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Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849

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American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Poe's short fiction works. See also The Raven Criticism, The Cask of Amontillado Criticism, The Tell-Tale Heart Criticism, The Fall of the House of Usher Criticism, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism, Edgar Allan Poe Contemporary Literary Criticism, and Edgar Allan Poe Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.

Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his ingenious and profound short stories and his critical theories, which established a highly influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe is also deemed to be the originator of such genres as the detective story, the horror tale, and the science fiction story. In his work, Poe demonstrated a brilliant command of technique as well as an inspired and original imagination.

Biographical Information

Poe's father and mother were professional actors who at the time of his birth were members of a repertory company in Boston. Before Poe was three years old both of his parents had died, and he was raised in the home of John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia. In 1815 Allan took his wife and foster son, whom he never formally adopted, to visit Scotland and England, where they lived for the next five years. While in England, Poe spent two years at the school he later described in the story “William Wilson.” Returning with his foster parents to Richmond in 1820, Poe attended the best schools available and began to write poetry. At the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Poe distinguished himself academically, but as a result of bad debts and inadequate financial support from Allan, he was forced to leave after less than a year. This discord with his foster father deepened on Poe's return to Richmond in 1827, and soon afterward Poe left for Boston, where he enlisted in the army and published his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (1827). The book went unnoticed by readers and reviewers, and a second collection was only slightly more conspicuous when it appeared in 1829. That same year Poe was honorable discharged from the army, having attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, and, after further conflict with Allan, he entered West Point. However, because Allan would neither provide his foster son with sufficient funds to maintain himself as a cadet nor give the consent necessary to resign from the academy, Poe gained a dismissal by ignoring his duties and violating regulations. He subsequently went to New York, where his book Poems, By Edgar A. Poe was published in 1831, and then to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Clemm. Over the next few years Poe's first stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, and his “MS. Found in a Bottle” won a cash prize for best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. In 1835 Poe returned to Richmond to become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, bringing with him his aunt and his cousin Virginia, whom he married in 1836. The Southern Literary Messenger was the first of several magazines Poe would direct over the next ten years and through which he rose to prominence as one of the leading men of letters in America. While Poe's writings gained attention in the late 1830s and 1840s, the profits from his work remained meager, and he was forced to move several times in order to secure employment that he hoped would improve his situation, editing periodicals in Philadelphia and New York. After his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became involved in a number of romances. As he was preparing to marry Elmira Shelton, Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore in late September of 1849. On October 3, he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; Poe died on October 7 without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Poe's best-known works exhibit a psychological intensity. These stories—which include “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—are often told by a first-person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a character's psyche. This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fedor Dostoevsky and the school of psychological realism. In his Gothic tales, Poe also employed an essentially symbolic, almost allegorical method which gives such works as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Ligeia” an enigmatic quality that accounts for their enduring critical and popular interest and also links them with the symbolical works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The influence of Poe's tales may be seen in the work of later writers, including Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe—the weird tale. In addition to his achievement as architect of the modern horror tale, Poe is also credited with parenting two other popular genres: science fiction and the detective story. In such works as “The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaall” and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” Poe took advantage of the fascination for science and technology that emerged in the early nineteenth century to produce speculative and fantastic narratives that anticipate a type of literature that did not become widely practiced until the twentieth century. Similarly, Poe's three tales of ratiocination—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”—are all recognized as the models that established the major characters and literary conventions of detective fiction, specifically the amateur sleuth who solves a crime that has confounded the authorities and whose feats of deductive reasoning are documented by an admiring associate. Just as Poe influenced many succeeding authors and is regarded as an ancestor of such major literary movements as symbolism and surrealism, he was also influenced by earlier literary figures and movements. In his use of the demonic and the grotesque, Poe evidenced the impact of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, while the despair and melancholy in much of Poe's writing reflects an affinity with the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. It was Poe's particular genius that in his own work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, while simultaneously creating new forms that would provide a means of expression for future artists.

Critical Reception

While his works were not conspicuously acclaimed during his lifetime, Poe did earn due respect as a gifted fiction writer, poet, and man of letters, and occasionally he achieved a measure of popular success. After his death, however, the history of his critical reception becomes one of dramatically uneven judgments and interpretations. This state of affairs was initiated by Poe's one-time friend and literary executor R. W. Griswold, who attributed the depravity and psychological aberrations of many of the characters in Poe's fiction to Poe himself. In retrospect, Griswold's vilifications seem ultimately to have elicited as much sympathy as censure with respect to Poe and his work, leading subsequent biographers of the late nineteenth century to defend Poe's name. It was not until the 1941 biography by A. H. Quinn that a balanced view was provided of Poe, his work, and the relationship between the author's life and his imagination. Nevertheless, the identification of Poe with the murderers and madmen of his works survived and flourished in the twentieth century, most prominently in the form of psychoanalytical studies. Added to the controversy over the sanity, or at best the maturity of Poe, was the question of the value of Poe's works as serious literature. At the forefront of Poe's detractors were such eminent figures as Henry James, Aldous Huxley, and T. S. Eliot, who dismissed Poe's works as juvenile, vulgar, and artistically debased; in contrast, these same works have been judged to be of the highest literary merit by such writers as Bernard Shaw and William Carlos Williams. Complementing Poe's erratic reputation among English and American critics is the more stable, and generally more elevated opinion of critics elsewhere in the world, particularly in France. In fact, numerous studies have been written tracing the influence of the American author on the international literary scene, especially in Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and Latin America. Today, Poe is recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of modern literature, both in its popular forms, such as horror and detective fiction, and in its more complex and self-conscious forms, which represent the essential artistic manner of the twentieth century. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed the man and his works as one, criticism of the past twenty-five years has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his virtuosity than with expressing his soul, and who maintained an ironic rather than an autobiographical relationship to his writings. Although various critics such as Yvor Winters wished to remove Poe from literary history, his works remain integral to any conception of modernism in world literature.

Principal Works

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket (short novel) 1838

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. 2 vols. 1840

Prose Romances: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up 1843

Tales 1845

Works of Edgar Allan Poe, With Notices of His Life and Genius. 4 vols. (edited by N. P. Willis, J. R. Lowell, and Rufus Wilmot Griswold) 1850-56

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 10 vols. (edited by Edmund C. Stedman and George E. Woodbury) 1894-95

The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 17 vols. (edited by James A. Harrison) 1902

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe 1938

Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe 1966

Selected Writings, Poems, Tales, Essays, and Reviews (edited by David Galloway) 1967

Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. (edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott) 1969-78

The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by Harold Beaver) 1976

The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition (edited by Stuart Levine and Susan Levine) 1976

Tales and Sketches. 2 vols. (edited by Mabbott) 1978

The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by Stephen Peithman) 1981

Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. 5 vols. (edited by Burton R. Pollin) 1981

Poetry and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by Patrick F. Quinn) 1984

The Tales of Poe (edited by Harold Bloom) 1987

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (edited by J. Gerald Kennedy; short novel) 1994

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (edited by Richard Kopley; short novel) 1999

Tamerlane, and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (poetry) 1827

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (poetry) 1829

Poems, By Edgar A. Poe (poetry) 1831

The Raven, and Other Poems (poetry) 1845

Eureka: A Prose Poem (poetry) 1848

The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Words of Personality (criticism) 1850

The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe 1870

Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by F. C. Prescott; criticism) 1909

Essays and Reviews of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by G. R. Thompson; criticism) 1984

Julia Stern (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Stern, Julia. “Double Talk: The Rhetoric of The Whisper in Poe's ‘William Wilson.’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 40, no. 3 (September 1994): 185-218.

[In the following essay, Stern probes Poe's use and subversion of melodramatic conventions in the story “William Wilson.”]

For Edgar Allan Poe, the melodramatic mode is a logical literary form in which to articulate ethical conflict, a form in which the utterly polarized terms of good and evil clash in a highly personalized encounter.1 Typically, as in “William Wilson,” Poe's doppelganger tale of 1839, melodrama shapes the manner and the matter of the story and inflects a variety of issues from character psychology to contemporary politics. Critics traditionally have read “William Wilson” as an allegory of a mind at war with itself, as a romantic fiction of dual personality in the tradition of Fyodor Dostoyevski and Robert Louis Stevenson, and so have overlooked the importance of the melodramatic conflict and formal gestures that permeate the story.2 By examining the way in which Poe uses and subverts melodramatic conventions, it is possible to resituate “William Wilson” as a fiction deeply grounded in the culture and sectional politics of the 1830s.

Melodrama, which sees the world in terms of darkness and light and articulates this vision in larger-than-life gestures, serves as the postsacral world's theatrical forum for resolving ethical conflicts. According to Peter Brooks, without the universal belief in God or a divine order upon which tragedy depends, there can be no “terminal reconciliation, for there is no longer a clear transcendent value to be reconciled to.” Melodrama represents both “the urge toward resacralization and the impossibility of conceiving sacralization other than in personal terms.” Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which did away with the notion of divinely anointed kings, melodrama offered the public a new post-revolutionary vehicle for cultural catharsis: it became the form in which “ethical imperatives” could be “made clear.”3 Poe, a Southern intellectual who remained immune to the waves of revivalism in nineteenth-century America, lived on the verge of this post-Christian universe. In his fictional world, one haunted by the absence of God, he turned to melodrama to fill the breach.

In “William Wilson,” the narrator (WW) is a master of the idiom of melodrama who renders his fable of conscience defeated by appetite as a struggle of enormous moral dimensions. Obsessed with painting the battle against his virtuous double for possession of his “self” in absolute, black-and-white tones, WW desires only to demarcate his own Byronic evil from WW2's suffocating goodness. Unaware that the post-tragic world is a diminished place, the narrator believes that his own adventures constitute a “drama” in the tragic mode.4 Without a theatrical paradigm for interpretation, the dimensions of his suffering would be reduced pitifully, dwindling into the realm of the ordinary, the banal. Accordingly, it is only in the superlative mode that WW can render his experience in a meaningful way. He is incapable of perceiving his world in any but hierarchical terms: if he is not the most depraved of villains he may as well not be at all. This obsession with power and superiority is a central feature of melodrama, where, ultimately, one element in a polarity must dominate the other or be dominated by it. WW strives to subjugate whomever crosses his path, but it is his particular desire to subdue his double. Significantly, and to the narrator's dismay, WW2 seeks balance rather than dominion, and he resists WW's dualism in entirely unmelodramatic terms. “William Wilson” charts, step by step, WW's failure to make melodrama, with its dualistic vision and Manichaean analysis of contention, a viable tool for carving out identity.

WW could be speaking of the multilayered nature of his own tale rather than of the peculiar architectural features of his public school when he remarks that “[i]t was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be” (340). In “William Wilson” there exist two readings for every narrative episode: the literal explanations offered by WW and a nonliteral, alternative reading at odds with his stated intent. I call these the narrator's melodramatic text and the discourse of the double, WW2's “inside narrative,” which exists beneath the story proper only to subvert it.5 Bakhtinian polyphony does not quite account for this rhetorical structure, which may be unique in the doppelganger genre; for just as the narrative is not integrated under the controlling voice of WW (what Bakhtin would call monologism), neither does it partake of a back-and-forth play between multiple voices.

Instead, the tale is composed of WW's “manifest” narrative, punctuated and, ultimately, taken over by the accents of its unconscious dissenting under-voice, the discourse of the double. Throughout the span of his storytelling (a span corresponding roughly to his fall into consciousness about his life), WW desperately struggles to maintain personal and narrative authority, to squelch or cancel the meaning suggested by his double. Indeed, the narrative emphasizes the fact of such suppression by making the whisper its most important metaphor. Eventually, WW's narrative authority is overthrown from a space outside the self or, more precisely, from a kind of inside out—by a dislocated projection of the inner voice that WW has evicted long before. In “William Wilson,” Poe's radical experiment in the first-person form becomes a perfect vehicle for expressing the idea that not only authority but identity itself is vulnerable to destabilization and transformation.


On the level of plot in “William Wilson,” which part of the self has what kind of authority is always under question. Technically, the story is the product of WW, a self-described wicked man whose callously egotistical behavior has harmed innocent people. And yet the narrator's opening language partakes of the manners and civility that mark the perfect gentleman. This seeming paradox suggests that the narrator's voice has been infiltrated by the discourse of the double, who is known throughout the tale for his courtesy and refinement.

Poe's narrator begins his tale with a request for permission: “Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson” (337). While the phrase may simply stand as a declarative convention of nineteenth-century rhetoric, a more subversive possibility exists; it also communicates a shaky sense of the narrator's authority (may I?) and a need to distance himself from his own experience (by renaming). In this sense, WW's pseudonym is a kind of “double name” and as such literalizes what is going on at the level of voice in the story. Since it is not necessary for a first-person narrator to name him- or herself in order to engage the reader's interest (as in Poe's own “Fall of the House of Usher” or in Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”), such a revelation is always significant. And to make much ado of a pseudonym is even more significant, for by such withholding a narrator puts a need for control on full display. WW's manipulations of his name in the story become symbolic of his consuming desire to withhold and repress material relating to issues of identity that is simply too painful—in his terms, too fraught with “horror”—to confront. Underneath what is revealed in “William Wilson” lies an even darker secret, something unnameable that the narrator refuses to “embody,” just as he refuses to “embody” the “record of [his] later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime” (337, my emphasis).

Perhaps most peculiar of all in the tangle of identity is a tenuousness of voice (“for the present”), the sense that identity itself is neither stable nor invulnerable to erosion by forces outside the self. The pseudonym WW takes evokes the heroic attempt to strike out for freedom; it makes emblematic the notion of the will, that most human of faculties arbitrating between desire and self-command. Embodied in this particular act of renaming is a wish that the name itself will act as a referee between the narrator's own base appetite and the double who hounds him as conscience personified. Renaming represents a fantasy of achieving control and, most importantly, autonomy. But there is a catch: he is Will-i-am son of Will, his self-authorship undercut by his own fiction of being second, an offspring, someone's son.6 At best an emphatic tautology, the pseudonym also suggests the assertion of independence (Will-I-Am) and the immediate undercutting of that independence (Son-of), a pattern that contains in miniature the central dialectic of the story.

By the third sentence of the tale, the speaker has split all sense of naming from his actual identity: “[M]y real appellation … has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race.” He cannot even utter his own name but reduces it from the status of grammatical subject to that of object, literally. Reification in the form of the self-become-pseudonym provides a fitting defense against the self's own “horror.” What is this voice? Clearly the narrator sees himself among the ranks of the damned, as a Cain figure, “outcast of all outcasts most abandoned” (337). On the literal level, such a tone is entirely plausible: a central tragic insight of the damned is that they loath themselves and can recognize virtue but cannot attain it.7 There is another explanation, however; speaking through the letter or literal plane of this discourse is the adversarial part of the self, WW2. Here, at the level of tone and figuration, the narrator exposes the essential dynamic of his doppelganger story: William Wilson the wicked has not successfully killed off his conscience at the end of the story he now recounts in retrospect; on the contrary, that temporarily repressed monitory whisper has returned in the opening two paragraphs of the tale to usurp narrative authority and to control the terms of the ensuing discourse.

Poe has created a narrative physics of infinite regression: identity may get smaller and smaller through splitting, but the dynamics of the dualism remain the same. The depraved WW first splits off the virtuous part of the self, WW2, and then goes so far as to kill that part; but in the meantime, the remaining, depraved part of the self has been splitting further. WW2, no longer existing as a projected other body, now lives contained within WW's narrating voice. The double is, as it were, reincarnated inside the narrator as a Manichaean vocal counterpart that the host self will never be able to shed. The footprints that WW2 leaves on the narrative path ostensibly cleared by WW reveal that the dualistic split WW is so desperate to establish, to the point of committing murder, is never so schematic or absolute as he desires; the two sides of the self are always to some degree enmeshed, knit together as the same fabric—a meshing that, to the extent it unravels, weakens both sides of identity.


The narrator's dualistic reading strategy in “William Wilson” will not be my own. To clarify this difference in method, I briefly turn to the following passage from the story, in which WW recalls WW2's impersonation of himself and in the process reveals his own melodramatic interpretive practices.

That the school, indeed, did not feel his design, perceive its accomplishment, and participate in his sneer, was, for many anxious months, a riddle I could not resolve. Perhaps the gradation of his copy rendered it not so readily perceptible; or, more possibly, I owed my security to the masterly air of the copyist, who, disdaining the letter, (which in a painting is all the obtuse can see,) gave but the full spirit of his original for my individual contemplation and chagrin.


In the character of the narrator, Poe has created a fiercely literalistic reader who inhabits a black-and-white universe. In matters requiring interpretation he strives to control meaning by defeating or rejecting implication, what can be called “the spirit” of the narrative, or its unconscious voice. But as this passage demonstrates, the narrator characteristically fails to fix his own meaning on the literal level. The irony of the episode is heightened by the fact that at this very moment, WW is reading his double's “interpretation” of himself. As we study WW scrutinizing his double, we ourselves practice the dynamic of reading through the narrator's tropes, of becoming attuned to the nonliteral level of the narrative's double talk.

The narrator believes that WW2 is plotting against him. Not averse to “plotting” himself (he is after all a narrator), WW describes his double's activity as a “design.” The letter/spirit passage alludes to the idea that wrongful artistic imitation constitutes a sin against the authority of an individual's identity, an act virtually tantamount to sacrilege, by using the famous distinction between the literal and the spiritual made by Paul in Romans 2:29 and 7:6; WW speaks of the “masterly air of the copyist, who, disdaining the letter, (which in a painting is all the obtuse can see,) gave but the full spirit of his original for [the narrator's] individual contemplation and chagrin” (my emphasis). Literally, WW is saying that the outside world will not recognize WW2's attempt to impersonate him because the “copy” is less mimetic than illustrative; only WW, a nonobtuse observer, can detect the resemblance. Here WW characterizes himself as uniquely in the know, spirit-wise, a departure from his avowed literalism that signals WW2's infiltration even at the level of the narrator's assertions about his own reading practices. The notion of a copyist who possesses a “masterly air,” which verges on the oxymoronic, further clouds the issue of who is in charge, for “to master” is not only to perfect a skill but also to overcome. The passage implies that the copy, WW2, may be overcoming the original, WW.

Origination is a major theme of this tale. WW wants to trace the roots of his Fall, metaphorically, his own kenosis. In a human twist on this theological idea, whereby the divine nature empties out that which properly belongs to its as divine,8 WW empties himself of virtue (as embodied in WW2), leaving what WW believes is an empty-vessel-self that is autonomous and free to follow its appetites wherever they lead. WW tries to locate his Fall in a discrete, binary moment: “[I]n an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle,” he claims in the second paragraph of his story (337). The impulse to read the self emblematically provides a defense against taking responsibility for a less schematic, less orderly slide into depravity. The melodramatic remark about losing all virtue makes figurative an actual episode, not yet narrated but already past, in which WW2 will drop a fur cloak, symbolizing the fact that he can no longer protect WW from his own brazen nakedness of desire. The narrator's very metaphors about his own wickedness originate in the literal experience of his double. The self cannot divest itself of the other as cleanly and as definitively as the conceit of the dropped mantle of virtue might suggest, for the double's deeds resurface in the figurative language the narrator uses for imagining his own perversion.

In WW's excessively melodramatic account, the very language of a “Fall” projects outside what is essentially a process taking place within. The split in WW's self begins as an external rift between parents and son over just whose voice will hold authority: “Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions” (338). The narrator's conception of power, of how it devolves and where it should rightly lie, has less to do with superior physical prowess, intelligence, material resources, or even charisma than with the ability to speak out and command the arena of discourse. Ironically, WW becomes “master” in “all but name” (338), recalling his rather proprietary and bizarre relationship with his name; Poe is punning on the notion of authority, of powers held in name versus those held in fact. On the literal level, WW holds a kind of de facto power in his family. But he is denied the acknowledgment that a verbal recognition would convey, power “in name” as well as fact, precisely the sort of authority that a narrator, a self built up of words, most covets.

Though we never meet his biological father, WW writes of a father substitute whose power and authority become subjects of his obsessive fascination and relate directly to the major themes of the tale.9 Dr. Bransby, the headmaster of WW's school and also called “Dominie” (Latin for father and suggestive of the connection between patriarchs and oppression), personifies the duality that will so plague the narrator. Bransby is at once the withholding, judgmental, and punitive principal and the benign and forgiving pastor of the village church. He embodies the “Draconian law of the academy” (339), a troubling notion for WW since the only law he wants or can tolerate is his own. Yet the memories the narrator relates of Dr. Bransby's authority are reverential: the schoolboys would no sooner have opened their principal's door in his absence than they would “all have willingly perished by the peine forte et dure,” he asserts (340).10 The reminiscences of these school days code WW's nostalgia for a time when the external world was powerful enough to keep him under control—evidence, perhaps, that WW2 influences or permeates WW's memories.

The narrator's painfully detailed representation of Dr. Bransby's school proves to be no casual or digressive scene-painting; here, as in other Poe tales, setting provides a metaphor for the protagonist's mind. The school wall is “riveted and studded with iron bolts, and surmounted with jagged iron spikes,” and the schoolyard is an “extensive enclosure … irregular in form, having many capacious recesses” (339). This landscape of restriction, limitation, and punishment, and yet of largesse, intricacy, and nuance, coupled with the winding passages and irregular architecture of the interior of the school, provides a telling picture of WW's repressive mental apparatus. Both are characterized by “incomprehensible subdivisions” that “return[] in upon themselves” (340). WW seems confounded by the existence of space the exact dimensions of which cannot be ascertained and which is divided up into uncountable portions. He dwells rather obsessively upon the seemingly superficial details of this setting, even claiming self-consciously, “I shall be pardoned for seeking relief, however slight and temporary, in the weakness of a few rambling details” (338). It is precisely in these obsessive details, however, that the heart of Poe's matter typically lies.

This architectural landscape becomes the object of the narrator's fixation because it is an analogy for, or even a projection of, his own conflicted mental terrain in all of its incomprehensibility and self-division. He remarks:

It was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of [the school's] two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable—inconceivable—and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity.


From his earliest school days, WW has trouble determining his “level,” whether or not he is “above” or “below.” Poe has here created a brilliant metaphor for exploring issues of moral rectitude; the narrator's future ethical purlieu will be identified with that of the underworld (vice, alcoholism, gambling, swindling, seduction, murder), while WW2's entire motivation is to pull the narrator up from this morass. This blurring of vertical levels has an analogue in the narrative voice itself, which professes to be a unique and independent utterance but actually reads like a duet in early rehearsal, with the two distinct parts not quite clearly articulated. The pun on “two stories” reinforces the idea that out of one ostensible story come two, told by two voices, and that it is by no means obvious which William Wilson is speaking or upon which “level” one is reading.

Thus, we have a narrator obsessed with autonomy, integrity, and distinction (in both the concretely literal and the symbolic senses) who cannot articulate his story solo voce. This duality of voice, or blurring of stories, has a graphic or written counterpart in an image WW remembers from childhood. As he describes the appointments of Dr. Bransby's schoolroom, the narrator focuses with rapt attention upon the schoolboy graffiti carved into the desks:

Interspersed about the room, crossing and re-crossing in endless irregularity, were innumerable benches and desks, black, ancient, and time-worn, piled desperately with much-bethumbed books, and so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little of original form might have been their portion in days long departed.


On the literal level, the formlessness described refers to the desks themselves. But this passage also marks another eruption of the discourse of the double, the subversive inside narrative; the syntax unofficially shifts so that one could “misread,” ascribing the loss of “original form” to the initial letters and names themselves. Within the grammar, individual parts of speech compete for authority: the object of the sentence takes on a nominative status as if it had an independent, subversive life of its own.

What is gained by accepting a willful but provocative misreading, the kind of step frequently invited by Poe's cagey narrative strategies? How does the issue of formlessness as the result of overinscription figure in the meaning of this tale? Poe is playing with two points here. First is the notion of individual names losing their integrity and separateness, just as WW's name has become the “common property of the mob” (341). Such events constitute violations, for every name, according to the logic of this sentence, has a distinct allotment of “original form” due to it as a sort of right, perhaps just as members of every enlightened society have the right to pursue their own happiness in individual ways. Yet who has freely chosen this pseudonym that expresses commonality rather than individuality? The narrator himself—or, more precisely, the narrator as haunted by WW2. In not exploiting the forum of renaming to its fullest capacity for fictional self-creation, as Jay Gatsby was to do, WW reveals another sign of double talk. The narrator's “original form” has been overwritten by the impress of the double.

Second, the graphic inscriptions in the desk become metaphors for the boundaries of the self in the world, and WW is made uncomfortable when those demarcations are obscured: how can the originality of the self prevail if the signature proclaiming that originality is virtually effaced? Thus arises the more general issue of “losing form,” another way of describing the blurring of boundaries and the passing of limits, which calls to mind WW's later moral problems. “Gentlemen” behave in “good form”; they attend to a fixed social code. WW's excesses, particularly his cheating at cards, violate that code. Expressed in suggestively similar language, an aesthetic observation about schoolroom furniture can be read as a moral one about behavior in society.11


Immediately after describing the schoolroom, WW comments that “the teeming brain of childhood requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it” (340), as if to assert that the boundaries distinguishing self from world are not applicable in his case. WW is all self. WW2 represents the encroachment of the world's naysaying forces. The story recreates Freud's myth of the id's fall from the paradisiacal wholeness of infancy but does so by recapturing the essentially religious nature of that myth. Poe's narrator does not merely feel guilt over his imperial desires; he is damned and punished for them, sentenced to a metaphysical laryngitis and forced to play the part of the ventriloquist's puppet while his worst enemy or “best self” literally puts words in his mouth.

As the struggle opens, WW fights “not to be overcome,” a phrase associated with the loss of autonomy. He notes:

Wilson's rebellion was to me a source of the greatest embarrassment;—the more so as, in spite of the bravado with which in public I made a point of treating him and his pretensions, I secretly felt that I feared him, and could not help thinking the equality which he maintained so easily with myself, a proof of his true superiority; since not to be overcome cost me a perpetual struggle. Yet this superiority—even this equality—was in truth acknowledged by no one but myself. … Indeed, his competition, his resistance, and especially his impertinent and dogged interference with my purposes, were not more pointed than private.


What is most interesting in this passage is WW's perplexity over WW2's entirely private arena of combat: the double has neither public ambition nor any “passionate energy of mind,” and thus, no exteriority (342).12 And emblematically, WW2 has no outward voice other than a whisper. Is it mere coincidence that WW describes his double's lack of vocal power as a “constitutional defect” (344)? Might Poe not be punning on the relationship between physical bodies and the body politic, between the self (constitution here meaning one's “structure” or “physical makeup”) and a written or unwritten text (“the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights”)?13 What are the implications for right rule when the different voices constituting the “body” cannot articulate or vocalize their opinions?

What WW finds perhaps most disturbing about WW2's incursion against him is the co-opting of voice: “[I]n spite of his constitutional defect, even my voice did not escape him. My louder tones were, of course, unattempted, but then the key, it was identical; and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own” (344). To add insult to injury, this mimicry “could not justly be termed a caricature” but had to be acknowledged as “exquisite portraiture” (344). Indeed, the narrator makes a point of the fact that he “will not now venture to describe” how this unauthorized portrait “harassed” him (344-45). For to “give voice” to the issue is to participate in and repeat the mimetic violation of the self that the double has perpetrated; it is to yield authority to that incubus voice and broadcast it again. But we must acknowledge the cunning imprint of the double's discourse here: though WW does not offer a mimesis of WW2's impersonation, he gives us a précis by omission when he articulates his refusal to describe the “exquisite portraiture.”

Poe continues to use puns to express the subversive substratum of this tale, the inside narrative. WW experiences his double's supervision as “distasteful” (345); appropriately, the “appetitive” portion of the self is dis-gusted by the limiting force of the conscience. Even more interestingly, WW cannot be disgusted by WW2 unless he has ingested him, taken him in, suggesting that the outer and inner selves, or more importantly, the self and the world, are inextricably connected, just as are the two William Wilsons that the narrator is so eager to cleave. My choice of the word cleave here articulates or reproduces the duality of WW's dilemma, for it simultaneously denotes separation and communion. This is the duality Freud has in mind when talking of “the antithetical sense of primal words” in an essay of the same name. In the realm of human psychodynamics, primal words have the unique ability to express both a concept and its opposite in a single stroke.14 In the narrative realm of “William Wilson,” puns, in all their doubleness, are Poe's version of primal words; they speak the discourse of the double.


Three episodes anticipate (another form of doubling) the climactic confrontation between the narrator and his double at the masquerade ball in Rome: WW's midnight visit to WW2's sleeping chamber at Dr. Bransby's school, the drinking orgy at Eton, and the card game with Glendinning at Oxford. The first is set in what the narrator describes as a “closet” (346), evoking Gothic images of the pious in confession or private prayer and thus underscoring the spiritual nature of the conflict. For although the melodramatically conceived universe of “William Wilson” is a postsacral world, the absence of God is painfully felt by Poe's depraved narrator. When WW enters his double's sleeping chamber with his lamp, it is not with the purpose of shedding any beneficent light upon their relations. The attempt at “illumination” is of decidedly darker cast. While WW never explains his motivation for committing this act, his intent is clearly malicious. The scene projects a kind of symbolic rape or violation of WW2.

As the waking self confronts the sleeping one, the narrator's “whole spirit [becomes] possessed with an objectless yet intolerable horror” as he nears “the sleeper” and “the face” (347, my emphasis). The peculiar lack of possessive pronouns and the word “objectless” in this passage provide clues that a bizarre mirroring or merging of identities has occurred: whose face does the narrator see? The terror he feels upon viewing the body in the bed is objectless, that is, it has no object. Yet there are ostensibly two people in the room, a seeing subject and the object of his perception. But the focus of the gaze has become a horror both “objectless” and “intolerable.” I would suggest that the status of WW2 as object, as other, dissolves, on the level of the plot and on the level of the narrator's language, and that a double subjectivity already existing in sub-rosa form emerges here once and for all.

WW gives us a physical rendering of this scene that at the same time censors any representation of the corporeal, which makes it especially suggestive. The narrator plans to unman WW2, either through the indecent exposure of himself to his double or of the double to the narrator himself, that is, by stripping WW2. Whatever the precise nature of his transgressive act, such behavior redounds negatively upon WW. Withholding from our view what he actually sees and does, WW communicates nothing but excessive affect—nearly hysterical ejaculations of terror and horror. The scene becomes more interesting as a picture of displacement and repression than as a revelatory tableau. But the heightened affect suggests that what began as a symbolic rape has degenerated even further into a scene of self-abuse. How else might we interpret the fact that the conscience is disabled, asleep? WW's “self-knowledge,” with its potentially carnal connotations, climaxes in “shudder[s]” of horror rather than pleasure (347). The episode releases a level of anxiety and dread never before experienced by the narrator and causes him to run away, as if for his very life.

It is at this point that Poe calls up the excessively dramatic, grandiose emotional gestures of melodrama to underscore the ethical conflict plaguing his narrator. Articulation of the nonverbal in writing is by no means an obvious achievement. Poe turns to punctuation and typography as a playwright would to stage directions. Using italics and dashes as if they were music and special effects, Poe is able to convey nuances of expression that the medium of print would otherwise seem to preclude. The narrator cries melodramatically, “Were these—these the lineaments of William Wilson?” (347), the syntax and typography underscoring confusion and duality of identity with the doubled use of the word “these.” On the level of denotation, WW refers to WW2, his own relentless conscience (here, interestingly, for the first and last time pictured asleep on the job). But the language is also veering, pushing the reader to an alternate interpretation: might not the narrator be “seeing” himself? The dash acts as a device that simultaneously separates or distinguishes the two figures and joins them together, visually representing the tenuous paradox that marks their relatedness.15 Functioning as a kind of mirror/barrier, the dash appears at each of the four important confrontation scenes in the story (347, 349, 352, 355-57). Similarly, the narrator uses italicized speech to indicate the discourse of or about WW2; it is another way of pointing out, literally and figuratively, the similarities and differences between the two characters.


Pace Leslie Fiedler, Ann Douglas has called “the image of flight the image of life” in American fiction,16 and flight is literally embodied in Poe's story as the only means by which the embattled self can preserve its autonomy—its survival as itself. Thus, after WW makes his escape from Dr. Bransby's, the second half of the story is organized around the three remaining confrontations and the subsequent “flights for life” upon which the narrator embarks. As he moves from Eton to Oxford, external authority and limitation become less vigilant, and he himself grows more depraved; fittingly, the admonitions of WW2 become more overtly disruptive as if to compensate for the indifference of the outer world to WW's dissipation.

The card game debacle at Oxford emblematizes what is central in all three confrontations: each takes place in the context of play or at a party of some kind in which the rules of normal behavior are suspended or inverted. The reader only sees the narrator in these situations of a world turned upside down, a festival of misrule, as if to underscore the fact that WW neither exists in nor experiences any normative life. The plot to cheat Lord Glendinning at cards literalizes and puns on the main action of the story: Glendinning becomes WW's debtor, just as WW is in a sort of moral debt to his own conscience; the stakes of the game are “double[d]” (351); and WW “effect[s]” Glendinning's “total ruin,” just as WW will undo his double, and thus himself. In a single stroke, Poe has the double expose WW's treachery via facsimiles of playing cards and further symbolizes this notion of exposure by having WW2 drop his cloak, as if to indicate that he is now abandoning the previous delicate handling of WW. Notably, the emblem of conscience comes out of hiding precisely when WW begins to destroy persons outside himself.

In the penultimate moments of the story, the narrator renames WW2 “my evil destiny” (353), subtly signaling that he has become conscious of the process of incorporation I have been arguing for all along: WW has begun to read his doppelganger as a living metaphor for personal misfortune and thwarted desire. And it is here that a series of political tropes used only infrequently in the earlier parts of the story begin to proliferate: the narrator has “succumbed supinely to … imperious domination,” to WW2's “inscrutable tyranny” and “arbitrary will” (354, 355). What the narrator finds most disturbing about his double's intrusions is the fact that WW2 is increasingly omnipotent and yet effaced. In other words, he is essentially a voice. Indeed, the physics of the story have suggested that as the whisper becomes louder, the host voice—its powers and authority—grows diminished. Hence the narrator's complaint, resonant with ambiguity, that he has become “more and more impatient of control” (355). WW is saying that he is less and less willing to be controlled by his conscience, but curiously, the implication is that he seeks sole “control” or authority over his life of no control, of self-indulgence; he wants the power to indulge himself without limit. At the same time, this odd phrase suggests the opposite, that he wants to control, to set limits upon, his debauchery. That ambivalence hints at the underlying process of incorporation; traces of a blurred identity become more overt as the story moves to its climax. As the narrator will confess in the final “murder scene,” “I could have fancied that I myself was speaking” (356).


By setting the final episode at a masquerade, Poe literalizes the theme of identity in suspension. According to Terry Castle, whose Masquerade and Civilization delineates the masquerade in English literature, “psychologically speaking, the masquerade [is] a meditation on self and other.” Castle maintains that the goal of the masquerade is to search for perfect freedom, to seek out the very sort of altered state, or “intoxication, ecstasy, and free-floating sensual pleasure,” that WW makes the motivating quest of his life. Masqueraders obtain “personal abdication from the responsibilities for identity.”17

The narrator's description of the shifting throng of the masked crowd, in which the individual is easily overwhelmed, takes us back, symbolically, to the landscape of the story's beginning. WW feels suffocated as he wanders through mazes of revelers, recalling the physical confusion he experienced in the labyrinthine corridors of Dr. Bransby's school. Just as WW is about to initiate the seduction of his host's wife, he hears that familiar “damnable whisper.” He attempts to respond and notices that his own voice is “husky with rage,” its articulations muted; WW has himself begun to speak in a whisper, to take on his double's voice—another sign or symptom of inward colloquy (355).

