Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Eight: A Tale of Two Poes

Edgar Allen Poe (1809 -1849)

In James Russell Lowell's long poem, A Fable for Critics, Edgar Allen Poe comes away with a somewhat mixed review:

“There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,
Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,
In a way to make people of common sense damn metres,
Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.”

For a long time after his death, critical opinion on this writer varied. Poe was loved by Europeans almost unanimously. French writers such as Mallareme and Baudelaire thought him the greatest of all American writers. Rossetti, Swineburg, Robert Lewis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Conan Doyle all considered him exceptional. Tennyson also heaped him with praise. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne admitted to Poe's influence. In this country, writers such as Herman Melville (with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), Ambrose Bierce and William Faulkner, seem to have benefited from Poe's work.

But Poe was not admired in all quarters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson thought Poe little more than a "jingle man."
Lowell satirized Poe's writing as "sheer fudge" and all mind and no heart.
Henry James would call an admiration for Poe's writings a "mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection."

Studying his life, there seemed to be two different Edgar Poes.

One Poe was a Southern gentleman, an intellectual genius, a man who greatly loved his wife and mother in law, who seemed to have a refined sense of European taste and noble lineage. He was a West Point cadet and an excellent serviceman, a loving and dedicated husband and son in law, a shrewd literary critic, a wondrous poet, and entertaining, yet pithy, short story writer.

Yet, the other Poe was a drunkard. A drug addict. A gambler. An amoral hoaxer, who was psychologically disturbed and not a true literary critic but a "hatchet man" whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to attack the New England literary giants of the early to mid-19th century. A man contemptuous of the transcendentalists who resented Boston's seeming cultural supremacy over the rest of America, especially that of the South. A crude man who unfairly called Longfellow a plagiarist and who labeled Boston as Frogpondium.

Sadly, many of the negative depictions of Poe and his legacy began with a biographical assassination of Poe's character by his literary executor, Rufus Griswold, immediately after the author's death. It took decades for his reputation to recover and for researchers to set the record straight.

Today, we recognize in full the genius and the contributions to literature and criticism that Poe provided. Here is a very abbreviated listing.

Poe As Writer and Critic

Poe is known for his poetry, with its two major themes of unattainable beauty and death
see To Helen, Annabelle Lee, and the Raven

Poe is known for his literary criticism, and his theories of composition. He reviewed many writers of his day, especially important, his perceptive comments on Hawthorne's work.

His "Philosophy of Composition" and Poe's review on Hawthorne's stories, state that a poem or short story should be composed with a single effect theory, or have a unity of effect, where every words and phrase builds to one intense final stunning emotional effect on the reader during a single sitting.

Poe is known for his ground breaking work as a short story writer, including these genres:

a. tales of sensation, including
- - tales of the grotesque: horror tales
- - tales of the arabesque: strangeness of life

b. ratiocination tales: detective story and the mystery ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," "The Gold Bug"). These now common characteristics and features were used for the first time in his stories:
- - the impossible crime
- - the close observation and analysis of physical clues
- - the application of logic, deduction
- - the structural necessity for a third person observer or "sidekick" who records the process of the detective working to solving the crime

c. early tales of science fiction ("Hans Phaall, A Tale," "The Man Who Was Used Up," "The Facts in the Case of M. Vademar" and "Mellonta Tauta")

Poe is known as an important magazine editor, using his positions to craft and shape American writing and taste. He worked with,
Southern Literary Messenger
Burton's Gentleman's Magazine
Graham's Magazine
Broadway Journal

Some shared characteristics of Poe's more popular stories:

1. much of the revealed action is filtered through the main character's perceptions, which may or may not be reliable (the unreliable narrator)

2. much of the action seems removed from reality, as the fictional world is revealed through recollected experience or often told under duress

3. the result of the action in a story is often meant to give a brief vision, or to illustrate an escape into the imagination of the psyche

