Poe’s Motive and Inspiration (Annotated Bibliography)

This page attempts to pinpoint the reasons why Edgar Allen Poe chose to write the story he did. After researching a variety of scholarly sources, including biographies and journals, it can be concluded that Poe was an author not only focused on the quality of his work, but also of the way his work would be received. Much like how Poe carefully describes aspects like setting and plot down to the last detail in his writing(see A Close Reading ), he is similarly meticulous in the marketing of his work, choosing subjects to write on based on a mixture of personal interest and social, economic and political factors of society at the time in an attempt to maximize his circulation and in turn, profits.

The first source on this page centers on an entomologist’s perspective of the title caracter in The Gold-Bug, a character that is often overlooked. Legrand, the narrator, Jupitar and even mere references like Captian Kidd aside, the beetle in question is in fact the most important and interesting component of the short story. The source explores the anatomy and classification of said beetle, looking into whether the bug actually occurs in nature or if it’s merely the product of Poe’s imagination.

The next piece is a work that sheds insight to the socioeconomic atmosphere in the United States at the time of Poe’s stories. The author focuses heavily on the way in which Poe viewed writing as a profession more than a passion, using direct quotes to emphasize this fact. Eventually, another topic is discussed, that of Poe’s passion for cryptology (code-breaking), a theme prevalent in The Gold Bug.

Finally, the last source touches on the biography of Poe, focusing on his time in the army on Sullivan’s Island. The author draws parallels between Poe and his character Legrand, and also connects figures from Poe’s life to his story like conchologist Dr. Edmund Ravenel, who was stationed on Sullivan’s and is thought of as possible inspiration for Legrand.

Works Cited


Smyth Jr., Ellison A. “Poe’s “Gold Bug” from the Standpoint of an Entomologist.” The Sewanee Review 18.1 (1910): 67-72. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Smyth’s specific scientific analysis of The Gold-Bug from an entomologist’s point of looks to identify if Poe’s famous title character was in fact based on an actual known insect, or if like the story itself, the gold-bug was merely a “creation of the writer’s fertile imagination.”  Smyth begins his piece by rationalizing his expertise in the fields of entomology and of Poe, while at the same time praising Poe’s vast personal knowledge of the island on which the story takes place and of the history and nature of this island.  Poe was stationed on Sullivan’s Island for about a year during his enlistment in the army from 1827 to 1829 (67), a fact that Smyth accredits with sparking the inspiration for Poe’s story, which would not be published until 1843 (68).  Smyth himself tells of his own experiences on Sullivan’s Island doing scientific insect collecting (70).   The objective of Smyth’s article is to show that Poe was really a keen observer of the actual, and that in the locality of Sullivan’s Island there are four beetles with which he could have been and doubtless was familiar, each of which might have lent something to the new creation of the gold bug (68).  Smyth uses the process of elimination, given the physical characters of the bugs Poe describes, to narrow down his search.  Using clues           such as “about the size of a hickory-nut”, “the shape of the whole is oval” and “a brilliant          gold color”, amongst others, Smyth concludes that the closest exemplifier of all these traits is an insect known as Callichroma splendidum, a bug which shows all the qualities in question except the black spots and overall shape of Poe’s bug.  Here Smyth has an epiphany, realizing that it could be possible that Poe’s creature is a “composite” one, birthed out of the inspiration of combining two already known insect to create a new one.  He nominates Phanceus carnifex, the common dung beetle, as the missing link.  Both bugs, thrown together, give the “fiery color”, “legs powerful to kick and jaws ready        to bite”, “remarkable antennae”, “death’s-head eye spots” and “shape” described in The Gold-Bug, according to Smyth.  He concludes by rendering the idea that Poe’s gold-bug is entirely a figment of the author’s creative imagination “unlikely when we consider Poe’s accurate knowledge of nature, his keen observation an his year’s sojourn in the very spot where the beetles here described are found (72).”

This article will be useful in my final project because it gives keen insight to a fact-based hypothesis concerning Poe’s inspiration for his story The Gold Bug.  When one reads the work and ponders “how did the author come up with that?  Why is he writing about a bug that leads to treasure?”, the answer become clearer when you consider the author’s history and outside interests.  Writers write about what they know, and what they like.  In his article Smyth tells us why Poe knows Sullivan’s Island and beetles, and that he probably liked them enough to create a story on the subject.  The piece also gives elusive analytical insight on the possible inspiration for the idea of a famous fictional creature, using science to dig deep inside the creative crevices of the mind of Poe.         