This is the climax of the story: during the fatal duel, WW describes his “single arm” as containing “the energy and power of a multitude” (356). Clearly a metaphor for extrahuman strength, this phrase at the same time ominously suggests that in one man lie more than one. After repeatedly stabbing WW2, the narrator hallucinates a mirror reflecting back his own bloodied form. Then comes a remarkable passage in which double negatives, exclusively, are used to express identity: “Not a thread in all his raiment—not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of his face which was not, even in the absolute identity, mine own!” (356). The narrator here uses italicized speech, hitherto used primarily to describe WW2, in speaking of himself. In other words, the form he used to give voice to his doppelganger has become domesticated. Or, more darkly, WW2's characteristic mode has taken over the narrator's voice. And it is not even clear whose voice is actually speaking: “It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said: ‘You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope!’” (356-57).

The fanciful italicized doublet “dead—dead” expresses typographically what has happened to the characters literally and metaphysically: they have undergone complete interpenetration. At the earliest confrontation, in the sleeping chamber, the narrator had described the confusion over his identity by saying “were these—these the lineaments of William Wilson?” (347). The distinction between the self and its other, though confused in fact, was graphically demarcated; the narrating self could express the difference with the dash and italics. Here, the two William Wilsons have merged in death, and by a kind of law of the double negative, the relationship will continue for eternity. For the italicized voice will become the narrator of Poe's “William Wilson,” haunted with guilt, unable to express depravity without censorship, judgmental anguish, or regret. This passage echoes and anticipates WW's opening words about being “dead” “to the earth” (337). Between the conclusion of the story and its first two paragraphs we have witnessed the birth of a narrative conversion of enormous power. Melodramatic self-definition has failed, utterly and completely, as a device capable of demarcating the “good” self from the “bad.” Good or bad, if the self in “William Wilson” was once dual bodied, it now wears its divisions on the inside, in the form of the dual voice that cannot stop speaking double talk.


Instead of leaving us with the “victory over repression” that characterizes melodrama, an airing of the dirty linen of evil and its triumphant purgation by the forces of virtue,18 Poe ends his tale with the central mystery unexplained. The enigma of identity in “William Wilson” remains “unsaid,” still morally occluded. What, finally, is the meaning of the double talk or inside narrative in this tale? We have established that the central rhetorical and metaphorical strands of the story are psychological, complete with the symptoms of the title character manifested in the religious language of salvation and damnation. But the tale exhibits a seemingly political dimension as well. This should strike devoted Poe readers as unusual, for critics have long decried the decidedly ahistorical, atemporal features of his fiction: Poe's tales, such scholars observe, typically take place in Gothic dreamscapes out of time, or at mythic South Poles out of nightmares.19 “William Wilson” is different for being set overtly and unquestionably in the privileged England of public school and Oxford.

Even more uncharacteristic is the featuring of a peculiarly political set of tropes: WW's real name, though noble, is “the common property of the mob” (341). And later, after first characterizing WW2's behavior as “rebellion” (342), he curses the double's “inscrutable tyranny” and expatiates upon his “[p]oor justification … for an authority so imperiously assumed,” his “[p]oor indemnity for natural rights of self agency … denied” (354). We see here two sorts of American political rhetoric. The first quoted phrase echoes the conservative fear of the mob expressed from the post-revolutionary period of Charles Brockden Brown down through such tales as Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” like “William Wilson” written in the 1830s. The other phrases suggest the seemingly incongruent anti-authoritarian sentiments of the Declaration of Independence. Thus we see both an elitism bordering on aristocratic attitudes and a hostility to unjust authority (figured forth as royal, “imperious”) at work within one character.

Perhaps even more troubling is that in this debate over authority, it is by no means clear—it is, in fact, always under question—which part of the self is the “governing body,” “mother country,” or “imperial self” and which the seceding colonist or rioting commoner. For one could argue that the notions of “inscrutable tyranny,” “authority … imperiously assumed,” and “natural rights of self-agency … denied” cut two ways. The first two phrases could refer to WW2 as the colonist-self acting as if he were king when he is just a spin-off, a branch office, a subsidiary. Or, and the final phrase underscores this other reading, they could suggest that WW2 is himself the weak ruler who resents the dissension and rebellion of WW. WW then becomes the threat to union, the unruly colonist who wants independence to take his own wayward path.


With this double-edged reading in place, it is difficult to make definitive judgments concerning the political allegory afoot in “William Wilson,” since allegory is a predictive form that relies upon precise correspondences. In fact, the disruption and rejection of melodramatic dualism in the story can serve as a warning against efforts to read Poe in allegorical terms. “William Wilson” subverts all binary attempts to classify meaning. Even so, tentative speculations are in order.

On one hand the story seems to offer itself as a conservative parable warning against the dangers of revolution. But Poe is no Tory, rereading the American past by writing “historical” fiction.20 The “revolution” in “William Wilson” refers not to the struggle of 1776 but to the battles between North and South in Poe's present. Poe has taken the language of the American Revolution and brought it to bear upon the contemporary issue of sectional strife. For in the terms of the 1830s, “revolution” connotes the secession of states from the Union, most specifically, the threat that South Carolina would secede in the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33.21 In its Ordinance of Nullification, South Carolina declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were “null and void” within state boundaries. Among other related claims, the document asserted that if the federal government adopted any kind of coercion against the state, its citizens would “hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other states, and [would] forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent states may of right do.”22 Ostensibly pitting only South Carolina against the Union, nullification actually embroiled Georgia as well. Georgia, too, had a constitutional quarrel with the Unionist view of government sovereignty that President Jackson espoused against the nullifiers. And other Southern states, particularly Virginia, long known for its states' rights legacy, also had much to lose. Under contention was how to interpret the Constitution's definition of the national union. Was the Union a compact of consenting states that, while retaining sovereignty, had joined to create the Constitution and a confederation from which they also could legally withdraw? Or was sovereignty located within the people themselves, the majority of the electorate,23 a symbolic body that transcended local affiliations to individual states. Would not sovereignty so located make the Union perpetual and indissoluble only according to the consent of the people so defined? These were the questions that the Nullification Crisis brought to a head.

The central image of “William Wilson,” in which parts split off from the whole, in which unity totters on the verge of fragmentation, evokes an issue of particular resonance for Americans. Secessionist threats did not, as the popular imagination would have it, emerge as unique to mid-nineteenth-century American political discourse. They had been uttered, on the contrary, as early as the period of the Constitution's ratification (1787) and were a consistent feature of states' rights politics until South Carolina actually seceded from the Union in December of 1860.24 It was the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, however, that decisively riveted national attention to the issue of sectional strife. Perhaps more than earlier threats of secession by various dissatisfied factions, nullification threw a spotlight on questions of state versus national sovereignty and authority. It was against this background of national crisis—of section seeking to detach from section—and of the rich oratorical activity that gave voice to the debate, that Poe's imagination developed into maturity.

In the context of this sectional turmoil, “William Wilson” can be read as a fantasy that addresses the danger of secession, since the “secessionist” part of the self is depraved and demented and the “Unionist” side virtuous and controlled. Or the story can be understood alternatively, as a critique of the sort of conservatism that calls for morally questionable compromise rather than for definitive schismatic action. According to such a reading, WW2 dissents from the secessionist part of the self. Despite WW2's disapproval of the depraved behavior of his “other half,” he doggedly attempts to maintain union with his wicked mother country and to effect reform through loyalty and loving admonition. But WW2 pays the ultimate price for his efforts to sustain connection: he sacrifices his existence for what is, essentially, a lost cause. In this reading, Poe suggests that attempts to conciliate unhappy members of the body politic through persuasion are not only destined to fail but may incite violent reaction. Both readings suggest that efforts in the 1830s to deal with dissent in the nation state were inadequate. Schism and compromise each seem to forebode destruction.

“William Wilson” warns unequivocally against taking dualistic measures to cordon off problems that compromise identity. WW2, as perceived by the narrator, embodies just this sort of danger to the self. The effort to resolve conflict by branding it as evil (or good, in the inverted world of this tale) and by attempting to banish it to a kind of quarantine is a melodramatic gesture that fails precisely because conflict cannot be reduced to black-and-white terms.

To a Southern intellectual like Poe, the 1830s were an era of tremendous moral confusion. By 1835, abolitionists had begun to seize the terms of the national discourse on slavery, and outraged citizens were responding with anti-abolitionist riots throughout the North. To the Northern abolitionist imagination, slavery was an evil institution and all slaveholders damned; the only way in which the national soul could be saved, argued the abolitionists, was to destroy this wicked institution with one deadly blow.25 But Southern intellectuals could not afford to read the dilemma in such terms; for them, abolitionism was the melodramatic characterization of an issue they saw as considerably more complex.26 Thoughtful Virginians like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had felt uneasy about slavery as early as the mid-eighteenth century but believed that the evils of the “Peculiar Institution” were inextricably bound up with what they saw as its more virtuous effects. Apologists for slavery argued with conviction that the paternalistic system had a protective value for Blacks. Left to fend for themselves in a hostile society, so the argument went, free black laborers would be crushed at the hands of superior Whites. Because slavery, from this perspective, embroiled Blacks and Whites in an almost incestuously intimate relationship, it was much harder for Southerners to imagine a clean and simple extrication from the problem. When the nation offered abolition as its only narrative solution to regional dissent, secession was the equally melodramatic answer returned by the South.27

Though “William Wilson” contains powerful images of slavery, Poe uses them to animate a psychological, rather than a physical and political, form of bondage. The issue of political division is a fact of the story, but any attempt to argue that Poe codes that division around slavery must fail because he is silent on precisely this subject. Slavery is the great unmentionable for him as for the South. The melodramatic division of good and evil on the political level becomes a disaster for the politics of Union because the North keeps mentioning the unmentionable and forcing the melodrama on everyone.

If the defeat of melodrama by WW2's subversive inside narrative can become a guide for recovering the political discourse of the story, where does that leave the reader of “William Wilson”? The abolitionist versus secessionist melodrama offers a drastic strategy for coping with a body at war with itself: amputate the ailing member and pray that the infection will be contained. The disease process in “William Wilson,” however, proves to be systemic; the infection has pervaded the narrating voice. In the self as in the nation state, secessionist measures do not succeed in restraining the threat of potentially poisonous conflict. Melodramatic Mason-Dixon lines, the inside narrative of “William Wilson” suggests, are meant to be crossed.

An alternative to the melodramatic solution would be the attempt to tolerate the mix of good and evil. The story offers only a fleeting image of such peaceful coexistence, when the young William Wilsons briefly maintain a relationship on “speaking terms” (343). In the arena of politics, such a reading would seem to imply keeping slavery in place. Because Poe's story dramatizes the defeat of the first alternative, we are left with the unpalatable but undeniable force of the anti-melodramatic solution, the protection of the institution of slavery. But it would be difficult to argue that Poe takes much pleasure in this state of affairs.28 For in the story, though WW survives his debacle, his very language is haunted by the rhetoric of the whisper internalized in the final struggle, and furthermore, he is dying. Generalizing from a reading of the tale as fiction to an interpretation of the fiction as a document of culture at a moment in time, we might say that dying along with WW are the more enlightened ideals of the South in the 1830s.29 In “William Wilson,” Poe has dramatized the dilemma of the Southern intellectual who finds no way out for his region in the face of its problems of identity.


Historians have noted that a rich oratorical tradition arose in the 1830s from the conflict that threatened to split the nation. Daniel Webster, who asserted the supremacy of the Union, and Robert Hayne, who opposed him by arguing for the sovereignty of states, articulated the terms of the debate. The speeches of these men quickly reached all literate Americans through newspaper transcriptions and even the illiterate through the recitations of school children. Daniel J. Boorstin notes that in these years, which he characterizes as the golden period of American oratory, “[o]ration seemed almost to displace legislation as the main form of political action.”30 In light of this prominence given to spoken modes of political activity in the 1830s, it is significant that Poe underscores the orality of his tale. The difficulty of remaining on “speaking terms” forms the crux of the characters' drama, and the whisper is the expressive form given most significance in the story. There is never a moment of balance between the two Wilsons until the final scene, when the two figures whisper at each other, sharing their only inside colloquy. Though the communion is barely audible, there is contrapuntal activity at work here. And though WW has “killed” his conscience, he cannot silence its voice, for it has usurped his powers of expression and attained sovereignty.

Parallels can be drawn here with the larger political problems of Poe's day. Voices within a single Union were in conflict, never in balance. The fundamental theory of those who sought to preserve the Union depended upon the two sides remaining on “speaking terms,” upon the debate continuing until solution or compromise was attained (as in the Nullification Crisis). In the 1830s, a powerful orator could meld the audience to him- or herself and bridge ideological conflict by making the hearer lose “any sense of dualism.” Such charismatic use of language could create a sympathy powerful enough to dissolve seemingly insurmountable barriers.31 By the 1850s, however, dualism within the nation had become unbridgeable and words insufficient. As sectional conflict grew, oratory failed to unite the nation and “eloquence itself appeared a source of disruption.”32 Inner colloquy was no longer possible and civil war loomed imminent and unavoidable. This is the uncanny lesson of “William Wilson.” When the speaking stops, when the inner colloquy fades away to the level of the whisper, fratricidal violence and insanity become inevitable.

Poe's personal circumstances caused him to reach in his fiction to political statement and beyond it. He was in many ways America's archetypal displaced person.33 A Southerner self-exiled to the North, Poe was an eternal wanderer, metaphysically homeless even when his material needs were provided. A professional writer, he strained to make a place and a living for himself in a social climate that favored leisured gentlemanly belletrists. The son of impoverished actors, he was raised by an upper-middle-class Virginia merchant who refused him the emotional and financial security a legal adoption would accord. John Allan's inconstant attention and his unwillingness to acknowledge his foster son cost Poe the sense of being firmly rooted in a family and a social class, aspects of identity that virtually defined the self in the hierarchical South. This combination of circumstances left Poe's identity tenuous in his own mind and helped make the quest for self a powerful subject of his art. His frustrations of place and of placement forced him into the generic limbo of a story like “William Wilson,” where character and identity hover between melodramatic representation and realistic psychological rendering. It was Poe's gift and his greatness that he could transform the psychology of the split self into a fiction with powerful political implications.


  1. For my treatment of melodrama in Poe, I rely on Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984); and George B. Forgie, “Abraham Lincoln and the Melodrama of the House Divided,” chap. 7 in Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 243-81. See also David Grimsted, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theatre and Culture, 1800-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

  2. Classic interpretations of “William Wilson” include Thomas F. Walsh, “The Other William Wilson,” American Transcendental Quarterly, no. 10 (1971): 17-26; and Robert Coskren, “‘William Wilson’ and the Disintegration of the Self,” Studies in Short Fiction 12 (1975): 155-62. See also Marc Leslie Rovner, “What William Wilson Knew: Poe's Dramatization of an Errant Mind,” in Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies, ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1978), 73-82.

  3. Brooks, Melodramatic Imagination, 17, 16, 17.

  4. Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson,” in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, ed. Patrick F. Quinn (New York: Library of America, 1984), 354. Hereafter, all references to this text will be cited parenthetically.

  5. I borrow the term “inside narrative” from Melville, who uses it in Billy Budd, Sailor to identify the limits between what can be known in a fiction and what cannot. In “William Wilson,” inside narrative refers to that which is not known consciously to the narrator but which WW2 raises from repression to a whispering consciousness. Notions of inside and underneath become synonymous in this tale. See Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts Jr. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962).

    Also see Wayne Koestenbaum's study of literary collaboration and homosexuality, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York: Routledge, 1989). I use the term “double talk” to describe the subversive thrust of WW2's impact upon WW's storytelling. Though WW2 seeks union with WW, the force of his double talk is anti-collaborative; put another way, the story details WW's struggle to resist WW2's collaboration, which ultimately fails. Koestenbaum's work explores dynamics related to, but the obverse of, those at play in “William Wilson.”

  6. See Walsh, “The Other William Wilson,” 23. Evan Carton makes a similar point: “[T]he recalcitrant name remains to indicate—perhaps even, given its acknowledged similarity to the alias ‘Wilson,’ to insist—that he is not self-authored” (The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985], 38).

  7. Consider Pier della Vigna, the suicide in Inferno, 13.55-108, who, in contrast to the majority of his infernal compatriots, is confirmed in the belief that his act was morally wrong.

  8. See Webster's Third New International Dictionary, s.v. “kenosis”: “kenōsis, fr. Gk, evacuation, action of emptying, fr. kenoun to purge, empty (fr. kenos empty) + -sis 1: … the act of Christ in emptying himself of the form of God.”

  9. Poe's biological father abandoned his family when Poe was eighteen months old, and upon the death of Poe's mother a year and a half later, he was taken in by John Allan, who became his foster father. Thus Poe's obsession with authority and identity is well grounded in his biography. See Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 3-11.

  10. See editor Thomas Ollive Mabbott's gloss in Tales and Sketches, 1831-1842, vol. 2 of Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1978), 449 n. 5: legally, peine forte et dure—pressing to death—was “the penalty for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty to a capital charge,” a punishment “endured by courageous persons to save their estates from confiscation.” Such rejection of choice on the part of a defendant represents the obverse of what I have been calling melodramatic thinking, which is characterized by its dualistic view of conflict and by its insistence upon stand taking. The narrator's use of this simile marks another instance in which his figurative language is permeated by WW2, who, like the victim of peine forte et dure, goes to his death in order to avoid taking melodramatic stands.

  11. In effect, the narrator and his double represent opposing versions of the late eighteenth-century gentleman. WW is the depraved rake renowned for his excesses. WW2 is the courtly and chivalrous man of privilege who risks life and limb over points of honor and who is ultimately destroyed in a duel.

  12. To be more precise, WW2's ambitions are collaborative in nature, since he does desire to see WW well thought of by the world.

  13. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “constitution.”

  14. Sigmund Freud, “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words,” review of Ueber den Gegensinn der Urworte, by Karl Abel, in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 55-62; first published in Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen (Vienna, 1910).

  15. In “Marginalia,” Poe comments on the dash as a punctuation mark that articulates duality; he notes that it “represents a second thought—an emendation,” and later asserts that it “gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea.” See “Marginalia,” in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1426, my emphasis in the second quotation; first published in Graham's Magazine 32 (1848): 130. For an extended reading of the poetics of the dash in Poe's Eureka, see Joan Dayan, “The Analytic of the Dash,” in Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 55-79.

  16. Leslie Fiedler remarks that the typical protagonist in American fiction is a “man on the run.” See Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), 26. I am indebted to Ann Douglas for her insight about Fiedler's work.

  17. See Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1986), 6, 53, 73. See also James W. Gargano, The Masquerade Vision in Poe's Short Stories (Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1977).

  18. Brooks, Melodramatic Imagination, 4.

  19. Such a stereotype is in fact undercut by other Poe tales as well, particularly “The Man of the Crowd” and such comic works as “The Man That Was Used Up” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” For a historical/political reading of the latter, see Louis D. Rubin Jr., The Edge of the Swamp: A Study in the Literature and Society of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989), 163-67. While scholars of the last fifteen years have begun to situate Poe's fiction in the material conditions of his culture, the notion of the ahistorical Poe permeates much criticism written prior to the late 1970s. For example, in Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953), Charles Feidelson Jr. argues that Poe “was not, like Emerson and Whitman, primarily in conflict with a rationalistic society; he was at war with himself” (37). Like Feidelson, both Harry Levin and Daniel Hoffman read Poe as a psychological novelist writing of self-division and disintegration. See Levin, “Journey to the End of the Night” and “Notes from Underground,” chaps. 4 and 5 in The Power of Blackness (New York: Knopf, 1958), 101-64; and Hoffman, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (New York: Random House, 1972), 207-13.

  20. This is the case Michael J. Colacurcio compellingly argues about Hawthorne in The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

  21. Richard E. Ellis writes: “As [President Andrew] Jackson viewed it, secession was a revolutionary right, one that had to be fought for and therefore one that could be suppressed. Moreover, he believed nullification and secession were virtually synonymous, for the one verged almost automatically into the other. ‘Nullification,’ [Jackson] wrote, ‘leads directly to civil war and bloodshed and deserves the execration of every friend of the Country.’ Indeed, so hostile was he to ‘this nullifying doctrine, which threatens to dissolve our happy Union,’ that in his mind support for the nullifiers' cause became synonymous with ‘Treason against our Government.’” See The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights, and the Nullification Crisis (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 48; quoting Andrew Jackson's letter to James A. Hamilton, 2 November 1832.

  22. State Papers on Nullification … (Boston, 1934), 28-31, quoted in Ellis, Union at Risk, 76.

  23. “The electorate” seems a more appropriate term than “the governed,” since some of those governed were not enfranchised.

  24. Seymour Martin Lipset writes, “[E]very major political faction and interest group attempted, at one time or other between 1790 and 1860, to weaken the power of the national government or to break up the Union directly.” See The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 34.

  25. William Lloyd Garrison, among other ardent abolitionists, was willing to see the Union dissolved rather than poisoned by slavery. This sentiment gained currency in 1842 and was called the “Disunion Movement,” the slogan of which became “No Union with slaveholders.” In The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1974; New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), Merton L. Dillon observes that “apparently some abolitionists were urging northern secession as early as the mid-1830s” and directs the reader to Catherine Beecher's Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females (Philadelphia: Perkins, 1837), 140-41 (see Dillon, 171 n. 17). See also Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976; New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 129-34.

  26. See Forgie, “Abraham Lincoln,” esp. 267-68 and 270.

  27. David Brion Davis writes that “some southern Unionists went so far as to charge that a conspiratorial alliance had developed between northern abolitionists and southern secessionists. However absurd this notion might seem, it showed some recognition of the fact that the extremists in both sections had joined in a coordinated attack on the earlier ‘conspiracy of silence’ over slavery. If politicians of both parties had tacitly agreed that discussions of slavery were highly imprudent, the abolitionists and southern firebrands shared the opposite conviction that the issue must be met head on.” See The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1971), 105.

  28. Robert Byer argues that Poe hated the paternalism identified with the slaveowning classes in Virginia, but that because he was white, he defended slavery, though never very strongly. See “‘The Man of the Crowd’: Edgar Allan Poe in His Culture” (Ph.D. diss., Yale Univ., 1979), 394, 397. Rubin writes that Poe, “knowing that a Richmond audience [for the journal he edited between 1835 and 1837, the Southern Literary Messenger] would have little use for any author, however meritorious his work, who opposed the Peculiar Institution, … doubtless used that knowledge to gain reader sympathy in his quarrel with [the abolitionist writer James Russell] Lowell.” Rubin goes on to indicate that despite this maneuvering, “Poe had no extreme love for proslavery advocates either.” See Edge of the Swamp, 179. For the continuing debate on Poe's attitudes toward slavery, see Bernard Rosenthal, “Poe, Slavery, and the Southern Literary Messenger: A Reexamination,” Poe Studies 7 (1974): 29-38; G. R. Thompson, “Edgar Allan Poe and the Writers of the Old South,” in The Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 262-77; Joan Dayan, “Romance and Race,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991), 89-109; Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 90-92; J. V. Ridgely, “The Authorship of the ‘Paulding-Drayton Review,’” PSA Newsletter 20 (fall 1992): 1-3, 6; and Joan Dayan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves,” American Literature 66 (1994): 239-73. I am grateful to Professor Dennis Eddings of the Poe Studies Association for his timely response to my queries.

  29. In the 1830s, after Nat Turner's rebellion and the rise of aggressive Garrisonian abolitionism, the South became less open about debating slavery publicly. Byer writes that “the generosity, liberality, deism, and enlightenment of Jefferson were abandoned in the face of ‘higher necessity,’” press censorship, and religious conservatism (“Poe in His Culture,” 359).

  30. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Random House, 1965), 308, 311.

  31. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941), 17-18.

  32. Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), 229.

  33. Byer writes eloquently of Poe's sense of displacement and his transformation of this theme in his stories of the city. See “The Poet of the Boarding House,” chap. 8 in “Poe in His Culture,” 550-625.

This essay would not exist in its current form without the generosity and encouragement of Robert A. Ferguson, whose belief in the basic argument never faltered, and whose trenchant criticism proved invaluable. Thanks as well to Jonathan Arac, who first suggested that the politics of the 1830s might be relevant to my reading of bodily division in “William Wilson,” and who quietly insisted that Poe could be read politically when other scholars resisted such interpretation. Finally, I am grateful to Ann Douglas for her advice at the early stages of composition, and to my anonymous readers, whose corrections, queries, and suggestions have enriched the essay in crucial ways.

Barbara Cantalupo (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Cantalupo, Barbara. “The Lynx in Poe's ‘Silence.’” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 27, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1994): 1-4.

[In the following essay, Cantalupo discusses the symbolic significance of the lynx in “Silence—A Fable.”]

Poe chose the lynx as the final image in his tale “Silence—A Fable.” Quite simply, the lynx functions as a symbolic figure: it supersedes the Demon narrator and has the “last word”—the silence of its lynx-eye stare—effectively drawing the “moral” of the fable into its purview, not the Demon's.1 The lynx figures significantly in Benjamin Fisher's argument that “Silence” be read not as parody but as fable.2 He suggests that the lynx as a “classical symbol of perfidy … more closely associated with the vague ‘tomb’ rather than a realistic habitat for an actual animal … moves us deftly into the regions of fable.”3 Aside from being a pivot that helps define the form of the narrative, the lynx, as the final image, calls attention to itself not only as animal but also as word, pointing, in this sense, to its homophone “links” and thereby, indirectly, to the construct that informs the “moral” of the fable which paradoxically invokes “the power of words.”

This emphasis on language and writing complements a link that Alexander Hammond makes to Poe's comment that “Silence” and the other tales in the Folio Club collection “were originally written to illustrate a large work ‘On the Imaginative Faculties.’”4 This description, Hammond suggests, provides a possible framework for reading these tales: “the creation and interpretation of fiction.” Within this frame “the basic analogue between world and text” is explored, and “fiction and the literary process itself [become] central concerns.” Hammond reads “Silence,” in particular, as “an allegory radically extending the boundaries of fiction. Reality itself is seen as a kind of text.”5

Poe published three versions of this tale. In the 1837 version published in The Baltimore Book,6 he uses an epigraph taken from “Al Aaraaf”: “Ours is a world of words: Quiet we call / Silence—which is the merest word of all” (Works [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe], 2:195; subsequent references to this edition cited parenthetically by volume and page number). This epigraph suggests the encompassing nature of words—that they not only describe our world but are our world—or, in the biblical sense, made our world. It also points to what Poe calls the “merest” word, silence. In this case, as in many other of Poe's stories and poems (e.g., Eureka),7 “mere” takes on the definition “pure, unmixed; absolute, entire, sheer, perfect” rather than the more common use of the term, “having no greater extent or range.” As such, using “mere” as an adjective modifying silence implies the absolute nature of silence.

In the 1840 version in The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe replaced the epigraph from “Al Aaraaf” with a popular quote from Alcman: “‘The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent’” (2:195). Poe also changed the title. Fisher argues that the change from “SIOPE” (that is, from the Greek word for silence, siope, and also perhaps the anagram, IS POE)8 to “Silence” and the new epigraph quoting Alcman rather than his own poem erase the obvious self-referentiality and move the tale away from its function as a parody in the style of the psychological autobiographists to its function as fable or, in Fisher's words, “dream fiction.”9 Another reason for these changes may be, simply, Poe's penchant for perplexing his reader.

The 1840 epigraph effectively eliminates what the earlier provides, that is, a frame for reading the “moral” of the fable. The popular quotation from Alcman obscures in its simplicity; it merely describes the landscape of silence while the passage from “Al Aaraaf” prescribes a particular perception: “Ours is a world of words.” The earlier epigraph is too easy; it too clearly sets the parameters of the fable, and it seems logical that Poe would remove this clue in his revised version.10 Also, choosing Alcman would be appropriate not only because the Greek reference demonstrates Blackwoodian “erudition” but because, as David Campbell suggests, Alcman was known for making “no concessions [in his poetry] to foreigners or posterity. … [he] was fond too of references to obscure foreign tribes, real and fabulous, to the perplexity of scholars.”11 Like Alcman, Poe “made no concessions” in his work and, in fact, enjoyed burying the implications of his tales.

The 1840 “Silence—A Fable” obscures through omission. Material in the 1837 tale plumbs (in Poe's own words) “the profound undercurrent” that informs the later versions. The long descriptive passage eliminated from the first paragraph of the revised version sets the Demon's tale within the province of the dream, a setting that, in the 1845 version is obliquely referred to in a poem that precedes it.12 It seems no mere coincidence that Poe, as editor of the Broadway Journal, where this version appears, placed “The Valley of Unrest” immediately before “Silence: A Fable.” The poem describes a dream space similar to the setting of the Demon's tale and calls it a place of “magic solitude.” The setting in the end of Poe's tale where he locates the lynx, then, becomes neither dream nor reality, but that no-place in between. This border-ground territory makes particular sense if we consider the lynx as not only animal but also word.

Guided by the claim in the 1837 epigraph that “[o]urs is a world of words,” the word lynx calls attention to its homophone “links,” which in turn points to the function of language, that is, to link. In Marginalia, Poe considers the easier function of words as linking thought to logic, a conscious operation. In the more difficult task, Poe sees the potential of language to link that “point of blending between wakefulness and sleep … [that] border-ground” of fancy to “the realm of Memory” (Writings, 2:259) so that this fancy can be held as thought and, thus, through language, linked to logic, then to expression. As Poe notes, no thought is beyond expression in words since “thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.” He does note, though, the exception: “a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts” that “arise in the soul … only at its epochs of most intense tranquility … at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dream” (Writings, 2:258; latter emphasis added). He goes on to claim, however, that his “faith in the power of words” will enable him, at some point, “to convey, to certain classes of intellect, a shadowy conception” of these moments of fancy (Writings, 2:258-59; latter emphasis added).

The settings at the beginning and end of “Silence” depict two stages—one of the dream and one of fancy. The Demon's story begins in “a pale desert of gigantic water-lilies … [that] sigh one unto the other … and nod to and fro their everlasting heads” (2:195) and ends when the lynx emerges from “the shadow of the tomb” (2:198; emphasis added). The Demon creates a world of words out of dream, a world that frightens the man in his tale and that makes the Demon laugh at his frailty and fear. In the end, the lynx, in that “shadowy” world of fancy, overcomes the Demon's derision with a silent stare. Both settings suggest that the “moral” of this fable is interdependent with the mode of its presentation, that is, with where and how expression and, thereby, narrative come into being—with the links that words provide. Although the Demon overpowers the man in his tale with his curse of silence and overcomes the narrator with his awful words, the lynx, in the end, overpowers the Demon with “the merest of words,” providing a hopeful ending to the tale,13 suggesting the realization of Poe's faith in the “power of words,” especially that “merest” of words, silence.

As often with Poe's stories, narrative is displaced through a series of narrators; in this case, the tale is told to a man who has heard the tale from a Demon who participated in its plot. The narrator's story begins as he recounts the way he came to know this tale. He is accosted by a Demon who commands, “Listen to me,” as he “place[s] his hand” (2:195) on the narrator's head in a gesture meant both to hold the narrator's attention and signify the Demon's power. In the 1837 version, the Demon begins his story by suggesting that his listener has never seen the place he will describe except, he admits, possibly

in one of those vigorous dreams which come like the Simoom upon the brain of the sleeper who hath lain down to sleep among the forbidden sunbeams … which slide from off the solemn columns of the melancholy temples in the wilderness … [in] a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zäire.


In a place such as this, the Demon recalls, he once finds himself, and as “the moon arose through the thin ghastly mist,” he sees in the distance a rock with “characters engraven in the stone” which, at first, he could not decipher, but as “the moon shone with a fuller red,” he sees “the characters were DESOLATION.” He then sees on top of the rock a man, “tall and stately in form … wrapped … in the toga of old Rome … [and having the] features of a deity” (2:196). The Demon hides himself in the water-lilies to see what the man will do in this place where “grey clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon. But there is no wind throughout the heaven,” and rain, “having fallen, … was blood” (2:195-96). The man “trembled in the solitude” (2:197) but does nothing but observe the desolation.

The Demon, angered at the man's mere observation, begins his provocations, first by causing a tempest with “the curse of tumult” described thus:

And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest—and the rain beat upon the head of the man—and the floods of the river came down—and the river was tormented into foam—and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds—and the forest crumbled before the wind—and the thunder rolled—and the lightning fell—and the rock rocked to its foundation.


But the man still only “tremble[s] in the solitude.” The Demon, outraged by this passivity, “grew angry and cursed, with the curse of silence.” And with this curse, the man was “wan with terror … [and] shuddered, and turned his face away, and fled afar off” (2:197-98). The Demon's tale ends here.

The narrator prefaces the ending of his story by comparing the Demon's fable to the “fine tales in the volumes of the Magi,” to the “lore … in the sayings … [of] the Sybils,” to the “holy, holy things … heard of old by the dim leaves that trembled around Dodona,” and concludes, “as Allah liveth, that fable which the demon told me … I hold to be the most wonderful of all!” (2:198). Although judging the tale “most wonderful,” the narrator cannot commiserate with the teller by joining in his laughter.

As the Demon returns to the “cavity of the tomb” (2:198), he curses the narrator as he had cursed the man in his tale. Both men remain detached at the sight of desolation and destruction, unable to participate in their worlds except as observers whose awe never breaks into action. The narrator's despairing confession could, in fact, have ended the tale. But, with a dramatic sense of staging, “the lynx which dwelleth forever in the tomb, came out therefrom, and lay down at the feet of the Demon, and looked at him steadily in the face” (2:198-99).

In this way the lynx is set apart. As it confronts the Demon's derision at man's inability to articulate his fear or withstand the imposition of death's absolute silence or challenge the elusiveness of that world which threatens to evade the power of words to own and hone a world, the lynx can be read as a symbol of possibility rather than perfidy. With its powerful stare, it shows the narrator that the Demon's derision and portrayal of man's impotence need not be the last word. Yet Poe's endings could never be that hopeful. The turn of the screw emerges when we look at the lynx not merely as animal but as word. Not only does the homophone “links” point to the function of language, as suggested earlier, it also suggests connections to “lynx-eyes” in other Poe stories and notes.

In Marginalia, for example, this hopeful valence is affirmed. Here Poe attributes man's ability to overcome the indignity that often befalls his fate to man's ability to perceive his world through the lynx-eye of philosophy: “It is only the philosophical lynxeye that, through the indignity-mist of Man's life, can still discern the dignity of Man” (Writings, 2:379).14 Even though, as in the Demon's fable, man often is impotent in his despair, in “the indignity-mist” of his life, and, like the narrator, is alienated from his world, hope emerges in the form of the lynx whose stare breaks through the Demon's mocking laughter like lynx-eye perception breaking through the indignity of man's despair. “Lynx-eye” commonly means “keen sighted” (OED): “[T]he ancients attributed to this animal among other fabulous properties, that of extraordinary powers of vision.” Yet ironically, twentieth-century science has proven that this attribute is a myth, that though the lynx is a keen predator, its vision is no more acute than an ordinary housecat's.15 This irony extends, coincidentally, to another link, a reference in another of Poe's tales written after “Silence” called “Thou Art the Man.”

In “Thou Art the Man,” the unsuccessful avenger, “‘Old Charley,’ whom everybody knew to have the eye of a lynx” (3:1048; emphasis added), having invited the townspeople to a sumptuous banquet after the death of his benefactor, keeps silent about the case of Château Margaux which was to be the highlight of the dinner. Near the end of the party, “Old Charley” in his drunkenness asks the narrator to “force open the lid” of the “monstrously big box” of wine (3:1057, 1056) so his guests might then enjoy this gift. “After some vociferation, quiet was at length fully restored, and … a profound and remarkable silence ensued” (3:1056-57; emphasis added). The result of this “‘ceremony of disinterring the treasure’” (3:1056) is, of course, the incrimination of “Old Charley” as murderer and as the exception that proves the rule that

whether it is a marvellous coincidence, or whether it is that the name itself has an imperceptible effect upon the character, … there never yet was any person named Charles who was not an open, manly, honest … fellow … with … an eye that looked you always straight in the face, as much as to say, “I have a clear conscience myself; am afraid of no man, and am altogether above doing a mean action.”

