One of the first American walk narratives is E. A. Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" (1840), a story both translated by Baudelaire and analyzed by Benjamin because of its use of the flâneur as a literary device (Illuminations 170). The story begins with the phrase, "It was well said of a certain German book that 'es lässt sich nicht lesen'--it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told" (Poe 240). This concept of impenetrable mystery, the type of mystery resident at the core of even criminal acts, serves as the psychological backdrop for the narrator's encounter with "The Man of the Crowd," as he is to later reveal. Prompted by the aforementioned generalization into his reverie, the narrator explains that at one point, not too long ago, he had been sitting in a London coffee house, convalescent after a long bout with an illness. Typical of Poe, in this story, he deliberately keeps the exact location of his far-off London setting unspecified "to distance events and underscore their ambiguity" (Kennedy 511). As is the case with many of Poe's narrators, this man finds himself in a state of heightened sensitivity; he has the awareness of a flâneur:
one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui--moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs . . . and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. (240)
In this sensitive mental state, the narrator begins to watch the crowd pass by the window before him. It is early in the evening and the streets are flooded with "a tumultuous sea of human heads" (240). This high-tide of humanity flows past him as he sits, forehead pressed against the window, a spectator on the inside looking out. The scenes that pass fill him "with a delicious novelty of emotion" (240) and he surrenders his consciousness entirely to the passing spectacle, feeding empathically on the crowd.
His first observations are of "an abstract and generalizing" (240) nature. He begins by watching humanity en masse, noting their general responses and reactions to one another. The narrator's initial reaction is as to one large pulsating organism; yet, this perspective quickly changes as he "descend[s] to details" (240) with a "minute interest [in] the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance" (240). He begins to categorize the passersby according to their dress, demeanor, and physical similarities, in what seems to be a rather superficial study of his pedestrian counterparts, a study informed by a consciousness both convalescent (and thus hypersensitive) and objectively distanced from the scene. As the crowd parades before him, framed by the dividing window, the narrator is free to observe them as though they were the inhabitants of an aquarium assembled for his pleasure. He first notes noblemen, merchants, attorneys, and tradesmen; but as time passes and day turns into evening, the crowd begins to descend in social rank to clerks, pickpockets, and gamblers. As night moves in, the components of the crowd continue to mutate, and the narrator, from behind the window, extracts "darker themes for speculation" (242), imposing, with his own vibrant psyche, aristocratically distanced and presumptuous explanations for the behaviors of the occupants of the passing scene:
street beggars scowling upon mendicants of a better stamp, whom despair alone had driven forth into the night for charity; feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed a sure hand, and who sidled and tottered through the mob . . . modest young girls returning from long and late labor to a cheerless home . . . ruffians, whose direct contact, even, could not be avoided . . . the mere child of immature form, yet, from long association, an adept in the dreadful coquetries of her trade . . . drunkards innumerable and indescribable . . . exhibitors and ballad mongers . . . ragged artisans and exhausted laborers of every description, and all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye. (242)
With the literate gaze of the would-be flâneur, this narrator tears through visual signs as through the pages of a delicious novel. Surface values translate easily into "truths" for this narrator from the safe distance of the window-watcher. Interestingly, it is society's refuse that interests him the most, the parasites, prostitutes, gamblers and thieves, those who do not--nor are they expected to--abide by the strict codes of delicate society. His fascination is that of a man who, by chance, has been given the opportunity to peer briefly into the lives of those common men and women with whom he will never dwell as equals, without being required to check his privileged and formally educated perspective in order to do so. Safely and cleanly, from a distance, he looks on as one who visits a zoo, classifying, categorizing, summarizing, defining the spectacle before him, an activity that both heightens his own self-worth as an intellectual exercise in which he easily excels, and as a means of eliminating the horrific element of the unreadable, the unnameable with which he begins his narrative: that which "does not permit itself to be read." How very much the narrator's plight mirrors that of his creator, of any writer who drags a crowd from above in hopes of setting to ease his anxieties concerning those "beneath" him. . . .
As night draws out introducing onto the scene the kaleidoscopic dance of manipulative lighting, the narrator's interest in the scene increases, enhanced and dramatized by the ghostly green of the gaslights and the thickening fog and darkness. These guises of nightfall amplify the streets' surreal, dreamlike qualities, distorting the familiar and familiarizing the distorted, much like the narrator's extraordinary imagination.
