Sheley and Rosen on The Purloined Debtor: Edgar Allan Poe’s Bankruptcy in Law and Letters @zvisrosen @erin_sheley

Erin L. Sheley, California Western School of Law, and Zvi S. Rosen, Southern Illinois University School of Law, are publishing The Purloined Debtor: Edgar Allan Poe’s Bankruptcy in Law and Letters in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. Here is the abstract.

This Article represents the first interdisciplinary case study of the Poe bankruptcy as an inflection point in the legal and cultural history of debt. It shows both how the pitfalls of a short, debtor-focused chapter in bankruptcy history gave rise to the system of today, and how Poe’s indebtedness and bankruptcy helped shape the American Gothic literary forms he made famous. Part One compares bankruptcy law in Poe’s time to that of today, also explaining how bankruptcy came to be and why it was revolutionary. Part Two presents a brief life of Poe and collects evidence of the literal and intellectual impact of the law on his life and thought. Turning to his literary work, it argues that Poe’s fixation on the relationship between debt, degeneration, and official naming reflects the impact of the burgeoning bankruptcy system on individual identity in a Gothic framework. Part Three explores Poe’s bankruptcy case from a technical legal perspective, both in the context of the law at the time and hindsight, showing that there were serious conflicts of interest in the case. We conclude by arguing that Poe’s case, read alongside his literary output, reveals both legal and narrative contradictions at the heart of bankruptcy, which the 1841 Act did a poor job of resolving. On the one hand, bankruptcy reframes the identity of the debtor, who becomes the object of a quasi-confessional process. On the other, bankruptcy restores some degree of material agency to the debtor as a subject, often at the expense of creditors.

Download the article from SSRN at the link.