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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Analysis of Poe's The Man of the Crowd

The Man of the Crowd was written in 1845 by Edgar Allan Poe. It is the tale of an inquisitorial episode experienced by an unnamed narrator in Victorian London. It tackles issues of human alienation and anonymity within a populous settlement. The narrator – recovering from ill-health - starts the story sat in the window of a coffee-house. Captivated by the city’s crowds that gather outside, the narrator wonders about how isolated people are. As he watches these growing masses, Poe’s storyteller describes the London characters of the time. Poe had known London as a child and was familiar with the growth of the city – becoming the world’s largest settlement and the global hegemon. The throngs that were come to be witnessed in London were not conceived by Poe, they were experienced and regurgitated into his stories. Through the voice of the narrator he accurately identifies clerks, gamblers, tradesmen and attorneys throughout the coming and going of their daily lives. During this examination, a man captures his attention. Using observations of the fine details of people, he detects a difference in this man’s behaviour and appearance to those that he before identified. Describing the man as grotesque, the narrator decides to follow him through the busy streets of London because his ugly exterior and curious actions captivate him. The unusual man leads the narrator through busy streets, always staying in crowds. The pursuit lasts through the night and into the next morning, with the action never pausing. The narrator analyses this man until he has apprehended his essence, which is to be the eponymous antihero of the story. By the end of the tale, the narrator gives up on the man - letting him carry on with his mysterious activities.

Poe’s story is one that I have studied throughout my academic career. Not only have I referred to the text during my PhD psychogeography research at Brunel University London, it was also prominent during my Master’s degree in Film and Literature at The University of Essex. During my Master’s, I studied modules in both psychogeography and book-to-film adaptation – and TMOTC – as I will refer to it throughout this piece – was relevant to both. Yet, it has only been through my PhD research and supervision from Will Self that I am now conscious of TMOTC’s historical influence on psychogeography and urban wandering. Poe’s work was translated into French by Charles Baudelaire and TMOTC became a key inspiration throughout his theories of dandyism and art in his The Painter of Modern Life essays. These Baudelairian concepts had a latter impact on the practice through the notion of the flâneur. Descriptions of the flâneur were eerily like the man appearing in TMOTC – “The crowd is his element. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement”. This was a connection not made aware to me during my Master’s module on the practice - due to insufficient teaching. Instead, the story was only analysed during the adaptation module.

During this module the concept was to examine adapted texts that have evolved over time. For example, we looked at the evolution of the European folk tale – Little Red Riding Hood. This classic has been rewritten by various authors over centuries – such as the Brothers Grimm and the latter Angela Carter. Alongside this, there was discussion on how literature has adapted into cinematic forms of media - The Company of Wolves directed in 1984 by Neil Jordan reworking Little Red Riding Hood for instance. TMOTC was compared with Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder and the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation Rear Window – released in 1954. It was also traced back to the earlier “Des Vetters Eckfenster” by E.T.A Hoffmann – translated into English from its original German as “My Cousin's Corner Window” - a tale suggested to have influenced Poe. In this, a wheelchair-bound man believes in the art of watching and observing people. The world outside the eponymous window includes a Berlin marketplace with mostly female attendants buying apparel. Using his observations of people’s clothing, behaviour, and appearance he attempts to gain knowledge of people’s feelings, motivations, and thoughts. All akin to Poe’s TMOTC. From this experience - and TMOTC rising in importance in my scholarly studies once again through the practice of psychogeography – it has been a piece of work that has fascinated me across various disciplines of research and one I have also enjoyed reading outside of academia. I own an anthology of Poe’s work that I have read many times for my own personal pleasure. Thus, when asked by Will Self to delve into a piece of writing that I particularly admire, along with connecting with my own fondness of wandering places – Poe’s TMOTC was an obvious choice. I enjoy urban wandering because it brings me closer to the history of places – a relationship that can’t be achieved in other modes of transport. TMOTC exemplifies two men fulfilling tasks that are a part of my own walks – spectating and becoming part of a crowd. TMOTC resonates with me as a text, but also a method of lifestyle.

