Poe, The Man of the Crowd

“Poe was one of the greatest technicians of modern literature.” (Benjamin, 42)

“Poe's famous tale 'The Man of the Crowd' is something like the X-ray picture of a detective story. In it, the drapery represented by crime has disappeared. The mere armature has remained: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who arranges his walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd. This unknown man is the flaneur.” (Benjamin, 48)

Edgar Poe in The Man of the Crowd warns the reader in the first few sentences that “[t]here are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.” This statement is quickly forgotten once you get immersed into his vivid description of the street and city life, which commences from behind a café window and culminates in a very long pursuit on foot. It is forgotten until you reach the end of the tale, and realize that Poe had warned you earlier, and now he leaves you with one of these secrets that ‘do not permit themselves to be told.’ i.e. who is this flaneur and what is he up to?

In a mere few pages, Poe masterfully manages to paint a stellar picture of the scene around him, predominantly focusing on the crowd along side the flaneur which captures his attention. In comparison with Vito Acconci’s work, as Tom McDonough points out, Poe gives us a glimpse of his state of mind, and lets us into his inner thoughts and process of thinking as events unfold.

Poe describes with captivating detail and prose different groups in the crowd such as businessmen (noblemen, merchants, attorneys etc.), clerks, pickpockets, gamblers, peddlers, beggars and so on. Then, “suddenly came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,) … which at once arrested and absorbed [his] whole attention.” The rest of the tale revolves around this mysterious character as he wanders throughout the streets and markets of London until Poe can n no longer keep up his pursuit.

In essence, are we observing two flaneurs? The old man and Poe? As McDonough suggests, the flaneur (specifically referring to Benjamin’s flaneur) may either be the strolling detective in search of a crime or “as himself [the] criminal.” (101)

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