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The Gold Bug | Context

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Sullivan's Island

"The Gold Bug" was written in 1843, more than 10 years after Poe stayed on Sullivan's Island, situated at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Nevertheless, the landscape clearly made an impression on the young writer, who chose it as the setting for three of his short stories, including "The Gold Bug."

The story opens with a grim description of the island, highlighting its isolation: "It consists of little else than the sea sand and is about three miles long ... The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen." That isolation is further explored in the poem "Annabel Lee," named after a local girl with whom Poe allegedly fell desperately in love. According to local legend, Annabel died after her father forbade her from seeing Poe, and he added to Poe's heartbreak by removing all the headstones from the cemetery where Annabel was buried, making it impossible for him to ever say goodbye. The island thus symbolizes for Poe a desolate place associated with isolation and death.

Race

Slavery was not abolished in America until 1865, more than 20 years after "The Gold Bug" was published, so race relations in the story are far different than they are today. Jupiter is a "manumitted slave," meaning his owners gave him his freedom. Many freed slaves traveled north to restart their lives, but some chose to stay in the South. At the same time, minstrel shows were growing in popularity. In these shows white actors donned blackface and portrayed black people as lazy, stupid, and fearful of life off the plantation because, in the white audience's eyes, these portrayals validated slavery.

Poe himself grew up in a slaveholding household, yet his true feelings about the institution are unclear. Poe experts remain divided. Some biographers adamantly suggest Poe opposed abolition and believed black people inferior, quoting Poe from the Southern Literary Messenger: "The slave himself is utterly incompetent to feel the moral galling of his chain." Others debunk those characterizations, noting that when Poe inherited a slave he undertook the financial responsibility to free him. In his writing he rarely mentions slavery, and all his "negro" characters, like Jupiter, are free men. Many critics have analyzed Poe's short story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," as a metaphor for a divided America. In the story a pair of siblings fight to the death, collapsing their entire home and family in the process. Similarly in the 1840s, the nation was becoming increasingly divided over the question of slavery. Twenty years later the North and the South would fight a terrible civil war.

Initial Response

Poe entered "The Gold Bug" into a short story competition sponsored by The Dollar Newspaper in Philadelphia and won the tidy sum of $100 (roughly $3,500 today). The newspaper had to print extra copies to keep up with demand for the story. They even published its copyright, not a common practice at the time, although smaller newspapers pirated the story and printed it themselves. Poe happily wrote that the story, "is my most successful tale, more than 300,000 copies have been circulated."

"The Gold Bug" was so popular upon its initial release that it was quickly adapted for the stage. While publication and performance of the play earned him little money, its success increased his popularity and allowed him to join the lecture circuit and earn money from speaking engagements. During these speeches he also promoted his personal literary standards, furthering his respectability as a literary critic.

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