One of Edgar A. Poe's more enduring comedy stories, "The Business Man" was first published in the February 1840 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia. Poe, of course, wrote a substantial number of comedies and satires (and, really, started his prose career with them) but many have lost their humor after 150 years. "The Business Man," however, is still funny — especially in the context of today's economy!
Poe makes fun of the "typical" businessman (people like John Allan?) who profits through ruthlessness and questionable ethics. The businessman of the story, Peter Pendulum (later renamed to "Peter Proffit"), describes himself:
I am a business man. I am a methodical man. Method is the thing, after all. But there are no people I more heartily despise than our eccentric fools who prate about method without understanding it; attending strictly to its letter, and violating its spirit. These fellow are always doing the most out-of-the-way things in what they call an orderly manner. Now here, I conceive is a positive paradox. The true method appertains to the ordinary and the obvious alone, and cannot be applied to the outre.
Pendulum's "method" is simple: make money, no matter how. Presumably he never violates the spirit of being a businessman throughout his many business ventures. Through the course of the story, he has many careers. For one, he joins the "Eye-Sore" business: purposely building ugly homes and structures adjacent to beautiful new buildings, and asking for 500% of the value to tear it down. He also joins the "Assault-and-Battery" business by provoking people on the street into fights, then suing them for attacking him. He also becomes a "Mud-Dabbler" and asks people to pay him not to splash mud on them as they walk by. Later, he makes his money as a "Cat-Grower": raising cats and selling their tails ("tales"? Could this be an indictment of the businessmen in the publishing industry??).
"The Business Man" is still funny 169 years after its publication — if you don't mind the absolute ridiculousness of it, of course. But, to sum up, here is Poe's version of the great businessman, in the words of Pendulum:
If there is any thing on earth I hate, it is a genius. Your geniuses are all arrant asses—the greater the genius the greater the ass—and to this rule there is no exception whatever. Especially, you cannot make a man of business out of a genius... The creatures are always going off at a tangent into some fantastic employment, or ridiculous speculation, entirely at variance with the "fitness of things," and having no business whatever to be considered as a business at all. Thus you may tell these characters immediately by the nature of their occupations... Now I am not in any respect a genius, but a regular business man.
It's important to remember that Poe was a business owner for a while too, albeit years after this story was printed. Read more about The Broadway Journal in previous blog posts.
After Poe's death, his infamous literary executor Rufus W. Griswold collected his works into a multi-volume edition in 1850. Griswold excluded "The Business Man" from this collection, either because he didn't know about it, or because he considered all of Poe's comedies to be miserable failures. Griswold is at least partially responsible for burying Poe's humor works — and that influence remains to this day. Who out there thinks of Poe as a comic writer?