The Gold-Bug is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is often compared with Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” as an early form of detective fiction. Poe became aware of the public’s interest in secret writing in 1840 and asked readers to challenge his skills as a code-breaker. Poe took advantage of the popularity of cryptography as he was writing The Gold-Bug, and the success of the story centers on one such cryptogram.
Poe originally sold The Gold-Bug to George Rex Graham for Graham’s Magazine for $52 but asked for it back when he heard about a writing contest sponsored by Philadelphia’s Dollar Newspaper. Incidentally, Poe did not return the money to Graham and instead offered to make it up to him with reviews he would write. Poe won the grand prize; in addition to winning $100, the story was published in two installments on June 21 and June 28, 1843, in the newspaper. His $100 payment from the newspaper may have been the most he was paid for a single work. Anticipating a positive public response, the Dollar Newspaper took out a copyright on The Gold-Bug prior to publication.
The popularity of the story also brought controversy. Within a month of its publication, Poe was accused of conspiring with the prize committee by Philadelphia’s Daily Forum. The publication called The Gold-Bug an “abortion” and “unmitigated trash” worth no more than $15. Poe filed for a libel lawsuit against editor Francis Duffee. It was later dropped and Duffee apologized for suggesting Poe did not earn the $100 prize.Editor John Du Solle accused Poe of stealing the idea for The Gold-Bug from Imogine; or the Pirate’s Treasure, a story written by a schoolgirl named Miss Sherburne.
The Gold-Bug was republished as the first story in the Wiley & Putnam collection of Poe’s Tales in June 1845, followed by The Black Cat and ten other stories. The success of this collection inspired the first French translation of The Gold-Bug published in November 1845 by Alphonse Borghers in the Revue Britannique under the title, Le Scarabée d’or, becoming the first literal translation of a Poe story into a foreign language. It was translated into Russian from that version two years later, marking Poe’s literary debut in that country. In 1856, Charles Baudelaire published his translation of the tale in the first volume of Histoires extraordinaires. Baudelaire was very influential in introducing Poe’s work to Europe and his translations became the definitive renditions throughout the continent.
The actual “gold-bug” in the story is not a real insect. Instead, Poe combined characteristics of two insects found in the area where the story takes place. The Callichroma splendidum, though not technically a scarab but a species of longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae), has a gold head and slightly gold-tinted body. The black spots noted on the back of the fictional bug can be found on the Alaus oculatus, a click beetle also native to Sullivan’s Island.
Poe’s depiction of the African servant Jupiter is often considered stereotypical and racist from a modern perspective. Jupiter is depicted as superstitious and so lacking in intelligence that he cannot tell his left from his right. Poe probably included the character after being inspired by a similar character in Sheppard Lee (1836) by Robert Montgomery Bird, which he had reviewed. Black characters in fiction during this time period were not unusual, but Poe’s choice to give him a speaking role was. Critics and scholars, however, question if Jupiter’s accent was authentic or merely comic relief, suggesting it was not similar to accents used by blacks in Charleston but possibly inspired by Gullah.
The Gold-Bug includes a cipher that uses a simple substitution cipher. Though he did not invent “secret writing” or cryptography (he was probably inspired by an interest in Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe), Poe certainly popularized it during his time. To most people in the 19th century, cryptography was mysterious and those able to break the codes were considered gifted with nearly supernatural ability. Poe had drawn attention to it as a novelty over four months in the Philadelphia publication Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in 1840.
The Gold-Bug inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel about treasure-hunting, Treasure Island (1883). Stevenson acknowledged this influence: “I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe… No doubt the skeleton [in my novel] is conveyed from Poe.”