Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
'The Gold-Bug" was first published in Philadelphia's The Dollar Newspaper in June of 1843, and Edgar Allan Poe was awarded one hundred dollars as a reward for winning first prize in the periodical's writing contest with this entry. Due to the gentle combination of humor and intrigue, this tale was celebrated as a popular success, and Poe himself stated that within a year after its initial publication, over three hundred thousand copies of the story had been printed for readers worldwide. Unlike the more grotesque of his stories, or those like "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" that caused controversy while readers tried to sort fact from fiction, here was a straightforward plot that tapped into the local color of South Carolina's Sullivan's Island. It also used details from the popular legend of Captain Kidd, who was arrested in Boston for piracy after plundering countless ships, whose treasure was never completely recovered. Kidd was then hung in London in 1701. This historical connection no doubt increased Poe's readership; in 1845 Poe even compared this tale to his famous poem "The Raven" because of its tremendous success, adding that "The bird beat the bug, though."
In Poe's time a great deal of pirate literature was available including Daniel Defoe's 1724 A General History of Pyrates, Aaron Smith's The Atrocities of the Pirates published in 1824, and Charles Elms' 1837 The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives, some of which probably influenced his intended plot, using Captain Kidd as a pivotal figure. Another major influence remains the landscape of Sullivan's Island, where Edgar Allan was stationed under the name of Edgar Perry for nearly two years at the same Fort Moultrie that is mentioned in "The Gold-Bug." Obscure references are also made to a mysterious "Lieutenant G--" whom Legrand spontaneously allows to borrow his newly found insect, revealing the military connection that this island holds for Poe. This author became very friendly with a "Lieutenant Howard" during his own days there from 1827-1829. Additionally, Poe befriended a kindly doctor named Edmund Ravenel, who lived on Sullivan's Island and practiced medicine there; he also taught at the local college and was a conchologist, or one who studies shells. Ravenel would search the shores of Sullivan's Island searching for good specimens that he could study, just as William Legrand does in "The Gold-Bug," as he initially comments on how he found a "bivalve" shell before discovering the golden beetle. With this information, the connection should be clear.
The addition of Jupiter into the tale contributes to the comic nature of the story, as Jupiter bickers back and forth with William as he goes off on his treasure hunt. Jupiter is also a source of amusement for the narrator and Legrand, portrayed as an ignorant but loveable figure, perhaps reflecting some racist sentiment, although he is not a slave. Jupiter remains at Legrand's side by choice, in spite of the constant barrage of insults that is thrown at him. Given the personality that Jupiter displays, it is questionable if he could even function in any other environment than at William Legrand's side. Named after the Roman king of the heavens, the named is very much an oxymoron, for Jupiter does not even know his right hand from his left, showing that the bold name does not reflect his gullible personality. Also, the relationship that Jupiter holds with Legrand and the narrator is similar to that of Jim and Huck in Mark Twain's 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the beginning, Huck treats Jim with the same sense of superiority as Legrand, although he later learns to respect and appreciate Jim as an equal. The same cannot be said of Jupiter; when he interjects about the gold bug, Legrand curtly replies for him to just cook dinner for him; Legrand asks Jupiter to risk his life by climbing a very tall tree; Legrand constantly berates Jupiter for being stupid, as when he does not know his right from his left. Rather than reflecting racist sentiment on Poe's part, this depiction is generally consistent with the feelings of his pre-Civil War contemporaries, and in the slaveholding state of South Carolina nevertheless. Harriet Beecher Stowe would not publish her own Uncle Tom's Cabin until nearly a decade later, in 1852, and thus the issue of slavery and treatment of blacks had yet to be directly addressed on a national level through literature.
Overall, "The Gold-Bug" also bears some resemblance in literary style to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which also featured a man, Auguste Dupin, living in relative isolation in Paris, as Legrand chooses to live in an old shack on the bleak landscape of Sullivan's Island. Dupin also embarks on a long explanation of how he arrived at some grand conclusion, that of the who murdered the L'Espanaye women. In this tale, Legrand proudly solves the riddle of Captain Kidd's treasure for the narrator, while still showing a sense of annoyance that his expertise and wisdom was to be even questioned for a moment by the narrator and Jupiter. Dupin shows this same feeling when he is instructed by the Prefect to "mind his own business," that of being disrespected in spite of his acute investigative abilities. Both men also have fallen upon hard times financially, as Dupin holds a great deal of debt, just as Legrand was forced to flee his home of New Orleans for similar reasons. Although Dupin predates Legrand's character by two years, his personality shows an uncanny resemblance to this later character. It is also interesting to note that "Legrand" is of French origin, meaning "the great." This parallel reinforces the earlier connection to Auguste Dupin's character.
In recalling all of this information, it should be clear that Poe infuses his work with a smooth blend of his unique writing style and powers of observation, along with personal experience; Poe's past stories had featured characters such as Dupin who are keen investigators and go to great lengths to explain the process of reaching a discovery. Poe had been stationed as a soldier at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island fifteen years before this tale was written, but no doubt the memories had remained with him. It was there he had met Lieutenant Howard and Dr. Edmund Ravenel, the conchologist whose living situation and general demeanor bear a marked resemblance to William Legrand; popular pirate legends fill the work to make it meaningful to the reader as well. Furthermore, Poe had himself edited an academic textbook entitled The Conchologists First Textbook published in 1837 as well, contributing to his own knowledge of "conches" as a fleeting topic here. These influences have thus been skillfully merged together to create "The Gold-Bug," which is a powerful but light-hearted story with subtle implications as to how what you see is not always what you get. The narrator had judged Legrand to be a lunatic, when in fact it was Legrand who was the wisest of them all.