Nineteenth-Century U.S. Detective Fiction in Conversation with Urban Confidence Men and the Cult of Sentimental Sincerity: Edgar Allan Poe as a Case Study
Nineteenth-Century U.S. Detective Fiction in Conversation with Urban Confidence Men and the Cult of Sentimental Sincerity: Edgar Allan Poe as a Case Study In this project, I would like use the idea of urban confidence men and the culture of sentimental sincerity as the primary framework to discuss the rise and development of mid-nineteenth-century U.S. detective fiction, as exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous ratiocinative detective series. According to Karen Halttunen, confidence men posed a serious threat to nineteenth-century Americans living in the open, urban society because it was hard to judge if a stranger was sincere or not, or in other words, if he was a confidence man. As a result, during the first half of the century middle-class urbanites began to develop an intricate set of domestic rituals and rules based on the ideal of sentimental sincerity, so that one could prove one’s inner sincerity by fulfilling all these ordained rituals and rules. Yet as time went by, this kind of outward “proof” could backfire by degenerating into ritualized, customary “performance” and turned to look very similar to the one performed by confidence men. Thus after 1850, the cult of sentimental sincerity was gradually replaced by the culture of theatricality, which emphasized fashion, images, individualism, and self-display. I argue that Poe’s characterization of the ratiocinative detective Dupin is deeply intertwined with both the urban confidence man and the culture of sentimental sincerity: he is the double of the villain confidence man in the story, and he also exemplifies the fulfillment of the ideal of sentimental sincerity; that is, he succeeds in making everything become transparent. In my opinion, Dupin can ambivalently identify with both the confidence man and the ideal of sentimental sincerity because these two are in fact related to each other, especially in terms of their profound implication with the idea of theatricality. What is interesting about Dupin is exactly that one can observe this kind of implication through him as well as the ambiguous complication between the public realm, the confidence man’s habitat, and the private sphere, where the culture of sentimental sincerity abides.