(3:1044-45; emphasis added)

It's no coincidence that Charley is described as having a lynx-eye and as being an exception to the rule that all men named Charles are honest and upright and have “an eye that looked you always straight in the face,” just as the lynx who, in facing the Demon, “looked at him steadily in the face.” The question arises, then: is the lynx's stare in “Silence” the stare of Old Charley or the stare of the keen-sighted, truth-seeking lynx who overpowers the Demon's derision?

Can the “power of words” overcome man's frustrated efforts to speak from that “border-ground” between dreaming and wakefulness, or will he, like the man in the tale, run off afraid, following the admonition in Poe's “Sonnet—Silence” to “commend thyself to God!” upon meeting the shadow-side of what Poe calls “that twin entity … a two-fold Silence” (Works, 1:322)?16 Although the “moral” of this fable seems, thereby, both clear and obtuse—man can overcome his fear and act through language to create his world if, like the lynx, he emerges with the “merest” of words to confront the Demon who has cursed with the curse of silence—the fable conforms nicely to Blackham's notion that “[i]nterplay continues between the thought provoked [by the ‘moral’] and the representation that provokes and aids it.”17


  1. My use of the term “fable” relates to H. J. Blackham's definition in his introduction to The Fable as Literature (London and Dover: Athlone Press, 1985). He suggests that a fable is “narrative fiction in the past tense” (xi), “a tactical manoeuvre to prompt new thinking …—not a didactic story … [It] will not merely express a truth graphically and memorably, but mainly will generate and store new meaning in the conception it represents” (xi-xii). He goes on to suggest that “the message is not delivered—certainly not in the ‘morals’ tagged to the Aesopic fables: it is embodied. It is in this sense that fable is a conceptual artefact, which remains to be used” (xviii-xix).

  2. See Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV's analysis in “The Power of Words in Poe's ‘Silence,’” in Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies, ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1978), 56-72. He here sets out the various changes Poe made in writing “Silence” and demonstrates that these changes move the tale towards “dream fiction” or fable rather than parody.

  3. Fisher, 68.

  4. See Alexander Hammond's “Further Notes on Poe's Folio Club Tales,” Poe Studies 8 (1975): 38-42, and his “A Reconstruction of Poe's 1833 Tales of the Folio Club,Poe Studies 5 (1972): 25-32.

  5. All citations from Hammond, “Further Notes,” 41.

  6. Poe's title in this edition is “Siope—A Fable. [In the manner of the Psychological Autobiographists],” The Baltimore Book, ed. W. H. Carpenter and T. S. Arthur (Baltimore: Bayly and Burns, 1838). See Works, 2:194-95.

  7. The “legitimate” thesis in Eureka begins: “Let us begin, then, at once, with that merest of words, ‘Infinity’” (Complete Works, 16:200).

  8. Hammond, “Reconstruction,” 28.

  9. Fisher, 61.

  10. Fisher suggests just the opposite; he argues that the change makes the epigraph “more functional, reinforcing Poe's objections to mottoes that did not point the way toward the main intent in a tale or poem [Complete Works, 8:125-26]” (62-63).

  11. David A. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac and Iambic Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), 194.

  12. See Broadway Journal 2 (6 September 1845): 135-36.

  13. Fisher attaches no hopeful valence to the lynx, but rather suggests that the lynx and the Demon make “a deadly duo” that causes the narrator to “sh[y] away,” although he cannot “shake off” the “[t]error of the soul” they inspire (68).

  14. In 1969 G. R. Thompson makes an allusion to the lynx-eye in “‘Silence’ and the Folio Club: Who Were the ‘Psychological Autobiographists’?” Poe Newsletter 2 (1969): 23.

  15. See Maffei, L., A. Fiorentine, and S. Bisti, “The Visual Acuity of the Lynx” in Vision Research 30 (1990): 527-28.

  16. A reprint of this poem precedes the 1845 publication of “Silence: A Fable” in the Broadway Journal by six weeks.

  17. Blackham, xix.

Paula Kot (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Kot, Paula. “Painful Erasures: Excising the Wild Eye from ‘The Oval Portrait.’” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 28, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1995): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Kot considers the function of the dying woman in “The Oval Portrait.”]

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe does more than declare the poetical nature of dying women. He also takes the public behind the scenes to watch the writer at work. Though writers “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy,” Poe details the “cautious selections and rejections—… the painful erasures and interpolations” that a writer makes.1 Poe had made such cautious selections and painful erasures when he trimmed down “Life in Death” (a tale he might have padded for economic reasons) in order to republish it in The Broadway Journal as “The Oval Portrait” (26 April 1845).2 In “The Oval Portrait,” the brevity and unity achieved by torturous cutting and the image of the dying woman that has so long troubled feminist readers coincide. For through this tale Poe contemplates his aesthetic practice's reliance upon the silencing of the feminine Other. Situating the death of a beautiful woman at the center of his paradigm of the artistic process, Poe critiques the Western tradition of masking the fear of death and dissolution through images of feminine beauty and critiques his own contribution to this tradition.3 The aesthetic gaze of the artist, which objectifies and destroys his wife, attempts to maintain a distinction between self and female Other that would enable him to displace death onto the Other. In turn, the narrator assumes this adversarial position in relation to the woman when he must “shut from view” the portrait in order to gain “a more sober and more certain gaze” (Works [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe], 2:664, 663). Poe, however, also depicts the failure of these attempts to maintain difference, a failure manifested through the narrator's and artist's increasing affinity to the woman in the portrait.

Though Poe engages in what could be considered feminist re-vision, dismantling and distancing himself from this paradigm, his own editorial revisions as he transforms “Life in Death” into “The Oval Portrait” suggest his inability to disentangle himself completely from a model he himself portrays as brutal. In the later draft, Poe excises precisely what in the portrait of the woman “confounded, subdued and appalled” the narrator: “I could no longer support the sad meaning smile of the half-parted lips, nor the too real lustre of the wild eye” (Works, 2:664). Poe's erasure of the woman's “sad meaning smile of the half-parted lips” effectively silences her “second” story, the term Cynthia S. Jordan applies to women's stories criminally suppressed by androcentric culture.4 His excision of her “wild eye,” moreover, suggests that ultimately he allies himself with the artist and narrator who find the uncanny female gaze and its emasculating effects unbearable. Though Poe erases the wild eye, the uncanniness that it engenders continues to haunt the tale, undermining the narrator's further attempt to fix his experience of the woman by re-aestheticizing her. Indeed, the absence of a concluding (and containing) frame in the tale enacts the dissolution that the aesthetic representation of a beautiful woman tries to disguise. “The Oval Portrait” thus underscores the fictional nature of artistic constructions that use women to disguise death—and Poe's own reluctance to abandon them.

Poe arranges the drama of his tale around the male aesthetic gaze and its attempt to define Woman as subordinate. Nancy K. Miller explains that “[be]cause the gaze is not simply an act of vision, but a site of crisscrossing meanings in which the effects of power relations are boldly (and baldly) deployed, it is not surprising that feminist theorists and writers should take it up as a central scene in their critique of patriarchal authority.”5 Here Poe shares feminist concerns about gender and power. The series of gazes represented in this tale enable him to uncover the power relations underlying the construction of male identity and male-produced art. The unnamed narrator, desperately wounded and assisted by his valet, has been installed in a recently deserted chateau in the Apennines. The action in the tale is almost entirely visual; only the narrator's eyes move about the room. He gazes first at several paintings that line the walls, then at the oval portrait, then at a critical text that describes “the paintings and their histories,” specifically, how the oval portrait came to be created (Works, 2:664). The gallery catalog—with its text framed by quotation marks to alert the reader (implicitly male) that he is, in effect, gazing at the same text as the narrator—depicts yet another scene focused on the male aesthetic gaze. The catalog describes the artist painting his wife. In the process of transforming her into art, he destroys her. The story concludes when the artist gazes at the finished product, the portrait, and cries out “This is indeed Life itself!” only to realize in the same moment that his wife is dead (2:666).

In the framed (inner) tale, the artist-husband's gaze explicitly defines his wife as an object of art. As Beth Newman argues, Western culture has constructed the aesthetic gaze “as the privilege of a male subject, a means of relegating women (or ‘Woman’) to the status of object (of representation, discourse, desire, etc.).”6 And just as explicitly, Poe exposes the “evil” nature of the husband's method (Works, 2:664).7 Once a “maiden of rarest beauty,” the woman withers as he draws from her very cheeks the lifelike “tints which he spread upon the canvass” (2:664, 665). His palettes and brushes become “untoward instruments” as, in the process of abstracting her into “immortal beauty,” she is dissected into “a mere head and shoulders” (2:665, 664). Poe emphasizes that the artist “would not see” that he cannibalizes his wife's vitality for his art and suggests that the artist willfully conceals from himself the relationship between his art and his wife's slow destruction (2:665). Indeed, the wife's own painted image becomes her rival as the artist ceases to gaze at his wife and instead gazes with ardor at the image of her captured on his canvas. After all, Art had been his first bride. As Elisabeth Bronfen explains, the painter conflates his two brides, “transfer[ring] his living wife into the wife he already had.”8 Through his gaze, then, the artist assumes the authority of defining and controlling the woman's experience. This aesthetic process allows him to re-define, specifically to allegorize, his own experience as well. For through his creation of art, the husband veils the cruel dynamics of the process and his less-than-noble motivations.9 The catalog tells us that “evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter” (2:664-65). In other words, before marriage the woman held the subject position. His insistence upon painting her stems from his need to gain dominance. The wife seems to anticipate her end, knowing that it is “a terrible thing” to hear him “speak of his desire to portray” her, but she obediently and humbly allows him to consume her life in the interest of great art (2:665).

This process of objectification is repeated through the narrator's gaze at the woman in the portrait. Here, the aesthetic gaze of artist and narrator overlap, for both men seek to capture and contain the woman. The narrator finds himself suddenly confronting the image of the woman when he repositions the candelabrum and reveals what formerly had been in shadow, the oval portrait. He reports, “I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. … In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting” (Works, 2:663). Though the narrator's tale is primarily related in the past tense, his experience of the woman forces him to use the present participle—describing her as “just ripening into womanhood.” In the original version of the tale, Poe had used the past participle, “ripened.” This editorial revision insists that the woman in the portrait is both dead and undead and thus intensifies the narrator's perception of the “lifelikeliness” (Poe's emphasis) of the woman's image (2:664). In other words, like many of Poe's heroines, the woman in the portrait refuses to stay dead. This intensification of her uncanniness in the later draft, though, comes at the expense of a precise description of what makes her seemingly “too real” for the narrator and Poe. For in “Life in Death” Poe told us what “confounded, subdued and appalled” the narrator: “I could no longer support … the too real lustre of the wild eye” (2:664).

This scene in which male and female gazes cross merits close examination. The woman's eye, which “subdues” the narrator, threatens to disturb the male subject/female object relationship through which he maintains dominance, and by extension, his male identity. In other words, because the distinction between subject and object is inherently unstable, her gaze threatens to turn the tables, so to speak, to “fix” the narrator in the woman's gaze. Poe thus anticipates what Roland Barthes says in The Responsibility of Forms: “by dint of gazing, one forgets one can be gazed at oneself. Or again, in the verb ‘to gaze,’ the frontiers of active and passive are uncertain.”10 When a woman assumes the privilege of the gaze, though, she “confounds” the hierarchical oppositions that structure Western reality. Newman thus relates the terrifying effects of the female gaze to the transforming and castrating gaze of Medusa:

Perhaps the sight that makes the Medusa threatening to the male spectator may be understood as the sight of someone else's look—the knowledge that the other sees and therefore resists being reduced to an appropriable object. That is, Medusa defies the male gaze as Western culture has constructed it. … Such defiance is surely unsettling, disturbing the pleasure the male subject takes in gazing and the hierarchical relations by which he asserts his dominance.11

For both the narrator and the artist, to become the object of the female gaze is, in Beth Newman's words, “to lose one's position of mastery and control—in short, to be emasculated.”12 They attempt to “shut from view” the eye/I that asserts feminine selfhood, resists objectification, and threatens to diminish masculine authority.

Like the artist, who wrests the subject position from his wife by painting her, the narrator tries to gain control over the woman by focusing on the aesthetic qualities of her image. When he “again look[s] fixedly at the painting,” he refuses the meaning of the dead-yet-undead woman and examines her representation as “a thing of art,” concentrating on the vignette manner of the portrait and the “Moresque frame” (Works, 2:663, 664). Leland Person explains that “[b]y appealing to the artificiality of art, by emphasizing the frame and the form, [the narrator] is able to defend himself from its meaning. In this instance, aesthetic form is clearly used to circumscribe and devitalize content.”13 Bronfen also comments on the narrator's second gaze: “The narrator uses the thought he has formulated in the interstice between the two forms of vision to mediate between himself and the viewed object, to filter, distance and protect himself from the implication of his own mortality.”14

The narrator's defensive gaze, however, eventually fails when he finds himself being subdued by the portrait. He returns the portrait to the shadows and shifts his gaze from the portrait to the critical account of her portrait. The woman's eye in the portrait pierces his defensive gestures, but the woman in the text is depicted as captive. She becomes, as Judith Fetterley says of other Poe women, “a character trapped in [a] male text.”15 For this shift in the narrator's gaze defines her once more as art. In this way, the critical history of the portrait, framed by quotation marks, serves the same purpose as the “Moresque frame” that surrounds the oval portrait: both attempt to isolate the image of woman, to free her representation from reality and to allegorize (and dehumanize) it as art.16 Furthermore, both serve to redefine this “wild” image as knowable and therefore controllable. Louis Marin explains that an object enclosed within a frame is represented as accessible: “the frame thus marks the possibility of accession to the object by the gaze, as a readable object.”17 Reading about how the woman came to be painted, then, safely substitutes for his desire to gaze at her, since reading about her re-establishes the authority of the male subject position. The narrator once more can derive pleasure from gazing at her.18

The narrator's pleasure in reading the critical account of the portrait makes manifest a mode of seeing that has been tacitly operating throughout the tale: the gaze of the implied male reader. For this series of overlapping gazes assumes the male gaze as the norm. The quotation marks that frame the gallery catalog also insist upon the male reader's gaze, insist that he is peering over the shoulder of the narrator to gaze upon the same sexually charged scene. The concluding scene thus treats narrator and reader as voyeurs. The series of framing devices function as a constricting aperture, narrowing the reader's attention until it focuses solely on the private scene played out between husband and wife.19 The light, “dripped” from above, illuminates the woman and canvas and further trains the reader's attention on the sexual drama. What the narrator and reader see is the artist expending his “fervid and burning pleasure” on the “task” that transforms his wife into art. He becomes “passionate, and wild,” but the object of this ardor is the image of his wife, rather than his flesh-and-blood bride. Indeed, he rarely turns his eye from this image, “even to regard [her withering] countenance.” Poe writes ambiguously of the painter's “deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well” (Works, 2:665). The image of the woman captured in her portrait thus becomes a substitute for the husband's gaze.20 The artist's relationship to the portrait parallels the narrator's relationship to its critical history. Importantly, the story never moves back out to its frame, to the story related by the wounded narrator. The reader is left, so to speak, with his eye at the keyhole.

Though Poe points out the tangled mix of violence and eroticism at the heart of this aesthetic model, he also leaves it up to the male reader to understand the relationship between his own pleasure in reading this tale-within-a-tale and the slow torture of the woman that is its core. The publication of “Life in Death” coincides with the publication of the Dupin tales, the stories that Jordan argues mark Poe's developed awareness of the criminal nature of suppressing female experience. But “Life in Death” as well as “The Oval Portrait” lack a character such as Dupin who will detect and disclose the woman's story. Instead, the narrator continually tries to suppress the significance of his experience, literally submerging the portrait back into the shadows of the unconscious. He also perceives the language in the gallery catalog as “vague and quaint,” suggesting that the tale it tells is antique and obsolete (Works, 2:664). But the adversarial position he assumes in relation to the woman in the portrait—mirroring the artist's position—belies his attempt to distance himself from this timeless story. What Fetterley argues for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is also true for “The Oval Portrait”: Poe both “exposes and facilitates the mechanisms of masculinist reading.”21 Like the sailor in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” who watches in fascinated horror as his pet orangutan acts out a male script of murdering a woman, yet who can comfortably dissociate himself from his pet's actions, the narrator and reader of “The Oval Portrait” can assert their own innocence and dissociate themselves from the “crime” committed against the unnamed woman. Again, Fetterley's argument for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” provides insight into “The Oval Portrait”: the victim's sex is “the hidden spring that has to be there to make the story work.”22 In other words, this tale is not just about art; it is about the relationship between art and sex, specifically, the female sex.23

The narrator's life-threatening wound indicates why this relationship between art and woman is so important. The narrator's wound is but the literal version of what motivates the painter's figurative quest for immortality through his art. For both men repress death “by localizing [it] away from the self, at the body of a beautiful woman.”24 Bronfen explains that the aesthetic gaze allows the male viewer to distance himself from his own weakness and serves to protect the self from the fear of dissolution and disintegration: “The beauty of Woman and the beauty of the image both give the illusion of intactness and unity, cover the insupportable signs of lack, deficiency, transiency and promise their spectators the impossible—an obliteration of death's ubiquitous ‘castrative’ threat to the subject.”25 However, Bronfen also notes the instability of representations, the slippages that occur as they “repress what they purport to reveal and … articulate what they hope to conceal.”26 Poe captures the instability of the woman's representation through the narrator's perception of her “lifelikeness.” Poe coins and highlights this word to suggest the slippage between the portrait's perfection and imperfection, to suggest that its lifelike quality is only an artificial approximation of life. Thus, the narrator is initially “startle[d] … into waking life” by the portrait because its immortal beauty momentarily obscures his own wounded condition (Works, 2:664). Paradoxically, though, his attempt to control the image by reaesthetisizing it also enforces its artifice. The gap between image and reality defeats his protective posture and leaves him subdued, thus collapsing the gap between the narrator and the woman who has been subdued by her husband's art.

But Poe carries this erasure of distinctions even farther. In the end all three characters—narrator, artist, and woman—dissolve into one another through Poe's characterization of them as pallid. They reach a certain equality by assuming a passive role. We have seen how the wife turns pale as the artist draws off her life “tints” and transfers them to the portrait. When the painter finishes his work, he “stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid” (Works, 2:665-66). Likewise, the narrator's final confrontation with the portrait leaves him “appalled.” As these different forms of the word pall suggest, the three characters have all become victims of the aesthetic gaze. Though artist and narrator use art to maintain difference between self and female Other—between self and death—the instability of the woman's representation refuses this illusion. What most horrifies narrator and artist is their unwilling recognition of the fictive nature of the very oppositions that support their identity and authority.

Poe thus demonstrates that this aesthetic is based on the inherently unstable distinction between subject and object, viewer and viewed, male and female, reality and art. In other words, the structure of Poe's story undermines the very distinctions that the narrator and artist try to enforce. As Joan Dayan suggests of Poe's other tales about women, “identity dissolutions suspend gender difference as a component of identity.”27 Poe begins this process of erasure in the tale's opening reference to Ann Radcliffe's gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho. For the narrator describes the chateau in which he takes refuge as “one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Apennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe” (Works, 2:662). Like Radcliffe's heroine Emily St. Aubert, the narrator struggles to “calm and subdue [his] fancy” (2:663). The narrator's susceptibility to being subdued by his fancy—and thus in a sense feminized—highlights his affinity to the woman in the portrait. Furthermore, his overactive imagination makes suspect his narrative authority. Michael Davitt Bell suggests that this kind of gothic ambiguity “remove[s] the narrator to the position of nonprivileged reporter, permitted only to infer motives and meanings from phenomenal appearances.”28 Finally, though the first draft of the tale, “Life in Death,” establishes the narrator as a Byronic hero who has retreated from an “affray with the banditti,” his wound also makes him vulnerable (2:667). His desperate condition situates him not just on the border between sleeping and waking, “half sitting” and “half reclining,” but like the woman in the portrait herself, between life and death (2:664).29

Poe makes it clear that, even though this aesthetic strategy may seem heroic at first glance because it grants the subject a feeling of omnipotence, ultimately it involves doing violence to the object, that is, seizing possession of its force, in this case, the woman's life-force. Poe reinforces this violence through the tale's setting. The recuperating narrator describes the chateau as decorated with “manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque” (Works, 2:662). By placing the “modern” paintings “together with” armorial trophies, Poe places art within the realm of conflict and domination. He also foreshadows the narrator's struggle for control with the woman in the portrait and overrides his attempt to depict the story related in the catalog as quaint and obsolete. The “spirited” paintings, moreover, presumably have imbibed their spirit through the same process the oval portrait has. The artist gains his inspiration, Poe writes, as his wife's spirits wither. She grows “daily more dispirited and weak,” until the “spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp” and is totally extinguished (2:665). The male artist's violence endows the portrait with the spirit of his young wife. Art lives as its object dies. And Poe is aware that both artist and viewer share responsibility.

What does it mean, then, that Poe chose to remove “the wild eye” when he revised the story as “The Oval Portrait”? By erasing this image, he retreats from outright rejection of the very artistic model his tale critiques. Although Poe distances himself from this paradigm by revealing its brutality and instability, he refuses to give up the very strategy that protects his control as an artist. Clearly, one should not confuse Poe with his narrator. But his painful erasures ally him with the narrator and artist who must occlude the female gaze that destabilizes masculine authority. Without the wild eye, the woman herself becomes less individual and more abstract, more like all the other beautiful women whom Poe kills off in other stories. However, Poe also refuses to return the story back to the narrator. We are left wondering if he lives or dies and how he reacts to the portrait's history. Without this containing frame, the tale seems to admit its own imperfection, the very quality that the aesthetic representation of a beautiful woman tries to disguise.

“The Oval Portrait” thus becomes a pivotal tale in the continuing discussion of Poe's attitude toward women. The tale follows and seems to reflect on his better known tales involving dying women, namely “Berenice,” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and coincides with the publication of the Dupin tales, which feature a male protagonist who makes it his business to excavate dead women's stories. Though Jordan argues that Poe's tales increasingly reflect his commitment to feminist re-vision, “The Oval Portrait” suggests that her argument oversimplifies the complexity of Poe's attitude toward gender issues and of his relationship to his art.30 Through “The Oval Portrait,” Poe examines the assumptions and traditions underlying his own aesthetic method, but he never succeeds in breaking their hold over his imagination.31


  1. Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 14.

  2. Richard W. Dowell points out that Poe published “Life in Death” soon after his wife Virginia burst a blood vessel while singing. Poe may have padded the tale, mocking his rule of brevity, because he needed the money. See “The Ironic History of Poe's ‘Life in Death’: A Literary Skeleton in the Closet,” American Literature 42 (1971): 478-86.

  3. In Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992), Elisabeth Bronfen explains that Poe is not unique in his “aesthetic coupling of Woman and death.” Rather, this conjunction “appears as a popular though diversely utilised thematic constant in literature and painting from the age of sensibility to the modern period.” Bronfen argues that we invest in images of feminine beauty in order to disguise our fears of dissolution and decay: “The idea of beauty's perfection is so compelling because it disproves the idea of disintegration, fragmentation and insufficiency, even though it actually only serves as substitution for the facticity of human existence one fears yet must accept” (60, 62).

  4. Cynthia S. Jordan notes how often women's “vocal apparatus” becomes the “target of their male attackers” in Poe's tales. This seems to hold true in “The Oval Portrait” as well. See Second Stories: The Politics of Language, Form, and Gender in Early American Fictions (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1989), 134.

  5. Nancy K. Miller, Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 164.

  6. Beth Newman, “‘The Situation of the Looker-On’: Gender, Narration, and Gaze in Wuthering Heights,PMLA 105 (1990): 1031. See also chapters 2 and 3 of John Berger's Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corp. and Penguin Books, 1977).

  7. The artist-husband's “evil” aesthetic gaze is connected to the evil eye. Quoting Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes explains that the effect of the “direct, imperious gaze” of the evil eye is to “arrest movement and to kill life.” See The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 239.

  8. Bronfen, 111.

  9. I am indebted here to Michael Davitt Bell's observation that allegory differs from romance (and from Poe's arabesque obscurity). Bell writes that allegory “appeals normally to objective ideas, possible conceptions, abstract notions. Instead of striving to reveal the hidden or inexpressible, it embodies ideas already verbalized.” Bell downplays the degree of the artist-husband's “unconscious fantasies,” but I would argue that these fantasies play an important role in the tale. See The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 137, 140, 139.

  10. Barthes, 238.

  11. Newman, 1031.

  12. Newman, 1032.

  13. Leland Person, Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1988), 43.

  14. Bronfen, 116.

  15. Judith Fetterley, “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), 159.

  16. Mary Ann Caws argues that the frame functions to isolate what lies within the borders. The frame seals off the picture as a “completely self-contained and non-referential art object removed from the ‘sphere of possible action’ in order to attain the status of art.” See Reading Frames in Modern Fiction (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), 12.

  17. As quoted in Caws, 13. For an alternate translation, see Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting, trans. Metle Hjort (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), 34.

  18. I am indebted here to Newman's reading of Wuthering Heights. Newman writes, “Hearing a story about the object of his desire becomes a means of satisfying his desire to gaze at her, becomes a substitute, a metaphor, for the pleasure of looking” (1033).

  19. Though Caws treats this scene differently, she also argues that the “reader's gaze is trained in the same way as that of the narrator, within a range progressively narrower” (88). For the notion of male spectator as voyeur, I am indebted to E. Ann Kaplan's important essay “Is the Gaze Male?” from Powers of Desire: The Politics Of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 309-27.

  20. It is important to note here that the last two strokes of the brush are applied to the woman's mouth and eye (again, the two parts of her face specifically removed from the revised version). Only then does the painter stand “aghast” at his work.

  21. Fetterley, 156.

  22. Fetterley, 155.

  23. Bronfen argues that Poe himself problematizes the conventional reading of “art” in the tale as involving merely “transformation of living matter into inanimate form” (111).

  24. Bronfen, vi.

  25. Bronfen, 64.

  26. Bronfen, vi.

  27. See Joan Dayan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves,” American Literature 66 (1994): 244.

  28. Bell, 81.

  29. Bronfen (114) also reads the artist as a liminal character.

  30. Jordan, 149-50.

  31. In “Poe, ‘Ligeia,’ and the Problem of Dying Women,” in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, ed. Kenneth Silverman (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 113-29, J. Gerald Kennedy also argues that labelling Poe a feminist fails to account for the complexity of his attitude toward women.

William Crisman (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Crisman, William. “Poe's Dupin as Professional, The Dupin Stories as Serial Text.” Studies in American Fiction 23, no. 2 (autumn 1995): 215-29.

[In the following essay, Crisman investigates the character Dupin's status as a professional detective.]

The reader of Poe's Dupin stories is caught between two contrary models of Dupin's professional status. On the one hand, Susan Beegel considers it “obvious” that Dupin is the “prototypical amateur detective” and thus by definition not a professional at all. Indeed, on a different level of theoretical discourse, Jacques Lacan experiences Dupin's interest in fees as a “clash with the rest” of “The Purloined Letter.”1 On the other hand, in such neo-historicist readings as Terence Whalen's, Dupin appears so money-focused that the actual solution to his mysteries becomes unimportant, and Dupin becomes the extreme opposite of the amateur puzzle solver.2 Adjudicating between such views requires exploring the kind of professional Dupin is as well as Poe's motive in creating such a professional.

Dupin is, of course, not a professional investigator of the movie sort with a sign outside, a receptionist, and a regular procession of clients. He also is not, on the other hand, merely a disinterested puzzle solver, in spite of his claim in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” that his “ultimate object is only the truth.”3 In fact, following the Dupin stories in their self-conscious sequence from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” through “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” to “The Purloined Letter” shows the development of an increasing professionalism.

Such professionalism seems only reasonable given Dupin's background. A member of “an illustrious family” who “had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it,” Dupin would naturally be interested in making money, especially since his tastes in life include buying “very rare” books (“Rue Morgue” [“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”], p. 179). Dupin does not simply exist in an atmosphere of books, as Jacques Derrida rightly points out,4 but in a world of books as pricey commodities.

Many readers, Richard Wilbur among them, have noted the similarity in analytical thought between Dupin and Legrande of “The Gold Bug,” and the reference to Dupin's character as “succumbing” to the force of poverty also recalls the parallel social condition of Legrande.5 Legrande's poverty not only signals lack of money and possessions but also betokens social disgrace verging on scandal, a “mortification” that has “infected” him with near madness (p. 155). Moneylessness produces a deep mental wound, explicitly in Legrande's becoming a hermit, and implicitly in informing Dupin's tastes. Himself a near hermit in at least the first two detection stories, he scorns men “who wore windows in their bosoms,” literally shutters his own windows, and adopts a practice of living in near darkness illuminated by “a couple of tapers which … threw out … only the feeblest of rays.” Only with the “advent of true Darkness” does he go into public to perform “quiet observation” without being himself observed (“Rue Morgue,” pp. 179-80). Such a desire is more than the “freak of fancy” that the narrator fatuously sees. It is also not as complicated as George Grella would make it, seeing the love of night as a sign from Poe that Dupin actually is the criminal he pretends to seek.6 Financial and social embarrassment is the motive here. As Poe emphasizes in “The Philosophy of Furniture,” true aristocracy is not the “aristocracy of dollars” (p. 15). The aristocrat distinguishes between kinds of money. Still, if money does not define nobility, nobility is nonetheless impossible in poverty, and it is impoverishment rather than social declassifying of some other sort that wounds characters like Legrande and Dupin.

That the narrator does not consciously name embarrassment over loss of money and class as Dupin's motive in seeking darkness only signals the narrator's relative lack of insight, an obtuseness long recognized as essential to the sort of “Dr. Watson” figure the narrator represents.7 As a sign of obtuseness in this case, the narrator explains Dupin's desire to tell his family history as a product of his being French and hence confessional (“Rue Morgue,” p. 179). The narrator does not understand Dupin's compulsive engagement with this past, mortifying fall from financial grace. As John T. Irwin ingeniously shows in his analysis of Dupin's opening “mind reading” act in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” sensitivity to lost class pervades Dupin's every thought, even where class is not at all at the forefront of Dupin's conscious discussion.8 The mystery stories' culmination in “The Purloined Letter” implicitly allows Dupin the social mobility to associate with kings, queens, and ministers and to regain by association the aristocratic station and fortune he has lost. Shawn Rosenheim points out the parallel between the royal figures in the plot and the face cards in the whist game the narrator celebrates in “Murders in the Rue Morgue”: winning entails royalty, and by “The Purloined Letter” Dupin has insinuated himself into a royal flush.9

One can trace this fantasy of recovering nobility in Poe's Dupin-like characters as well, as has already been suggested for Legrande of “The Gold Bug.” It has been remarked that the night-wandering narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” “assumes the role of a ‘Monsieur Dupin’”10 when this figure discerns the pursued old man's one possibly criminal act, carrying a hidden weapon, what the narrator describes as a “diamond and a dagger” (p. 287). Crime in his imagination requires a jeweled poinard, and even in the most impoverished part of town the narrator imagines himself into a murder at court. Of course, Legrande and the narrator of “Man of the Crowd” may differ from Dupin in important respects, but they nevertheless seem to combine night wandering or analysis with Dupin's social characteristics, the traumatic loss of aristocracy and the imaginary attempt to regain it.

Given this obsession with recovering station and money lost, professionalism on Dupin's part is not surprising. It is not, however, as Terence Whalen would have it, a professionalism that suddenly springs up in “Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” making Dupin a figure catastrophically lapsing from Enlightenment “free thinker to hired intellectual.” As Christopher Rollason says, Dupin's evolution as professional is “gradual,” starting with “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” not a sudden plunge. But Rollason joins a line of readers who see the Dupin stories, in Derrida's words, as “drift[ing]” from one to another, or who more radically, like Terry Martin, see no connection between the “Dupins” of the three stories at all.11

If the growth of professionalism is a regularly charted, organizational constant throughout the three tales, the reader would expect some sign of this at the outset, and indeed this sign is there. The first connection between Dupin and the narrator is billed as a monetary exchange. Finding in Dupin a “treasure beyond price,” the narrator exchanges for it “the expense of renting” their rooms (“Rue Morgue,” p. 179). Even the narrator's vantage for observing the stories' events is one for which Dupin implicitly barters a piece of his “treasure.” Interestingly, over the course of the three storis this fungible rental property, “time eaten” and “tottering” in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” becomes a congenial place of “luxury” with a “back library” in “The Purloined Letter” (pp. 225-26). Lacan misremembers when he calls the Dupin of “The Purloined Letter” a “virtual pauper.”12 Dupin has achieved professional success, and the professional detective's office is born, from what is from the start a professional agreement between the narrator and Dupin made in response to Dupin's pain of money lost.

The implied exchange of “treasure” for “expense” seems to give Dupin unconscious incentive to pursue a model of exchange. His interest in the grisly “murders” in the Rue Morgue comes not from some abstract interest in puzzle solving but from the identity of one of the killings' incidental figures. Adolphe Le Bon, a bank clerk, had attended the elder victim to her residence “with … 4000 francs” (p. 184); this same Le Bon, Dupin says, “once rendered me a service for which I am not ungrateful” (p. 186). Given Le Bon's duties the reader has to assume the “service” in question entailed giving or lending money; the investigation into the Rue Morgue murders then is on its way toward becoming detective services rendered for fees paid, though at this early stage the professional arrangement is a very hazy, informal one (service as repayment or compensation for financial favor).

Moreover, in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” Dupin seems to be receiving a lesson in fee structures. When he creates the ruse that he has caught the Corsican's killer ape, the Corsican promises “to pay a reward …—that is to say, any thing in reason” (p. 195). Later, newspapers report that on recapturing the animal the Corsican sells it to the zoo “for … a very large sum” (p. 197). Dupin always reads the newspapers. The sole form of evidence in “Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” the newspapers give Dupin a first inkling of what “any thing within reason” might mean when applied to “rewards.”

As might be expected in a genuinely compact series of stories, the first tale provides the hero with learning experiences that inform the series. Burton Pollin points out as peculiar Dupin's remark in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” that observation has become only “of late, a species of necessity” for him (“Rue Morgue,” p. 181).13 The peculiarity disappears, however, if the story is taken as an early, experimental phase in Dupin's self-education. “Observation,” along with other skills and techniques, are developing “of late” as responses to “necessities” in Dupin's mental life.

By “Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” set “about a year” after the Rue Morgue case (p. 198), Dupin's professionalism becomes more apparent. Whereas in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” Dupin's attention had been independently drawn to the killings, in “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” no word of Marie's murder “reached the ears” of Dupin until the Prefect of Police arrives to tell the story, an inattention on Dupin's part that even the narrator finds “strange.” No puzzle intrinsic to the murder case draws his attention; nevertheless, without knowing anything about the case, Dupin “accept[s] at once” after the Prefect has “made him a liberal proposition, the nature of which [the narrator does not feel himself] at liberty to disclose.” This sum must be high, since the narrator has already felt “at liberty” to report on the general reward of thirty thousand francs for Marie's killer (p. 200). Robert Shulman suggests that Dupin's concern with money in scenes like this represents wishful thinking in which “the poet surrogate [Dupin] easily wins the gold,” thus reversing the state of real-world impoverished “poets.”14 Whatever its symbolic “poetic” significance, Dupin's lost social fortune has created a situation in which the Prefect's “liberal proposition” and not the case has led to Dupin's instant acceptance. That “the cases were not few in which attempt was made to engage Dupin's services” (p. 198) suggests Dupin does not take a case without an extravagant fee.

