Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bitten by "The Gold-Bug"

On June 21, 1843, the Dollar Newspaper in Philadelphia published the first part of one of Poe's most important stories. That same day, the Public Newspaper reported:
"The Dollar Newspaper" for this week, this day published, contains the prize story of "THE GOLD BUG," written by Edgar A. Poe, Esq., which is pronounced, by every man of taste who has read it, a production of superior merit. For ourselves, we never read a fiction that in its plot runs more in the line of probability, and consequently never one that more closely revetted [sic] our attention from its opening to its close.
Must have been a slow news day, and the idea that the story was "probable" is somewhat laughable. Actually, the fuss was about the writing contest which the Dollar Newspaper sponsored, specifically because of its unusually-high grand prize: a whopping $100. When it was awarded to Poe, it became (and remained) the single largest sum of money Poe would ever receive for any work he ever published. In fact, jealous writers and suspicious readers (not to mention competitor publishers) suggested the contest was rigged. Philadelphia's Daily Forum called "The Gold-Bug" an "abortion" and "unmitigated trash" worth no more than $15. Those lines drew a libel suit from Poe, though the suit was soon dropped and the editor apologized.

The high pay-out and the controversy surrounding it helped build interest in an already exciting story. "The Gold-Bug" became the most widely-read of Poe's prose work during the author's lifetime, even inspiring a stage adaptation in Philadelphia. A year after its publication, it was claimed that the story sold 300,000 copies. Poe noted that "it made a great noise."

I'll briefly emphasize this: the prose work which earned Poe his largest paycheck and garnered his largest reading audience was not a horror story.

"The Gold-Bug" is a gripping adventure tale about the search for buried pirate treasure (set, incidentally, at Sullivan's Island near Charleston, South Carolina, where Poe had served in the Army). Poe keeps us guessing, not only with a narrator who is suspected to be insane, but also through secret-writing — the clues that lead to the treasure which is eventually deciphered. The story is considered an off-shoot of Poe's true detective stories (i.e. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"). Scholar of cryptography Shawn James Rosenheim (in his worthwhile book The Cryptographic Imagination) calls the story "a stimulus to future cryptographers," including William Friedman, who later broke the code used by the Japanese in World War II. "America's foremost cryptologist," as he was called, credited his interest in secret writing to Edgar Poe and childhood readings of "The Gold-Bug."

*The illustration above is by F. O. C. Darley, 1843. It accompanied the first appearance of "The Gold-Bug."

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