The American Temperance Movement’s most renowned advocate, Carrie Nation (known for smashing taverns with a hatchet) would not even be born until three years after the publication of Poe’s The Black Cat, in “The Saturday Evening Post,” in 1843. But temperance was an established concept, functionally, in part due to a need for sober machine operators while the Industrial Revolution ramped up. But—when Poe speaks of temperance—it’s from his own haunted, internal monologist’s perspective. And, of course, Poe himself suffered from alcoholism, which clearly exacerbated his natural melancholia. So, when the text references temperance, it’s as a nineteenth century concept, such as Mysticism, or Providence; a means to process various social dynamics at play, as the behavioral influences of the old world gave way to the new.
Historically, it’s been observed by anthropologists that human settlements were originally formed at the same time that fermentation was discovered; so alcohol is culturally blended-in with our willingness or ability to live as close together as we do, and in harmony. The man, woman and animal in “The Black Cat” do live harmoniously at the beginning. But tensions within their domestic triangle kick in, due to Poe’s Imp of Perversity: his embodiment/characterization of our own worst selves.
Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man.
In the storyteller’s words, Poe actually refers to alcohol abuse as a “disease,” which is a pretty contemporary concept, as in ‘he can’t help himself: it’s a disease,’ rather than blaming personal weakness or moral failure. Is this story a cautionary tale about the demon drink, which in itself has the power to warp men’s souls? Or, knowing Poe, is he saying that his horrific impulses had always existed, but it was the drink that brought them into the foreground of his insanity?