent, for behind this indolence there is the watchfulness of an observer who does not take his eyes off a miscreant” (Benjamin, “The Flâneur,” 40–41).
Kennedy, “Limits of Reason,” 187.
Kennedy, “Limits of Reason,” 189.
James Phelan, Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2005), 52. Phelan's taxonomy comprises “six kinds of unreliability: misreporting, misreading, misevaluating … and underreporting, underreading, and underregarding” (51).
As in the New-York Mirror's comment that “this fable is still believed by many, among the ignorant, even in this country” (“The Wandering Jew,” 20 October 1827, 118; emphasis added).
Of the fifteen reviews of Poe's Tales (1845) collected in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage (ed. Ian Walker [London: Routlege, 1986]), only four even mention “The Man of the Crowd”; none offers an extended analysis, and none makes a connection between this (or any other Poe story) and the Wandering Jew.
James M. Hutchisson, Poe (Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2005), 120.
J. Gerald Kennedy summarizes this appeal: “The Man of the Crowd,” he writes, “conveys a prescient awareness of metropolitan alienation, in which a voyeuristic narrator regards passersby simply as social types, [and] describes the city as a desolate, dehumanized place” (A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001], 9). The dominance of this focus among contemporary scholars is immediately evident in such titles as “Mysteries of the City” (Byer), “Reading Cities” (Rachman), “The City at Human Scale” (Frow), and The Spectator in the City (Brand). In contrast, one of Poe's few contemporary reviewers to comment on “The Man of the Crowd,” William Henry Smith, writing for Blackwood’s, complains of the unrecognizability of Poe's London: “In this description [extracted from the story] it would be difficult to recognize the topography of London, or the manners of its inhabitants. That Square brilliantly illuminated and thronged with promenaders, the oldest inhabitant would scarcely find. He closes his gin-palace at the hour when, we believe, it would be about to re-open; and ejects his multitude from the bazaar and the theatre about the same time. … This is a matter hardly worth remarking; to his American readers an ideal topography is as good as any others. … We are led to notice it chiefly from a feeling of surprise, that one so partial to detail should not have more frequently profited by the help which a common guide-book, with its map, might have given him” (Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, 221–22).
Levine and Levine's introductory comment to “The Man of the Crowd” may be taken as representative: “It is not easy to say exactly what this strange and wonderful story means. … [I]ts refusal to moralize is very modern” (Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, 253).