This special sort of payment is probably responsible for the long-standing assumption that Dupin is an amateur and not a professional to begin with. Such a view in fact makes sense if “professional” is taken in its most usual current sense of working for a salary (like a police detective) or an hourly wage (like a private detective). Dupin's professional type appears rare, and its closest analog might be the successful prize fighter who takes the occasional match for a very rich purse. Such a career is certainly not “amateur,” but a person on the street would probably think twice before saying the boxer “really” has a job. In keeping with his loss of great fortune, Dupin too takes an occasional case for an exceptionally high price; crime detection becomes, therefore, a “profession,” but perhaps not a “job.” One sign of the usual job, whether for salary or wage, is to show up regularly on time; Brigid Brophy suggests that Dupin intends his “irregular hours” as violation of an employer's time clock, allowing him “the aristocratic mark of the man who does not have to go out to work next morning.”15 As they hide him from the shame of social declassification, so Dupin's nighttime hours at once affront the keepers of workaday time and perhaps also render him physically incapable of day labor.

Professional practice of his sort complements Dupin's compulsion to regain aristocracy, since windfall profits are the closest Dupin can come to simulating inherited wealth, and very occasional work is the closest he can come to being idly and aristocratically rich. Poe's own remarks on his ceasing to solve codes for Alexander's Weekly Messenger and Graham's Magazine help connect this quest for lost station to the very occasional nature of Dupin's work. “I was at one time absolutely overwhelmed” with cryptographic submissions, Poe wrote to John Tomlin in August 1843; “I had either to devote my whole time to the solutions, or the correspondents would suppose me a mere boaster, incapable of fulfilling my promises. I had no alternative but to solve all. … You will hardly believe me when I tell you that I have lost, in time, which to me is money, more than a thousand dollars in solving ciphers.”16 Poe's being swamped with requests for crytograph solutions recalls Dupin's situation, in which requests for his help “were not few.” But as Poe's exasperation suggests, to work regularly at such a task is to participate in a bourgeois “time is money” mentality.

And to participate in that mentality entails the possibility of sometimes losing, as Poe feels he has, if according to some wage formula the hours spent outweigh the money taken in. Financial loss had been Dupin's original psychological wound; losing again is a psychological risk Dupin cannot take. The clearly aristocratic stamp of Dupin's professionalism is at odds with Rollason's assertion that Dupin's money-making offers the “middle-class reader an imaginative palliation for real social anxieties,” or Sevanne Woodward's that Dupin is inventing “the system of capitalism” as an “unintellectual common denominator for humanity, a need for bread.” If Brophy reads Dupin as a democratized aristocrat, he remains an aristocrat manqué all the same.17 Dupin's professional mode aims at making him as little “common” or “middle-class” as possible and indeed at recreating a past social state from which to consider the bourgeosie inferior.

“The Purloined Letter” caps this development toward occasional windfall professionalism; as Woodward observes, in this final installment of the trilogy Dupin comes to replace word games with number games, and specifically the numbers of money, when he insists on the Prefect's fifty-thousand-franc check before turning over the stolen letter.18 Noticeably, the fictional time between “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “Purloined Letter” is longer than that between “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the Marie Rogêt case. Instead of “about a year,” the time has been “several years” (“Purloined Letter,” p. 226). The case in the Rue Morgue had been a payback to Le Bon, in itself netting no cash; the Rogêt case, in contrast, had brought a “liberal” payment allowing “several years” of aristocratic otium. In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin is out to make as good a deal or better, allowing him another “several” years before performing service again; on receiving the check for fifty thousand francs, Dupin “examined it carefully” before putting it in his wallet (p. 230). Interest in examining checks is dramatized in a way that interest in the case, to begin with, is not, at least until Dupin's eventual explanation.

Increasing attention to periodic profit-making also helps explain Dupin's mystifications. Dupin discusses his methods with “no other individual” but the narrator (“Marie Rogêt,” p. 198). While allowing Dupin to keep his methods a professional secret, the “Dr. Watson” figure also gives Dupin an opportunity to practice a professional style that will be crucial to his business success, namely creating the impression of magical performance. The generic affinity of Dupin-style detective fiction to the supernatural tale has been occasionally remarked; as Syndy Conger remarks, “magical thinking has not been so much banished as temporarily subdued” in the story of ratiocination.19 The theoretical introduction to “Murders in the Rue Morgue” says that Dupin's sort of “acumen … appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural,” an impression that, the narrator suggests, may produce a studied affectation, an “air of intuition” (p. 175). Poe's celebrated remark of August 9, 1846 to Philip Pendleton Cooke that the Dupin stories seem “more ingenius that they are—on account of their … air of method” may show overmodesty or true self-dissatisfaction,20 but in the reference to “air” Poe echoes his own narrator and suggests his awareness of “intuition” as practiced technique.

When the “Watson” interlocutor first meets Dupin, Dupin “seemed … to take an eager delight” in the “exercise—if not exactly … display” of his analytic ability (p. 180). The narrator's repeated “profound astonishment” at Dupin's ability sends Dupin over the verge of “not quite enjoying” an audience and coaches him in the techniques of mystifying display. The narrator is a perfect trainer in such mystification, since in addition to telling Dupin his abilities are amazing (“I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed and can scarcely credit my senses”), he also harbors an unspoken feeling that Dupin's analysis is supernatural (“I was even more startled than I would have been willing to express” [p. 180]). Since Dupin is in the process of picking the narrator's mind clean, the reader has to assume Dupin is aware of these thoughts the narrator dares not speak.

By the time of “The Purloined Letter,” the mystification in which Dupin schools himself in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” has developed to the high art that is the signature of detective fiction à la Sherlock Holmes: revealing the mystery's solution in a way that is sudden for the client and others but delayed for the detective, who has known the solution for some time. Dupin has recovered the stolen letter long before he reveals or explains the fact; one can imagine that the game he plays to surprise Prefect G—would today bring a review board hearing for a police detective and a punch in the nose for a private detective of a more homely professional stamp. A mark of Dupin's professional type is that he not only can risk the shock revelation but that he needs it to pursue the kind of occasional, windfall work he does.

Terry J. Martin notes an increased emphasis on the immaterial in Dupin's explanation of his problem solving between “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”21 This increase is effectively a canny business choice, to play up the clairvoyant showmanship of Dupin's methods. As Grella notes, Dupin's style of professionalism requires “insur[ing] the solidity of his reputation” by startling others “through a brilliantly plausible solution.” Dennis Porter also emphasizes the element of startling or amazing the client, citing the body-building metaphor at the beginning of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as an instance of marvellous performance.22 The narrator speaks of “exhibiting” powers, as the body builder puts his body on display; the goal, as in the narrator's famous analogy between analysis and the games of checkers and whist, is to amaze others.23

The deployment of startling exhibition becomes more than a professionally successful method for Dupin. It also ties psychologically in to his longing for the highly visible station of lost aristocracy. Much has been written on the derivation of the name “C. Auguste Dupin.”24 Surely it is, among its other possible significances, a pun for “see auguste Dupin.” “C”—also the first letter of “Chevalier”—takes an even more exalted, Roman, royal flavor from “Auguste” (C[aesar] Augustus Dupin). Dupin's name places him in a very special royal lineage indeed, the first among the Romans to be deified; as Robert Daniel observes of Dupin's abilities generally, the onomastic result “is the transformation of a human character into a god,” and specifically a god who is one by virtue of his human, noble bloodline.25 Dupin's professional manner of startling exhibition and his traumatic motive to reclaim aristocracy intersect in his name as spelled and pronounced.

The importance of Dupin's “miraculous,” exhibitionist revelations may also help more fully explain his desire for only very occasional employment. Part of startling an audience requires that the startling revelation not become commonplace. It is the mark of the Sherlock Holmes parody, not the Sherlock Holmes story, for Holmes to be constantly startling his client with amazing “deductions” every few lines. While Poe's 1843 letter to John Tomlin claims that he “had no alternative but to solve all” of the ciphers sent to him at Alexander's and Graham's magazines, the published “solutions” reveal a complex pattern of giving, partly giving, and withholding solutions. Of the cryptograms in Alexander's, W. K. Wimsatt finds that a total of “thirty-six ciphers were published or alluded to. Poe published the text and solution of eleven ciphers; the solution, but not the text of sixteen. Three ciphers he stated merely that he had solved. Six he had for various reasons failed to solve: one he had lost, one he had had no time to examine, one was written in pencil and ‘defaced,’” and so on.26 Giving full solutions to thirty-six mysteries out of thirty-six published in Alexander's would eventually have bored rather than startled subscribers. Losing some and not having time for some, giving some in part and saying that some unpublished puzzles had been solved, leads the subscriber on.

Dupin employs this same tantilizing rhetoric of pauses. Among the other techniques Dupin learns through experimenting with the narrator is the importance of putting an audience to sleep between periods of unspeakable amazement, creating the torpor in which “we … slumbered tranquilly” (“Marie Rogêt,” p. 198). Dupin knows to give his more general public an analogous soporific between rare cases. A macoronic pun Poe cites in the initial puzzle challenge in Alexander's is provocative here: “Why is his last new novel sleep itself? Because it's so poor. Sopor.27 The private and public sopor Dupin induces to fatten the purse for his eventual next case hints at Dupin's motivation in having become “so poor.”

The situation in which Dupin's name “had grown into a household word” because he was “regarded as little less than miraculous” (“Marie Rogêt,” p. 198), then, results from a complex, developing professional technique and derives from an equally complex motive. “Analysis” becomes a professional secret revealed to no one but the narrator, who himself serves as an unwitting coach in the use of analysis to provide mystification and the timing of this mystification to create maximum effect. The motive behind the professionally lucrative image of occasional miracle worker is to recapture in experience a social and financial standing unrecoverable in fact.

The goal of recovering his traumatically lost aristocracy also explains Dupin's vindictiveness against the police. At the end of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” Dupin pronounces, “I am satisfied with having defeated [Police Prefect G—] in his own castle” (p. 197). The feudal metaphor is appropriate for a “Chevalier” who has fallen from high estate and imagines having received it back. Dennis Porter emphasizes as well the importance in “The Purloined Letter” of a hereditary knight's defeating the new professional politician, Minister D—. Rosenheim's comment that the minister is also to be taken as the jack, or knave, in a suit of face cards heightens and complicates this sense of courtly stationing.28 When the true knight, Chevalier Dupin, defeats the modern bureaucrat, he also implicitly reintegrates that bureaucrat into the courtly hierarchy as knave, the page not yet advanced to knighthood. As part of his fantasy, Dupin also controls the nomenclature of his psychological game, starting with the narrator. After the prefect's defeat “in his own castle,” the “Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin” the narrator identifies at the start of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (p. 179) becomes the “Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin” at the beginning of “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (p. 198). Dupin has conquered the narrator's vocabulary as certainly as he has the prefect's castle. The shift in Dupin's title from “Monsieur” to “Chevalier” underscores the seamless way in which the tales become serial. No cataclysm occurs, as Whalen would have it. Rather, Dupin's peculiar form of entrepreneurship emerges from equally peculiar social motives and develops from the start across all three tales.

The most important question to ask about Dupin's professionalism is how to evaluate it. Does it indicate some debasing of the intellect through market forces as Whalen and others would have it? A tendency seems to be emerging across a variety of fronts to fault Dupin (“duping” could certainly be another resonance of his name) and to see the Dupin stories as intentional parodies or indictments on Poe's part rather than as the celebration of “analytic” genius they have traditionally seemed. Martin claims Poe “rejected” “materialist theories of mind,” and if this were the case, then clearly Dupin with his material objectives would be a fallen character.29 But Poe did not reject materialist theories of the mind and in fact endorsed them.

Vankirk's voice from beyond the grave in “Mesmeric Revelation” claims that thought is “matter in motion”; God, as ultimate mind, “is but the perfection of matter” in a universe where “there is no immateriality” (pp. 141-42). “The Power of Words” produces perhaps Poe's most famous analogy of thought to matter in the image of the moving hand vibrating in “every particle of the earth's air” (p. 115). God's creative thought and the human creative thought that together produce the love planet at the essay's close are particulate motions and indeed are understandable only as particulate motion. In “The Power of Words” this material model of mentality verges on the materialistic. The “shining bodies” that constitute the sum of existence make up the “golden walls of the universe” (p. 114). “The Philosophy of Furniture” reminds readers of what this “gold” can buy, again in mixed mentalist and materialist terms: “The soul of the apartment is the carpet” (p. 15). Mind stuff, matter stuff, and buying power turn indistiguishable as the soul becomes a rug, a transformation familiar from Poe's interior design arabesques like those in “Ligeia.”30

Shulman surely echoes the concerns of many readers that “Poe's model of the mind in his critical essays” provides insufficient admission to his fiction. But Shulman is unhappy because some readers have followed Poe's critical remarks to a model of the mind that is too ethereally spiritual.31 Following Poe's essayistic remarks in the opposite direction, toward an interpretation of the mind as matter, produces results consonant with the fiction, including the Dupin stories.

The pattern of considering consciousness as material informs Poe's earliest fiction, before the critical essays. Both “Bon-Bon” (“The Bargain Lost”) and “Loss of Breath” (“A Decided Loss”) of 1832, for instance, are fantasies of the spirit's replacement by body. Bon-Bon and Lackobreath, in their respective stories, are both far rounder than they are tall, a physical condition suggesting the corporeal in a conventional allegory of body and spirit, yet in both instances this contrast breaks down. Bon-Bon's immense belly is the “fitting habitation for his immortal soul” (p. 399). Lackobreath's lack o' breath represents a loss of pneuma, breath as traditional symbol of the soul, yet this breath- or soul-lessness appears as positive. Spirit as “shadow” (or attenuated tallness as opposed to squat massiveness) appears in both stories as negative (“Bon-Bon,” p. 406; “Loss of Breath,” p. 487).

The organization of both stories carries the same materialist implication. For Lackobreath to lose his breath/soul, search for it as if it were a material object, and then buy it back, receipt and all, like a material commodity (p. 489) implies an education in the soul's material constitution. In “Bon-Bon”'s curious rhetorical form, the devil appears to the philosopher/chef ostensibly to lure Bon-Bon away from some spiritualist taint in his writings, only to find that Bon-Bon agrees that the soul is material to begin with. Expecting to find an argument, the devil finds instead a willing supporter. This devil, who claims he “is” Epicurus, bears a physical resemblance to another epicurean atomist in Poe's fiction. Like Dupin in his half-slumber (“Marie Rogêt”) or visiting Minister D—in “The Purloined Letter,” the devil wears green glasses (p. 401). Like Dupin, the devil is a spokesman for a position with which Poe fundamentally agrees. As Joseph Moldenhauer says, “sentience” associates with “material form.”32

Those who indict Dupin for being too material have already defended him against Lemay's charge that he is an “egghead” privileging thought over matter;33 but those who counter-accuse Dupin of privileging the material over the mental, spiritual, or imaginative have missed the fact that for Poe the spiritual is material and that matter is another name for mind. Thus Dupin's increasingly refined obsession with money and status runs parallel to his fame for genius. Dupin himself emphasizes the “very strict analogies” between the “material world” and “the immaterial” (“Purloined Letter,” p. 234). Matter and mind immediately correspond; as Dupin says in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” if one is “all head and no body … like a codfish” (p. 197), one does not do detective work. The Dupin stories bear out Poe's mesmeric revelation that mind, including or perhaps most especially ingenious mind, forms one continuum with inert substance.

Poe's emphatic insistence on the role of the material and the materialistic in his detective tales makes them the important psychological statements they are and also connects this psychological statement to a further materialist metaphysic. The correspondence of the mental and the physical is Dupin's expressed credo and seems to be Poe's as well in such reveries as “Mesmeric Revelation.” Theirs is a materialist psychology. For Dupin's genius to begin with “admiration” for a marble entrepreneur (his one childhood reminisence, in “The Purloined Letter”) and for his life to be bound up with material trauma and materialistic desires and strategies only underlines the materiality of thought to begin with. Disapproving of Dupin for materialism only reflects the disapprovers' own various ideologies. The familiar critical move of treating Dupin as a poet-surrogate is similarly misleading if “poet” is taken to mean an ephemeral someone whose vocation targets the immaterial. To do so is to lose Poe's model of the mind. In an early appreciation of Poe's mystery fiction, J. Brander Matthews claimed that Poe's great advantage over previous (and subsequent) detective writers lay in his portrayal of “human interest.” But the dramatization of materialist psychology in the Dupin stories shows that “human interest” is not the easy affective quality that Matthews intends.34 Dupin's pain and his professional strategies for alleviating it do not disqualify him for genius, let alone make him “humanly interesting.” Rather, they offer Poe the only way he can honestly portray how genius works.


  1. Susan Beegel, review of T. J. Binyon, Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction, Poe Society of America Newsletter, 18 (1990), 2; Jacques Lacan, “The Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” trans. and ed. Jeffrey Mehlman, YFS, 48 (1971), 67.

  2. Terence Whalen, “Edgar Allan Poe and the Horrid Laws of Political Economy,” AQ, 44 (1992), 405.

  3. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, ed. Stuart Levine and Susan Levine (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 191. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. Jacques Derrida, “The Purveyor of Truth,” trans. Willis Domingo et al., YFS 52 (1975), 101, 105.

  5. Richard Wilbur, “The Poe Mystery Case,” NYRB, July 13, 1967, 24.

  6. George Grella, “Poe's Tangled Web,” ArmD, 21 (1988), 268-75; see also Mark Keller, “Dupin in the Rue ‘Morgue.’ Another Form of Madness?” ArQ 33 (1977), 249-55.

  7. The “Dr. Watson” figure does have occasional champions like Terry J. Martin, who takes him as the “real” detective in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” because he has the ability to have feelings about the case. “Detection, Imagination, and the Introduction to ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” MLS, 20 (1989), 38-41.

  8. John T. Irwin, “Reading Poe's Mind: Politics, Mathematics, and the Association of Ideas in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” AmLH, 4 (1992), 201-4.

  9. Shawn Rosenheim, “The King of ‘Secret Readers’: Edgar Poe, Cryptography, and the Origins of the Detective Story,” ELH 56 (1989), 386-87.

  10. See Nikita Nankov, Edgar Allen [sic] Poe as an American Romantic (Des Moines: Occasional Papers in Language, Literature, and Linguistics, 1990), p. 3, and Dana Brand, “Reconstructing the ‘Flanêur’: Poe's Invention of the Detective Story,” Genre 18 (1985), 49-54.

  11. Whalen, p. 402; Christopher Rollason, “The Detective Myth in Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin Trilogy,” American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre, ed. Brian Docherty (Houndsmills: MacMillan, 1988), p. 12. Derrida's model of the stories' “drift and disorientation” (p. 101) emphasizes their indebtedness to a numbing variety of literary models, symbolized by the opiate atmosphere of Dupin's library, and reflected by the overt intertextual references between the three tales.

  12. Lacan, p. 67.

  13. Burton R. Pollin, “Poe's ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’: The Ingenious Web Unravelled,” SAR (1977), 239. Like Grella, though on different grounds, Pollin thinks Poe expects “Murders in the Rue Morgue” to be read as a spoof.

  14. Shulman, “Poe and the Powers of Mind,” ELH 37 (1970), 255.

  15. Brigid Brophy, “Detective Fiction: A Modern Myth of Violence?” HudR 18 (1965), 25.

  16. Quoted and discussed in John A. Hodgson, “Decoding Poe? Poe, W. B. Tyler, and Cryptography,” JEGP 92 (1993), 524.

  17. Rollason, p. 6; Sevanne Woodward, “Lacan and Derrida on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” CLS 26 (1989), 42. Woodward's remarks are based on the conjecture that “Dupin” may be a pun on French “du pain.” Brophy suggests that Dupin's style of aristocracy is a “fantasy” that society after the French Revolution “wished could he true: he offers a way of returning to the aristocratic principle without violating [democratic] reason” (“Detective Fiction,” 25).

  18. Woodward plays, as do all writing in Lacan's shadow, on the dual meaning of “letter” as epistle and character of the alphabet. Thus Dupin exchanges language for financial figures in giving up the letter for money.

  19. For the detective tale in relation to the supernatural, see Peter J. Brenner. “Die Geburt des Detektivromans aus dem Geist des Unheimlichen,” LWU 11 (1978), esp. 5-8, and Benjamin Franklin Fisher, IV, “Poe, Blackwood's, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” ANQ 12 (1974), 110. Syndy Conger's remarks are from “Another Secret of the Rue Morgue: Poe's Transformation of the Geisterseher Motif,” SSF, 24 (1987), 9.

  20. J. Brander Matthews made an early case for overmodesty in “Poe and the Detective Story” (1907; repr. in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966]), p. 92. For Poe as truly self-dissatisfied, see J. Lasley Dameron, “Poe's Auguste Dupin,” No Fairer Land: Studies in Southern Literature before 1900, ed. J. Lasley Dameron and James W. Mathews (Troy: Whitston, 1986), p. 161.

  21. Martin, pp. 43-44, n. 12.

  22. Grella, p. 275; Dennis Porter, “Of Poets, Politicians, Policemen, and the Power of Analysis,” NLH 19 (1988), 503-4.

  23. The narrator's reference to checkers as an “unostentatious game” may seem counter to Dupin's technique of startling and amazing his listeners, but by “unostentatious” he must mean the social and class circumstances in which the game is played and not the spectacle of play itself. Frequent, multiple “takes” make checkers much more of a show than chess. Hoyle's Rules of Games points out that this game, “in the 19th century … extensively analyzed,” not only allows multiple takes of two to four pieces but requires them by rule: “When able to capture, a player MUST do so.” Edmond Hoyle, Hoyle's Rules of Games. Descriptions of Games of Skill and Chance, with Advice on Skillful Play. Based on the Foundations Laid Down by Edmond Hoyle, 1672-1769, 2nd rev. ed., ed. Albert H. Morehead and Geoffrey Mott-Smith (New York: Penguin, 1983), pp. 220 and 223. Poe refers to “Hoyle” disparagingly in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a “mechanis[tic]” rule book (p. 178) with regard to whist. What he means by “Hoyle” is impossible to say, since Hoyle himself wrote a number of rule books, and his rules have been cobbled together by various editors.

  24. A common assumption, pursued at length in John Irwin's “Reading Poe's Mind,” is that “Dupin” derives from a French mathematician Poe encountered in his reading. Much earlier, W. T. Bandy reviewed this and other speculations, adding his own guess that the name is also a portmanteau word playing with names in Poe's correspondence, a letter from an “S. Maupin” about an “M. C. Auguste Dubochet.” “Who Was Monsieur Dupin?” PMLA 79 (1964), 509-10. Bandy also argues the importance of the first initial, “C.” That it is the first letter of Chevalier suggests that it abbreviates a noble title (as “M.” abbreviates the bourgeois title “Monsieur”: the “M. Dubochet” in Bandy's letter or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). Nonetheless, the opening to “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” makes clear that the “C.” in point of literal fact abbreviates a first name, since the narrator refers to Dupin as “Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin” (p. 198).

  25. Robert Daniel, “Poe's Detective God,” Furioso 6 (1951), 47.

  26. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “What Poe Knew about Cryptography,” PMLA 58 (1943), 755.

  27. Clarence S. Brigham, “Edgar Allan Poe's Contributions to Alexander's Weekly Messenger,Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 52 (1942), 57.

  28. Porter, pp. 506-9; Rosenheim, pp. 386-87.

  29. Martin, p. 36. This statement is embedded in a very general pronouncement about Romanticism which itself requires qualification.

  30. Poe's Eureka is both centrally important to the question of Poe's materialism and too large to treat here.

  31. Shulman, p. 247.

  32. Joseph Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe's Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA 83 (1968), 289.

  33. Leo B. Lemay, “The Psychology of the Murders in the Rue Morgue,” AL 54 (1982), 178-79.

  34. Matthews, p. 86.

A much shorter version of this paper was delivered at the Pennsylvania College English Association meeting, Pittsburgh, April 16, 1994.

Shawn Rosenheim (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10317

SOURCE: Rosenheim, Shawn. “Detective Fiction, Psychoanalysis, and the Analytic Sublime.” In The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, pp. 153-76. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Rosenheim explores the nature and function of analysis and psychoanalysis in Poe's detective stories.]

“We have gone so far as to combine the ideas of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nations, and devoid of all distinct or intelligible syllabification. … What impression have I made upon your fancy?” I felt a creeping of the flesh as Dupin asked me the question. “A madman,” I said, “has done this deed—some raving maniac escaped from a neighboring Maison de Santé.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Though “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” may be said to have initiated the genre of detective fiction, many twentieth-century fans have been put off by what seems like Poe's capricious violation of an implicit narrative convention. The ape, it is alleged, represents an instance of bad faith, since no reader could reasonably be expected to include animals in a list of potential murderers. More generally, we may take Poe's ape story as an index of a deeper bad faith on the part of the whole genre, in its frequent imbalance between the detective story's protracted narrative setup and its often unsatisfying denouement. There is often an embarrassing sense on the part of readers of detective fiction that its typically Gothic revelations are incommensurate with the moral weight suggested by the genre's narrative form. In this sense, too, Poe's orangutan is an emblem of readers, who—their attention solicited by an unworthy narrative dilemma—find that the real crime has been practiced on their own sensibility. In the words of Geoffrey Hartman:

The trouble with the detective novel is not that it is moral but that it is moralistic; not that it is popular but that it is stylized; not that it lacks realism but that it picks up the latest realism and exploits it. A voracious formalism dooms it to seem unreal, however “real” the world it describes. … The form trusts too much in reason; its very success opens to us the glimpse of a mechanized world, whether controlled by God or Dr. No or the Angel of the Odd.

(Hartman 1975, 225)

Though well taken, Hartman's caution is hardly original: already in the first detective story, Poe recognized the problem. As Poe indicated in a letter to Phillip Cooke, he was aware that the promise of detective fiction to unriddle the world was ultimately tautological: “Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think they are more ingenious than they are—on account of the method and air of method” (Poe 1966, 2:328).

Poe's comment interests me because, while he demystifies the detective story, insisting that the narrator's solution to the crime is, in fact, no “solution” at all, but a coup de théâtre staged by the author from behind the scenes, he also recognizes the willingness of readers to be deceived by the story's “method and air of method.” Such an air of method might also be described as the genre's penchant for analysis, a term that recurs throughout the Dupin stories.1 “Rue Morgue” [“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”] begins with a discussion of “analysis,” and in a letter describing “Marie Rogêt,” Poe emphasizes the same term: “under the pretense of showing how Dupin … unravelled the mystery of Marie's assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York” (Poe 1969-78, 3:718). Though it may at first seem curious that the literary genre most vocally devoted to the powers of the ratiocinative mind should vex those powers on the mindless acts of Poe's orangutan, on consideration, Poe's use of the ape in “Rue Morgue” emerges as something more than a simple narrative miscalculation or mere sideshow. In brief, the ape permits Poe to elaborate a cryptographic argument about language and human identity, in which the extreme contrast between the ape's physicality and Dupin's inhuman reason tells us something about the constitutive oppositions of the genre. And since detective fiction in general, and Poe's more particularly, has enjoyed a long and privileged relation to psychoanalytic reading, Poe's experiments with the monkey may tell us something about how we, as readers, are ourselves made to ape his ape.

“Analysis” in several senses has been a key to the theoretical ubiquity of “The Purloined Letter.” But while that story is unquestionably a great achievement, Poe purchases the analytic force of his narrative only by purging the text of any attempt at realist representation (Limon 1990, 103). Hence, Barbara Johnson's too-familiar claim that Minister D—'s letter is “not hidden in a geometrical space, where the police are looking for it … but is instead located ‘in’ a symbolic structure” is correct only because of Poe's refusal to engage the difficult project of representing the texture of social experience (Johnson 1980). In sharp contrast to the outdoor settings of “Marie Rogêt,” or even to the street scenes in “Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter” retreats from the boulevards, parks, and waterways of the teeming city, with their social and sexual ambiguities, into the enclosed and private spaces of Minister D—'s chambers. Hence, the remarkable success of “The Purloined Letter” as a locus for literary and psychoanalytic theory—indeed, as one of the venues by which French theory has translated itself into America—begins to seem the consequence of playing cards with a stacked deck. The tale's theoretical richness derives from the fact that Lacan, Derrida, Johnson, and the others who have written in their wake have chosen a text that is already supremely two-dimensional, already overtly concerned with allegorizing the operations of the signifier.

In fact, the semiotic purity of “The Purloined Letter” is an exception in Poe's detective fiction, which focuses more generally on the tension between representations of three-dimensional bodies and language, which is either two-dimensional in its printed form or, as speech, proves uncannily disembodied and invisible. The dominant form of the genre is far closer to “Rue Morgue” or, in its true-crime mode, to “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” in which Poe is less concerned with the “itinerary of the signifier” narrowly conceived than he is with the problems posed by the difficult intersection between the human capacity for language and the brute fact of incarnation. Poe's obsession with corpses, especially prominent in the late fiction, reveals his continuing anxiety over the body's refusal to suffer complete encipherment into language. Significantly enough, Poe's deaths are almost invariably associated with injuries to the organs of speech. The horror of Valdemar's mesmeric dissolution in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” stems from the grotesque contrast between his putrefying body and his “wonderfully, thrillingly distinct—syllabification” (Poe 1984b, 839-40), as “ejaculations of ‘dead! dead!’” burst “from the tongue and not the lips of the sufferer” (ibid., 842). In “Rue Morgue” the strangled Camille L'Espanaye's tongue is “bitten partially through” (ibid., 410). Marie Rogêt bears “bruises and impressions of fingers” about her throat, and “a piece of lace was found tied so tightly around the neck as to be hidden from sight; it was completely buried in the flesh, and was fastened by a knot which lay just under the left ear” (ibid., 513). And in “Thou Art the Man,” often considered Poe's fourth detective story, the narrator (“Mr. P.”) exposes and destroys the murderer Charley Goodfellow by confronting him with the speaking corpse of his victim, who bursts out of a wine cask with impressive consequences:

There sprang up into a sitting position, directly facing the host, the bruised, bloody and nearly putrid corpse of the murdered Mr. Shuttleworthy himself. It gazed for a few moments … with its decaying and lack-lustre eyes … uttered slowly, but clearly and impressively the words, “Thou art the man!” and then, falling over the side of the chest as if thoroughly satisfied, stretched out its limbs quiveringly.

(Ibid., 740)2

Such obsessive instances of multilated language suggest that for Poe the disjunction between linguistic and physical identity was always traumatic. As in so much detective fiction, the violence attendant on social relations in “Rue Morgue” results from the represented encounter between two-dimensional signs and three-dimensional bodies, and might properly be described as cryptonymic. I borrow the term from Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, who in their reinterpretation of Freud's case study hypothesize that the Wolf Man's physical symptoms stem from a punning, multilingual “verbarium” of key (or code) words, which indirectly name the principal traumas of his life. The words are “encrypted” in the self to avoid analysis by the self, for whom they pose insoluble psychic double binds. In consequence, it becomes an essential but impossible task to say whether the words name a real event or whether in themselves they produce the symptoms they are meant to explain.3 Derrida describes the Wolf Man in language equally well suited to the involutions of psychic space manifested in, say, Roderick Usher: he had “edified a crypt within him: an artifact, an artificial unconscious in the Self, an interior enclave, partitions, hidden passages, zigzags, occult and difficult traffic” (Abraham and Torok 1986, xliv); the only passage through this Gothic architecture of the mind is through the magic words of the verbarium, coded translingually across English, Russian, and German, to keep the crypt, that “monument of a catastrophe,” impermeable (ibid., xlv). As the comparison to Usher suggests, cryptonymy involves an unambiguously Gothic understanding of language. Not only Derrida's diction but the case study's corresponding themes of paralysis, violation, and unspeakability are common property of the Gothic novel and of nineteenth-century hysteria.

As I have noted elsewhere (Rosenheim 1989), to an extraordinary degree cryptography provides secret organizing principles for Poe's trilogy of detective stories. The cryptograph reflects on the level of the sign what Dupin embodies on the level of character, and what the form of detective fiction implies on the level of narrative: the fantasy of an absolutely legible world. As it is encountered in Poe's essays on secret writing, cryptography is the utopian inverse of cryptonymy, since in it reader and writer are fully present to one another within their two-dimensional cipher. Conceptually, analysis is closely associated with cryptography. Both depend on the “separating or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.,”4 and both emphasize the abstract, symbolic force of mind over matter, which provides a form of mental leverage over the world. But already in the moment of creating the genre of detective fiction, Poe suggests that the only “analysis” it can offer may itself be a fiction. While cryptography seems to propose a detour around the Gothic aspects of cryptonymy—a way of avoiding its disturbing physicality—cryptography takes on disturbing cryptonymic features whenever Poe attempts to represent actual bodies. The problem is that cryptography provides an alternative body in conflict with one's corporeal investment; since even in cryptography language is never truly free of the material shell of the signifier, this linguistic self finds itself in tension with one's embodied identity.

Despite the story's promise of legibility, “Rue Morgue” intimates that the triumph of the detective's analytics cannot be clearly distinguished from the effects of the analytics on the reader's body. To the degree that the reader invests his belief in this formal drive toward legibility, he becomes Poe's dupe, for should the reader attempt to imitate Dupin, he quickly finds that his analysis devolves into mere repetition.5 And yet, to that same degree, these stories threaten to become meaningful: if the uncanny anticipation of the story's own interpretation is at all significant, it is so because the text discloses in the reader's body the nature of the interpretive desires that initiate one's reading. Like the purloined letter, the lesson of “Rue Morgue” is hidden in plain sight, announced in the story's first lines: “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects” (Poe 1984b, 397). While our readings certainly produce “effects,” the desire to discover the right relation of analysis to literature is ultimately doomed by the impossibility of establishing a metalanguage uncontaminated by the materiality of signification. In this respect, the narrator's attempt in “Rue Morgue” to keep his analytic discourse free from the corporeal opacity of his subject resembles Freud's procedure in his case studies. If detective fiction is notoriously susceptible to psychoanalytic interpretation, this is only because psychoanalysis, too, has often seemed to presume the separation of its analytical procedures from the materiality of its objects—a separation between language and the body that “Rue Morgue” both constructs and, finally, destroys.


Following Richard Wilbur, critics have long recognized speech in “Rue Morgue” as a symbolic expression of identification, noting that Dupin's use of a high and a low register links him with the high and low voices of the sailor and the ape (Wilbur 1967). But Poe is finally less interested in pitch than in syllabification, which runs on a continuum from the orangutan's grunts to Dupin's “rich tenor,” with its “deliberateness and entire distinctness” of enunciation (Poe 1984b, 410-12). Hence Poe's own deliberation in staging the ape's crime within earshot of such a polyglot group of auditors, each of whom hears in the orangutan's voice someone speaking an unfamiliar language. Henri Duval: “The shrill voice, this witness thinks, was that of an Italian. … Was not acquainted with the Italian language.” William Bird: the voice “appeared to be that of a German. … Does not understand German.” Alfonzo Garcia: “The shrill voice was that of an Englishman—is sure of this. Does not understand the English language, but judges by intonation” (Poe 1984b, 409-10). Similarly, Isidore Muset, “—Odenheimer,” and Alberto Montani, respectively attribute the voice to Spanish, French, and Russian speakers. Poe even has Dupin supplement his references to the “five great divisions of Europe” with mention of “Asiatics” and “Africans,” in what amounts to a Cook's Tour of the varieties of human speech:

Now, how strangely unusual must that voice have really been, about which such testimony as this could have been elicited!—in whose tones, even, denizens of the five great divisions of Europe could recognize nothing familiar! You will say that it might have been the voice of an Asiatic—of an African. … Without denying the inference, I will now merely call your attention to [the fact that] … no words—no sounds resembling words—were by any witness mentioned as distinguishable.