Seated behind the protective glass shield and asthetically distancing frame of the window, the narrator is only able to glance momentarily at each passing face. He is prevented from the multiple perspectives immersion in the scene would afford him. He is unable to follow a character that interests him or to interact in any way with whatever visage he encounters. The aloof voyeurism with which he busies himself much resembles the gaze of the flâneur--in that it is of the sort of spectatoship that is fleeting and ephemeral, fixated on the panoramic; however, unlike the flâneur, who is also a part of his surroundings--part of the crowd which he observes and therefore bearing a self-reflexive quality--Poe's narrator is not yet an active participant in the scene at this point in the story. His scope is limited by the frame of the window and his point of view is fixed to an immobile seat. Acutely focused on the window, he is overly confident in his own personal powers of observation: "still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years" (242). He is "detached, shielded, peering out from a distance at the kaleidoscopically changing mass before him, trying to read the individual faces that reel by him 'in that brief interval of a glance'" (Dickstein 186). Even with the narrator's heightened awareness, which he ascribes to his convalescent state--a state which is the result of a recent brush with death through illness, these powers of observation will begin to change when he leaves the safety and comfort of seated spectatorship. As the narrator sits, self-satisfied in his omniscience, sure of the simplicity of the lower echelons of human society, a confident reader of the streets' secret language, he is suddenly accosted by an enigmatic visage, a character with whom he is not so familiar--a book that does not immediately 'permit itself to be read.' This mystery evokes in the narrator a level of obsessive curiosity that drives him from the safety of his two-dimensional perspective at the window and into the four-dimensional perspective of a flâneur in the torrent of the living street. He says of the mysterious man of the crowd:
Anything even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. . . . As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intenseof extreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. "How wild a history," I said to myself, "is written within that bosom!" Then came a craving desire to keep the man in viewto know more of him. (243)
In the euphoric state of one seduced and "fascinated" by novelty; in this case, the novel thing is a mode of engagement completely alien to the narrator: nomadic goallessness and unmasked emotion. It is the man of the crowd's elusive and unreadable history that lures the seated voyeur from the café and into the streets to play a prying consciousness within the crowd; the man of the crowd presents his reader with a text that evades his grasp, though he traces it for a total of twenty-four hours. He is a text that challenges all of the narrator's methods of analysis, his ways of "knowing" and thus dominating the external world of other humans. In essence, the stranger alters the narrator's perception by "turn[ing him] from cinematic observer, before whose 'keenest appetency' the street simply unreels itself, into the the walker in the city, or in this case, the stalker in the city" (Dickstein 186)--the one who, seduced and therefore deprived of his preferred guides, goals, and objectives, instead hunts his victim with the vacuum of an undefined hunger* placing his steps, directing his gaze. The world is telescoped, framed by the object of pursuit. The narrator encounters no other London than that through which the man of the crowd wanders.
Much like the detectives in Poe's other stories, the narrator is the physical manifestation of a heightened awareness blinded by an obsession with novelty. Unlike the seated observer, the flâneur "belongs to the same social and moral universe as the spy . . . the detective. Like them, he strives to be both all-seeing and invisible" (Burton 4-5). He is actively searching, actively reading the scene through which he moves.
In a highly deductive fashion, the narrator notes the peculiarities of the man's dress, mannerisms, and posture, and he tries to divine from these hieroglyphics, the story of this man's life, hoping to unearth the source of what he perceives as the stranger's expression of visible anguish--the face that lured him into the streets in the first place. Night has completely descended at this point and "a thick humid fog hung over the city, soon ending in a settled and heavy rain" (243). As the narrator's internal landscape is also clouded by the enigmatic character of the man of the crowd, the investigation is further hindered by a canopy of black umbrellas erected in response to the increasing rain. The narrator's difficulty in divining the man of the crowd's history manifests itself in the story as visual obstacles that appear in the story's setting. The man of the crowd continues on, strangely walking back and forth across the street, wandering without visible aim: "he entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare" (244). Note that it is the man of the crowd's lack of interest in the objects for sale in the shops, his unidentifiable reason for wandering, and his "vacant stare" that ******************
As the man of the crowd winds around the city, retracing his steps, making no note-worthy contact with any other human beings, the narrator's curiosity is increased. He continues in his pursuit all the way to the outskirts of the city, where the cityscape deteriorates into a cluttered architecture of chaos and confusion--a setting that mimics the narrator's own feverish, frazzled, and delirious state of mind:
By the dim light of an accidental lamp, tall, antique, worm-eaten, wooden tenements were seen tottering to their fall, in directions so many and capricious that scarce the semblance of a passage was discernible between them. The paving-stones lay at random, displaced from their beds by the rankly growing grass. Horrible filth festered in dammed-up gutters. The whole atmosphere teemed with desolation. Yet, as we proceeded, the sounds of human life revived by sure degrees, and at length large bands of the most abandoned of a London populace were seen reeling to and fro. (245)
Through this cityscape, the narrator continues in his pursuit for a full twenty-four hours, at which point he finds himself right back where his search began, the man of the crowd resuming his "solemn" walk (245), as the narrator, exhausted and dumbfounded, is forced to be satisfied with his assumptions:
This old man . . . is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the "Hortulus Anima," and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that es lässt sich nicht lesen. (245)
After an in-depth investigation, the narrator denounces the mystery as "impenetrable" (Dickstein 186), a waste of effort.
In this story, Poe manages to keep within the realms of Romanticism while writing a walk narrative that takes place in an urban landscape. The dream-like quality of the narrative manages to translate what many Romantics would abhor as an inspirational void--the London cityscape--into a deep-probing detective narrative, filled with speculations on human motivation. Although there are no hard elements of the supernatural or Gothic in this story to make it undeniably unrealistic, according to Benjamin, "Poe's manner of presentation cannot be called realism. It shows a purposely distorting imagination at work, one that removes the text far from what is commonly advocated as the model of social realism" (Illuminations 171).