For this task I have printed, reread, highlighted and annotated a copy of TMOTC – emphasising everything I appreciate about the piece. The purpose of this activity is to help me garner a grasp - by delving into a piece of writing I respect - on what my own style of literature should evolve into throughout this PhD. Currently my prose feels robotic and is yet to have a unique, entertaining form and this is an issue that Will Self and I wish to work on. I desire to shape my prose into a style that readers will look at and know that it is immediately a piece of writing by Benjamin Thomas. I hope by deeply studying TMOTC it will influence me to write comparably to what I appreciate about writing – without straying into potential issues of imitation. I have looked at Poe’s vocabulary, his style, his prose and his descriptions - all building blocks that have constructed a piece of writing I respect.

To start with, Poe’s observational skills throughout the text inspire me. TMOTC provides in-depth descriptions of people, places and movement that only writing akin to this would incorporate. Through the narrator, Poe’s writing has a voice to describe minor details in clothing, faces and the actions of the personalities that live within the bustling throngs of London. The city pulses - a heart made of brick and mortar. The murky descriptions of this era are brought thrashing into life. The crowd described is full of miniscule elements that make the writing feel busy – akin to the crowd itself – but doesn’t overwhelm the page. In a poorer piece of writing, one might display an extended list of features that read as monotonous. Instead, Poe describes every piece of material in a romanticised manner – rather than being stilted. The scene feels busy, but it remains painless to follow due to the quality of the imagery. The man whom Poe’s narrator follows is mysterious, vague and he takes the narrator on an accidental, unplanned journey. Yet as a reader you have enough shadowy information about the man to fixate on – keeping you intrigued with following the narrator’s story - who in turn is following the man - to discover more about him. This creates a chain of perspectives– the man is being pursued by the narrator, who is consecutively giving voice to Poe’s writing, which we are then reading. The story thus has more layers than an average tale. The focalisation of Poe’s narrative causes the reader to look through the narrator at the man, triggering both characters to become alienated “avatars” of sorts – icons representing the reader on the streets of Victorian London. We are reading the action through the eyes of a narrator, but a different viewpoint would be seen through those of the shadowy man – changing the tale. For me, TMOTC is a fine example of fiction creating a virtual reality – decades before computers and video games. The way Poe has structured the piece – the ebbs and flows of movement, the perspective we see the action from, the descriptions handed out to us – create the aura of continuously following. The reader is within the narrator’s mind and his thought process is not broken by speech or another character’s interruption. Only the reader and the narrator know about this “secret” mission that they are on – not even the fellow followed. I believe this structure feeds the uncanniness of the piece – causing it to feel so vivid. Something is slightly off – following a chain of perspectives rather than just the atypical lead character’s in most novels. This uncanniness enhances the narrative, one Poe has expertly constructed through not only his language, but his composition.

As much as TMOTC focuses around a man following a strange figure throughout London’s streets, it is also concerned with place and anonymity within a crowd – themes that are recurrent throughout my PhD reading. Being anonymous within a city is a matter thrust to the reader immediately with a French quote by philosopher Jean De La Bruyere heading the text – “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul” – roughly translated as “such a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone”. I savour this quote as I relate to it - I enjoy the feeling of belonging in a crowd over being solitary, like the mysterious figure the narrator follows. I enjoy large sporting events and walks around bustling cities. I feel a sense of inclusion when part of a crowd. I’m not alone, but I can feel alone – that is the key impression for me. At any moment, I can snap out of anonymity and impact on the situation through conversation with someone, but I can also people watch and keep to myself. It is the perfect environment for stimulating my own stories through contrasting notions. I am not averse to walking in remote areas and experiencing nature and the countryside – but there is a thrill of feeling the thrum of a city and its inhabitants. I liken watching the crowds of a city to viewing an ant farm. People travelling to work in throngs, making the same journey every day. Always in lines – queues. London was the first metropolis that the world generated, and it became that ant farm because of the ongoing impact of capitalism and population growth. Poe was writing about a new kind of city experience. City lovers relishing anonymity within a crowd would have a fresh fixation to experiment with and Poe has immediately noticed this phenomenon. Before London and other cities became heavily populated, those in a settlement knew each other and all their business – with the arrival of such metropolises this was no longer witnessed in society. Instead people began to reside next door to strangers that they didn’t even know the name of – unimaginable before. Those who thrive on being an unknown – such our mysterious man in the tale – can now live this life. This new social perspective enthrals Poe and I. A downside of this is the loss of community – people can now avoid others if they wish to, when before they would be inclined to be a part of a larger group. It has also seen an increase in crime, especially at night-time, where mysterious figures such as the one in this story, can blend in with a crowd and get away with misdemeanours.

