“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 2 of 4
This chafing under authority manifested itself in Poe’s reviews of the more successful of contemporary writers as well. He once wrote, “The most ‘popular,’ the most ‘successful’ writers among us (for a brief period at least) are, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery—in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks” (quoted in Lepore 68). This formulation is the crux of Poe’s dilemma, as he was forced to balance his need to sell his work with his urge to demonstrate his genius. One of the ways he tried to do so was to criticize the dominant literary tradition of the day. In this endeavor too, he went to excess. His attacks on what were known as the New England Brahmins, Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, were legendary, especially those against William Wadsworth Longfellow, which he referred to as his “Little Longfellow War.” His reviews showed such a pronounced tendency toward vitriol that was nicknamed “tomahawk man” by his fellow reviewers (Thompson xxviii). At the same time, he routinely quarreled with the editors of the magazines who employed him and published these reviews because he insisted on “total authority” and “complete editorial control” (Thompson xxxii). His ultimate goal, which was never realized, was to publish his own magazine.
Regan provides a fascinating look into how Poe treated an author he actually admired, and it provides a useful lesson into the type of games he liked to play with his readers. In his famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Poe claims that in the story “Howe’s Masquerade,” “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought” (649). He then compares an excerpt from the story to one from his own “William Wilson,” and the supposed similarities are so tenuous as to leave readers suspecting that Poe is merely flattering himself. But that he is up to something more devious is evidenced by Poe’s contradicting statement that “Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points” (648, note the italics). If there remains any doubt of what Regan calls Poe’s duplicity, he points out that “Hawthorne wrote his tale at least a year before Poe wrote his” (284). The plagiary, it turns out—really more a case of inspiration than a copying of lines verbatim—was committed by Poe. In the May, 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine which featured the review, one of Poe’s stories, “The Mask of the Red Death. A Fantasy,” also appeared. Regan induces that Poe was leading attentive readers along a trail of clues. He writes:
"And so the idea of a fatal red pestilence and the setting, a masquerade in a princely house in which a ruler and his aristocratic followers have elected a self-defensive claustration—these two most salient elements of Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death”—can both be found in a work of Hawthorne’s which we can say with certainty Poe had read very shortly before writing his 'Fantasy'."(286)
So it appears that Poe’s idea of acknowledging a literary debt entailed publicly accusing his inspiration of plagiarism—but leaving clues in the accusation that would lead careful investigators to the truth. The creator of the detective genre certainly enjoyed leaving this kind of trail.
Poe did at times go after those in positions of power in straightforward and self-contained satirical stories. Indeed, Stephen Mooney, a critic who specializes in Poe’s comedy, points out defiance plays as a much of role in what Poe found funny in his stories as it did elsewhere in his life. Mooney writes that Poe’s humor “is directed toward the exposure of a society in which heroes and rulers are shown to be deluded or irresponsible and their subjects a dehumanized, sycophantic mass” (433). Mr. Blackwood and Signora Psyche Zenobia are a case in point, but there are also the admirer’s of “The Man That Was Used Up,” the revelers and the court in “Hop Frog,” and the asylum staff and its inmates in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” All of these stories operate on the humor inherent in overturning an unjust or absurd hierarchy. Poe subtly poked fun at real political leaders of his day too, for instance, by giving the devil the features of Martin Van Buren in “The Devil in the Belfry” (Whipple 88).
Most interesting, though, are the humorous attacks Poe concealed by weaving them as threads into otherwise serious tales. Clark Griffith, for example, finds in “Ligeia,” “an allegory of terror almost perfectly co-ordinated with the subtlest of allegorized jests” (17). One of the authorities Poe defies in the story is obviously death itself. Death and time are challenged in similar ways in many of his tales—including, farcically, in “A Predicament.” But Griffith suggests that the Lady Ligeia “symbolizes…the very incarnation of German idealism, German Transcendentalism provided with an allegorical form” (21). The other lady of the story, Rowena Trevanion, symbolizes English Romanticism “‘unspiritualized’ by German cant” (24). Here too Poe is making fun of the dominant literary traditions of his day. But, as Regan points out, Griffith discovered the nature of this “Gothic overplot with [a] satiric underside” (17) only when he used keys found in other stories published around the same time, “Siope” (or “Silence” as it was later renamed) and “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” with its overt references to Romanticism and Transcendentalism. But what Regan believes is most impressive about the subtle satire in “Ligeia” is that the “‘underside’ is of a remarkably deceptive kind, since failing to take account of it in no way damages the self-consistent ‘Gothic overplot’” (294). Poe does such an excellent job manipulating the genre beloved by the reading masses that the symbolic violence his tales perpetrate is seldom noticed. Such is the case with “The Black Cat,” in which that violence is directed at those reading masses themselves.
Critic James W. Gargano sees in this story evidence that Poe, instead of betraying his own neuroses in his writing, very deliberately clues in readers to the unreliability of his narrators, insisting that a “close analysis of ‘The Black Cat’ must certainly exonerate Poe of the charge of merely sensational writing” (829). Gargano goes on to defend Poe against criticism like Bloom’s and Oates’s that his style was overwrought, which is “based, ultimately, on the untenable and often unanalyzed assumption that Poe and his narrator’s are identical literary twins and that he must be held responsible for all their wild or perfervid utterances” (824). Though Gargano is right that Poe is up to something deliberate with his bouts of breathless hysteria, he overlooks the many instances in which Poe encourages readers to look for him in his stories. For instance, William Wilson’s birthday is given as January 19th, Poe’s own birthday. The captain of the ship in “Ms. Found in a Bottle” is precisely the same height as the author and has the same eye color. And the protagonist of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” has a name similar enough to Edgar Allan Poe’s to have caused some confusion regarding the fictional status of the tale when it was first published (Wilbur 808).