(Ibid., 416)

What is at stake in this inventory? As with the case studies of deaf-mutes and feral children that appeared toward the end of the eighteenth century, the orangutan offered Enlightenment thinkers a liminal figure of the human at a time when language was crucially involved in the definition of humanity. By the 1840s, however, the ape had been reduced to a comic or grotesque image. But given Poe's insistence on the syllabic nature of speech, it is also important to recognize the orangutan's affiliation with a tradition of philosophical inquiry.6 The most comprehensive discussion of the orangutan's relation to language is given in The Origin and Progress of Language, by James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, who devotes sixty pages to this question in order to understand “the origin of an art so admirable and so useful as language,” a subject “necessarily connected with an inquiry into the original nature of man, and that primitive state in which he was, before language was invented” (Burnet 1974, 1:267). Monboddo hypothesizes that the orangutan is actually a species of humankind, being “a barbarous nation, which has not yet learned the use of speech” (ibid., 270). The taxonomic name of the orangutan, Homo sylvestris, is merely a translation of the Malay “Ourang-Outang,” which, according to the naturalist Buffon, “signifies, in their language, a wild man” (ibid., 272). According to Monboddo, orangutans use tools, grow melancholy when separated from their tribes, and are capable of conjugal attachment and even shame. Monboddo cites an explorer who saw a female orangutan that “shewed signs of modesty … wept and groaned, and performed other human actions: So that nothing human seemed to be wanting in her, except speech” (ibid., 272-73).

By enlisting orangutans in the same species as humans, Monboddo intends to demonstrate that what separates the two is less biology than culture, epitomized by the possession of language. For Buffon, this lack of speech discredits the orangutan's evolutionary pretensions. Monboddo ridicules Buffon, however, for making “the faculty of speech” part of the essence of humanity, and for suggesting that “the state of pure nature, in which man had not the use of speech, is a state altogether ideal and imaginary” (ibid., 293). Buffon thus anticipates the current association of language and human origins. For Poe as for Buffon, the “state of pure nature” is “altogether ideal” and precisely “imaginary,” since, ontogenetically if not phylogenetically, human consciousness is a function of the subject's mirroring in language.

This tradition provides a context for understanding the dramatic process by which the narrator discovers the identity of the killer. From the start, Poe has planted clues: the crime is “brutal,” “inhuman,” “at odds with the ordinary notions of human conduct.” Now Dupin remarks on the crime's strange combination of features:

“We have gone so far as to combine the ideas of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nations, and devoid of all distinct or intelligible syllabification. … What impression have I made upon your fancy?”

I felt a creeping of the flesh as Dupin asked me the question. “A madman,” I said, “has done this deed—some raving maniac escaped from a neighboring Maison de Santé.

(Poe 1984b, 423)

The narrator's suggestion is close, but “the voices of madmen, even in their wildest paroxysms … have always the coherence of syllabification” (ibid., 558). Identification of the criminal depends, again, on Dupin's understanding of language; in fact, the testimony of the crime's auditors constitutes an aural cryptogram. The origin of this moment goes back to “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which Poe remarked that of the hundred ciphers he received, “there was only one which we did not immediately succeed in solving. This one we demonstrated to be an imposition—that is to say, we fully proved it a jargon of random characters, having no meaning whatsoever.” Poe's ability to interpret signs requires him to recognize when a set of signs violates the “universal” rules of linguistic formation. The claim to cryptographic mastery depends on the logically prior ability to recognize when a set of characters is not even language. By having the solution to the crime in “Rue Morgue” turn on the aural cryptogram, Poe simultaneously dramatizes both the power of human analysis and his fear of what life without language might be like.

After its recapture the orangutan is lodged in the Jardin des Plantes. Until his death in 1832, the Jardin was Georges Cuvier's center of research; as the repeated juxtaposition of Cuvier and Dupin indicates, Poe finds in the zoologist's mode of analysis an analogue to his own technique of detection.7 Cuvier was famous for his ability to reconstruct an animal's anatomy from fragmentary paleontological remains, through systematic structural comparison. As a contemporary of Poe's wrote: “Cuvier astonished the world by the announcement that the law of relation which existed between the various parts of animals applied not only to entire systems, but even to parts of a system; so that, given an extremity, the whole skeleton might be known … and even the habits of the animal could be indicated” (Review 1851).8 Like Cuvier's bones, and in implicit analogy with them, syllables are for Poe linguistic universals, basic morphological units that form the necessary substrate to thought. Individual words possess meaning for the linguist only through their participation in a global system: “the word is no longer attached to a representation except insofar as it is previously a part of the grammatical organization by means of which the language defines and guarantees its own coherence” (Foucault 1973, 280-81).

Cuvier seems to provide a methodological justification for Poe's cryptographic reading of the world. But if this is so, what should we make of Cuvier's key role in revealing the true nature of the murderer? Having teased the reader's narrative appetite with oblique clues concerning the killer's nature, Dupin introduces the text of Cuvier with a theatrical flourish, sure that his revelation will produce its intended effect: “It was a minute anatomical and generally descriptive account of the large fulvous Orang-Outang of the East Indian Islands. The gigantic stature, the prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitative propensities of these mammalia are sufficiently well know to all. I understood the full horrors of the murder at once” (Poe 1984b, 424). This is a curious passage, not least because in Poe's version, the description of the orangutan virtually reverses Cuvier's actual claims. Not content to note that the orangutan is “a mild and gentle animal, easily rendered tame and affectionate,” Cuvier disparages “the exaggerated descriptions of some authors respecting this resemblance” to humans (Cuvier 1832, 54-55); he at once deflates both the ape's anthropic pretensions and its wildness. That Poe knew this text seems almost certain: M'Murtrie, who translated Cuvier's book, seven years later published with Poe and Thomas Wyatt The Conchologist's First Book, with “Animals according to Cuvier.” Yet evidently Poe's intellectual allegiance to Cuvier was subservient to his need to magnify the melodramatic and Gothic aspects of the murders. In the final analysis, it is not the crime but the solution that produces the reader's uncanny shiver, not the violence but the minute and clinical attention that Dupin requires of the narrator. To understand why the killer's simian origins produce “the full horrors” of which the narrator speaks, we need first to examine the effects of the revelation that Poe's narrative produces.


Throughout the Dupin stories, Poe offers models for the nature of analysis, including games of odd and even, theories of mental identification, and the elaborate comparison of the respective merits of chess and whist. Yet as we discover in “Rue Morgue,” analysis itself must remain disappointingly invisible to the reader, except through its intensely pleasing effects:

We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics.

(Poe 1984b, 397)

In its basic narrative structure, “Rue Morgue” is itself an enigma whose effects, according to its own logic, should clarify the nature of analysis. But the opening discussion reverses the ordinary process of interpretation: the crime and its solution “will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the [analytic] propositions just advanced” (ibid., 400), rather than the other way around. Nor is it clear exactly why we should experience “the liveliest enjoyment” from the ensuing tale of violence. Might we understand the tale as an allegory of the superiority of brain to brawn, in which Dupin handily defeats both the sailor's evasions and the ape's brute difference? Certainly; but the pleasure of such a reading is not itself analytical, and hence brings us no closer to understanding the properties that the narrative so ostentatiously foregrounds. Since the narrator has compared analytic pleasure to that enjoyed by the strong man, we ought perhaps to consider the two “strong men” of the tale as guides. The first of these is the orangutan (Homo sylvestris), possessed of “superhuman” strength; the second is its owner, “a tall, stout, and muscular-looking person” who comes equipped, as in a fairy tale, with “a huge oaken cudgel” (ibid., 426). But these figures seem to exercise their powers only in violence: the elder L'Espanaye's head is “nearly severed” “with one determined sweep” of the ape's “muscular arm” (ibid., 430), and though the sailor seems amicable by comparison, even he spends his energy whipping the ape into submission, and his muscles tense at the thought of killing Dupin (“The sailor's face flushed. … He started to his feet and grasped his cudgel” [ibid., 427]). In practice, while the pleasures of the analyst seem only figurally related to those of his muscular counterpart (“As the strong man exults … so glories the analyst”), the narrative that follows demonstrates that the relation between the two is causal: the analyst's skills are called for because of the strong man's exertion, as Dupin pits his thought against the unwitting power of the ape and the sailor's potential for violence.

According to Peter Brooks, any given story has a central metaphor that, however dissolved into the thread of the narrative, articulates the story's primary relationships. And since all narrative can be mapped rhetorically as a relation between the poles of metaphor and metonymy, we can describe the narrative's duration as a metonymic “acting out of the implications of metaphor,” which at once reveals the meaning of the impacted initial metaphor and transforms it through its narrative embodiment (Brooks 1985, 13). Citing the example of Conan Doyle's “Musgrave Ritual,” Brooks show that the obscure and apparently meaningless ritual practiced by the Musgraves is actually a metaphor that condenses and shapes the action of the story. Regardless of whether Brooks is right to contend that the relation between initial metaphor and narrative metonymy holds for all stories, it is undeniably true of detective fiction in general, and of its founding text as well. The first rhetorical figure encountered in “Rue Morgue”—the analogy between the pleasures of analysis and those of strength—provides the story's structuring metaphor; in fact, the tale has everything to do with the proper way of understanding the relationship between the physical and the mental, and the pleasures associated with each.

Take as an emblem of this disjunction the difficulty that the Mmes. L'Espanaye find in keeping head and body together: Camille L'Espanaye is strangled; her mother's throat is “so entirely cut that upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off” (Poe 1984b, 411, 406). “Rue Morgue” repeatedly stages the violent separation of heads and bodies, literal and figurative, and while Dupin and the orangutan are the most visibly polarized emblems of this split, the form of the tale repeats this pattern, joining its analytic head to the fictive body through the most insecure of narrative ligatures: “The narrative to follow will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the propositions just advanced” (ibid., 400). However one wishes to allegorize this relation of heads to bodies—as an opposition between spirit and matter, analysis and effects, or ego and id—it is the distinguishing structural feature of the text at every level. But though “Rue Morgue” formally repeats the opposition between body and head in the relationship of narrative and commentary, we can identify Brooks's initial metaphor only in retrospect, since Poe's text conceals its metaphors as metonymies until the narrative's climactic revelation, by which time we as readers have been thoroughly implicated in a scene at which we imagined ourselves only spectators.

Generically, this implication has already been built into the text through its combination of the Gothic with what I call the analytic sublime. Besides its extravagant setting in a “time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall” (ibid., 400-401), “Rue Morgue” reveals its generic debt in the sensational violence of the killings, the segmentation of space into barely permeable vesicles, and the uncanniness of the crime's resolution. Although Eve Sedgwick argues compellingly that as a genre the Gothic is preeminently concerned with male homosocial desire, Poe's detective stories find their activating tension less in the closeting of sexual difference than in the closeting of consciousness within the body. Despite its overt disavowal of the Gothic (“let it not be supposed,” the narrator reminds us, “that I am detailing any mystery, or penning any romance” [ibid., 402]), Poe employs an aura of analytical reason only to intensify the reader's experience of violence and disorder.

In the Gothic's implicit spatial model, Sedgwick suggests, an “individual fictional ‘self’” is often “massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access”: air, personal history, a loved one. Regardless of the specific lack, it is the unspeakability of this occlusion that is generically distinctive: “The important privation is the privation exactly of language, as though language were a sort of safety valve between the inside and the outside which being closed off, all knowledge, even when held in common, becomes solitary, furtive, and explosive” (Sedgwick 1986, 17).9 Thus although the detective story, with its long retrospective reconstructions, seems par excellence the genre in which language is adequate to its task of description, in the end, the apparent rationality of the detective is a device used to create Sedgwick's Gothic division. Far from offering a safety valve between inner and outer, language itself separates the analyst from the object, thereby creating the pressure differential between self and world that language is pressed to describe. The impalpable tissue separating inside and outside is consciousness itself, which can never be identical either with itself or with the body. The more intensely Poe thematizes disembodied reason (the analytic sublime), the more powerfully Gothic will be the moment in which our identification with the body of the ape is revealed.

This use of reason against itself appears with particular clarity in the episode in which Dupin discovers the exit by which the killer escaped from the quarters of the Mmes L'Espanaye. In this first instance of the locked-room mystery, the doors to the L'Espanaye home are locked; there are no secret passages or “preternatural events”; and the condition of the bodies rules out suicide. The two windows are shut, each fastened by “a very stout nail” pushed into a gimlet hole drilled through frame and casement. Yet on visiting the house, Dupin displays absolute confidence in his logical powers: “The impossibility of egress, by means already stated, being thus absolute, we are reduced to the windows. It is only left for us to prove that these apparent ‘impossibilities’ are, in reality, not such.” Reasoning that “the murderers did escape from one of these windows,” Dupin decides that the sashes

must, then, have the power of fastening themselves. There was no escape from this conclusion. I had traced the secret to its ultimate result—and that result was the nail. It had, I say, in every respect, the appearance of its fellow in the other window, but this fact was an absolute nullity (conclusive as it might seem to be) when compared with the consideration that here, at this point, terminated the clew. “There must be something wrong,” I said, “about the nail.” I touched it; and the head, with about a quarter of the shank, came off in my fingers. The rest of the shank was in the gimlet-hole, where it had been broken off.

(Poe 1984b, 419)

This is what Freud called the “omnipotence-of-consciousness” with a vengeance: the evidence of the senses is “an absolute nullity” against the locked room of Dupin's logic (“There was no escape from this conclusion”). As predicted, and in apparent confirmation of his hypothesis, the nail-head pops off at Dupin's touch, as if his analysis was a type of narrative thaumaturgy, able to bring about changes in the world through mere enunciation (“‘There must be something wrong,’ I said, ‘about the nail’”). Such confusion of causes and effects is a version of the tale's split between analysis and action, an indication that Poe's analytical sublime contains the seeds of its own undoing. The abstract introduction to a tale of horror (also familiar from “The Imp of the Perverse”) intensifies the shock of the narrative by increasing the contrast between the narrative's ratiocinative calm and the brutality to follow. And since excessive contrast is itself a Gothic convention, “Rue Morgue” stages the relation between the story's introduction and its main body as another instance of the Gothic. Indeed, the nail itself anticipates my conclusion: its status as a token of the power of reason is immediately undermined by Dupin's recognition that the nail itself is fractured. Like everything else in “Rue Morgue,” the nail—an apparent integer—splits into head and body.


This constant recurrence of heads and bodies is structurally parallel to the separation in detective fiction of the metonymic and metaphoric poles of language. Working with clues associated with the narrative's originating crime, the detective's analytical method is primarily a form of metonymy, which is, in turn, associated with the frame narrative of the detective's analysis, and with its origins in cryptography. Conversely, the core narrative of most detective stories obsessively concerns itself with bodies, most commonly with their violation and murder. Metonymy, Lacan suggests, is evidence of the displacement of desire for the mother onto the signifying chain itself. As the law of the signifier, the law of the father separates the infant from the mother at the moment when Oedipal injunctions manifest themselves in, and as, the child's newly acquired language. The child attempts to recapture its original plenitude through the use of language, but this displaced search turns into an identification of suspended desire with the process of signification itself:

And the enigmas that desire seems to pose for a “natural philosophy”—its frenzy mocking the abyss of the infinite, the secret collusion with which it envelops the pleasure of knowing and of dominating with a jouissance, these amount to no other derangement of instinct than that of being caught in the rails—eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else—of metonymy.

(Lacan 1977, 166-67)

In place of the child's imaginary, there are only the “rails” of metonymic linkage, which, far from leading back to the mother, constitute the bars separating one from her being. But this “desire for something else” is not without compensatory pleasures, chief among which is the “jouissance” of employing language to structure the observable world, investing it with the sense of an almost tangible approach to the object of desire. The rails teeter constantly along the edge of remembrance, “at the very suspension-point of the signifying chain” (ibid.).

In its concern with evidence, the detective's search is a variation on the metonymic suspension displayed by the narrator of the Gothic romances, who tends “to muse, for long unwearied hours, with [his] attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin or in the typography of a book” (Poe 1984b, 227). This obsessive attention is a defense mechanism designed to turn the mind away from something that must seem to be repressed, but which, in fact, hovers teasingly close to consciousness:

There is no point, among the many incomprehensible anomalies of the science of mind, more thrillingly exciting than the fact … that in our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember. And thus how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia's eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression—felt it approaching—yet not quite be mine—and so at length entirely depart!

(Ibid., 264-65)

Compare this to the narrator's reaction to Dupin's description of the strength, ferocity, and “harsh and unequal voice” possessed by the orangutan: “At these words a vague and half-formed conception of the meaning of Dupin flitted over my mind. I seemed to be upon the verge of comprehension, without power to comprehend—as men, at times, find themselves upon the brink of remembrance without being able, in the end, to remember” (ibid., 421). In both cases, the quality of this near-memory, and the habits of both excessively attentive narrators, correspond to Lacan's metonymic subject “perversely” fixated “at the very suspension-point of the signifying chain, where the memory-screen is immobilized and the fascinating image of the fetish is petrified” (Lacan 1977, 167).

Lacan's rhetorical analysis permits us to see how completely the metonymic frame narrative of the tale disembodies both analyst and reader, even as the Gothic narrative core of the detective story foregrounds metaphors of the body.10 This metaphoric pull toward embodiment is crystallized in the basic scenario of “Rue Morgue,” which, as Marie Bonaparte noted long ago, is a particularly nasty Oedipal triangle. For Bonaparte, the orangutan represents the infant, whose obsession with the question of the mother's sexual difference is only settled through the symbolic castration involved in Mme L'Espanaye's decapitation. Bonaparte's reading depends on a style of anatomical literalization now out of fashion, discredited in an era in which psychoanalytic critics rightfully prefer textual and rhetorical criticism to readings that, as Brooks notes, mistakenly choose as their objects of analysis “the author, the reader, or the fictive persons of the text” (Brooks 1987, 2). The problem is that “Rue Morgue” continually solicits what can only be described as bad Freudian readings. Bonaparte's biographical interpretation of Poe's fiction is, in the main, enjoyably unconvincing, but her monomaniacal inventory of sexual symbols (of, for instance, the L'Espanayes' chamber as a gigantic projection of the interior female anatomy) is difficult to dismiss. From the rending of the double doors of the L'Espanaye home (“a double or folding gate … bolted neither at bottom nor top” forced “open, at length, with a bayonet”), to the ape's futile ransacking of Mme L'Espanaye's private drawers (“the drawers of a bureau … were open, and had been, apparently, rifled, although many articles still remained in them” [Poe 1984b, 421]), to the identification of the broken and the whole nail, the story overcodes its anatomical symbols. Discovered in its crimes, the orangutan's “wild glances” fall on “the head of the bed, over which the face of its master, rigid with horror, was just discernible.” The ape stuffs Camille “head-down” in the chimney; the L'Espanayes live in a room “at the head of the passage”; the nail in the window behind the bed is fixed “nearly to the head”; Dupin looks over “the head-board minutely”; the other nail too is “driven in nearly up to the head.” The ape flees from its master's bed to the L'Espanayes', where it swings itself through the window “directly upon the headboard of the bed.” “Head” is used twenty times, “bed,” “bedstead,” or “bedroom” seventeen times; as well as rhyming aurally, “head” and “bed” continually chime through their contiguity in the text, inviting the reader to link them through metaphor. Even the fractured window-nail can represent the mother's phallus: “Il y a le mystère du clou mutilé d'une des fenêtres, sans doute symbole, sur le mode ‘mobilier,’ de la castration de la mère.” Dupin's inductions about the broken nail constitute a fort-da game in which he resolves the question of the maternal phallus by both denying its presence (“‘There must be something wrong,’ I said, ‘about the nail.’ I touched it; and the head … came off in my fingers”) and affirming it (“I now carefully replaced this head portion and … the fissure was invisible”). Such an explanation helps clarify why the analysis of the nail musters such weird intensity: “There must … be something wrong with the nail” (Bonaparte 1949, 439).

My claim is not that such anatomical allegorizing substantiates psychoanalytic criticism, but that Freudian readers have long been attracted to detective fiction just because the genre's structure and themes so often echo central psychoanalytic scenarios. What looks like Poe's eerie anticipation of psychoanalytic motifs may say as much about generic as about psychic structure. Certainly, the literary interest of Freud's case studies depends in no small part on an essentially cryptographic sense of power over the body. Despite Freud's frequent attempts to distance himself from writers of fiction, his early conception of psychoanalysis as “the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind” (Freud 1963a, 96), of rendering the body transparent to language, is driven by the same themes of cryptographic interiority at play in Poe's detective fiction. And Dupin's boast that “most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms” (Poe 1984b, 401) is actually a more modest version of Freud's famous declaration in his study of Dora: “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore” (Freud 1963a, 96).

Although critics have remarked on the embarrassing frequency with which detective stories draw on stock psychoanalytic imagery, no one has yet called attention to how thoroughly “Rue Morgue” seems to gloss the analytic process itself. Freud describes the “essence of the psychoanalytic situation” as follows:

The analyst enters into an alliance with the ego of the patient to subdue certain uncontrolled parts of his id, i.e., to include them in a synthesis of the ego. … [If] the ego learns to adopt a defensive attitude towards its own id and to treat the instinctual demands of the latter like external dangers, this is at any rate partly because it understands that the satisfaction of instinct would lead to conflicts with the external world. (Under the influence of its upbringing, the child's ego accustoms itself to shift the scene of the battle from outside to inside and to master the inner danger before it becomes external.)

(Freud 1963b, 253)

Freud's clinical observations would serve almost equally well to describe the sailor's visit to Dupin, with Dupin standing in for the analyst, the sailor for the analysand, and the orangutan as a figure for the remembered “primal scene.” In Dora, Freud notes that “the patients' inability to give an ordered history of their life insofar as it coincides with the story of their illness is not merely characteristic of the neurosis,” but is, in fact, a defining feature of mental illness; and Freud's essential test for recovery simply is the patient's newfound ability to narrate his or her life, to “remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts” (Freud 1963a, 31, 32). In this case, the sailor must recount under duress the story of the crime, which is formally parallel to the dreams that provide the analytic material for Freud's case studies. His wish to hide his knowledge makes sense in terms of the plot, but it is less easy to explain away Dupin's insistence, at once solicitous and stern, that the sailor narrate what he knows. Dupin, one might say, enters into an alliance with the sailor in order that he might “subdue certain uncontrolled parts of his id,” unmistakably represented by the ape. As a corollary, Dupin repeatedly insists that the sailor acknowledge the beast as his own: “Of course you are prepared to identify the property?” (Poe 1984b, 427), even as he declares that the sailor is both innocent and complicit: “You have nothing to conceal. You have no reason for concealment. On the other hand, you are bound by every principle of honor to confess all” (ibid., 428). Pressed to take a reward for ostensibly recovering the ape, Dupin continues the same theme: “You shall give me all the information in your power about these murders in the Rue Morgue” (ibid., 427).

Forced at gunpoint to answer, the sailor responds first by losing the ability to articulate (“The sailor's face flushed up, as if he were struggling with suffocation. … He spoke not a word” [Poe 1984b, 427]), and then by threatening compensatory violence (“He started to his feet and grasped his cudgel” [ibid.]), as the story of the ape homeopathically reproduces itself in the sailor's telling. The stress of confession threatens to produce a repetition of the original crime, but Dupin's mixture of firmness and kindness (“I perfectly well know that you are innocent of the atrocities in the Rue Morgue. It will not do, however, to deny that you are in some measure implicated in them” [ibid., 427]) permits him to redirect his symptomatic repetition into narrative—precisely the result of a successful analytic intervention predicted by Freud. The sailor explains how, having brought the ape from Borneo to Paris in order to sell it for profit, he returned one night to find that the orangutan had escaped into his bedroom,

into which it had broken from a closet adjoining, where it had been, as was thought, securely confined. Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving, in which it had no doubt previously watched its master through the key-hole of the closet. Terrified at the sight of so dangerous a weapon in the possession of an animal so ferocious, and so well able to use it, the man, for some moments, was at a loss what to do. He had been accustomed, however, to quiet the creature, even in its fiercest moods, by the use of a whip, and to this he now resorted. Upon sight of it, the Ourang-Outang sprang at once through the door of the chamber, down the stairs, and thence, through a window, unfortunately open, into the street.

(Ibid., 428-29)

Having only heard up to this point about the animal's “intractable ferocity,” this image of the orangutan is rather touching; even when the ape imitates “the motions of a barber” with the Mmes L'Espanaye, its purposes, we are told, are “probably pacific” (ibid., 430). Poe offers us a Darwinian revision of Freud, a primate scene in which the ape—still “in the closet,” forced to peep through a keyhole—sees its master shaving, and tries to imitate him. Shaving codes the body as a part of culture, not nature; and as in David Humphreys's contemporary poem “The Monkey” (printed in Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1875, 1:392), the ape takes up the razor out of a wish to be human.11 But without language, the developmental scenario implied by the ape's mimicry stalls: whatever its “imitative propensities,” as a mute, the ape cannot readily make its intentions known. The ape's frustrated turn from gesture to violence reveals the abject inadequacy of mimesis in comparison with speech. Unable to manipulate abstract symbols, the ape takes out its rage on the flesh; and while the story's focus on injured mouths and throats may be an instance of displacement upward, it is also a direct attack on the organs of speech. The orangutan represents both Bonaparte's murderous infant, poised at the moment of discovering sexual difference, and a liminally human, highly evocative image of the body's resistance to signification. These elements are synthesized in a Lacanian revision of the primal scene as the entry into signification. Poe's use of the orangutan serves as his own myth of human origins, which condenses within itself both individual and evolutionary history, both linguistic and sexual desire.

Thanks to Dupin's narrative therapy, the sailor is afforded the opportunity to break the cycle of repetition through the type of analytic transference that, in Brooks's words, “succeeds in making the past and its scenarios of desire relive through signs with such vivid reality that the reconstructions it proposes achieve the effect of the real” (Brooks 1987, 13). Although it is meaningless to speak of curing a fictional character, this protoanalytic scene is one way in which Poe stages the reader's textual cathexis, though such a proleptic parody may suggest that, like “Rue Morgue” itself, the psychoanalyst's function is to manufacture a narrative rather than to reveal one. The sailor's mistake has been to assume that once he had succeeded in lodging the ape at his own residence, the danger that it posed was over. The sailor has yet to learn to “treat the instinctual demands of the [id] like external dangers.” Hence, the captive ape escapes from the sailor, forcing him to face the violent consequences of its acting-out. The process of admitting his possession of the ape is a precondition for its taming, which requires that the sailor objectify and confront as an external danger (“no mean enemy”) the fact of the bodily unconscious. The recapture of the erstwhile brute (a story Poe does not even bother to recount) represents the sailor's psychic reintegration. As Freud writes: “The struggle between physician and patient, between intellect and the forces of instinct, between recognition and the striving for discharge, is fought out almost entirely on the ground of transference-manifestations. This is the ground on which the victory must be won, the final expression of which is lasting recovery from the neurosis. … in the last resort no one can be slain in absentia or in effigie” (Freud 1963b, 114-15). By implication, literature might be said to stage in effigie just such ego-training sessions, teaching the reader “to shift the scene of the battle from outside to inside”: from behaviors to an internalized encounter with the text.

Once the sailor confesses, and thereby owns up to his implication in the killings, the story is finished; the narrator has “scarcely anything to add,” and hastily concludes by noting that the ape “was subsequently caught by the owner himself, who obtained for it a very large sum at the Jardin des Plantes. Le Bon was instantly released, upon our narration of the circumstances (with some comments from Dupin) at the bureau of the Prefect of Police” (Poe 1984b, 431). Since the real story of “Rue Morgue” concerns the production of uncanny effects in the reader, Poe has no qualms about violating the principles of narrative construction. Instead, the extreme brevity of the denouement, and the untidiness of the story's conclusion, remind us that Poe's characters are merely puppets, technical apparatuses deployed in the attempt to intensify our affective transference onto his tales. Although the allegorical reading sketched here could be elaborated further, the parallels between Freud's method in the case studies and Poe's narrative are clear. The elaborate sexual symbolism, the fetishization of analysis, the literalization of the “talking cure,” and, above all, the story's peculiar staging of metaphor and metonymy are coordinated devices through which Poe enhances the reader's identification.

Thus far, the reader has had little incentive to identify with anyone except Dupin. But though Dupin's cryptographic power is specifically predicated on his linguistic prowess, the resolution of this case is not a matter of language alone. Instead, Dupin now finds himself confronting the tangible world, carefully measuring the “impression” made by the orangutan's fingers on Camille L'Espanaye's neck against the span and pattern of a human hand, only to find that the prints on the strangled woman are not even approximately the same (“‘This,’ I said, ‘is the mark of no human hand’” [ibid., 423]). Dupin continues his physical investigation: “‘Besides, the hair of a madman is not such as I now hold in my hand. I disentangled this little tuft from the rigidly clutched fingers of Madam L'Espanaye. Tell me what you can make of it.’ ‘Dupin!’ I said, completely unnerved, ‘this hair is most unusual—this is no human hair’” (ibid.). Recall that in the opening paragraph of the story, the analyst is said to glory “in that moral activity which disentangles”: just the word Dupin uses to describe the process of physically extracting his tuft of hair from the “rigidly clutched” hand of the corpse. For all the text's insistence on the separation between the pleasures of the strong man and those of the analyst, the solution of the Rue Morgue murders requires that Dupin make forceful, even violent, contact with the traces of the ape.

After producing his assembled physical evidence, Dupin asks the narrator: “What impression have I made upon your fancy?” repeating as a metaphor the word used to refer to the uncanny and inhuman marks left on the dead woman's neck. Prior to the moment in which Dupin histrionically reveals the orangutan as the culprit, the reader's body has been anesthetized by Dupin's disembodied analytics (an anesthetization also evident in Dupin, who in moments of excitement becomes “frigid and abstract,” his eyes “vacant in expression” [ibid., 401, 415]). In the “creeping of the flesh” that follows (ibid., 423), the narrator's body identifies with the ape through Dupin's recreation of the crime, revealing that he, too, through his direct somatic response, is implicated in the narrative to which he listens. “A symptom,” writes Lacan, is “a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element” (Lacan 1977, 166); and in the moment when the reader's skin shivers in sympathy with the narrator, we witness the overthrow of the metonymic order. In the shift to the metaphoric, in the symptomatic reproduction within the reader's body of a sensational response, the reader reveals his collaboration with the ape. Through the creation of this response, Poe circumvents Freud's complaint that in analysis “the patient hears what we say but it rouses no response in his mind” (Freud 1963b, 251). To rouse the mind, a text must also arouse the body: only through the symptomatic commitment of the reader's flesh can the text realize its transferential effects.

Appropriately, it is the knowledge of his own embodiment that permits Dupin to solve the mystery of the L'Espanayes' deaths. This is the implication of Dupin's final comments on the Prefect, in which he takes pains to emphasize the futility of the latter's “bodiless” wisdom: “In his wisdom is no stamen. It is all head and no body, like the pictures of the Goddess Laverna—or, at best, all head and shoulders, like a codfish. But he is a good creature after all. I like him especially for one master stroke of cant, by which he has attained his reputation for ingenuity. I mean the way he has ‘de nier ce qui est, et d'expliquer ce qui n'est pas’” (Poe 1984b, 431). Though figured as a “creature,” it is just the Prefect's failure to negotiate between head and body that prevents him from imagining the animal nature of the killer. As a kind of walking bust, all head and shoulders, the Prefect, not Dupin, is an emblem for excessive rationality, unable to accommodate the ape's physical presence. By contrast, Dupin twice notes his admiration for the animal. “I almost envy you the possession of him,” he admits to the sailor (Poe 1984b, 431); and we may suppose that Dupin longs for the animal's intense physicality, even as he revels in the physical effects, the “creeping of the flesh,” he produces in his listeners. (Once more, Dupin appears as a stand-in for Poe, who also relies for his very bread and butter on the ability to conjure identification.) “Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?” Poe asked of Cooke; we may now be able to answer that it lies in having in the meantime caught something in that web. In the present case, Dupin's greatest exertions are not to catch the monkey, but its owner, lured in by the text placed in the newspaper. Just so with the story's readers: drawn in by another piece of paper, by another thread or web, we find ourselves trapped within its self-dissolving structure, as any assumptions about the nature of analysis are undone by our own somatic performance.

As “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” concludes, the divergent senses of the word “stamen” crystallize its irreconcilable oppositions:

“stamen, n.; pl. stamens rare stamina, [L., a warp in an upright loom, a thread; lit., that which stands up, from stare, to stand.] 1. a warp thread, especially in the ancient upright loom at which the weaver stood upright instead of sitting. [Obs.] 2. in botany, the male reproductive organ in flowers, formed principally of cellular tissue.12

Insofar as “stamen” refers to the male generative organ of a flower, it marks the (male) reader addressed by the text; call this the Freudian reading, in which to have a male body seems inseparable from complicity in the orangutan's gendered violence. But the first meaning, now obsolete, indicates the warp thread in a loom; and through familiar paths (loom, weaving, text), we arrive at the stamen as the narrative thread running throughout Poe's text. The story's overdetermined treatment of heads and bodies, words and things, analysis and its effects, implies the close association of the origins of narrative with the discovery of sexual difference, though it is impossible to tell which came first. Instead of reinforcing an evolutionary hierarchy that would separate us from our simian relations, the cryptographic narrative structure of “Rue Morgue” acts to remind us of our corporeal investment: through the story's enacted rhetoric, the reader lives out the distance between the tale's opening metaphor and its closing one—between the simile comparing analysis and the strong man's pleasure, which safely separates its terms even as it joins them, and the metaphor of the stamen, which reveals the degree to which the reader, too, finds himself hopelessly entangled.


  1. It is a cliché of detective-fiction criticism that its most avid readers are professionals distinguished for their own analytic abilities—doctors, lawyers, and the like. W. H. Auden, one remembers, was a compulsive reader of detective fiction, as is failed Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork, who consumes at least one a day.

  2. The deception is accomplished by thrusting “a stiff piece of whalebone” down the throat of the corpse and doubling it over in the wine cask, so that it springs up when released. As for Mr. Shuttleworthy's impressive accusation, the narrator “confidently depended upon [his] ventriloquial abilities” (Poe 1984b, 742).

  3. “It is not a situation comprising words that becomes repressed; the words are not dragged into repression by a situation. Rather, the words themselves, expressing desire, are deemed to be generators of a situation that must be avoided and voided retroactively” (Abraham and Torok 1986, 20). For hints of a cryptonymic reading of Poe's writing, see Riddel 1979.

  4. Webster's New Twentieth-Century Dictionary, s.v. “analysis.”

  5. I use the male pronoun as a way of recognizing how extremely “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” genders its readers. While it would be profitable to investigate how the female reader locates herself in Poe's text, I am concerned here to elucidate the dominant assumptions of the genre, which begins with this story.

  6. For a collection of eighteenth-century treatments of feral children, see Malson 1972, which includes Jean Itard's famous treatment of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Shattuck 1980 offers a detailed but dull interpretation of Itard's work. The idea of a criminal orangutan was not original to Poe: Peithman records that Poe “very likely saw an article, ‘New Mode of Thieving,’ in the Annual Register for 1834 … which tells of an ‘extraordinary burglary’ in which a woman entering her bedroom is attacked by a ‘Monkey (or a Ribbed-face Baboon) which threw her down, and placing his feet upon her breast, held her pinned firmly to the ground.’” The animal, it turns out, belonged to “itinerant showmen” from whom it had “been let loose for the sake of plundering” (Poe 1981a, 196-97).