There’s a personal coincidence with the French quotes within this piece – La Bruyere was born in Paris, a city key to my studies to date and one I have visited for this PhD. La Bruyere’s quote also offers a sinister opening to the piece – one that attracts a reader without too much context but does not come across as being casually dropped in for superficial purposes. As well as this quotation, another – this time in German - “er last sich nicht lessen” – translated roughly as “something not permitting it to be read” - is within the opening sentence of the tale and again appears in the last sentences of the piece. A phrase that promptly signifies the issues of identity within a crowd. This quote resonates with me because not only does this continue the mysterious feel the reader is about to experience – it is describing exactly what the man we follow is - but it is also an important part of writing. Being successful at connecting the beginning and end of any text - as Poe does using the quote – is a feature of strong prose. Repeating phrases or themes and using them in this manner is an aspect I wish to experiment further with in my texts and this is a great example of how do it.

Poe possesses an impressive lexicon, and he avoids using simple language. Yet, it is worth noting that Poe’s vernacular was more appropriate to the time rather than a linguistic decision by him. Terminology such as “habiliments” may have been used by authors and the higher class during the Victorian age. I don’t intend to stray into the issue of believing a word I’m not familiar with - because it has become archaic – is a fantastic choice of vocabulary because I have simply not heard of it. However, I do believe that using antiquated lexicon can have a positive effect on strengthening writing – if it doesn’t feel forced. Therefore, by looking at Poe’s work, I don’t wish to copy all his language – as it wouldn’t be appropriate for a modern piece – but I do hope to maintain some for my own word banks. Examples that I particularly enjoyed; “convalescent” instead of “recovering”, “ennui” instead of “boredom”, “promiscuous” instead of “immoral”, “inquisitive” instead of “nosy”. These words strike immediately within the text and lambaste the reader with an interesting vocabulary. Poe avoids using phrases that a lazy piece of writing would contain – something my own have unfortunately suffered with thus far. As well as impressive alternative nouns and adjectives, Poe uses strong verbs such as “peering” and “observing” instead of “looking” and “watching” or “deriving” instead of “obtaining” - displaying that minor tweaks evidence extra thought and strengthen a literary text. Delving further through the narrative, Poe uses more vocabulary that excites me. Examples that impressed include – “evinced” instead of “show”, “descried” instead of “catch sight of”, “idiosyncrasy” instead of “peculiar”, “perviousness” instead of “poor” and “avarice” instead of “greed”. Alongside these, within the first section I appreciated the two following phrases; “I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in everything” and “I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon” - these both explain to a reader what the narrator is doing - taking them by the hand into the tale. There is no confusion in the text of what is happening, who it is happening to, when it is happening and why it is happening. These “W features” are vital components that writing – fictional or non-fictional – should include. Every text should answer those questions and Poe does this effortlessly – I wish to recreate this ease in my own writing. I also recognise the value of the flowing, poetic aura of the sentences that Poe has fashioned. They are phrases that are not only impressive in form but serve an important function throughout the piece.

Within the second paragraph of the narrative, there is another extended section that feels poetic and rhythmic - “…the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, thus, with a delicious novelty of emotion, I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene”. The manner of which this phrasing flows is admirable – particularly for a longer sentence. The use of words such as “tumultuous” and “delicious” are sensually provoking. Poe also describes both darkness and light prior to this passage - a very difficult thing to portray on paper. Writers occasionally lack rich descriptions of brightness when depicting scenes - preferring to highlight shadowy darkness for narrative objectives. Poe’s story details gas lamps lighting up the dark city – ensuring he illustrates both illumination and dimness effectively. Cities were transformed when public lighting was introduced and "night life" was made possible for the first time. We are seeing the impact of this new style of city-dwelling throughout the piece. Poe creates a sense of uneasiness in scenes, at one point describing the most deplorable poverty and desperate crimes taking place in London - using again a strong vocabulary that aids the reader’s visual imagination of the city. These crimes were not witnessed by a nightwalker, themselves a new being after the introduction of lighting, before the introduction of gas lighting.