Whalen, Terence. “The Code for Gold: Edgar Allen Poe and Cryptology.”                                       Representations 103.46. (1994): 35-57. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Whalen’s article highlights other inspirations of Poe’s to write and publish The Gold Bug: money and stature.  He begins by explaining the economic situation of the United States over the course of Poe’s life, citing the political career of President Andrew Jackson, the rise of the banking institution and the effects it had on Poe’s adopted parents John and Frances Allen.  “When Poe published The Gold-Bug in 1843, he no doubt felt disdain toward the debates over national monetary policy that had raged since Jackson’s election in 1828” (35), he writes, asserting that Poe “capitalized” on the financial controversies of the day by “selling a ‘money tale’ to the masses.”

Whalen backs up his position on why Poe’s story was so successful first by listing the other winners of a contest in which The Gold-Bug was first entered (it won 1st place).  The Banker’s Daughter by Robert Morris and Marrying for Money placed 2nd and 3rd, exemplifying the fact that the subject of bills and coins was a popular theme to write on during that time.  Money is what people wanted to read about, and so it’s was what the best writers wrote on.

Whalen continues by inserting quotes from Poe himself on the matter, all in which he explains his reasoning for releasing a tale about fiscal works during such a time.  In 1941 Poe says on money, it is “a topic which comes home at least as immediately to the bosoms and business of mankind, as any which could be selected (36-37)”, hinting at the fact that he wrote on the most popular subject matter in an attempt to gain the highest amount of readership.

His plan worked.  Whalen inserts Poe’s Gold-Bug publication figures – upwards of 300,000 (37), staggering for the time period.  Poe is quoted a few more times, quite convincingly supporting Whalen’s claims as truth – bragging in a sense of his publishing triumphs.  “The Raven has had a great ‘run’”, Poe says, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running – just as I did the Gold Bug (italics mine) (37)”.

Whalen also argues that the use of cryptology in The Gold Bug was employed to express the authors high self-notion of “sophistication in an emerging capitalist society” as well as to “attract the attention of the literary masses” while at the same time showing the common reader what separates them and the writer, a gap that Poe called widened by “genius.”  Poe believed on “a few elite intellectuals” were capable of breaking the most difficult codes, and by employing the use of cryptology in his stories, would not only showcase his “genius” in code breaking, but also his elite status as a code creator.  Calling it a premeditated “promotional scheme”, Whalen argues that Poe used his books to show off his “elite” intellectual status in an attempt to gain a seat as a politician on board the Tyler administration (40).  Whalen explains Poe’s dual motives so coherently that I chose to rephrase them no longer: “Sometimes he viewed [cryptology] as a mere ploy to maximize the sales of a mass market periodical….at other times he saw cryptology as an elite practice which could insulate himself and his writing from the same literate masses he was hired to exploit.”

This article is extremely useful in answer my question of Poe’s inspiration for writing The Gold-Bug because it sheds light on two explanations of his motives while at the same time exposing elements of the writer’s character.  Through Whalen’s writing it can be said that Poe wrote strictly for as a job, for profession, compared to writers who write merely to write.  He was fascinated with money, recognized that this fascination was shared with other citizens of his day, and used this recognition to capitalize socially and fiscally.  Furthermore, Whalen’s article implies that although Poe recognized common ground between him and his readers, he ultimately considered himself higher on the intellectual and social ladder than they.  Whalen’s piece depicts Poe as anything but a writer, instead as a strategist, opportunist, narcissist and downright hard pill to swallow in the historical cabinet of American literature.


Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “Tamerlane and the Army.” Edgar Allen Poe: a Critical     Biography. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1942.  Print.

In his chapter on Poe’s military history, Quinn chronicles the writer’s life on Sullivan’s Island, making the connection between his own interests and hobbies and traits of some of his characters in The Gold Bug.  In the stories opening paragraphs, Poe makes sure to note how his hero Legrand “saunters ‘along the beach and through the myrtles in quest of shells or entomological specimens.”  In his book, Quinn then points out that Poe himself once attempted to rewrite Wyatt’s textbook on conchology, “showing his interest in shells, which can date back to this period.”  Furthermore, Quinn argues how famed conchologist Dr. Edmund Ravenel lived on Sullivan’s in 1826, and how “it seems probable that Poe talked with him, and may have received from him his inspiration.”

Quinn draws another parallel between Poe and Legrand – their fascination and obsession with cryptology, or code breaking.  Quinn argues that Poe inserts his outside hobby into the story as Legrand’s main tool as to finding his treasure, calling it the “main interest” of the Gold Bug.

This chapter would be important in answering my question of Poe’s inspiration because it not only reinforces ideas found in previous works, but it adds to them with new details and points as well.  It is most interesting in Quinn’s writing how he not only credits things of giving Poe influence, but how he asserts the idea that Poe’s inspiration for certain aspects of his story, like his character Legrand, stemmed from Poe himself.


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