This is the problem with all these old-timers, they never heard of any of the good stuff like social media and select-a-size paper towels. That’s probably why Edgar Allan Poe, who was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, never knew to write about Kimye or the Microsoft Office suite of products. His loss.
Poe is known specifically for his horror writing, and that’s well and good. Rah rah, The Tell-Tale Heart, hooray. Yes. Who doesn’t love a good gothic metaphor for guilt? What he’s less known for, however, is arguably his best work, his 1840 essay “The Philosophy of Furniture”. In this seminal work, Poe describes his philosophy of furniture.
More specifically, he explains why Americans are the worst people in the world at decorating their homes.
Hint: it’s because at that time we had no aristocratic class to be tastemakers for us, so we just bought flashy junk at the most expensive end of the spectrum that we could afford. Indeed:
“There could scarcely be any thing more directly offensive to the eye of the artist than the interior of what is termed, in the United States, a well furnished apartment.”
He begins the Philosophy by calling the English “supreme”, and ends the same paragraphs by stating frankly that “Yankees alone are preposterous”.
Bro, you surely would not be saying that in 2021.
Today we have aristocracy out the wazoo: Influencers. Titans of social media, of new media, of viral content, of snippets and clips and posts and tweets and instas. We have such a vast cornucopia of tastemakers distilling “best life” ethos down to consumable digital Triscuits that we cannot ever escape them.
Thoughts go to thumbs and selfies to phones and they make their way into our collective psyche. We are all suddenly buying the same shape-shifting yoga pants. We are all suddenly buying the same backpack or succulent plant or charcoal toothpaste.
We are all suddenly consumers of strangers’ whims. And this is what Poe thought we were missing. In England for centuries, the royals and aristocrats who had the time and energy developed good taste, and that trickled down to the masses. In the US, where money reigned supreme over all life, the only thing to do was spend as a stand-in for taste.
Well, Eddie boy, you got your wish. We made the daughters of OJ Simpson’s lawyer rich beyond measure and gave them the keys to the vehicle of popular culture.
While Poe proselytized at length about how to choose the right carpet for a room, Mark Zuckerberg hibernated deep below the earth’s crust, waiting to emerge a century and a half later in a bath of fire and blood to create Facebook and give rise to a new social order, one where vacuous self-sycophantic pedants would triage our consumerist ethics into direct-to-consumer manageability. Where we would continue to buy our way into the Promised Land of taste, but at someone else’s curated direction.
“We are violently enamored of gas and glass.”
I, for one, am glad.