Psychogeography is a practice concerned with the minute details of places. Poe – ahead of the coining of psychogeography by decades - portrays the narrator owning this trait - “I descended to details and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage and expression of countenance.” I particularly enjoy this phrasing, as not only is it leading the reader into an understanding of the world view of the narrator, but it also clarifies what to expect from Poe going forth. It is another well-written, lyrical sentence that also serves a function. It could have instead been a robotic list of features that the writer will point out throughout the piece. For instance: “I will point out all the details of everything I see – clothes, buildings, people” – may be how a monotonous prose would have read – and perhaps what my writing would have been guilty of doing. I love how Poe describes it as “descending into details” – giving the sense he’s gone mad from illness and obsession yet is enjoying this convalescent state of mind. The details he is witnessing in the crowd have caused an addiction for Poe’s narrator – he thrives on these and when he can not find them in the mysterious man he goes into a relapse and must obtain them. The narrator stays up all night to find out the details of the man, losing sleep over him, obsessing over him – akin to many addictions. Just as the man he follows is dependent on being amongst the throngs, Poe’s narrator is obsessed with following him, it is only when he has lost a sense of time that he stops. For the man, his addiction is more psychologically impactful – he must stay among these crowds, or he will lose sense of whom he truly is. Poe shows other clues to his narrator being an addict – he consumes small details, he feels a rush from the chase, and he forgets his illness and poor health to hunt for his vice. Poe is reported to have been addicted to alcohol and perhaps this different variant of addiction is so vividly portrayed throughout the piece because of this.

Poe’s depictions of individuals and the city create emotive passages. The narrator investigates layers of not only imagery, but social superiority and standings. The text discusses the rich and the poor - and the narrator can verify stereotypes of all classes in the crowd but doesn’t write them as so. He doesn’t lean towards caricatures when describing people – something I admire. When reading his descriptions of the jostling clerks for example, he depicts them so vividly that a reader can envision them but avoids using trivial language to do so. For example, he could have lazily portrayed them as “smartly clothed” or “looking stern”, but instead depicts their “well-oiled hair”, the texture of their “supercilious” lips and even the influence their professions have had on their ears - he notices that a man's ear sticks out a small amount for example, suggesting he must store his pen behind his ear. Their small habits as clerks are noted – he points out each character’s own twitches and strange actions – “I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands.” The text shows that a writer with a keen interest in people, stereotypes and behaviour should not only judge whom someone is immediately, but also describe them captivatingly. Poe uses these descriptions of people to embellish his visualised cityscape descriptions. These workers are components of the city, they are as much of a part of the urban environment as the buildings that they scurry around. In addition to TMOTC being a level of writing that I wish to reach, it is a level of observation as well. Akin to Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin’s detective character – which is argued to have influenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes - where a protagonist solves crimes in a forensic approach - looking around a room and noticing minute evidence. As I am attempting to be a writer of these situations and practices, I should be able to do as Poe’s narrator or Dupin or Holmes – notice every detail of a crowd or place and deduce what is going on whilst explaining it to the audience effectively. It is key to what makes TMOTC an invigorating text, but also psychogeography a stimulating practice. Every object has a story behind it, every place has a history and every person has a backstory - and Poe can weave an anecdote about all. I want to be able to tell the story of the “steady old fellows” that the narrator witnesses without issue – much like Poe is capable of. I want to have the ability to follow a mysterious man on a whim like Poe does, and create an interesting tale to go along with the experience. When I first read the story, I was invested in what I would find out about the man. I was eager to discover what he was doing. I want readers to have that same investment in any piece of writing I pen.