  7. Cuvier actually boasted about the superiority of his method to that of the detective: “This single track therefore tells the observer about the kind of teeth; the kind of jaws, the haunches, the shoulder, and the pelvis of the animal which has passed: it is more certain evidence than all of Zadig's clues” (Coleman 1964, 102). Voltaire's novel is typically cited as the source for the detective's method, in the inferential reasoning by which three brothers perfectly describe a horse they have not seen, relying only on the circumstantial traces that remained.

  8. Foucault suggests the intellectual ties between Dupin and Cuvier by using a quotation from Schlegel: “the structure or comparative grammar of languages furnishes as certain a key of their genealogy as the study of comparative anatomy has done to the loftiest branch of natural science” (Foucault 1973, 280).

  9. Sedgwick's emphasis on male homosocial desire initially seems like a promising way of reading Poe's detective stories, which manifest many of the gendered conventions—including the doubling of criminal and detective, the detective's social and physical alienation, and the violence directed against female bodies—that have long characterized crime fiction. Yet Poe's homosocial pairs keep turning into repetitions of a single self (Dupin and the narrator, Dupin and Minister D—, D—and his imagined brother), without the triangulation of difference needed to set sexual desire in play. On the Gothic and male homosociality, see Sedgwick 1985, 83-117.

  10. Reacting against this type of tropic determination, Geoffrey Hartman warns critics not to move too quickly from rhetorical analysis to narrative significance: “The detective story structure—strong beginnings and endings and a deceptively rich, counterfeit, ‘excludable’ middle—resembles almost too much that of symbol or trope. Yet the recent temptation of linguistic theorists to collapse narrative structure into this or that kind of metaphoricity becomes counterproductive if it remains blind to the writer's very struggle to outwit the epileptic Word” (Hartman 1975, 214). Hartman's caution is well taken, but the meaning of the detective story's rhetorical form lies primarily in its somatic effects on the reader, and not in its unsustainable claims to revelation.

  11. Attempting to imitate its master, Humphreys's animal accidentally cuts its own throat (Poe 1981a, 197). Poe habitually associates hair, the sexualized body, and violence. The first thing discovered at the crime scene are “thick tresses—very thick tresses—of grey human hair … torn out by the roots,” “perhaps half a million of hairs at a time” (Poe 1984b, 422); and Marie Rogêt's jilted paramour identifies her body by stroking her arms to see if they have her characteristically luxuriant hair.

  12. Webster's New Twentieth-Century Dictionary, s.v. “stamen.”

David Leverenz (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Leverenz, David. “Poe and Gentry Virginia.” In The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, pp. 210-36. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Leverenz situates Poe within the Southern literary tradition.]

Allen Tate's remarkable 1949 essay, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” defines Poe as southern not only for his high sense of a writer's calling but because Poe understood better than anyone else that the modern world was going straight to hell, or to the bourgeois, commodifying North. For Tate, a culture not controlled by leisured gentlemen means Dante's Inferno, which Poe rewrites: a disintegration from reason and community into machine-like, alienated egotisms of the will, vampiric women, and cravings for sensations. Tate mournfully concludes, however, that Poe lacked the stylistic and moral control to be a true southern gentleman. His “early classical education and a Christian upbringing” (49) simply did not stick.

Recent southern critics have been considerably more sensitive to the patriarchal and racist idealizations in such elegizing of gentry traditions. They tend to locate Poe's southernness paradoxically and peripherally, in his marginality to gentry status. Louis Rubin links Poe's characteristic vitality of the “beleaguered intellect” to his less than legitimate status as an orphan in the home of John Allan, who himself felt alien to the Tidewater gentry and unappreciated by his wealthy uncle, William Galt. In the five years in which Allan was trying to make his mark in England, for instance, Poe was boarded out from the age of seven. His guardian also made it clear that the boy was not to be treated as a member of the family.1 Others have made cases for Poe's southernness through his conservative, antidemocratic values. As Stuart Levine has summed them up, Poe was “a reactionary, a snob, and a racist” (Levine 1990, xxx).

Yet Tate's sense of Poe as a kind of demonic, premodernist visionary, at best a marginal or negative southerner, still holds. G. R. Thompson puts the problem succinctly: “Poe is the antebellum South's one original writer, and he is the one writer whose Southernness is suspect” (Thompson 1988, 264). Except for three glancing allusions, Richard Gray leaves Poe out of Writing the South, a mute testimony to Poe's flight from regional entrapment.2 Resolutely antiprovincial in nearly every literary way, Poe spent most of his professional life moving from northern city to northern city, vainly seeking capital and cultural authority to edit an elite, five-dollar magazine for civilized gentlemen, in the spirit of Tate's ideal.3

The deconstructive and ideological turns of the past twenty years invite us to read Poe's southernness more thoroughly. This essay argues that Poe was more than a marginal visionary, and that the southern ideal of the gentleman plays a crucial role in his writings as well as in his life. Poe's mix of claustrophobic Gothicism, arcane reasoning, and cosmopolitan satire both exaggerates and undermines the gentry fictions of a doubly dependent postcolonial region. On the productive periphery of the emerging capitalist North, the South also produced tobacco and cotton for the world's capitalist center, in London. There John Allan came close to bankruptcy, much as William Byrd II had failed to make his London mark almost two hundred years earlier. Allan returned to inhabit the compensatory fiction that Byrd had helped establish: a paradoxical self-image of the gentleman in the provinces, proud yet touchy, cool yet combative, masterful yet keenly defensive about any slights to his honor.

In Imagined Communities, an influential study of the interplay between colonialism and nationalism, Benedict Anderson suggests that “tropical Gothic” is enabled by metropolitan capital, and further, that racism is a way to “play aristocrat off center court.” He goes so far as to say that colonialism invented racism, as a fallback strategy to establish and maintain dominance within provincial dependence (1983, 137, 139).4 Throughout the South, racism and slavery allowed white English emigrants to foster an Anglophilic social fiction of imitative pseudoaristocracy for squires and would-be squires, and to preserve that fiction in amber against historical change.

William Byrd II helped make Virginia the apex of the pseudoaristocracy's hegemonic arch. After his return from London in 1726, he turned life at his home at Westover into his ideal of what a planter's life in the provinces should be. Witty, urbane, civic-minded, he wrote his History of the Dividing Line in large part for his London friends; it was not published until 1841. Yet as Kenneth Lockridge suggests, Byrd also strove to adopt “a rigid, almost unbending set of poses” defined in part by his struggles at the margins of London's high society. His coded diary became his secret mirror to reassure him that every day, in every way, he did what gentlemen do. Not only his 179,000 acres, from which Richmond and Petersburg were created, but also his public persona as the classic Virginia patriarch secured his position at the top of the provincial gentry hierarchy, despite his enormous debts. When John Allan suddenly inherited his uncle's riches, saving him from ruin, Allan also inherited three large estates: Lower Byrd, Little Byrd, and Big Byrd.5

Poe inhabits and undermines gentry fictions of mastery, not least by exposing the gentleman as a fiction. Typically, he displays cultivated narrators unable to master themselves. An “imp” seems bent on their destruction, as if self-directed malevolence rather than socially virtuous benevolence constituted the “sixth sense” of Scottish moral philosophy. Or Poe celebrates masterful intellects, such as Dupin or himself, who keep resentments at bay with their powers to transcend subjectivity through mental mirroring. Poe's narratives exaggerate gentry contradictions, especially the double imperatives of cool reasoning and impulsive bravado. His tales do not simply shame gentlemen of honor; he constructs, then deconstructs, their private lives, by transgressing the great social divide between public displays of mastery and an inwardness felt as alien to oneself. Arabesques of public leisure become grotesque enslavements to obsession. Finally, Poe plays with gentry specters of a debased capitalist future to put his own indulgent yet satiric spin on nostalgia for an idealized aristocracy. He is especially keen to make textuality itself the source for true aristocracy, a status to which only his genius can pretend.

In so doing, Poe gives an American twist to the mode that Michael McKeon has labeled “extreme skepticism.” To simplify the neo-Marxist argument of McKeon's Origins of the English Novel, the rise of the novel reflects and mediates the rise to domination of class and individualism as social categories of self-perception. Capitalist dynamics challenged traditions of status that emphasized deference, kinship, and lineage. To apply McKeon across the Atlantic a hundred years later, Poe expressed “the untenably negative midpoint between these two opposed positions” (1987, 118-19).6 Poe negates a progressive ideology of individualism by emptying out the meaningfulness of the self as a social construct. He exposes subjectivity as a collage of derivative literary conventions and a chaos of senseless, self-destructive desires. Simultaneously, Poe negates the regressively prescriptive idealizations of the public man of honor animating Allen Tate's critique yet another century later.

To advance these arguments, I have divided my essay into four parts. The first discusses Poe's life in relation to gentry fictions and contradictions, with a look at reductive northern readings of Poe and the South. The second part considers Poe's playful textuality as his version of true aristocracy. Here I touch on “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Pierre Bourdieu. In the third part, I apply my reading of gentry dynamics to a more full-scale reading of “The Man of the Crowd,” with some attention to the Dupin stories and “The Cask of Amontillado.” At the end, using “Hop-Frog,” I consider Poe as a gentry trickster.


In the late fall and early winter of 1828-29, the Virginia legislature held a constitutional convention to consider the overrepresentation of Tidewater and Piedmont gentry in state politics. Resentful yeoman delegates from the West argued for representation based on the white male population, while plantation gentry delegates from the East argued that representation should also be based on property, including slaves. As the Tidewater delegates declared with special intensity, the gentry on larger plantations feared that more equal representation would slowly shift power westward. Then the great tradition of gentry leadership, symbolized by the presence of the aged James Monroe as nominal presider and James Madison as chair of the key committee, would come to an end.

John Randolph, who probably served as one of the models for Roderick Usher, delivered the climactic gentry speech. Randolph, a delicate, even effeminate man who liked to ride in an old-fashioned English coach drawn by four English Thoroughbreds, affirmed his class consciousness as clearly as the yeoman delegates voiced their class resentments. “I am an aristocrat,” he liked to say. “I love liberty. I hate equality.” His speech warned that stripping the gentry of privileged property status would sound the “tocsin of civil war” (Freehling 1982, 63-64). Randolph meant class war, in Virginia.

Despite Randolph's ominous invocations of Armageddon, the gentry's case for mixed-base representation lost, twice, forty-nine to forty-seven. Finally the gentry salvaged a compromise apportionment based on a favorable 1820 census, after a more progressive motion to use subsequent census reports had been defeated by a tie vote, forty-eight to forty-eight. The final vote was still a cliff-hanger: fifty to forty-six (ibid., 65-69, 70-78).

In Alison Freehling's account of these debates, Drift toward Dissolution, the rhetoric of the convention delegates exposes three or perhaps four Virginias: the empowered eastern gentry from Tidewater and Piedmont; the resentful artisans, farmers, and mechanics of the West; and the more heterogeneous mix in the valley, spilling over into the Piedmont region, including Richmond, the capital, right on the fall line between Piedmont and Tidewater. In Richmond, Poe's hometown and still not much more than a town, these political tensions were exacerbated by other tensions between two kinds of gentry: the old plantation elite, and newer Scottish merchants such as John Allan who were challenging the elite for economic dominance.

After Nat Turner's south Tidewater revolt in August 1831, another special legislative session was held. It ought to surprise northerners, as it did this Yankee, to learn that a great many delegates favored “expedient abolition,” including Thomas Jefferson's grandson and (behind the scenes) governor John Floyd. Not one delegate declared slavery to be a positive good, though many eastern delegates proclaimed slavery indispensable to the gentry way of life. If the Virginia House had been apportioned on the 1830 census, Alison Freehling concludes, the overwhelming proabolition sentiment from the West would have brought the final tally within one vote of success. As it was, the vote was seventy-three to fifty-eight, East defeating West. Everyone agreed that abolition and the recolonization of free blacks and slaves to Liberia should be fully explored. When Jefferson's grandson was subsequently reelected, though only by ninety-five votes, this champion of abolition acknowledged that his support had come primarily from the “poorer” whites sympathetic to his unflinching position against slavery (Freehling 1982, 123-65, 201, 260-62).

In both legislative sessions, the eastern Virginia gentry seemed on the verge of losing a class war, yet preserved their power handily. The dreams of colonization soon failed; the western part of the state eventually seceded in 1861 to become West Virginia. In Southern Capitalists, Laurence Shore argues that again and again the gentry found ways to absorb assaults and justify its right to rule. Part of the gentry's success came from its ability to promulgate an Anglophilic fiction of leisured honor, a fiction masking often conflicting merchant, plantation, and yeoman interests.7 It preserved the power of perhaps a twentieth of the adult white men by encouraging other white men to feel mastery over women and African Americans. Slavery gave the gentry ample time to jockey for status, while racism gave status to every white who was not a slaveholder.8 In a still broader sense, slavery helped preserve habits of stratification and deference against the growing pressures of class consciousness and entrepreneurial individualism.

By 1830 the code was clear. Any man who owned ten or more slaves and a hundred or more acres of land—the slaves were considerably more important to the title of “master”—could aspire to gentry status. Any man with more than twenty slaves had secured his position as a gentleman. To rise higher up the ladder built on that floor of natural and human property, a man had to display his status publicly, particularly through rituals of virility: “Fighting, horse racing, gambling, swearing, drinking, and wenching,” as Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes young men's mutual testing (Wyatt-Brown 1982, 164).9 At the same time, a man had to embody a persona of cool, dispassionate, civic-minded reasonableness.

It was not simply a matter of conscious role-playing and masquerading, Wyatt-Brown argues, that made southerners so famously touchy about their virility. Southern men lived their code of honor as a constant test of manhood (Wyatt-Brown 1982, 35). In the North, normative middle- and upper-class families forsook the rod to internalize self-control through conscience and guilt. Virginia gentry families encouraged contentious acting out, with shame, not guilt, as the mediating agent for social control. It did not draw much comment when a professor at the University of Virginia was hit with a slingshot by a student who then tried to bite off the teacher's thumb. During one of the riots in the school's first year, 1825—Poe enrolled the next year—a student tossed a bottle filled with urine through a professor's window.10 Nose pulling among adult males was an instantaneous invitation to a duel. In Poe's short story “The Business Man,” a shyster narrator signals his plunge toward dishonor by mentioning that he tried and failed to get someone to pull his nose. The exceptionally large-nosed narrator of “Lionizing” loses his duel for prestige to a baron with no nose at all—which meant it could not be pulled.11

Incipient class conflicts and diffuse social tensions could be subsumed in this ideology of patriarchal, hierarchical honor, with its contradictory dynamics of deference and strutting, dignified gentility and combative competitiveness. Steven M. Stowe details the intricate dance of decorum and insults that led to the death of Hawthorne's friend, Representative Jonathan Cilley, in an 1838 duel (1987, 38-49). It was a resolutely public decorum, as Stowe emphasizes, and a derivative one as well, since it explicitly upgraded the English squire to lordly status with a variety of classical models for civic conduct. George Washington invented himself as that remote, dollar-bill facade by emulating his text for true virtue, Joseph Addison's Cato. Addison's play, which he probably read rather than saw, depicts a heroic Roman who mastered all personal passions to achieve lasting honor through dedication to public duty. Such assiduous self-fashioning to prepare a man for civic leadership depends on burying unpresentable feelings “living in the tomb” (Poe 1984b, 98) of self-mastery, much as the social hierarchy stifled potential challenges from slaves, women, or men with creative imaginations.12

In his life, Poe frequently adopted the poses of the southern gentleman and his alienated intellectual double, the Byronic poet, often to near parodic excess. At the University of Virginia, the most expensive school in the nation, his extravagant aping of gentry manners ran up at least two thousand dollars in debts in just one year. As Kenneth Silverman's biography displays, Poe also vacillated among the contradictory expectations of gentry roles. He could be charming and courtly with the ladies, including female poets; a bantam cock in contending with his male literary peers; a dandy wearing abstruse learning on his fastidious sleeve; a heavy if intermittent drinker. Only in his seemingly asexual relations with women, including his sisterly wife (appropriately named “Virginia”), did Poe fail to comply with the basic model set by William Byrd so long ago, and present near at hand in John Allan's illegitimate twins. Otherwise Poe loved to brag about his physical prowess, emulating Byron's swimming feats and sometimes inflating his remarkable running broad jump of twenty feet six inches at the university (Silverman 1991, 30, 123, 197, 332).13

Not infrequently, Poe conspicuously lost self-control. He prompted at least two fistfights, and launched a full-scale libel suit after the second one, when two men impugned his virility in print. One said Poe was an impotent coward, a forger, and a plagiarist who could not hold his liquor and reneged on his debts. The other published a parodic “Literati” sketch describing Poe as “about 5 feet 1 or two inches, perhaps 2 inches and a half,” instead of his actual five feet eight inches (Silverman 1991, 93, 289-91, 307-15, 327-28). For any southern man attuned to honor and reputation, these were fighting words.

Michael Allen has emphasized Poe's “acquired Southern values and haughty temperament” as one of his key strategies to secure aristocratic status for gentleman poets (1969, 201). Poe's journalism also fed the market's avidity for fighting words.14 As Poe confidently told the first magazine publisher who employed him, Virginians thought they wanted “simplicity” but really enjoyed what the English magazines supplied: sensational subjects in a heightened style (Silverman 1991, 101). Poe's Eurocentric role as a cosmopolitan man of letters rather than provincial apologist seemed grossly ungentlemanly, especially to the writers he gored. His “tomahawking” reviews lacked southern courtesy, tact, or generosity, William Gilmore Simms tried to tell Poe ten years after receiving one of the tomahawks (Rubin 1989, 131). Yet Virginia gentry contradictions impelled his choice of weapons in his fight to fulfill his enormous desire for a high-status literary reputation. In creating “sensations” through his pugnacious reviews, Poe acted the adolescent Hotspur, while his otherworldly poems presented him as a Byronic southern Hamlet.

From a distance, the contradictions and derivativeness in Poe's behavior seem less striking than the childishness. This too was conventional. One of Emerson's most supercilious journal entries records his response to a young “snippersnapper” from the South who “demolished me” in public (Emerson 1982, 170). The southerner, he vengefully mused on 8 October 1837, is “a spoiled child … a mere parader. … They are mere bladders of conceit. … Their question respecting any man is like a Seminole's, How can he fight? In this country, we ask, What can he do? His pugnacity is all they prize, in man, dog, or turkey.” Emerson's comparisons reduce the southerner to a child, an Indian, a turkey, or just hot air, filling “bladders of conceit.”15

Venting his own conceits on southern heads restores Emerson's dignity. More subtly, his sense of North-South power relations emerges through clashing ideals of manliness, as Emerson's most telling phrase, “In this country,” intimates. The phrase sets two postcolonial regions on a collision course. Yet New England, or “we,” represents the only true country. We have men who do and talk, not children who fight and parade. New England has “civil educated … human” adults, Emerson says elsewhere in the entry; southerners act like Indian braves and barnyard brats. In later journal meditations, Emerson sometimes worries that the southern politician's “personality” and “fire” will dominate northerners in Washington (Emerson 1982, 411). At bottom, however, he has the calm of an absentee landlord. As he wrote in May-June, 1846, if the southerner “is cool & insolent” while northerners “are to tame,” “it is because we own you, and are very tender of our mortgages, which cover all your property” (ibid., 358).

Emerson's landlord presumption helps explain Poe's vitriolic attacks on the Boston literati, especially Longfellow. Repeatedly asserting his public “personality” with “fire,” Poe accuses Longfellow of gross plagiarism as well as bad writing. In the context of Emerson's entry, the controversy dramatizes two regional codes for the gentleman. On the Virginia side, an ambitious, insecure provincial aggressively lords it over his big-city betters. On the Massachusetts side, both Emerson and Longfellow attempt to respond with a studied calm, at least in public. One of the most astonishing moments in Silverman's biography comes after Poe's death, when Longfellow actually visits Poe's beloved mother-in-law, “Muddy” Clemm, tells her that Poe had been the greatest man living, and invites her to visit him in Cambridge, which she does.16 Longfellow's generosity went far beyond Emerson's public serenity and private snottiness.

Emerson's South-baiting anticipates a recurrent note in criticism of Poe's work: a thinly disguised critical disdain for the writer's poses and posturings. Harold Bloom all but accuses Poe of being unmanly: he “fathered precisely nothing” (1985, 5), and his criticism was right only about silly women writers, for whom he was “a true match” (ibid., 12). These innuendoes buttress Bloom's claim that, like others in the South, Poe preferred “the Abyss” to the strong Emersonian self (ibid., 11). Such snide strictures about unmanly behavior and weak writing miss Poe's exaggerations of gentry postures. Bloom's New England mode of high seriousness about the self also misses Poe's profoundly skeptical play with social fictions of self-making. What Bloom calls the Abyss needs to be historicized rather than dismissed.

A complementary New England tradition searches for the presence of secret guilt in Poe's writings. In the late 1950s, for instance, Harry Levin first suggested that Poe displaced concerns about slavery onto blackness, and that “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be read as an allegory of feudal plantation culture in its death throes (1958, 160). The latter still seems right. One could expand Levin's insight, using Rhys Isaac's Transformation of Virginia, since the web-work of fungi defining both Roderick's house and Roderick's hair parallels the gentry's fashionable display of twining vines on their plantations, modeled on English country houses (1982, 35-39). Even so, the sociological allegory remains just what Daniel Hoffman says it is: a “ripple of meaning” (1972, 315-16), more tangential than primary to the hyperliterary vortex that disorients the narrator's senses.

Psychoanalytic investigations of incest have yielded at last to more sophisticated explorations of Poe's mourning for lost mothering. But postabolitionist expectations of hidden gentry guilt about slavery continue to shape northern attitudes to the South as well as to Poe. I was first disabused of the presumption of such guilt when reading a diary entry written by a young Englishman who visited a Virginia plantation in the 1780s. Robert Hunter's day began with Montesquieu, then tea, then fun with friends. At the end of the day, “we supped en famille, played some tricks at cards, gave the Negroes an electrical shock, and went to bed at eleven” (May 1976, 136).

Faced with moments like that, modern democratic certainties about slavery and guilt falter. Various of Poe's writings reflect a pervasive gentry opinion that humans with black skins were less than human, though other tales, such as “The Man that Was Used Up” or “The Gold Bug,” can be read more ironically at the gentry's expense. Critics who have read a great many southern diaries report with some wonder that slaves and free black people are rarely mentioned, even in passing.17 If Poe's scrabbling, marginal life intermittently imitates gentry codes of behavior, his fictions put his culture's greater fictions at risk.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain inflates a cultural insight as well as the power of writers when he blames Sir Walter Scott for having caused the Civil War (Twain 1980, chaps. 40, 46). Scott's model of medieval chivalry provided only one of many sources for the gentlemanly roles encouraged by the Anglophilic fiction of patriarchal honor. George Washington might read Cato, and James Madison might read Roman histories, but when the Virginia squires turned antisocial enough to read at all, they were most likely to pick up Tom Jones.18 Most members of the gentry lived the fictions they rarely read. After learning to read his culture, Poe shifted the ground and raised the stakes for the game of being a provincial gentleman.


Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction can help situate Poe's writings in their post-aristocratic context, beyond dismissive Yankee dichotomies of childish versus adult, play versus high seriousness, Abyss versus self. Bourdieu's presumption that court society persisted in the Parisian haute bourgeoisie of the 1960s has considerably more applicability to antebellum Virginia than to the contemporary United States. In a postaristocratic society, he argues, “cultural capital” secures and conveys the highest social status. Aesthetic aptitude “rigorously distinguishes the different classes” (1984, 40) by dividing the naive from the sophisticated. Aesthetic detachment brings distinction: “a distant, self-assured relation to the world” (ibid., 56).

Bourdieu's emphasis on the uses of cultural capital to gain social distinction seems to have almost nothing to say about the flagrantly anti-intellectual behavior of many members of the antebellum southern gentry. As William Gilmore Simms memorably concluded, being a southern intellectual was as rewarding as “drawing water in a sieve” (Faust 1977, 148). Despite the examples of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and others, cultural capital flowed more from cock fighting than from the writing of poems. To apply Bourdieu's principles is to expose the pseudoaristocratic norms generating the South's postaristocratic stratification. Beginning with his youthful pose as a Byronic poet, Poe sought relatively conventional ways of aggrandizing his marginal status through cultural capital, or at least literary image making, much as Simms and other intellectuals invoked Byronic genius to exaggerate their feelings of exile and dislocation. Only Poe, however, took a decisive step beyond provincial conventions of cultural capital, by making textuality itself the source of true aristocracy.

One of Bourdieu's most provocative passages illuminates the sheer sport accompanying Poe's textual poses. “The petit bourgeois do not know how to play the game of culture as a game. They take culture too seriously to go in for bluff or imposture or even for the distance and casualness which show true familiarity.” Because such people anxiously identify cultural capital with the accumulation of knowledge, Bourdieu continues, “they cannot suspect the irresponsible self-assurance, the insolent off-handedness and even the hidden dishonesty presupposed by the merest page of an inspired essay on philosophy, art or literature. Self-made men, they cannot have the familiar relation to culture which authorizes the liberties and audacities of those who are linked to it by birth” (1984, 330-31).19

If we transpose these observations from fact to wish-fulfillment, we have the right context in which to explain a wide range of Poe's literary styles, from his plagiarisms to his critical panache to his fascination with style itself. His claims for beauty and aesthetic purity against the New England heresies of the didactic and the moral exalt abstracted intellectual control to an invulnerably elite status, beyond any taint of subjectivity or bourgeois values. Poe's intellectual audacities and insolent irresponsibilities authorize the rebirth of his family romance, much as the narrator of “Ligeia” invokes “Romance” to preside over his first marriage, which gave him both upward mobility and the adoration of a learned, passionate parent-spouse. No longer one who was born in Boston of disreputable parents in the theater, Poe uses his offhanded familiarity with European cultural capital to leap beyond the Virginia squirearchy. Using textuality as capital, he transforms mourning and marginality into the kind of cultural play that signifies aristocratic status.

One can see this, for instance, in Poe's intellectual strutting, the leisured glitter of high-culture allusions unmaking their meanings. From Mallarmé and Baudelaire to Derrida and Lacan, Poe has been cherished in France for just what normatively American readers—even expatriates such as James and Eliot—try to reduce to adolescent posturing: his hoaxie-Poe trickeries, his melodramas of intellectual excess, the mind games. Poe fuses the bogus with the serious. His moments of maximum horror are also moments of maximum literary artifice. “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without The Door!” (Poe 1984b, 335). Capital letters—a typographical frisson as well as a cry. “Madman”—a more startling surprise, since mad Roderick now accuses the commonsensical narrator of having lost his sense. But “without the door”?

The meanings surge in, to be sure. The “tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne” prefigured in Roderick's rhapsodic poem about “monarch Thought” (ibid., 326) culminates in a further confusion of “his” and “her,” as Madeline falls “heavily inward upon the person of her brother” (ibid., 335). In this Gothic plantation house, being a (male) “person” depends not only on property and patriarchal lineage, but also on internal doors that divide honor and reason from passions and the body. In Roderick's poem, a “throng” of forces (ibid., 327) imagined as lower class and chaotic overwhelms the house of the rational mind from within. Now the assault returns as the still more intimate threat of a dead-undead sister who falls inward on the dichotomies that have constructed some persons and dispossessed others. Madeline's body, too, has lost its “door,” suggesting both coffin and hymen, and further implying incest. Yet “without” sounds ridiculously hyperliterary, as if Roderick had become spellbound by the “Mad Trist.” The climactic moment's linguistic posturing undercuts its Hawthornean proliferation of meanings.20 The horror builds on a pun; the pun trumpets textuality.

What Poe exposes in such moments, and they are legion, is a sudden Lacanian estrangement from words themselves. The reader's mind—like the narrator's—has been reduced to an infant's cribbed gazing, as if the endless incomprehensibility of big people's overly big words buzzes about a vacuum of staring. Poe does not make readers feel adult, the way Hawthorne and Emerson can do. Instead of offering complex self-reflexiveness, Poe builds to disorienting theatrics of helplessness or mastery, in which language itself becomes alien and theatrical. In Louis A. Renza's fine phrase, Poe's stories are “self-distracting artifacts” (Renza 1985, 82).

If the pleasure in aesthetic detachment consists of “refined games for refined players,” as Bourdieu puts it (1984, 499), Poe's erudition ostensibly intensifies the sense of “membership and exclusion” on which distinction depends.21 Yet his texts grossly flirt with the vulgar. His gentlemen come to look like apes and criminals. Although the elevated style of Poe's narratives keeps lay readers at a respectful distance, just as Bourdieu says it should do in Language and Symbolic Power (1991, 152-53), the narratives undercut their own philosophical dignity by employing excessive artifice as well as grotesquely shameful characters. Not by accident has Poe's work become most honored in France, the greatest postaristocratic residuum in the Western world. Poe's theatrics of horror also circulate as mass-market cultural capital. Contemporary opposition between “high” and “vulgar” uses of Poe can be historicized as a dynamic embedded in his own uses of aristocracy, toward the end of the long historical moment that challenged the social constructions legitimating aristocracy as the ultimate symbol of high status.

For Poe and the gentry, aristocracy signifies an idealized realm dislocated from specific social contexts. Like Romance, it functions as what Michael McKeon calls an antithetical simple abstraction, used to elevate high culture above history. If the romance of the gentleman displaces a yearning for high metropolitan status, its theatricality signals self-consciousness about social conventions that were beginning to seem more alien than natural (McKeon 1987, 45-46, 168-89). Unlike the gentry's chivalric posturings, Poe's aristocratic textuality intimates not simply a muted inauthenticity but its own self-destruction.

In the opening paragraph of “Ligeia,” for instance, Poe flamboyantly transfers aristocratic status from property, lineage, and kinship to a world elsewhere in the pure textuality of Romance. The narrator declares his transcendent mastery of cultural capital by not being able to remember any details that linked his adored first wife to the world, not even her paternal name. He recalls the full name, place, and kin of his despised second wife, “Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine,” without effort. In subverting the traditional underpinnings of aristocracy, Poe exalts his narrator's conception of true aristocracy as abstractly textual. Like Roderick Usher, the world's first abstract expressionist painter, Poe's narrator implies that the highest status can come only from an art of aesthetic detachment, with no sordid connections to family, money, bodies, or social status.

Yet “Ligeia” becomes a story about inheritance, property, and various kinds of “will”: Ligeia's will to resist and conquer death; Ligeia's will bequeathing vast riches to a narrator seemingly above such concerns; the will of faceless, spiritless Rowena's family, who “permitted” their daughter to marry him “through thirst of gold” (Poe 1984b, 270). Most undecidably, the hidden will of the antipatriarchal narrator may have led him to the ultimate patriarchal act of killing one or both wives. Cynthia Jordan suggests that the narrator may have willed Ligeia's death and carried it out, the act being hidden from his consciousness as well as his narrative (1989, 135-39).22 One need not go that far to see that the narrator deconstructs as well as dishonors his own subjectivity. He presents himself first as an antipatrilineal exaltation of childish dependence on textuality, personified as Mother Wisdom, then as two incompatible versions of possessed destructiveness: a drugged, hallucinating murderer, or a medium for a demonic woman's will. In either case, the narrator has been reduced to a craving for two black eyes.

“The essential Poe fable,” writes Michael Davitt Bell, “is a tale of compulsive self-murder” (1980, 99). Placing Poe's dramas of self-murder in their gentry context highlights Poe's transgression of the gendered border between public and private life. In the vortex of Poe's yearning skepticism about aristocratic status, female self-empowerment becomes an alien signifier for contradictory psychological and social meanings: uncontrollable passions, and uncontrollable patriarchal decay. Poe's tales of self-murder expose gentlemen in private, often doing and being done to by women, whose bodies if not voices struggle to be felt at the tales' destructive centers. “Berenice, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Ligeia” can be read not only as allegories of the male psyche's attempts to confront the inward female, but as deconstructions of how antebellum gentry culture produced the categories of “gentleman” and “lady” along with its production of the more starkly binary opposition, “black” and “white.”


My argument implies the paradox that we can tease out Poe's historicity more fruitfully through the seemingly ahistorical linguistic pleasures celebrated in Poe's long-running French connection than through an analysis of his conscious southern values, his unconscious childhood or social guilts, or his indirect dramatizations of master-slave issues. As a self-made aristocrat, Poe uses textuality to improve his status while subverting the meanings of status stratification. Poe's best tales invite an undecidable doubleness of interpretation, pointing simultaneously to idealized gentry traditions of aristocratic contemplation and demonized mass-market conditions for literary production.

Four stories from the early and mid-1840s illustrate Poe's making and unmaking of gentry meanings. “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Purloined Letter” (1845), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) each dramatize a gentleman down on his luck, who sees a modern urban world threatening the hierarchies on which he depends for social status. Each man tries to resurrect his sense of mastery, or self-respect, with what amounts to a solo duel. A displaced clash between northern and southern values frames the success or failure of each duel. Or rather, the stories present the northern future as versions of Allen Tate's myth of the Fall into a rootless chaos of mobile urban masses avid for sensations. Perhaps not surprisingly, most modern critics read these stories—especially “The Man of the Crowd”—forward into 42nd Street, not backward into gentry Virginia.

The first half of “The Man of the Crowd,” as almost every critic has noted, presents what seems “a stable hierarchy” of descending social types, all “based on an aristocratic set of assumptions,” in Jonathan Auerbach's words (1989, 28).23 The narrator begins as a conventional man of the Enlightenment, classifying “the tumultuous sea of human heads” outside his coffeehouse window with “abstract and generalizing” observations (Poe 1984b, 389). Soon he “descended to details,” in order to produce a hierarchy of types. His first two groups set the standard for “the decent,” or what he later calls “gentility.” Strangely, his details disorient the stability of the hierarchy he thinks he asserts.

The first large group “had a satisfied business-like demeanor,” the narrator summarizes. Yet “their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly,” whenever they felt pushed. Nevertheless, showing “no symptom of impatience,” they “adjusted their clothes and hurried on.” To say “symptom” rather than “sign” implies that any sign of feeling, especially annoyance, betokens disease and disorder. Even at the top of the social hierarchy, bodies betray what adjusted clothes conceal, while a “business-like demeanor” belies gentility (Poe 1984b, 389).

The second large group of “the decent” intensifies the tension between bodies and self-control. These people seemed “restless,” with “flushed faces,” “muttering” and redoubling “their gesticulations” when the crowd impeded them. They bowed “profusely” when jostled, “and appeared overwhelmed with confusion.” Having said all that, the narrator finds “nothing very distinctive about these two large classes.” Their clothes enable him to blend “two classes” into one class: “Their habiliments belonged to that order which is pointedly termed the decent” (ibid.).

Already contradictions abound. Two hierarchized groups, or classes, are really one class; men who have businesslike self-control also have bodies out of control; the narrator defines them as the standard, yet those who represent the standard have “nothing very distinctive” about them; decent clothes stabilize perception, yet behavior seems on the edge of both hotheadedness and excessive deference. Moreover, the word habiliments implies a dressing up for public display, as if looking decent requires a facade.

Next he undermines the division he has tried to reestablish. “They were undoubtedly noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers—the Eupatrids and the commonplaces of society—men of leisure and men actively engaged in affairs of their own—conducting business upon their own responsibility. They did not greatly excite my attention.” A finely tuned, five-rank hierarchy briefly supplants the two groups. Clearly “noblemen” are at the top, while “stock-jobbers” and “tradesmen” are at the bottom. But where do “merchants” and “attorneys” go? Where did John Allan fit, in London? With “Eupatrids,” or with “commonplaces”?

