“’Er lasst sich nicht lesen’ – it does not permit itself to be read.”
In a time where industrialization and urbanization was in full force in the United States, American society rapidly changed as people began to move from rural America to cities. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” explores this change from an unusual perspective, making for a rather interesting take on the world we live in.
“The Man of the Crowd” describes an unknown man in a coffee shop in London who observes the crowds of people walking by outside, categorizing these people into different types and investigating their collective and individual characteristics. Among these people, one man, in particular, described as “a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,” catches the narrator’s interest, as, unlike the rest of the crowd, the narrator could not easily classify this man. The narrator’s intrigue over the man’s unusual mannerisms and appearance persuades him to follow the old man and observe him in detail. Roaming throughout London and its many bazaars and shops, the old man leads the narrator on a chase spanning the entire night. By the next morning, the narrator, weary and exhausted, presents himself to the old man, only for the old man to not even notice him and continue along.
Throughout the story, Edgar Allan Poe highlights characteristics of the crowd that remain very relevant in American society today even as the world has become more interconnected – namely, the ideas of anonymity, isolation, and social class. As urban centers developed in the United States in the 1800s, people increasingly began to move from their tightly knit villages and groups where everybody knew each other to massive cities with millions of people in search of the “American Dream” and greater opportunities. With this shift, many people experienced a newfound sense of privacy and seclusion, as they left behind everybody they knew and entered an entirely new world. Independence and individuality, rather than collectivism and togetherness, were highly valued during this period and worked to stratify society. “The Man of the Crowd” explores these themes, highlighting how, even though the people were not physically lonely or isolated, they were still fairly separate and unknown, something that is becoming increasingly more prevalent in the modern day even though we are more interconnected than ever with the Internet. The narrator’s categorization of the people into groups like the “upper clerks” and the “pick-pockets” further demonstrates how social stratification contributed to the level of individualism and isolation that permeated during this period. These underlying ideas give the narrator’s actions greater significance, making what seems like him watching and following people like a stalker become something more meaningful.
While, at first glance, “The Man of the Crowd” may seem like nothing more than a dull or pointless story, its unique perspective and well-paced storytelling make for a rather enjoyable read. Its relevancy to the modern day and its underlying themes on American society during the 1800s make it interesting for anybody remotely interested in US history or the social sciences.
For those who are unsure of whether they should read this or not, I would highly recommend it.