I also relish Poe’s quips throughout. Although his writing is often defined as horror and gothic, he also has a dry sense of humour. In brief remarks such as “They did not greatly excite my attention”, Poe puts aside a section of society that he doesn’t find interesting in a sardonic manner but doesn’t exclude it wholly. As mentioned before, every detail is seen through the narrator’s eyes – despite the reader never finding out anything about the owner of this set of eyes. The narrator is as mysterious as the man he follows. We don’t know how he has arrived in this city and neither do we know his career or what he looks like – yet we trust him. He could have not commented on the group he was bored by, but instead describes the passengers in depth before putting them in reserve in a humorous manner. He could then return to them if he wished to – as they remain an important part of the crowds the man darts between. This, for me, keeps the reader’s faith in him rather than causing a reaction of disenchantment. A reader may think – “well what about this section of people?” – if they were excluded without mention - as anyone who visits a city would know they exist. As a writer it is important to guarantee that audiences do not lose belief in your story. A reader should take writing as face value and possess a suspension of disbelief – especially in a fictional piece. To use a popular media idiom – if a piece of writing “jumps the shark” – readers will lose conviction in the text. There is a particular kind of suspension of disbelief witnessed in the TMOTC. It creates an uncanny atmosphere that keeps the reader guessing until the very end – an incredibly Freudian attitude. For this to be successful, Poe needs to authoritatively establish a faith in his writing – one a reader is indoctrinated that the narrative is drenched in believability. Nothing in the text comes across as impossible or unrealistic - despite a mysterious, hideous man being at the core of it. Poe also generates humour with the use of metaphors, there is a sequence that describes a few of the gentleman he witnesses in a bird-like example. He extends “Birds of a kindred feather” in the following sentence with “they seem to prey upon the public”. This is a great illustration of how to broaden a metaphor throughout writing and use the writer’s tool of repetition to great effect – a feature I mentioned earlier. He maintains the metaphor in the next paragraph describing the Jew pedlars as having hawk eyes – in what is clearly an antisemitic statement, one of the few moments Poe does stray into stereotyping.

Finally, there are two further commendable highlights of TMOTC that not only deepen the text, but also collaborate well with psychogeography praxis. Incorporating all senses throughout is one - a strong awareness of history is the other. Poe mixes both within his writing – and these are key perceptions that should pervade psychogeographic texts. Will Self recommends that I ensure every page I write in a piece like TMOTC should contain reference to each sense - touch, smell, sight, taste and sound. I have found that I have neglected touch and taste in my pieces of writing, leaning on sight, smell and sound. Of course, we must remember that these senses are privileged in a piece of writing – notably sight as it is key to igniting a reader’s imagination – but it does not excuse overlooking the other senses and it is an area I wish to develop in. Poe uses all five throughout TMOTC, and it strengthens the text. As earlier stated, the descriptions of what the narrator witnesses are admirable, but he also smells the horrible filth built up in the city’s gutters, he hears the chatter and noise among mobs coming out of theatres and late-night establishments, he feels the bullying touch of the crowds as he rushes through them and feels a change in the weather part way through the story – offering a two perspectives of touch - and it is implied that he tastes coffee as the narration begins. As for including history, there are not tangents into tales of what has happened in these streets before – a feature of later psychogeographic writing such as Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd, but there is a sense of the history of London personified through the hideous man. We know he is older, ugly and repulsive and has lived a terrible life – one that has led him to becoming a “man of the crowd”. Importantly, the man knew London before it became the metropolis, when social relations were more happily organic. This man visits these places for historical reasons unbeknown to the audience – all expertly portrayed in Poe’s vivid descriptions of his demeanour – but also to keep up with the crowd as to not feel the alienation that the new status of the city has caused. By being in these busy places, the man wishes to erase the sense of being alone in the vast city. London wasn’t previously like this for him, and the change has had psychological affects on him. He is plucked from an older style of living in the city and arguably takes the form of a time-traveller throughout TMOTC.

The perfect flâneur and the passionate spectator that Baudelaire keenly wrote on are proficiently represented in TMOTC. Poe’s narrator represents both – as does the mysterious man. They are ancestors on the psychogeography family tree that I desire to be a member of. By looking at Poe’s writing, I hope that I can branch out to create my own style that allows me to become a unique part of this adopted family.

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