The thoughts of the narrator, which are basically 'what happens' in the story, fit well within the confines of the walk that he takes. Thus, the narrator’s walk becomes a symbol of his mental processes during his search for answers. The story begins, in a very linear fashion, with a progression from seated observation in the interior of the coffee house, to a direction of attention outward into the streets, to a physical move outside in pursuit of a mystery that takes the narrator on a winding course throughout London; but this seemingly linear investigation only brings the speaker back to the beginning of his journey with no more answers than he had at the start. The reader is left with the mystery as well, and it is this mystery that is precisely the point of the narrative. The question is, "Who is the man of the crowd in this story?" Who is following whom? The reader is left only to speculate. With no more information than the befuddled narrator himself, the reader is left to doubt his own human powers of perception, in which the narrator was initially so confident. Some things do not permit themselves to be read, even when they are read in a story. Poe leaves the reader with the Romantic sensation of the mystery of nature--in this case, human nature.
According to Benjamin, Baudelaire "saw fit to equate the man of the crowd, whom Poe's narrator follows throughout the length and breadth of nocturnal London, with the flâneur" (Illuminations 172); however, Benjamin does not share this view, claiming that "[t]he man of the crowd is no flâneur. In him, composure has given way to manic behavior" (Illuminations 172-173). If one is to refer to the man of the crowd as a flâneur, one is to define a flâneur as merely "someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company. That is why he seeks out the crowd" (Baudelaire 48), but Benjamin’s definition is not so simple. The flâneur is not merely a sociopath, but a complex dweller of the streets, capable of viewing the streets as an interior, "as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls" (Baudelaire 37). Poe makes it clear that neither man is particularly comfortable or "at home" in the nocturnal streets of London. We are told that "the stranger paused and, for a moment, seemed lost in thought; then, with every mark of agitation, pursued rapidly a route which brought us to the verge of the city, amid regions very different from those we had hitherto traversed" (Poe 245). This "agitation" along with his "wild and vacant stare" does not place the man of the crowd in the category of the flâneur, who is noted for his calm and cool exterior, his bourgeois ways, and his keen, unshaken powers of observation. This description seems to better fit the narrator who plays the detective-like role of pursuer, though his own faculties may be stinted by an on-coming fever and a dose of neurosis. However, the narrator is almost too engaged in his pursuit to read the streets like a true flâneur. He is so consumed by his own obsessive compulsion to the man of the crowd that he only reads the text of the streets in the context of his pursuit. In fact, he fails miserably in his mission, declaring after a twenty-four hour struggle, "es lasst sich nicht lesen" (245): he does not permit himself to be read. He searches the scene for clues, in hopes of learning something about the man whom he follows, yet his search yields nothing but exhaustive failure. He stands as an emblem of the human condition--of an inability to truly get inside the mind of another person, of an inability to achieve true empathy, and of the human tendency to dismiss the mysteries of others as "criminal" simply because they know not of their origins.
Because this story is laid out in the form of a flâneur narrative, the reader is provided a unique point of view. This limited narrative tactic brings to the reader the intimacy of a first-person perspective (by way of the narrator), while keeping the distance of a third-person narrator (insofar as what we know of the man of the crowd.) This narrative technique is incredibly effective in providing the reader with a sense of immediacy: the reader, like the narrator, is experiencing the action in the present tense, despite the fact that the story is set in the past. This increases the level of mystery, for the reader is able to see so clearly through one character’s eyes, while that character’s perception of another character is so uninformed. This limited view provides the reader with the illusion of discovery, which is what makes this story, as with any good detective story, interesting.
Also important, and a common trait to many of the flâneur narratives that will be discussed in this study, is the manner in which the exterior landscapes reflect or affect the interior landscapes of the narrator's mind. In the case of "The Man of the Crowd," the story begins in a relatively contained, normal, everyday setting: a coffee house in London. However, we are told by the narrator that his own faculties of perception are abnormally keen, which directs his attention outward through the window. The scene outside the window is completely ordinary, a passing crowd to which the narrator feels no genuine attachment: "In the world of Poe's story the crowd and its inhabitants cannot be known, they are truly the unconscious if not the unnameable" (Robinson 99-100). Yet, as night falls and the fog rolls in and the gaslights are lit, the scene becomes more and more representative of the hastening over-involvement of the narrator's mind with his surroundings. At one point, the point at which the narrator reaches the chaotic outskirts of London, his internal mental landscape seems to merge with the external landscape of the story, reflecting the confusion and disorientation implicit in such an exhaustive, twenty-four hour investigation. The scene is filled with the narrator’s images of "excessive terror" (243), the same quality that is ascribed to the man of the crowd at the onset of the journey. Thus, "The Man of the Crowd" is much less about the wandering stranger than it is about the man who dedicated twenty-four consecutive hours of his life to the pursuit of another man’s identity. When the story ends, depositing the narrator at the exact place of the story's origin, one gets the feeling that this man may have never really left the coffee house--that perhaps it was only his feverish mind that led us on this tour of nocturnal London.