Poe, Decoded


Lepore, J. 2009. “Poe, Decoded.” newyorker.com.


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Yesterday, Jill Lepore provided a cryptogram created by Edgar Allan Poe as a contest for readers of Graham's Magazine. Here, she talks about the solution.

One reader—a man from Mississippi named Richard Bolton--did write to Poe with the solution. But Poe never gave him the free subscription. Never trust a genius, I guess. Instead, in October of 1841, when Poe printed the solution to the cipher, he insisted that, although “deciphered by us,” it had “not yet been read by any of our innumerable readers.” When Bolton received his copy of the November magazine, and his solution was still not mentioned, he wrote to Poe, enraged. “As you had thrown down the gauntlet which I took up, I must call upon you as a true man and no craven to render me according to the terms of the defiance the honors of a field worthily contested and fairly won.” Poe, who couldn’t bear the thought that someone else could solve the cipher, managed to convince himself that Bolton must have cheated although he must have known—it seems quite impossible that he did not know—that Bolton could not have cheated. “I had the alternative of denying his claim and thus appearing invidious or of sharing with him an honor,” Poe confided to a friend, “So I chose the last and have put a finale to this business.” In his December issue, Poe grudgingly acknowledged Bolton’s solution.

And the solution? Well, that’s annoying, too:

In one of those peripapetic circumrotations I obviated a rustic whom I subjected to catchetical interrogation respecting the nosocomical characteristics of the edifice to which I was approximate. With a volubility uncongealed by the frigorific powers of villatic bashfulness, he ejaculated a voluminous replication from the universal tenor of whose contents I deduce the subsequent amalgamation of heterogeneous facts. Without dubiety incipient pretension is apt to terminate in final vulgarity, as parturient mountains have been fabulated to produce muscupular abortions. The institution the subject of my remarks, has not been without cause the theme of the ephemeral columns of quotidian journalism, and enthusiastic encomiations in conversational intercourse.

Why did Poe love this cryptogram? Not because it’s hard. It has certain weird features, as Poe explained, including that “Arbitrary characters were made to stand for whole words.” Despite Poe’s insistence that this code was all but unbreakable—except by him—it is, I’m told, easy-peasy. No, Poe loved it because the solution was so infuriating, so useless, so monstrous. It turns gibberish into nonsense. Or, not exactly nonsense. I once nearly broke the spine on my dictionary trying to understand what it could possibly mean. Poe didn’t write it, but he did choose to print it, when he had others to choose from. Was he trying to say something? Dunno. Best I came up with was some muck about mountains and molehills and the daily paper. Heck, I’d even pay in broken promises for free subscriptions for a translation. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to start with: Without dubiety incipient pretension is apt to terminate in final vulgarity.

See also: Opinion
Last updated on 12/04/2012