In The Cryptographic Imagination, Shawn Rosenheim uses the writings
of Edgar Allan Poe to pose a set of questions pertaining to
literary genre, cultural modernity, and technology. Rosenheim
argues that Poe's cryptographic writing--his essays on cryptography
and the short stories that grew out of them--requires that we
rethink the relation of poststructural criticism to Poe's texts
and, more generally, reconsider the relation of literature to
communication. Cryptography serves not only as a template for the
language, character, and themes of much of Poe's late fiction
(including his creation, the detective story) but also as a "secret
history" of literary modernity itself. "Both postwar fiction and
literary criticism," the author writes, "are deeply indebted to the
rise of cryptography in World War II."
Still more surprising, in Rosenheim's view, Poe is not merely a
source for such literary instances of cryptography as the codes in
Conan Doyle's "The Dancing-Men" or in Jules Verne, but, through his
effect on real cryptographers, Poe's writing influenced the outcome
of World War II and the development of the Cold War. However
unlikely such ideas sound, The Cryptographic Imagination offers
compelling evidence that Poe's cryptographic writing clarifies one
important avenue by which the twentieth century called itself into
"The strength of Rosenheim's work extends to a revisionistic
understanding of the entirety of literary history (as a repression
of cryptography) and then, in a breathtaking shift of register,
interlinks Poe's exercises in cryptography with the hyperreality of
the CIA, the Cold War, and the Internet. What enables this
extensive range of applications is thestipulated tension Rosenheim
discerns in the relationship between the forms of the literary
imagination and the condition of its mode of production.
Cryptography, in this account, names the technology of literary
production--the diacritical relationship between decoding and
encoding--that the literary imagination dissimulates as
hieroglyphics--the hermeneutic relationship between a sign and its
content."--Donald E. Pease, Dartmouth College
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