I said last week I’d post here and there about public domain texts, and it’s nigh time I did. With Halloween approaching, I decided Edgar Allan Poe would be a good place to start, but ended up selecting a wonderful gem of a detective story over any of his famous horror stories.
The Gold Bug is a first-rate story that would appeal to fans of The Da Vinci Code for its puzzles and problem solving, and appeal to folks like me who like the idea of The Da Vinci Code but wanted it to be better. Poe is funny, clever, and inventive in this one.
Now, Poe is a rare writer, one of those ones that continues to be popular despite having the yoke of “great writer” on him. There’s a saying that a classic is something people want to have read but nobody wants to read, but Poe is definitely a writer you do want to read. You don’t read Poe to be edified, you read his stuff because it’s enjoyable.
He’s also one of those writers who, when you’re a graduate student in literature, and you decide he’s just too popular to be that good and must be over-rated, proves upon further investigation to be even better than his reputation. Is it possible for one of the most popular writers of all time to still be underrated? Well, from a historical context, yes. Poe invented the psychological thriller and the detective story. He also, as many people do not know, was a devastating parodist, honestly one of the funniest writers of his era, as this story illustrates. He became the most famous name in scary stories without resorting to tried-and-true tropes like vampires and ghosts. He found unique, inventive ways to instill dread, often without anything supernatural. It’s just that his work is so well known, it’s easy to take it for granted until you compare him to his contemporaries and see how far ahead he was of all of them (except Hawthorne, as Poe would agree), and then look at how much influence he had on the next century of writers.
And here’s the kicker — he did all that sort of on the side, to pay the bills, while he wrote some of the most measured, exact poetry of the 19th Century. It’s sentimental for our 21st Century tastes, but the sheer poetics are astounding.
By the way, Poe’s legendary persona as drunken lunatic is wildly exaggerated. To be true, marrying your 13-year-old cousin and dying in a dramatic and mysterious way will inspire biographers to paint your portrait in a lurid way, but Poe was really much to hard a worker to be the reprobate he’s made out to be.
Anyway, one notable thing about “The Gold Bug” that makes it stand out in Poe’s oeuvre is its setting. Poe set most of his stories in Europe or vague, unnamed places that feel like Europe. This is an exception, as it is set in the southern United States and has a wonderful local color to it. I apologize in advance for the character of Jupiter, who is a bit of a racist caricature, but is also (like Jim in Huck Finn) a sympathetic and likable character.
So, if you have an hour, read this story. It’s on the house.