Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" As a Satire of the Penny Press
In the mid-nineteenth century , the "penny newspaper" could be found on almost every American urban street corner. These penny papers, as they were popularly called, provided the American people for the first time in history with informative articles about local city events, incidents, and, more importantly, inner-city crime. These penny rags revealed an entirely new world to the American citizens; they were informed for the first time of the many heinous crimes and murders that occurred right in the vicinity of their own houses. At a time when America was first being introduced to such local injustices, it is quite understandable that penny papers claiming to present factual accounts of local life and crime would be a primary source of intrigue. Americans were known to daily purchase these papers for a penny apiece just to satisfy their hungry curiosities. However, the journalists of these penny papers, in hopes of increasing their paper sales, would frequently exaggerate or sensationalize actual incidents of murder or robbery to the point where they bore little or no resemblance to the real-life occurrences they initially observed. A simple accident, for example, would be spotlighted as a foiled attempt at a brutal murder, and a single murder would often be written up as a gruesome massacre. The more outlandish these articles became, the more likely Americans were to purchase them.
The demand for sensationalism became so popular among the American people, in fact, that many journalists often resorted to creating completely exaggerated stories of common everyday people when they ran out of actual crime related incidents about which to to exaggerate. Journalists would quite frequently take an odd gesture or a peculiar behavior of an everyday person completely out of its context and attempt to fit every detail about it into the stereotypic profile of the sensationalist criminals. In hopes of spotting such profitable incidents, penny press journalists were always on the look-out for anything suspicious and anything worthy of being sensationalized. Interestingly, in his short story, "The Man of the Crowd," Edgar Allan Poe includes a first-person narrator who also seems to be on the look-out for anything out of the ordinary.
While he may not reveal himself as a penny journalist, this narrator certainly plays the part of one as he singles out an old man making a devious gesture in the crowd and begins to speculate about his possible criminal intentions. Like a nosy penny tabloid reporter hungry for a juicy lead, the narrator follows the old man into the night, hoping, if not to catch him in an act of crime, then to fit his behaviors into the mold of criminality. Interestingly, while the old man does in fact turn out to be nothing more than an innocent wanderer of the streets, the narrator still proceeds to formulate his own exaggerated conclusions about the old...