Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
This events described in this story were published as a recount of factual events, on Saturday April 13, 1844, in The New York Sun as an insert in its daily edition. In need of money, Edgar Allan Poe had just moved to Greenwich Street on Manhattan Island only a few days before, on April 6, and he was in desperate need of money, since he had brought only $4.50 with him. Composing this entire tale in a short period of time, the New York Sun quickly purchased the article from him and sent it to the printing presses without first verifying these events with officials in Charleston, South Carolina, near the balloon's supposed landing spot. That morning, Poe himself reportedly tried to stand outside of the newspaper's offices in New York, trying to tell those people feverishly rushing to purchase copies of the periodical featuring this amazing tale, that it was merely fiction. However, few listened in those first few hours as Poe himself recollects in the opening lines of this story, added later as it was republished not as a newspaper article, but as a part of his later short story collections; he calls these people "quidnuncs (Latin for "What now?")," or busybodies, regarding them with some disdain for believing the story so willingly.
The pandemonium that broke out in the streets of New York on this day was so great, that Poe himself wrote later on that he could not even manage to purchase a copy of the newspaper for himself, because they were sold so quickly to people anxiously anticipating to read about the first transcontinental balloon flight in history. When the dust eventually settled and the New York Sun even published an apology on Monday, April 15th, that the information leading to the publication of that article was "erroneous." Due to the absence of lightning-fast e-mail or even telephone as a base means of communication, newspapers were in constant competition to publish current events first as quickly as possible, and it is this "rat race" that is mainly responsible for Poe's story being accepted as fact so readily. The New York Herald was the staunchest competitor to the Sun, and the Whig newspaper the New York Tribune had also only just emerged three years earlier, in 1841. As such, an information war was in full swing when Poe came forward with what was interpreted as a coveted secret weapon to bring more readers to the Sun.
It certainly accomplished this feat, according to Poe's descriptions, although the aftermath of embarrassment that followed no doubt caused more harm, as the Sun's accuracy and authenticity was to be no doubt questioned thereafter. Poe's title of this story as "The Balloon-Hoax" was added later as well, for surely the words "hoax" did not appear in the Sun, lest everyone would have realized the truth immediately, and in addition to making a sum of money for the sale of this article, Poe also gained fame as the swindler who composed such a convincing article. Other less intentional hoaxes that would derive from Poe also included "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," to be published in New York's The American Whig Review a year and a half later, in December of 1845. Due to the detailed intricacies that Poe incorporates into this tale of a dying man held in a hypnotic trance for months, thus delaying his death, many readers assumed these events to be factual as well. Given that a year and a half had passed, many of those "quidnuncs" had probably forgotten the infamous "Balloon-Hoax" that was also a product of Poe.
Another element that made "The Balloon-Hoax" so believable is its inclusion of popular figures from Poe's time. Although Osbourne appears to be fictitious, his reported uncle, Lord Bentinck was the British Colonial Governor-General of India from 1827-1835, recalling the personage of Warren Hastings, who was also Colonial Governor-General of India and played a minor role in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains." The Nassau balloon was a well-known event, as British Charles Green, British Robert Holland, and Irish Thomas Monck Mason travelled together from London, England to Weilburg, Germany on November 7-8, 1837, naming his balloon "Nassau" after the territory of which Weilburg was a part. Placing Monck and Holland as figures in his own tale increased the story's level of credibility, because these were known balloonists who had already experimented with air travel. Furthermore, William Henson was a British inventor who had designed the plans for what would later evolve into the modern airplane, and Harrison Ainsworth's novels were familiar, even to Americans, most reputedly his Jack Sheppard published in 1839, detailing the desperate wanderings of a fugitive from the law.
Like Osborne, the presence of the fictitious Sir Everard Bringhurst is intended merely to vary the flight crew, to prevent there from being an entire cast of celebrities, which would have cast doubt upon the story after all, depriving him of that much-needed payment from the New York Sun. Just as Poe mimics Dickens' writing style in "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," a similar approach is utilized here by borrowing information from Thomas Monck Mason's very own firsthand documentation of his Nassau balloon trip, published in 1837 as an the American edition entitled Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg. Poe is able to easily copy Monck's writing style and write a tale as if it were from his point of view, because he had access to other publications about a balloon trip as recorded by Mason. Mirroring the symbolic name of Monck's real balloon as "Nassau," after the German territory in which he had landed, Poe similarly dubs his balloon "Victoria," Latin for "Victory," thus reiterating the great "achievement" this represents for humanity.
In contemplating all of this information, the true discovery relies less upon balloons and more about the personal character of Edgar Allan Poe. Apparently, he did not feel guilty about purposely misinforming a newspaper and the populace of an entire city, but instead felt proud of this accomplishment, as his smug words suggest in his brief introduction. The fact that he needed money superceded all other aspects of journalistic integrity, and if such an event had occurred in these more modern times, Clever Edgar would have been slapped with a civil lawsuit that same day. However, in this instance Poe also chose the needs of his family over those of the society at large, filled with so many quidnuncs. He does not blame himself at all for the scandal that follows but instead faults everybody who bought a newspaper and those at the New York Sun for believing such an outrageous course of events. In fact, the first successful flight over the Atlantic Ocean by balloon would not even occur for over a century later, on August 11, 1978 when Larry Newman, Maxie Anderson, and Ben Abruzzo travelled from Pennsylvania and landed in France six days later, on August 17. Poe's endearing lesson moreover instructs his readers once again, as in "The Man That Was Used Up," that what you see is not always what you get. Everyone had automatically taken the balloon tale at face value, without realizing that this was just a desperate attempt for this poor, starving artist to make some extra money. It worked.