Eventually, the dichotomy between “leisure” and “business” all but disappears. At least, the narrator forces a paradox: only leisured noblemen and Eupatrids truly exhibit “a satisfied business-like demeanor.” The actual men of business, from merchants on down, look increasingly unsatisfied and anxious. On the other hand, even stock-jobbers threaten the edge of true gentility. No wonder all this bores him; to analyze it would be to expose gentility as both normative and nonexistent.

The narrator has already described himself in doubled terms, as a leisured gentleman at his coffeehouse, recovering from illness, on the edge between ennui and happiness, pain and pleasure, looking at “two dense and continuous tides of population.” Now he has come close to emptying out his simplifying dichotomies. Worse, he also implies that only clothes can be “read” without contradiction. His act of reading, and only his act of reading, makes gentility seem stable and commanding. At the top, not one person he sees inhabits that category without ambiguity, either between clothes and body movements or between business and leisure. The narrator's reading of types shows him not only imposing an uninhabited yet hegemonic social abstraction, the ideal gentleman, but reinventing the fiction with greater and greater assurance as his types deviate from his imagined norm.

Such ambiguities characterize a pseudoaristocrat, in terms close to those used in Richard Gray's history of the gentleman-planter ideal in early Virginia. As “a compound of gracious feudal patriarch and bluff English squire,” the planters were “always primarily businessmen” and “entrepreneurs,” yet “anxious to assume the trappings of an aristocracy.” In the early nineteenth century, those who sought to inhabit that contradictory, imported ideal were “a conscious and declining minority,” as the two constitutional conventions in Richmond signify (Gray 1986, 9, 12-13, 23). The narrator's assessment of London's two standard-bearing groups expresses tensions in Virginia, not only in status ranking and class conflict but among hotheadedness, deference, and respectability.

Two more Virginia gentry tensions intensify as the narrator describes London's lower orders. First, he scorns the ungenteel, yet relishes their attempts at upward mobility. Second, he shows inordinate contempt for men who work with their hands, while he defines women who work as prostitutes in the making. Significantly, the words “gentility,” “gentlemen,” and “gentry” do not appear except as stabilizing fictions of scheming aspiration for the hopelessly deviant. On “the scale of what is termed gentility” (Poe 1984b, 391), various groups display “idiosyncratic” efforts to “be mistaken for gentlemen.” Junior clerks who “wore the cast-off graces of the gentry,” and senior clerks with the “affectation of respectability” (ibid., 390), struggle without success to measure up. Further down the scale, the narrator comfortably calls pickpockets “these gentry,” and gamblers “gentlemen who live by their wits” (ibid.). Their fraudulence licenses his mocking labels while subtly exposing the cultural fiction.

Then come “Jew pedlars,” street beggars, invalids, and at last, women, all of whom work: “modest young girls returning from long and late labor,” who shrink “more tearfully than indignantly” from presumably leering and lustful men. The girls' lack of anger signals their coerced, sexualized future in the world's oldest profession, already paraded by “women of the town … [their] interior[s] filled with filth,” and the “paint-begrimmed beldame,” no better than an “utterly lost leper in rags” (ibid., 391). Women who use their bodies for money—what worse violation of patriarchal protectiveness could there be?

Only one type is in fact lower on the narrator's scale: white men who work with their hands. Here Virginia gentry values become most manifest, diverging strikingly from urban class consciousness. Subhumans—that is, slaves or animals—should do physical labor. But the narrator sees a disorienting profusion of workers, none of whom seems to have the slightest regard for gentility: “pie-men, porters, coal-heavers, sweeps; organ-grinders, monkey-exhibitors and ballad-mongers, those who vended with those who sang; ragged artizans and exhausted laborers of every description, and all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye.” What would excite Walt Whitman, romantic “artizans” who sell and sing, makes the narrator feel depersonalized—“the ear,” “the eye”—as well as “jarred” and aching, pushed against by the crowd for the first time, through his glass window. “As the night deepened,” and the crowd's “harsher” features displaced the “gentler” and “more orderly portion of the people,” he felt almost enslaved by “wild” light upon blackness: “All was dark yet splendid—as that ebony” of Tertullian's; it all “enchained me … to the glass” (Poe 1984b, 392).

“To work industriously and steadily, especially under directions from another man,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted in 1861 in The Cotton Kingdom, “is, in the Southern tongue, to ‘work like a nigger’” (1984, 19). William Byrd II anticipated the danger of this attitude in a 1736 letter: slaves “blow up the pride and ruin the industry of our white people, who, seeing a rank of poor creatures below them, detest work for fear it should make them look like slaves” (Simpson 1989). Not surprisingly, then, Poe's narrator brings closure to his list of social types by sliding from manual labor down to blackness. As Olmsted later pointed out, members of the Virginia gentry typically denied their immigrant origins as indentured servants, “tinker and tailor, poacher and pickpocket.” Lacking true “manners” and “lineage,” most wealthy planters struck him as more “ridiculously” pretentious than Fifth Avenue's “newly rich … absurdly ostentatious in entertainment, and extravagant in the purchase of notoriety” (1984, 562-63). While Olmsted's assessment exudes an Emersonian scorn at the edges, Poe's narrator confirms the young traveler's sense of the inauthenticity of the gentry.24

A progressive reading of “The Man of the Crowd” could build an incipient class conflict here. Only the workers reject upward mobility toward the culture's hegemonic fiction of “the decent” as a mode of self-definition, and only the workers teem with vital, singing, romanticized life. Threatened into individuality and class consciousness by such a spectacle, so the argument could run, Poe's narrator experiences “a craving desire” to keep in view the strange old man who embodies the now “wild” extremes of the crowd, as if class conflict could be avoided by reading the man's compounded energy. But the story quickly abandons workers to their “temples of Intemperance” (Poe 1984b, 396). The old man's unreadable idiosyncrasy prefigures urban anomie, not class war. Wearing dirty yet beautifully textured linen, hiding a diamond and a dagger, anomalous to every category yet rushing from aloneness, the old man reduces progressive readings of individuality and class to a spectacle of unresolvable contradictions. He, too, is a self without subjectivity.

To the narrator, the old man represents something much more unsettling than one of the urban homeless produced and abandoned by capitalist dynamics. As the narrator's double, the old man represents the contradictions already half-voiced at the generative center of the gentry hierarchy. In provincial Virginia, the display of face and clothes required not only a collective fiction of gentry honor and shaming rituals, but also an envious, imitative group of white men below the elite, a petty bourgeoisie of clerks, schemers, and frauds, as the narrator contemptuously describes their urban equivalent. Otherwise, the gentry's pseudoaristocratic pretensions would lose cultural legitimacy.

Finally, the narrator's traditional status orientation blocks his ability to read “crime” in the modern way, as individual guilt. Rather, the narrator defines crime as a refusal to be alone. The old man's wild behavior continually animates yet empties out progressive and regressive readings of his motives, because his mobility seems neither downward nor upward, but rather a simple and continuous desire to belong to a group, any group. At the interface between two comprehensive, antagonistic modes of social knowing, the old man comes to represent the narrator's own fear of solitary individuality.

Trying to regain interpretive mastery, the narrator conflates the old gentry role of duelist with the new lower-class role of gumshoe detective, unwittingly mirroring the contradictory mix of diamond and dagger in the old man's clothes. His self-stabilizing abstraction of gentility disappears in his increasingly frenzied bodily behavior, just as the opening details about him anticipate. The narrator ends in the doubled place of the title figure, on the other side of the glass. Moreover, he all but dares genteel readers to “read” either man of the crowd better than he can, by proclaiming at the beginning and the end that his story “does not permit itself to be read.” As the readers puzzle themselves about that, he tauntingly solicits their own craving to fend off their self-deconstruction.

What Auerbach nicely calls Poe's characteristically disembodied first-person self that lacks a self (1989, 21) also fits M. Dupin, whose interpretive mastery depends on his ability to empty out his subjectivity and make his mind exactly congruent with that of his opponent. Sociologically, Dupin seems ripe for intense status anxiety. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” introduces him as a “young gentleman” who “had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world” (Poe 1984b, 400). Where conventional gentlemen would feel humiliated and vengeful, Dupin merely uses his small “patrimony” to live as a leisured, bookish gentleman, drawing the narrator into a world of his own. Soon, however, he becomes “enamored of the Night,” with her “sable divinity.” The pliable narrator yields to Dupin's “wild whims,” much as the loyal friend of Roderick Usher feels insensibly caught up. The two men “counterfeit” the night by day in their “grotesque mansion,” and then walk the streets in “true Darkness” to seek an “infinity of mental excitement” (ibid., 401). If the night is a black, beautiful woman, then out of wild womanly blackness, like an uncanny womb, comes Dupin's analytic vitality.

As Jordan points out, Dupin's receptivity to androgynous images gives him mental resources beyond those of conventionally socialized people (1989, 145-49). When he was at the highest pitch of observation, Dupin seemed “a double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent.” He became “frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression”; his voice, usually “a rich tenor” though with an oddly “low chuckling laugh,” sometimes “rose into a treble,” and he looked at ordinary men as if they “wore windows in their bosoms.” His doubled or emptied subjectivity gives Dupin the ability to reconstruct the behavior of orangutans, or outfox men of genius.

The argument for Dupin as an androgynous figure can be joined with John Irwin's analysis of Dupin as a “fallen aristocrat” (Irwin 1992, 205).25 In my reading, he taps alternative, subversive sources of intellectual power in blackness and femaleness only when those qualities have been abstracted and textualized. A contemporary critical tendency to dichotomize these moments in Poe as a struggle between masculine and feminine modes needs to be situated more particularly in relation to the antebellum gentry's construction of gender and racial dichotomies. Dupin appropriates blackness and womanly night not to attack masculinity but to remasculinize his mental powers as a gentleman of leisure, in a world that disempowered that gentry role. Transforming marginality into intellectual mastery, Dupin becomes the letter and spirit of pure reasoning, with just a touch of revenge.

At the climax of the second tale, the armchair gentleman defeats his unwitting double and adversary, Minister “D—,” by substituting a “letter,” to the book-length delight of Lacanian and Derridean critics. Dupin's success depends on his ability to be a poet and mathematician, a mirror for the minister's mind, and a duelist without the minister's knowledge. As in “The Man of the Crowd,” a gentleman seeks to read, which is to say master, a character at the center of social dynamics, either urban life or court politics. Unlike the earlier story's narrator, Dupin triumphs, with no less than a gunshot. The musket's explosion not only lures the minister to the window, enabling Dupin to substitute his letter, but also signals the symbolic culmination of the “solo duel.” In patiently waiting to avenge himself for an insult long forgotten by his dupe, Dupin fulfills gentry expectations about honor and shame. At the same time, as if to reverse Irwin's ingenious explication of “low-to-high” associations in the tale, Dupin debases ritualistic dueling to the level of mobocracy on the streets. Moreover, the musket proves “to have been without ball” (Poe 1984b, 697).

“The Cask of Amontillado” similarly turns on a duelist, one with a more ambiguously successful revenge. Though the story is displaced to Renaissance Italy, Montresor's grievances reflect gentry tensions between old and new money, subsumed in a rhetoric of honor. Like Dupin, Montresor has borne the “thousand injuries of Fortunato” with suppressed resentment. Then a nameless “insult” spurs Montresor to plan revenge (ibid., 848). Luring his unwitting antagonist by asking whether a wine is genuine or fraudulent, Montresor describes Fortunato as a successful social fraud, like the new men who have merely “adopted” enthusiasm about wine in order “to practice imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires” (ibid.). Yet Fortunato cannot quite be reduced to such a category, at least in wines. “In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack,” presumably practicing his arts on rich foreigners. But “in the matter of old wines he was sincere.” Wearing carnival “motley,” with “a tight-fitting parti-striped dress” and “conical cap and bells” (ibid.). Fortunato fits all modern convivial occasions, as a man of “fortune” should, yet with motley ties to the old aristocratic order.

Montresor lives on the edge of his social category, but not by choice. Like Dupin, he is a fallen aristocrat, barely able to hold on to his palazzo; unlike Dupin, his dignity lies only in his past. His sense of the cultural insult to his position slowly emerges in his dialogue with Fortunato, as Montresor entices him deeper and deeper into the palazzo's wine cellar. “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter” (ibid., 850). Fortunato drinks “to the buried that repose around us”; Montresor drinks, with several kinds of irony, “to your long life,” while noting that the Montresors “were a great and numerous family” (ibid.).

Then comes a dramatic moment that encapsulates the clash between old and new money in nineteenth-century Virginia gentry terms. Fortunato drank, and “threw the bottle upward with a gesticulation I did not understand.” He repeated the “grotesque” movement, clearly surprised. “You do not comprehend?” It is a secret sign of “the brotherhood.” Still Montresor did not comprehend. “You are not of the masons.” “Yes, yes,” Montresor responds, and with one of Poe's most infamous puns, he produces a trowel.

The simple irony is that Montresor will as an artisan mason use the trowel to wall up Fortunato, burying him alive. The complex social irony exposes Montresor as bewildered by the new rituals solidifying male bonds and alleviating tensions in the power elite. Montresor's revenge against Fortunato avenges the outsider status of old money, displaced by men who wear urban motley and deal in international finance.

Psychologically, one could build a strong Oedipal reading from John Allan having been a Mason (Silverman 1991, 13). Sociologically, the growth of the Masons in American urban centers began to take off in the 1830s and 1840s, reaching its golden age after the Civil War. Literarily, as Silverman argues, the story takes Poe's revenge for the “thousand” insults the writer had endured at the hands of reviewers (ibid., 316-18). Ideologically, Montresor's trowel could represent an idealized union of gentry and artisan values now threatened by a new world of mobile fakes and fortune hunters.

That fourfold allegorical reading, however, depends on readerly sympathy for Montresor. At the end, the revenge preserves the allegories while emptying out subjective coherence on both sides of the wall. As Montresor began to place the last stone, he heard “a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato” (Poe 1984b, 853). Previous screams and clanking chains, eerily evoking slavery, had made Montresor hesitate, then redouble his strength. Soon disparate sounds became not-Fortunato, subsiding to an absence of voice, “only a jingling of the bells.” The narrator's “heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so” (Poe 1984b, 854).

Then he reinforced not only the wall but the social allegory: “Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones” (ibid.). If Montresor's “re-erected rampart” subdues not only the “new masonry” elite but also his “erected hairs,” it does so by walling up his own heart and burying himself in the past, with the “old bones” of his ancestors. Stripped of subjectivity, Montresor's family bones parallel Fortunato's disintegration into sounds, then silence. Montresor's last line—“In pace requiescat!”—wishes R.I.P. to himself as well, in a dead language.


Poe fails at longer narratives, whether philosophical or fictional, especially in his arbitrary plotting of The Voyage of Arthur Gordon Pym—a story that only critics relish, for what they can do with it. His emptying out of “character” into detached intellectual mastery or passionate self-destruction cannot generate momentum in a longer genre. What can be riveting or shocking in the short story seems nihilistic and capricious in the novel. Faced with incipient bourgeois expectations for linear narratives about the social and moral education of complex selves, Poe presents a new aristocracy, one of intellects without subjectivity, or an old aristocracy that uses reason to be sensationally unreasonable. Yet Poe also toys with gentry expectations of status hierarchy by teasing out the unstable fictionality of gentry self-constructions. Not even textuality can sustain his cultural elitism for long.

Poe's contradictory mix of textual aristocracy and falling aristocrats puts regressive and progressive stabilizations of subjectivity into linguistic difficulty. To return to McKeon's analysis of “extreme skepticism,” the postcolonial elite with which Poe consciously affiliated himself tried to fend off the social dynamics at stake a century earlier in England by preserving its status hierarchy through the institutions of rural household patriarchy and slavery. In Michael Allen's summary, Poe grew up “in a South that was extending an aristocratic code from the original Virginia gentry to the whole region to consolidate it against Northern pretensions” (1969, 133). British sources and models were crucial to the consolidation. On the edge between northern journalist and southern gentleman, Poe exaggerated the honor and dishonor of the cultivated mind at leisure, a distinctive role enabled by slavery and urged by southern intellectual reformers as the height of social aspiration. Although he shared their delusive dreams of elitist intellectual community, Poe's more profound hopes for aristocracy lay with the gentleman-genius, ultimately a club with one person as member.

Poe's ideal gentleman, as Allen astutely observes, should be a reader, not a writer, since writers have to work with their hands. But Poe's definition of such a gentleman insists on a circular fictionality. For him, “gentlemen of elegant leisure” are those “who can live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman” (ibid., 192). Poe's language itself bears a redundant “port” and “charge,” intimating contradictory imperatives: a genius needs an audience of gentlemen, yet writers forsake that status; elegant leisure requires a strenuous charade. These tensions also characterize his skepticism, which continuously veers toward solipsistic grandiosity, then settles back to a kind of transcendent despair that his mind has nothing authentically in common with any order of empirical or fictional validation. McKeon's argument for extreme skepticism as a double reversal, parodically undermining both romance idealism and naive empiricism, complements Joan Dayan's analysis of Poe's linguistic despair, and Stanley Cavell's suggestion that Poe's skepticism betrays his need for love and his fear of being loved.26

Historicizing Poe's skepticism need not diminish its force. In a prize-winning essay, Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that the southern “Sambo” figure plays a role common to all honor-shame cultures: the shameless trickster. Sambo's mimicry of his unpredictable master acts as a signifying mirror for the “patriarchal, male-dominated, honor-obsessed” pecking order (Wyatt-Brown 1988, 1246).27 To extend Wyatt-Brown's argument, such mirroring becomes a central mode in Poe's narratives, with a difference: he mimics mastery in decline. Honoring and undermining gentry constructions of social identity, Poe's textuality also subverts its own aggrandized aristocratic status. In effect, he plays a trickster role at the alienated margin of gentry culture.

In Poe's hypertextualized world, his fictions invite a skeptical indeterminacy collapsing the southern past and the northern future. More accessibly to us, he satirizes emerging mass-market culture, already filled with readers like the crass king in “Hop-Frog” (1849), who shouts to his trickster-jester, “We want characters—characters, man—something novel—out of the way.” “Capital!” roars King Audience, when Hop-Frog suggests a game that will turn them into chained orangutans; “I will make a man of you” (Poe 1984b, 904). In sending up these capitalist constructions of manliness and individuality, Poe simultaneously plays with gentry constructions of master-slave relations. By the end of the story, after Hop-Frog grinds his “fang-like teeth” above the masters he has tarred and torched, the trickster becomes a monstrous yet uninterpretable absence. His low-to-high exit through the roof leaves behind eight blackened bodies, whose undecidable identities fuse southern pretenders with northern philistines.

The vengeful allegorizing here, as in “The Cask of Amontillado,” bespeaks Poe's writerly rage. It may well be, as Silverman surmises, that Poe's desperate last years drove his final stories into obsessive revenge plots, as if high literary status could be gained only through overkill (1991, 405-7, 316-18). Yet Hop-Frog's trickster escape can stand as a metaphor for Poe's extreme skepticism. While upending idealized southern aristocracy, Poe's fictions depict a world without gentlemen as a descent into Allen Tate's rootless, urban hell. More precisely, trapped between a phantom gentry culture and the mechanistic demands of urban capitalism, gentlemen-narrators discover that their own poses are as nightmarish as the vulgarian scrambling that has contaminated their world.28

“The glory of the Ancient Dominion is in a fainting—is in a dying condition,” Poe wrote in 1835 (Hovey 1987, 347). By the mid-1840s, his fiction not only deconstructed idealized British models of the gentleman but dramatized the clash of the gentry hierarchy with capitalist dynamics. On the margin of gentry culture, Poe played with his culture's greater historical marginality. Once he had read the gentry as a hegemonic yet beleaguered fiction, he mourned for the postcolonial dreams of aristocracy that he resurrected for himself with textuality. Sensing that his master had two masters, Old and New England, the white Sambo-trickster aped and emptied out his pseudomaster's meanings.


  1. On Allan and Galt, see Silverman 1991, 12, 27-28; on Allan as foster father and businessman, 9-28. On Poe's marginality, see Rubin 1989, 148-53; on Poe's Byronic poses, 177-78.

  2. Gray atones for the omission with “‘I Am a Virginian,’” arguing that Poe adopts various southern personae as well as expressing “profoundly conservative” southern values (1987, 190).

  3. On Poe's dreams of an elite magazine, see Silverman 1991, 101-2, 175-76, 408-11); see also Allen 1969.

  4. In American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan argues that racism “absorbed in Virginia the fear and contempt that men in England, whether Whig or Tory, monarchist or republican, felt for the inarticulate lower classes,” making a rhetoric of liberty and equality possible “by lumping Indians, mulattoes, and Negroes in a single pariah class.” This process “paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters in a single master class” (1975, 386).

  5. On Allan, see Silverman 1991, 20-22, 27-28; on Byrd, see Lockridge 1987, 46, 51; on Byrd as the embodiment of the ideal gentleman, see Gray 1986, chap. 1.

  6. On extreme skepticism, see McKeon 1987, 114-19; on the destabilization of social categories, 162-69. McKeon's most prominent English example of extreme skepticism is the third Earl of Shaftesbury. While others have found Shaftesbury more morally coherent than McKeon's analysis of his “indirect discourse of self-conscious and parodic impersonation” implies (118-19), McKeon's historicizing of indeterminacy applies not only to many elements in Swift but also to Poe. At the end, McKeon polemically asserts that extreme skepticism also characterizes contemporary poststructuralism, perhaps with similarly historicizable dynamics (420-21).

  7. Other useful studies on gentry leadership and contradictions in Virginia include Breen 1980, esp. chap. 8, on gentry uses of social rituals such as horse racing and gambling, and chap. 9, emphasizing the gentry's “hustler” or entrepreneurial side. Isaac 1982 usefully highlights the gentry's attentiveness to rank and England, but overstates the case for “transformation” by arguing that evangelism and individualism established a competing value system as early as the 1750s. Siegel 1987 similarly argues for the uneasy coexistence of self-made, bourgeois men with gentry paternalism, an Isaac-like dichotomy that most historians see as part of gentry social construction.

  8. Kulikoff 1986 defines gentry and yeomen through the relative numbers of their slaves as well as their property holdings (9-13, 262-63, 421-23). As he notes, “perhaps a twentieth of the region's white men” were gentlemen, though half were yeomen, many owning a slave or two (262).

  9. See Stowe 1987 on the planter class's celebration of hierarchy, the close correspondence between self-esteem and social order, the public “showiness” in day-to-day life, and the divided gender worlds (5-49, 251-54).

  10. On raucous student behavior, see Faust 1977, 9-10; see also Silverman 1991, 31.

  11. On nose pulling, see Greenberg 1990, 71; the nose was a “sacred object,” the most visible symbol of honor that a man could publicly display. To pull it was to accuse him of lying (68).

  12. On Washington and Cato, see Meier 1989, 195-97.

  13. Silverman also says Poe's sexual relations with Virginia were “uncertain,” perhaps nonexistent (1991, 124), and that his flirtations with other women intimate not sexual desire but his need to be taken care of (282, 289-91, 371, 415). On Poe's student debts, see 32-34.

  14. Allen stresses Poe's “desire for British recognition” at least through 1842 (1969, 155), especially in his emulation of John Wilson's critical style. After 1845, Allen suggests, Poe found “a sense of public identity” linked more to his American mass audience than to Wilson (157).

  15. On 5 October 1837, Emerson notes how easily “little people … demolish me” while “a snippersnapper eats me whole” (1982, 170). His 8 October entry is probably his rejoinder to that experience. In Mind and the American Civil War, Simpson reads Emerson's 8 October entry as a reflection of New England scorn for the anti-intellectual South, without noting the previous slight (1989, 48-69). Simpson's analysis of New England nationalism complements my emphasis on contrasting ideals of manliness.

  16. On Longfellow's solicitude, see Silverman 1991, 438, 444; on Poe's attacks, 145-46, 234-37. Poe did praise Longfellow in a late public reading (385). Hovey argues, in a fine analysis, that Poe's attempt to free the South from northern thought was at the root of his attempt to free poetry from truth (1987, 349). Hovey also notes that Longfellow may well have retaliated in his novel, Kavanagh (1849), by parodying Poe in the character of a poet who poses as “a pyramid of mind on the dark desert of despair” (342).

  17. Stowe (1987, 253) notes “the almost complete absence of black people in white accounts of ritual and daily routine.” Faust (1977, 116) discusses five southern intellectuals, including Simms and James Hammond, who eventually turned to proslavery arguments to win recognition and respect after failing in other efforts to raise the status of intellectual work.

  18. Some years ago a Williamsburg tour guide mentioned that the book most frequently found on Virginia shelves during the late eighteenth century was Fielding's Tom Jones. That makes a striking regional contrast to the equivalent secular primacy of Pilgrim's Progress and Paradise Lost on New England shelves.

  19. Culture as “game” recurs throughout Distinction; on “the games of culture” as part of the “aesthetic disposition,” which “can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency,” see Bourdieu 1984, 54. The value of culture, Bourdieu argues, is generated through the struggle between highbrow and middlebrow, each dependent on the other (ibid., 250-54).

  20. Linck Johnson suggests that “without” may seem more archaic now, since Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary gives “on the outside of” as one of its standard meanings, along with “unless,” among others (personal communication). At the least, however, the word seems to call attention to Roderick's literary posing. See Cox 1968 for a thoughtful account of Poe's emphasis on excessive impersonations and literary posings.

  21. This passage emphasizes the implied yet denied aristocracy in the social game of taste: “the principle of the pleasure derived from those refined games for refined players lies, in the last analysis, in the denied experience of a social relationship of membership and exclusion. … The philosophical sense of distinction is another form of the visceral disgust at vulgarity which defines pure taste as an internalized social relationship” (Bourdieu 1984, 499-500).

  22. Jordan notes that the narrator cannot remember Ligeia's paternal name, yet accepts her patrimony. She argues that the story is a fight for narrative authority, which the narrator wins only by silencing Ligeia's story with murderous patriarchal language. Leland Person, in Aesthetic Headaches, reads “Ligeia” similarly as the struggle of a man “to define and control a woman” through language (1988, 30), but comes to an opposite conclusion: the woman wins the “battle of wills,” rendering the narrator's words impotent as “Ligeia resists objectification, death, and denial” (ibid., 32).

  23. Auerbach historicizes Poe primarily as a writer hostile to modernity and Jacksonian democracy (1989, 55-56, 125-26), as does Pease in Visionary Compacts (1987, 168-75); see also 199-202 on Poe's taking self-reliance to an extreme of sensational immediacy without personhood. See also Elbert (1991), who argues that Poe's personae alternate between Whig and Democrat modes. Rubin (1989, 138-39), citing Tate, also reads “The Man of the Crowd” in relation to the deracinating modern city, as do many others.

  24. Olmsted writes: “It is this habit of considering themselves of a privileged class, and of disdaining something which they think beneath them, that is deemed to be the chief blessing of slavery. It is termed ‘high tone,’ ‘high spirit,’ and is supposed to give great military advantages” (1984, 19). For Byrd's letter to the Earl of Egmont, see Simpson 1989, 20.

  25. Irwin also calls Poe a “fallen Virginia gentleman” (1992, 205), overstating Poe's childhood status. In “Horrid Laws,” Whalen teases out Dupin's progress in the three stories from an aristocrat to a professional who works for money (1992, 400).

  26. On the double reversal of romance idealism and naive empiricism in extreme skepticism, see McKeon 1987, 63-64. In Fables of Mind, Dayan calls Poe “a philosophical Calvinist” against the American grain, and links his skepticism to that of David Hume (1987, 6-7). She emphasizes Poe's conversion of identity from a philosophic to a linguistic difficulty (201), and writes of Poe's “despair with truth or fiction” (210). For Cavell, see his essay in this collection.

  27. To my knowledge, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is alone among recent southern historians in arguing that “patriarchy” as a term should be restricted to the Roman model, in which a husband could kill his wife, children, and slaves (1988, 63-64). She suggests “paternalism” instead; for an opposite argument that the role of gentleman “derived much of its content” as well as prestige “from the encompassing metaphor of patriarchy,” see Isaac 1982, 354-55.

  28. For this formulation I am indebted to T. Walter Herbert. For helpful readings of earlier drafts, I am indebted to Frederick Crews, Anne Goodwyn Jones, Linck Johnson, John Seelye, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and the editors of this volume.

John Bryant (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Bryant, John. “Poe's Ape of UnReason: Humor, Ritual, and Culture.” Nineteenth Century Literature 51, no. 1 (June 1996): 16-52.

[In the following essay, Bryant traces Poe's literary relationship to humor through short fiction and contrasts it with Herman Melville's comic attitude in The Confidence-Man.]

Poe's humor: the rubric seems to deny reality. To be sure, the writer knew how to use laughter throughout all of the varied genres of his canon: there is the hoaxing in “A Loss of Breath” and “Hans Pfaal,” the reduction to absurdity of penny-dreadful writing in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” the satire of village life in “The Devil in the Belfry,” and even the burlesquing of the detective story, his own invention, in “Thou Art the Man.” But these and other “Grotesques” are like inflictions upon readers. Nowhere in Poe do we find the good-natured, integrative, redemptive, or transcendent urgings of amiable humor that, for better or worse, gave humorists from Irving to Mark Twain a pattern for their aesthetic and rhetorical realignments.1 Poe's comic canon was for firing, not consoling. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville, he did not attempt any adaptations of traditional amiability onto American soil that might deepen the already too sentimental British form by teasing readers into walking the fragile boundaries of belief and doubt. Perhaps America's most relentless burlesquer, Poe stands alone among comic writers for his pointed lack of humor. So anomalous is he that critics trying to fit Poe into the mainstream of American humor might out of exasperation find themselves in the condition of the transplanted northern Italian police captain in the film Seduced and Abandoned, who in trying to deal with the absurdities of Sicilian life places his hat over the island on his map of Italy and smiles at the relief to all parties that such an erasure would bring. In American humor, Poe is our Sicily.

But I do not want to ignore Poe, for his resistance to a cultural discourse like humor enables us to clarify the dimensions of that discourse. Early-nineteenth-century Americans saw humor as a rhetorical strategy for coexisting with the conflicts inherent in democracy, a strategy that took the shape of a discourse between factionalist and cosmopolitan visions of the self and the republic; and they debated the strengths and weaknesses of this resolvent mode openly in their journals.2 From time to time, Poe formally entered this debate,3 but more tellingly he registered his quarrel with humor, often pathologically, in his fictions. Melville, in contrast, rather than denying humor's cultural dominance, attempted to redefine the nation's “sense of humor” by snaring readers into a more complex response to the comic. Unlike Poe, he generally eschews satire. What might be called satiric attacks in The Confidence-Man (1857), for instance, are deftly subsumed beneath a strain of amiability. As is often the case in the most pungent of satires, actual historical figures are not named.4 Instead, when satiric types are evoked (herb doctor, Indian hater, surly philanthropist, and so on), they operate amid circumstances that challenge the meaning and effectiveness of the type.5 They are given passions and thoughts that allow them to grow beyond typecasting; they become humanized, or rather “humorized.” Thus Melville creates something that is not quite allegorical satire, not quite realistic novel, but something of both, a kind of apologue.6

This formal humorizing of satire has its social function. By problematizing amiable humor, Melville could draw readers into the drama of America's conflicting factions and make them sense the humor of democratic give and take. The result was an aesthetic enactment of social and psychological ambiguities and hence a dramatization of the reader's political condition. For Melville's cohorts, humor enhanced reader involvement in ways that satire denied. Not only was satire politically ineffective; it was, like its cousin burlesque, a sign of political tyranny. As Young American William A. Jones (borrowing from Shaftesbury) put it, the inevitable comic by-product of despotism is the kind of burlesque that commedia del l'arte artists were constrained to adopt as a pale substitute for otherwise ill-advised and dangerously repercussive comic invective.7 The slapsticking of Pantalone and the amorous adventures of Harlequin masked satiric attacks on authorities that one dared not speak openly against; it was an obscurely parabolic masquerade of social suppression. The satiric content of such burlesque was so deeply encoded as to be unrecognizable; thus, audiences had no choice but to be confused or to submit to the inanity and allow themselves to be diverted from their oppression rather than engaged with it. Democracy, however, required the all-embracing free spirit of humor wherein differing factions and regional types mingled and fused into one cosmopolitan nation. For Jones the theatrical stage was the arena for this fusion; and humor was just the tonic for republican good health. The Confidence-Man—stagy, quasi-satiric, and semiburlesque yet amiable, regional, as well as cosmopolitan—was Melville's dramatization of Young America's take on the nation's discourse on humor. It was a way to “build up good.”8

This is not to say that Melville's ironies do not push the limits of humor. Even though his laughter is dark and his cosmopolite, Frank Goodman, is radically unstable, his novel is finally a work of humor largely because it worries so much about humor. For Melville there was no other functional comic mode worth pursuing. Thus, as Paul Brodtkorb, Jr., put it in remarking upon the “camp” straining at humor in The Confidence-Man: “it is the strain, not the humor, that amuses.”9

Poe, however, pushes the strain past humor altogether. His comic grotesqueries deny the resolvency of Melville's complex revisionings. Rather than transforming burlesque into democratizing dramas of political doubt and survival, Poe resurrects burlesque with his bizarrely cartoonish characters in order to expose the ignorance of the reader, as if the resort to this regressive comic form were in itself a sign of his oppression by the tyranny of the American mob. He strains to attack the very audience he might otherwise hope to convert. In consequence, the mean-spiritedness of his satiric intent seems rhetorically self-destructive and politically trivial: his satire is not simply dated; it is oddly disengaged from the nation's most critical problems. It is pointed elsewhere: at our inadequacy and, then again, at his own.

Those defending Poe's comic gifts have wisely steered clear of measuring them against an aesthetics of humor. Instead they have looked beyond the satiric impulses and invective to their play of irony as a route to transcendence. Thus, for G. R. Thompson, Poe rises above the strain; his laughter is “a controlled, and therefore skeptical, philosophical despair,” “a superior mind['s] transcend[ence of] the gloomy chaos of the world through artistic ironic detachment.”10 But while Thompson is correct in portraying Poe as America's chief Romantic ironist, that achievement is made at the expense of readers. Poe may aim at transcendent detachment, but invariably his self-abnegation builds off of audience annihilation.

Of course, one principal effect of Romantic irony is to destabilize readers, and as Anne K. Mellor shows, such destabilization is creative in that it can put readers into a condition of intellectual uncertainty that matches the world's “gloomy chaos” and thereby promote in us a morally positive (although continually deconstructive) transformation of self. It engages us in a more deeply felt sense of Being.11 This controlled compression of ironic thrust into something ontologically useful is, in fact, at the heart of the “humorizing” process, a movement away from satire. But Poe's Romantic irony is a pathological working-out of self-doubt that becomes a kind of unacknowledged shock therapy projected onto the reader. We are made to be the fool.

In general, Poe's satire does not transcend or even creatively deconstruct. Yet despite the strain, the burlesquing, and the refusal ever to seek the metaphysically redemptive, we do find a humorizing of his satiric intent in a trilogy of tales that takes us up to the moment of Poe's untimely death. Although varied in comic content and strategy, the three tales—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” and “Hop-Frog”—are linked by certain shared repressions and in particular by their use of a singularly odd image, the Ourang-Outang. How these “Ape Tales” operate as displacements of Poe's sexual anxiety onto his readers is only a part of what follows. Also at issue is how the misfit Poe thwarted the comic rituals and symbols of his culture—but even more compelling is that Poe allowed the inherent integrative focus of the rituals of humor and the symbolism of the Ape to bend him away from satire toward a self-exposing but self-redeeming sense of humor. To clarify this comic development, we need to map out the ways in which a culture's rituals, certain symbols, and an individual artist might interact or fuse, and how, in fact, humor works as a ritual.