4. recurrent motifs in many of Poe stories center around physical enclosures or being circumscribed within certain physical spaces or a doubling effect

a. enclosures: rooms, coffins, vaults, underground passageways, multiple complex rooms
b. circumscriptions (to confine within bounds, to limit, to restrict)
c. doubleness or doubling, twins, repetition, mirroring

5. these tales are meant to be allegorical, often there is the struggle of basic values or dichotomies set up between Good vs Evil, Reason vs Insanity, Poetic Intuition vs Logic

Critical Examinations

Kennedy, J. Gerald. "The Limits of Reason: Poe's Deluded Detectives." American Literature, 47 (1975) 184-196. Print.

Poe's "tales of ratiocination," according to Kennedy, include:

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), C. Auguste Dupin
"The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), C. Auguste Dupin
"The Gold Bug" (1843), William Legrand
"Thou Art the Man" (1844), with first person detective narrator
"The Purloined Letter (1844), C. Auguste Dupin
and perhaps:
"The Man of the Crowd" (1840)
"A Descent into the Maelstrom" (1841)
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountain" (1844)
"The Oblong Box" (1844)

Kennedy's key passages:

The significance of Poe’s ratiocinative phase can perhaps be best understood in the context of his broader thematic concerns. The search for the figure in Poe’s fictional carpet has produced myriad interpretations: Patrick F. Quinn has termed the Doppelganger motif the “most characteristic and persistent” of Poe’s fantasies, while Edward H. Davidson states that the “central bifurcation” in Poe lies between “two sides of the self, between emotion and intellect, feeling and the mind.” Harry Levin sees the essential Poe hero as an “underground man” embodying “reason in madness,” while more recently, Daniel Hoffman has identified “duplicity” or “the doubleness of experience” as Poe’s chief theme?

Behind the evident diversity of opinion about Poe’s fundamental fictional concerns looms a point of focus: the author’s preoccupation with the relationship between the mind, or rational consciousness, and the sensational influence of the world beyond the self. Constantly in Poe’s fiction irrational forces and inexplicable phenomena threaten “the monarch Thoughts dominion.” In an important sense, his serious tales return continually to the process of reason — the way in which the mind orders and interprets its perceptions. Poe's narrators repeatedly seek a clarification of experience, only to discover, in the tales of terror, that rational explanation is not possible.

The condition of terror and uncertainty does not obtain [mastery], however, in the tales of ratiocination. Joseph Wood Krutch once lapsed into the assertion that "Poe invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad." The biographical fallacy aside, however, it is true that the ratiocinative tales posit a vision of reason and order not elsewhere evident in Poe's fiction. His detective hero, engaged in "that moral activity which disentangles" not only restores law and order to the world of mundane human affairs; he also explains the seemingly inexplicable, thereby demonstrating the ultimate comprehensibility of the World beyond the self. While the Gothic protagonist typically succumbs to a paroxysm of fear, uncertainty, or madness, the ratiocinator discerns the causes behind effects, proving that nature's laws are accessible to the man of reason. The emergence of this man of reason and his eventual disappearance from Poe’s fiction can be observed in “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) and “The Oblong Box” (1844), tales which respectively signal the beginning and end of Poe's ratiocinative cycle.

Questions and Considerations

Find a number of striking lines or images in any of Poe's poetry that you have read. Discuss what makes these lines or images stand out for you as a reader.

Does Poe adhere to his own theories of composition in his stories? How so or how not?

Specifically apply the five characteristics listed above to a number of Poe's stories, such as "Usher," "Wilson," "Amontillado," and "The Black Cat."

How is Poe's Dupin like and unlike Sherlock Holmes?

Works Cited

Kennedy, J. Gerald. "The Limits of Reason: Poe's Deluded Detectives." American Literature, 47, 1975, pp. 184-196.

Other Resources

Poe's Review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, championing the Single Effect Theory

 

 

 

 

Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University