We know a culture by the ways it laughs. Thus the study of the varied “ways” of laughter—humor, satire, and so on—is an anthropological as well as aesthetic imperative. That complex of social behaviors, individual talents, and historical events known as America is no exception. Indeed, this ever-emergent, always-in-crisis, perpetually unstable culture—where, as Hawthorne put it, “somebody is always at the drowning-point”—is (to borrow from Melville) like one “vast practical joke”; for, to add Emerson to this pile, American realities (suppression, inequity, loneliness, poverty) never measure up to the universal ideals its founding documents propose (Freedom, Equality, Individualism, Happiness).12 America is a fearful lacking, a Great Irony, a subject for laughter. Accordingly, if diverse America is always in disease, then laughter is its best cure, and the cure has taken contrary forms from tall-tale hoax to genial sitcom.

In Melville and Repose I characterized the discourse between such modes as a “comic debate”: the subversive audience “put down” of the “put on” that tests our gullibility versus the integrative engines of sentiment and domesticity cranking out love, acceptance, and social self-confidence. Here, though, I want to begin with the idea that these satiric and humorous sides of the debate are rituals, discrete behavior patterns linked to a larger, generally unstated ideology, or what Melville would have called “religion.” Satire is ritualized attack; humor is ritualized accommodation. Both are forms of communalizing play.13 The problem, however, is not in identifying the rituals so much as in finding a way to observe specific comic artists playing with the rituals. I stress “playing with” rather than “playing at” because the latter implies an unconscious acting-out of ritual—like a child jumping rope—whereas the former allows us to see an artist consciously (as well as unconsciously) adapting ritual to personal needs.

Of course, ritual is more replay than play. There is a drive in us to relive, through symbolic reenactment or even just reruns, those past and primal events that shape our being. Often such replays are confrontations and containments of mysteries both hopeful and horrendous: the mass celebrates the possibility of spiritual embodiment; reruns of the Challenger explosion give us death, over and over. Often, too, rituals provide comic release: ethnic jokes told and retold respond to or resist the tensions of cultural diversity; the parody on television's Seinfeld of the conclusion to the film Schindler's List—“I could have done more”—is (for television) a daring sacrilege replaying a replay of this century's worst abomination. Mark Twain catches the essence of the necessity for comic ritual when, in the Sherburn/Boggs episode in chapter 18 of Huckleberry Finn, he describes a street thespian reenacting all parts of Boggs's murder to the satisfaction of those who had just witnessed the event. It is solemn, it is ludicrous, it is inevitably human. Such comic rituals allow us to freeze, replay, control, and then store away otherwise irretrievable moments in our personal or collective pasts. Approaching the comic as ritual adds meaning to the cliché “sense of humor”; it is one person's evolving variations on, or replay of, one's self against the culture's larger system of beliefs.

Taking one's “sense” of humor not as eccentricity but as the replay of self-definition also effectively historicizes American humor. By integrating the particular aspirations of an individual talent and the universalized forces of culture, the idea of comedy as ritual allows us to hurdle the bugbear of “dated laughter”—the bane of any comic analysis—and determine the private and public mechanisms of humor, or, in short, to read humor historically.

Clifford Geertz is useful here. For him the tendency of anthropologists to “sh[y] away from cultural particularities” and embrace “bloodless universals” betrays an unhealthy “fear of historicism.”14 The study of ritual must account for not only such universalizing formulations as Adam Smith's “invisible hand” of economy or Jameson's “political unconsciousness” but also the “odd particularities” of individual human action. This is Geertz's pluralistic notion of “history”: it is anchored in “a concern with the particular, the circumstantial, the concrete, but a concern organized and directed in terms of the … theoretical analyses … of physical evolution, of the functioning of the nervous system, of social organization, of psychological process, [and] of cultural patterning” (“Impact,” p. 53). More specifically, humankind is “to be defined neither by [its] innate capacities alone … nor by [its] actual behaviors alone … but rather by the link between them, by the way in which the first is transformed into the second” (p. 52). The key to this linkage, he stresses, is in the “interplay” between ritual and performer: neither dance nor dancer, but certain dancings tied to a specific time and place. Put in comic terms, the rituals of humor and satire have no meaning for us—they are merely “dated”—unless historicized, unless we perceive them as an individual's performance or working-out of the culture's sense of humor.

Rituals may be oddly effective, as in the strange language of status voiced in a Balinese cockfight; or they may indicate the tensions of an evolving society, as in Geertz's other famous example, the breakdown of a Javanese funeral. For Geertz the measure of ritual's function or dysfunction is in the coordination of a culture's “worldview,” or general conception of reality (Self Nature World), and its “ethos,” or the people's time-bound attitude toward themselves (morality and aesthetics). The utility of ritual depends as well upon the participants' acceptance of mutually comprehensible symbols that adequately express the interrelationship of worldview and ethos. Moreover, cultural identity, like symbol, is a fusion of both.15 That is, one's identity is a fluidity shaped by the growing self-awareness of the perpetual discourse between generalized worldview and particularized ethos, between what ought to be in a culture and what is in the experience of that culture.

Like any culture in perpetual crisis, America continually wrestles to resolve the conflicts between the worldview and ethos that comprise it. The nation might acknowledge certain shared unities, for instance the concept of equality; and yet individual realities are shaped by diverse ethnicities so that the valorization of one group over another necessarily creates inequality. The individual is caught between the culture's unifying vision of Equal Selves (worldview) and one's particularizing experience of ethnic roots (ethos). Given this paradox, a unified national identity seems impossible to achieve, let alone ritualize. And while America's culture lacks such rigid, identity-making social structures as an established religion, it nevertheless has its rituals and symbols that imply the preexistence of social beliefs equivalent in a way to religion. Leo Marx's discussion of the symbol of the machine in the garden, for instance, presupposes a form of pastoralism (worldview) that for early Americans demonstrably operated like an acknowledged belief system in conflict with the power of an increasingly technological society (ethos). Here symbol encapsulates both the energies and the doubts of a transitional culture into an effective ritualized vision. On the other hand, today's tellingly humorless discourse on multiculturalism reveals an ideology still searching for usable rituals and symbols. At issue is our heterogeneous culture's need to settle upon analytical approaches that can explain, fuse, and facilitate the interactions of the people's separatist and integrationist visions. And accordingly, the search for a symbol (melting pot? mosaic? tapestry?) will remain equally uncertain until the problematics of unity and diversity (worldview and ethos) can be fused.

What Geertz finds in ideology, ritual, and symbol that is applicable to pastoralism and multiculturalism, both the functional and dysfunctional, applies equally well to the conditions of mind that intrigued antebellum writers like Melville and Poe. In a pronouncement on imaginative writing that prefigures Geertz, Melville wrote: “It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”16 By dressing up characters strangely, by putting them in unfamiliar situations, by confronting the “odd particularities” of life—a one-legged captain in search of a white whale might do—a writer can reach for the “Other World” of a culture's “worldview” and yet do so with the colorations of recognizable human responses or “ethos” to which writer and reader both feel tied. Johan Huizinga felt this too when he wrote that ritual as a form of play “transports the participants to another world” (Homo Ludens, p. 18). Of course, the kind of “fusion” or “synthesis” Melville attempts is fundamentally more Coleridgean than anachronistically Geertzian, but each shares the understanding that the social function of religion, ritual, fiction, and symbol lies not so much in that they preach a certain line (although they invariably do) but that they provide us with opportunities to live within those ideologies for a while, to try them out, and to measure ourselves with respect to them.

Melville brings humor explicitly into this chain of associations. In “Hawthorne and His Mosses” he remarks how his new friend is able to elevate laughter to a “religion of mirth,”17 which is to say that in plumbing dark realities and somehow bringing us back into light, Hawthorne's chiaroscuro humor engages readers in a fusion of the Actual and Ideal that Melville takes to be a defining attribute of both self and fiction. Hawthorne's “religion,” more than a “Puritanic gloom” (“Mosses,” p. 243), is a symbolic enactment of regenerative comic values, a ritual of humor, which neither blithely accepts the mysteries of being nor darkly rejects humanity but rather places readers in the position of having to contain both gloom and light within a single dynamic dualism. His “sense of humor” lies not so much in its duality as in its dynamism. More than a thematization of conflicting worldviews (the dark necessities of the past and the bright freedoms of the present), it is the fusing of the two (process rather than content). With this ritual of humor Hawthorne's readers become communicants in a process of aesthetic synthesis transferable to a social realm where typically such accommodations are rare.

Melville adopts his own “religion of mirth” in Moby-Dick. Ishmael's effusions read like sacred texts.18 And Stubb—“whose jollity is sometimes so curiously ambiguous, as to put all inferiors on their guard”—addresses his oarsmen “in a tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury” that his subtle fusions seem a “religion of rowing” (Moby-Dick, p. 219). But The Confidence-Man takes a different route; it is both an inversion and an extension of Hawthorne's “religion of mirth,” a kind of antiritual of humor in that it subverts the ritualized conventions of authorial reliability and yet in doing so manages to reach a deeper fulfillment of the ritual's communalizing social function. Here readers are denied the familiarizing, credible voice and stable ironies of traditional amiable narration. The novel's speaker is so distant as to be dysfunctional. And yet the strategy of this “comedy of thought … [and] action” (Confidence-Man, p. 71) is to play and replay the con games—little rituals of contact, surrender, commitment, and doubt—so that while traditional benevolism (thought) is virtually abandoned, the reader's ritualistic engagement in an experience of doubt (action) actually affirms as it enacts the processes of both confidence and doubt. The Confidence-Man is not so much an allegorical satire on benevolism as it is the creation of a new “sense of humor,” i.e. Melville's “genial misanthrop[y]” (Confidence-Man, pp. 176-77), which makes humor more practicable in an increasingly dysfunctional antebellum age. The strategy of Melville's antiritual of humor, then, is to erase the personable voice of geniality and to use narrative dysfunction to induce in a modern democratic readership a deeper functionality: we shall be transformed into better citizens for the meanderings of the text.19 The effect of this ritualized unreliability, or antiritual, is to create a reading experience that, as a symbolic enactment of the doubts one might confront amid the warring factions of politics, becomes the kind of “true delineation” or “map” to the “twistings of [a] town” to which Melville tentatively compares his novel (Confidence-Man, p. 71). For any author or nation in crisis—and both Melville and America in 1856 were facing crises—such complex symbolic acts as The Confidence-Man reinvigorate the social responsiveness of humor. To revisit Geertz on the cultural utility of art: “It is in country unfamiliar emotionally or topographically that one needs poems and road maps.”20 Or to recall similar advice from the annals of American humor: “It is always good to be shifty in a new country.”

Viewed anthropologically, humor (either as ritual or antiritual) responds to the communitarian need for an accommodation of a culture's conflicting or evolving ideologies. Seen rhetorically, it is that “sense” of this discourse that emerges from a particular writer's adaptation of the culture's expectations. It is a fusion of ethos and worldview embodied in symbol. The replay of Ishmael's wisdom in repeated cetological musings ritualizes his essentially comic response to metaphysical and political annihilation; one readily feels the oceanic undulations of his alternating Yea and Nay as ritualistic. On the other hand, but within the same frame of comic utility, there is also the antiritual of The Confidence-Man, where, through the agency of a detached narrator, the irresolvable conflict between benevolism and doubt becomes a useful social conditioning. Both senses of humor—exemplified in conventional ritual and unreliable antiritual—are finally redemptive in the integrative intent of their varied structures.

But, again, Poe has none of this. His commitment is to satire, which also has its ritual and antiritual. Gulliver's Travels, with its repeated voyagings, is a ritual of satire that affirms the reader's factional and ideological predispositions through a reliable voice confidently (but not ungraciously) set in attack mode. Swift's ability to rein in his attacks short of invective gave his satire added power, a lesson Irving learned in Salmagundi by balancing tolerant Evergreen against dyspeptic Langstaff. Satiric antiritual, on the other hand, is a kind of no-hold-barred hoaxing. Here a radically unreliable narrator turns the fiction against the reader. Such lambastings may confuse or infuriate audiences, but they may also be made to withstand the legpull in order to find a deeper social utility, as in Swift's well-known hoax “A Modest Proposal” or in such American tall tales as T. B. Thorpe's “Big Bear of Arkansas.” Poe's satire, however, outstrides the safe confines of ritual and even corrodes the shakier structurings of antiritual, his chosen comic form. For the peculiar thing about Poe's hoaxes is that many are so deeply encoded that we may not “get” the hoax at all. The best case of this, to which we shall soon turn, is “Rue Morgue” [“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”]. Here Poe's strategy is to annihilate his readers by submitting them to a hoax that they have no hope of unraveling. His silent victory is that we are made his fools, and yet we do not know it. That is how Apish we are. But if we do break Poe's codes we see the pathology of his concealments and his inability to fuse with audience and culture, to work fully within his comic (anti)ritualizing.

What makes Poe's “sense of satire” so alienated is what makes his “sense of humor” so bad. The cause lies in a radical disjuncture between his worldview and ethos, one that could not find adequate resolution in comic symbol. Like Melville, Poe acknowledges a Transcendental or neo-platonic “worldview” in which Beauty and Ideality are the touchstones of an existent, rational, but unreachable reality. But Poe's personal “ethos” (his ethical and aesthetic attitudes and behaviors) does not square with this metaphysical vision. For him the irrational (a human function intimately conjoined with sexuality) allows for a tentative spiritual connection to Beauty and Ideality, but that same irrationality, when manifested artistically in the grotesque or the imp of the perverse, debases or even denies regenerative human faculties. In his trilogy of Ape Tales, Poe replays the Ape image in order to clarify for himself, if not for his readers, the contradiction between personal ethos and cultural worldview. Significantly, the symbol he chose is itself radically unstable. And to grasp the instability of Poe's Ape of UnReason, we need to know America's attitude toward the Ape.


We love apes. If they display intelligence, then perhaps they have a soul; and if a soul, perhaps a moral sense. And if we share this much with them, perhaps we share more: the rapacious, appetitive, irrational, sexual drives repressed in us but impulsively performed in them. It is with an affection mixed with self-doubt that we stare at monkeys.

Not all apes are alike. The Ourang-Outang, or “Man of the Woods,” is so communal and educable that its manner resembles human behavior more than does any other simian's. According to a popularized edition of Buffon's Natural History (1749-88), “modernized” for Poe's generation, the Ourang-Outang or “Jocko” is “exactly like that of a man in all his proportions.”21 It walks upright, lives in hutches, and maintains, according to Buffon, an air of gravity and gentility unknown in other apes. Anecdotes record that it even possesses social skills: using napkin, fork, and spoon; showing “company to the door”; and walking “gravely with them, as if one of the society.” But in the forests they may be less civil: “if they happen to meet one of the human species, they show him no mercy. They even attack the elephant, which they beat with their clubs.” Buffon reports that one Ourang-Outang when refused service at table by cabin boys “flew into a passion, seized them by the arm, bit them, and kept them down.” Although these descriptions may be based more on theatrical performances of the day than fact, they are a reliable snapshot of the popular conception of the Ape in Poe's day. The added fascination with this animal is that Jocko fulfills our repressed desires.

The Ourang-Outang enjoyed a vogue among theatergoers of the 1840s and 1850s. One of the more popular “spectacles” of the New York stage was Jocko! the Brazilian Ape. Like most theatricals of the day, the production depended upon a sophisticated intermingling of pantomime, dance, acrobatics, and scenery. The Ravels, a troupe of Franco-American actors, were the rage at Niblo's Garden every summer in the early 1840s, and Jocko! was a mainstay. One of the company, the actor/acrobat Joseph Marzetti, played the ape so convincingly that he became identified with the role. Melville refers to Marzetti in The Confidence-Man when Pitch likens the Cosmopolitan to the “excellent” pantomimist who “plays the intelligent ape till he seems it” (p. 132). Surely Poe knew of Marzetti's performance,22 and his readers could not fail to connect his murderous Ourang-Outang in “Rue Morgue” with Jocko.

Only playbills for Jocko! survive, but they describe the action sufficiently to give us a hint of the Ape's tantalizingly ambivalent character. A “GROTESQUE” pet and “THE MONKEY that has SEEN THE WORLD,” he participates at one point in a “March of Intellect,” performs “Wonderful Feats,” hangs himself by the neck, partakes of “European food,” and saves a few orphans in a shipwreck before he dies. Jocko apes the good citizen. He is the hero of liberal democracy: the ugly Ur-commoner of the New World seeking national self-worth and international acceptance through demonstrations of worldly sophistication. Moreover, the ape's heroism transcends the silly squabbles of political factions at home. This “grotesque” man of the woods is in fact a primal version of the comic Backwoodsman whose bluff manner and native intelligence unite to save the nation. But what disturbs Melville about both Marzetti (a.k.a. Jocko) and his own fictional “citizen of the world” (a.k.a. Frank Goodman) is the “naturalness” with which such “an immortal spirit [can] enter into that of a monkey” (Confidence-Man, p. 132). Our fascination with the Ourang-Outang is not that it exemplifies the fine line between man and beast or that it mimics humanity but that we can become it.

Poe felt that, too. Fascinated by the rhetorical and aesthetic potentials of the Ape, he replayed the image in various keys. He inverted the symbol, making it in “Tarr and Fether” a vehicle of attack against the primal democratic hero of the woods, but in doing so he allowed the figure to turn against himself. This satiric antiritual evolved with “Hop-Frog” into a personal ritual of self-exposure that transforms satire into humor. In trying to make a monkey out of his readers Poe got that very monkey on his back, but for the Humorist that monkey was his saving grace. The seeds of this comic growth were planted in seemingly unlikely soil: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe's first and most familiar Ape Tale.

On the surface, “Rue Morgue” is hardly comic. With its initial essayistic gambit that establishes Dupin's character and the laborious ratiocination of murder that follows, it is cherished as one of Poe's more serious works and the forerunner of modern detective fiction. Dupin is not the kind of amiable eccentric or amusing crank we find in Doyle or Christie. “A diseased intelligence,” he is as humorless as the Ape with which he comes to identify himself.23 The submerged, though fundamental, satiric content of the tale lies in that it is really a hoax. As with its structural cousin the tall tale, the comic function of a literary hoax is to challenge the reader's gullibility and acuity, both of which are measured in terms of how quickly the reader “catches on” to the lie or absurdity buried in the text. In testing our analytical skills, the hoax performs an additional ethical function in exercising and thereby ritualistically reinforcing what Poe calls “that moral activity which disentangles” (“Rue Morgue,” p. 528). The laughter comes when we untangle what the unreliable narrator has tangled for us—if, that is, the author plays fair in allowing us to participate in the unraveling.

But in “Rue Morgue” Poe never plays fair. He conspires so effectively to conceal his hoax that we fail to catch on; we are not allowed to “disentangle”; the ritualizing does not work. “Rue Morgue” is a dysfunctional antiritual of satire, an unreliable narrative that attacks readers but does little to clarify their condition because they never really know that they are being attacked. It is a dupin(g) of the reader that is concealed primarily for the gratification of the perpetrator, Poe. What is revealing here is the energy Poe puts into keeping his hoax covered up and his readers disempowered and divorced from the regenerative act of “disentangling.” It is the energy of an intensely private, sexual repression that in later Ape Tales manages more openly to collide with the public and political associations of Jocko but that here is kept sedulously under wraps.

In the tale's opening section Poe sets us up to believe that Dupin's strong imaginative faculties are inherently analytical and rational. But the sting in this con game is that when it comes to solving the crime, Dupin merely concocts the “air of tuition” (“Rue Morgue,” p. 528) rather than performs an act of imaginative reasoning (see Melville and Repose, pp. 90-95). It is all a hoax. The first clue he finds and “disentangle[s]” from the clutches of Madame L'Esplanaye's corpse is a tuft of Ape hair (“Rue Morgue,” p. 558), which if revealed on the spot would solve the murder instantly and without ratiocination: the killer is an Ape. But Dupin hides this prima facie evidence. He keeps it from us and the maligned Inspector Vidocq, who might have had a chance to solve the murders if Dupin had not removed the Ape hair from the murder scene (an act that legally implicates Dupin as an accomplice to the crime itself).

Readers, too, are kept from this fact until Dupin is ready to lay out the not-so-astonishing solution at the end. Indeed, through the patient “Watson” of a narrator trying to keep pace with Dupin, we are actually led astray. In putting together the available facts, the narrator argues that the murderer must be a madman “escaped from a neighboring Maison de Santé” (p. 558). Oddly enough, this red herring leads us to the truth about Dupin, if not to the Rue Morgue murderer. For if (as we learn in the tale's opening) a detective must be like the successful checkers player and win by knowing his opponent well enough to anticipate his moves, Dupin must identify with the Ape murderer to solve the case. In so doing, he figuratively becomes the Ape of UnReason. Unconsciously, Dupin's “Watson” comes perilously close to this submerged identification when he derives, quite logically, his own hypothesis that the murderer is an escaped madman. Indeed, Dupin's strategy of not revealing the Ape hair clue at the time it is found is to prolong the narrator's and reader's dalliance with the red herring of madness, which is finally no red herring at all but a palpable hit at Dupin's own shaky mentality.

That is, Dupin knows the murderer is just an ape but has us rehearse the case so that we will conclude falsely that the perpetrator is a madman and hence that, by association, Dupin too is mad. But he fingers the Ape before we can draw such conclusions, thereby demolishing any implications of his actual irrationality. Moreover, Poe pathologically insists upon our taking this diversion so that when Dupin/Poe does reveal the truth—it's not a madman; it's just an animal!—we are intellectually deflated. We have contemplated something disturbing in Dupin and indeed in our common humanity, but we are then forced to discard our deeper ratiocinations for something that is anticlimactically superficial and only what Poe, in a 9 August 1846 letter to Philip Cooke, calls the “air of method.”24 Readers have little chance of unraveling the idea of there being an ape, and they have even less of a chance to see that they are the victims of a hoax, for in having us consider and then reject the madness diversion, Poe has us believe that we have misread the clues. He presents the Ape hair gratuitously as a confirmation of the solution that Dupin has “brilliantly” deduced. Of course, it is easy to deduce an Ape murderer when you alone have held the monkey in your hand. And if we fall for this deception and fail to retrace the steps by which Dupin has duped us in solving the murder, we will have no inkling that we have been grossly manipulated.

In his letter to Cooke, Poe punningly admits to this “hair-splitting of my French friend.” Dupin's “ingenuity,” he admits, is “supposititious”; the mysteries are raveled up in order for the author to unravel them (Letters, p. 328). Melville knew what Poe was up to and reviled similar practices in popular psychological novels. Authors, he complains, will build a “tangled web of some character” so that their “unraveling of it” solves all complications, to the astonishment “of school misses” (Confidence-Man, p. 70). Such rhetorical gambits are little more than Gothic posturing and claptrap plotting that prevent real psychological penetrations. This was the “other way” of writing that Melville, try as he might, could not perform (Correspondence, p. 191). Poe, however, reveled in it, making the contrivances (and his readers' falling for them) the mark of his intellectual superiority. As he put it to James Russell Lowell: “I now and then feel stirred up to excel a fool” (Letters, p. 256). But what is remarkable about the hoaxing in “Rue Morgue” is that Poe does nothing to expose our foolish acceptance of Dupin's contrivances. In fact, he works to conceal the hoax. Apparently, Cooke and a few studious modern readers have broken the code, but these are exceptions.25 Poe was not generous in salting his tale with clues to Dupin's duplicity, and the reason is that to reveal his hoax would mean calling too much attention to the Dupin/Ape identity, which is only a slip away from Poe's own identification with the threateningly irrational, sexual image of the Ape.26 This is a link in his satirical antiritual that he had to suppress.

“Rue Morgue” is not funny in the usual sense of the word, but its hoax, once discovered, gives the reader a “funny” sense of violation: we have discovered a dirty little secret in Dupin. While there is nothing explicitly sexual about the tale, its lurid details of violence against females—the disheveled women, the body stuffed up the chimney, the razored neck, the monkey hair—hint at sexual aggression. If Poe is Dupin who is the Ape, and if the L'Esplanayes, mere et fille, are arguably the projections of Poe's mother-in-law and young wife, then we can easily recognize Poe's identification with the Ape as an expression of the domestic, sexual, and marital anxieties in his life. And if hoaxing—especially Poe's virtually undetectable rendition—is a form of aggression directed toward readers, then we can also sense that Poe's sexual and rhetorical thrusts are one and the same. Here then is the strain in Poe's silent laughter: he flogs his reader with a satiric antiritual (hoax) that cannot be fully exposed, in order secretly to aggrandize his intellectual power, all the more to repress libidinal drives threatening to break loose—like a savage Man of the Woods, like Jocko, like the Ape of his UnReason.

“Rue Morgue” demonstrates a breakdown in Poe's comic sensibility. A hoax is no hoax unless it is detected, for the point of such satiric antirituals is to awaken readers to their dangerous misapprehensions and misreadings; they must acknowledge their foolishness and grow. But Poe's satiric intent is to sacrifice this ritualized reader response to a deeper personal pathology. It is a kind of obscure burlesquing in response to the tyrannizing of his own repressed sexuality and doubts about rationality. This is neither good humor nor effective satire, at least not in terms of the cultural function of ritual or antiritual. But Poe is not interested here in comic fusion or utility; “Rue Morgue” is an “essaying” both of his culture's image of the Ape and of himself, a brainstorming both of comic potentials that might appeal to his audience and of psychological potentials that could be a working-out of his own inner needs. Poe's next Ape Tale, while no less repressive, is a more successful hoax, one that allows us to play along with Poe even as we play his satiric butt.


“Tarr and Fether” may be Poe's best comic creation. Its plotting is complex but manageable; the characters range from loony to intellectual; the metaphysical and political ideas blend without Poe's characteristic straining; the hoaxy narratorial strategies are inventive; the motif of inmates ruling the asylum prefigures an entire subgenre including The Snake Pit, King of Hearts, Marat/Sade, and the parody High Anxiety. And yet the rarely anthologized tale has been ignored or even egregiously misclassified as “science fiction.”27 Critics have read it primarily as a minor historical document, either as a submerged riposte to Dickens (since he discusses asylums in American Notes) or as a satiric exposé of democracy (since the disguised patients play “Yankee Doodle” at the climax).28 But Poe's tale is not so arcane; its power derives from its effective articulation of satiric antiritual, its private replay of the Ape, and the manipulation of its readers.

Poe's second Ape Tale resembles “Rue Morgue” in its pairing of a seemingly slow-witted narrator with a French mastermind. This time, however, mastermind Maillard's “diseased intelligence” is openly confirmed; he is an asylum director gone mad who, having been locked up by his own staff, has organized his former, now fellow patients to recapture the asylum and in turn lock up his staff after tarring and feathering them all. Back in charge but thoroughly insane, Maillard schemes to see how long he can dupe our narrator, who, claiming to have “a long acquaintance with the metaphysics of mania,” has arrived at the asylum to interview the famous Maillard.29 The narrator, an American traveler in southern France, knows nothing of Maillard's mad revolt and never catches on, so that the tale is ostensibly the enactment of a con game on dullard America.

Poe's scheme is also to keep the reader in the dark as long as possible, but eventually we detect the hoax. Maillard, “a portly, fine-looking gentleman” with “a certain air of gravity, dignity, and authority” (“Tarr and Fether,” p. 1,003), seems perfectly genial and sane. By directing our attention to the excessive antics of his “staff” (who are lunatics pretending to be their incarcerated caretakers), he deflects any suspicions we may have concerning him. Our best guess, at this point, is that the lunatics are indeed on the loose but not that Maillard himself is one of them. Periodically, a shrieking from distant rooms petrifies the disguised patients; it is, they claim, only the asylum's inmates. But in fact it is the real, tarred-and-feathered staff, who in time break loose, recapture the Maison de Santé, and take Maillard away in a strait-jacket. We learn of Maillard's true condition only moments before this dénouement. But the snapper is that when the shrieking, tarred-and-feathered staff breaks in, the narrator misperceives them to be Ourang-Outangs. Unlike the Rue Morgue ape, these ape-men acquire their identity through the interaction of two sources: Maillard's mad scheme (which physically supplies the tar and feathers) and the narrator's density (which misreads the feathered men as apes).

The masterstroke in all of this, and the strategy that makes this antiritual of satire effective, is the unusual development of the unreliable narration. Poe presents Maillard's confidence game from the perspective of his nameless, never-fully-comprehending dupe, our narrator. Strapped to this fatally limited point of view, we learn that our ability to discern fact and illusion, sanity and madness, becomes all the more difficult. An added complication is that Poe's narrator, although finally a fool, is quite reliable at first. There are none of the frank narratorial admissions of madness that open “Black Cat” or “Tell-Tale Heart”; rather, there is the smoother slide into unreliability found in the more mature “Ligeia” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” What's more, the narrator's rationalizations of the behavior he sees are insidiously logical and quite convincing to us under the circumstances. Like the narrator, any reasonable reader would be deceived by Maillard's hoax. Eventually the reader catches on but, again, the punchline is that the narrator continues to enjoy the delusions we have outgrown.

Maillard's madness is undisclosed when the narrator reaches the Maison de Santé in hopes of observing Maillard's “soothing system.” In this rational approach to mental illness, in which patients are free to roam the asylum, the staff humors each patient's whim but also follows each whim to its absurd end. Since insanity is taken to be a form of reason, the insane are treated rationally, and if a patient acts like a chicken, he or she is treated like one and fed like one. Patients may be crazy, but they are not illogical; sanity will come when the chicken patient can no longer endure the chickenfeed. Maillard's idea is that “to repose confidence in the understanding or discretion of a madman, is to gain him body and soul” (“Tarr and Fether,” p. 1,006). But in an asylum where the insane are treated rationally and where absurd behavior has its logic, rationality loses its sanity. Reposing confidence in madness means identifying with it; thus, it is madness that may gain you body and soul. This liberalization (and genialization) of categories is Maillard's first step into madness. He is the logical, mad extension of Dupin, but at this point we are none the wiser.

Significantly, our first news from Maillard is that he in fact has abandoned this “soothing system.” The old liberal dispensation got out of hand, he says, and he has replaced it with the more repressive system of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether. At this point (and for all we know), Maillard is the sane manager of a new dispensation. However, he eagerly teases us toward reality when he issues a warning to narrator and reader alike: “the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” (“Tarr and Fether,” p. 1,007). The last line is the standard caveat for innumerable tall tales, the kind of clue Poe avoids in “Rue Morgue” but that here heightens our expectation of a hoax.

Although the narrator accepts Maillard's explanation for abandoning the “soothing system,” he is not insensitive to this warning. He is skeptical of the eccentric behavior of the “staff”; he senses something is not right in the asylum, and though we also feel the tension, we have yet to surmise the true madness beneath Maillard's rational demeanor. The narrator himself offers some plausible interpretations. Indeed, Poe's cleverest irony is that he has the otherwise obtuse narrator correctly speculate that Maillard is lying. He guesses that Maillard is only pretending to have abandoned the soothing system so as to make the narrator think he is among staffers, not patients, and therefore treat the patients as he would a rational staffer. Since under Maillard's original system the lunatics would be treated as being as sane as anyone else, it would behoove Maillard, the narrator argues, to trick outsiders into removing the reserve we normally would have toward a known lunatic. Such a lie would ease the narrator's natural anxiety and put him in a more therapeutic disposition; he would be part of the cure. Maillard's putative lie, the narrator surmises, enhances sociality. Of course, Maillard has lied, but not in the benevolent manner the narrator presumes: he has abandoned his soothing system, but he lies about the staff to conceal his madness and to “gammon” both narrator and reader alike. We play along with the lie we think is in play, supplying the liar with the benevolent mask he shall use to dupe us. Poe's hoax works because our genial and liberal presumptions permit it, and to this extent it is a remarkable satire on amiable humor.

Eventually we see, despite the narrator's naive reportage, that the “staff” are too bizarre to be sane. They say that they are acting-out merely to describe the neuroses of their “patients,” who variously think they are a teapot, donkey, cheese, champagne bottle, and frog. But their playacting is so vivid that the dinner conversation degenerates into a mad display of fizzes, pops, and croaks. And when one lady describing the antics of a Mme. Joyeuse is actually called by that name herself, the game is up—we know that these “staffers” are lunatics on the loose. This we see despite the narrator's continued blindness, but coming this far we still do not uncover Maillard's madness or his revolt. In fact, our new awareness only validates the narrator's clever but erroneous presumption that the soothing system remains in effect and that Maillard has been lying to put us at ease. We have no suspicion that the real staffers are locked away, howling in some recess of the building, like Jocko.

At this point the reader takes a crucial step ahead of the narrator. Discarding the hypothesis of the benevolent lie to which we still cling, the narrator makes the fatal error of taking Maillard at face value: he falls for the new system of Tarr and Fether, believing that the lunatics are locked up, and sets about trying to rationalize the incredible behavior of those he takes to be the staff. He remembers that certain Parisian friends had prepared him to expect “southern provincialists” to be “a peculiarly eccentric people” (p. 1,008). Moreover, the American fancies himself a cosmopolite who is accustomed to the odd: “the world is made up of all kinds of persons, with all modes of thought, and all sorts of conventional customs.” He is, he boasts, “quite an adept in the nil admirari” (p. 1,009). These staffers are not lunatics; they are merely French. But this cosmopolitan indifference dulls common sense and marks the narrator as utterly unreliable. Once again, Poe satirizes amiability; here the hoax begins to ripen. Outgrowing the narrator, we now separate ourselves from Poe's attack upon that narrator's blind liberalism. We can share in Poe's satire rather than be its butt.

But in distancing ourselves from the narrator who cannot recognize a lunatic when he sees one, we actually gravitate toward the tale's as yet undisclosed master lunatic, Maillard. Under the circumstances the narrator's abandonment of the benevolent lie theory makes that supposed lie all the more appealing to us, and we cling to the erroneous assumption that a sane Maillard is trying to get us to play along with his soothing system, that he is testing our pretentious narrator's “metaphysics of mania,” but never that he is trying to dupe us. We laugh along with the doctor at the dullard narrator. But the joke is on us, for while we think we are playing along with a rational psychologist, we cannot know that the confidence man we admire is himself insane, that he has told the truth when he said that his soothing system is not in effect, that the repressive “system of Tarr and Fether” does exist, literally not figuratively, and that we, too, have been had.

Eventually Maillard helps us puzzle out his identity when he issues, at the end, one final hint:

[The lunatic's] cunning … is proverbial, and great. If he has a project in view, he conceals his design with a marvellous wisdom; and the dexterity with which he counterfeits sanity, presents, to the metaphysician, one of the most singular problems in the study of mind. When a madman appears thoroughly sane, indeed, it is high time to put him in a straight jacket.

(p. 1,018)

The narrator ignores this warning; and as Maillard's real staff—tarred, feathered, and now broken free—clamber riotously at the door, Maillard describes his revolt somewhat obscurely, noting that only one outsider was given admittance to his briefly held “lunatic government,” and that was “a very stupid-looking young gentleman” whom Maillard “gammoned” and let go (pp. 1,018-19). As a lunatic band plays “Yankee Doodle,” we surmise amid the clamor Poe's satire on the loony bin of liberal democracy. But even when all is revealed the narrator still fails to see himself in the description: duped to the end, he wonders who Tarr and Fether might be. We have surpassed this colossally stupid narrator, but only at the last minute and only by a nose.

As opposed to his practice in “Rue Morgue,” Poe allows us to survive his “Tarr and Fether” hoax and learn the advisability of curtailing one's liberality. But what, we ask, causes the narrator to fail? The answer lies in the apes he thinks he sees and half-creates: they are projections of his repressed sexuality. Early on, a pale, dark-haired lady dressed in mourning and playing the piano excites the narrator. “A certain restless brilliancy about her eyes” (p. 1,004) links her to Poe's Ligeia, but the titillated narrator suspects madness, not transcendent energy. Maillard falsely assures him that the girl is sane, but in our next encounter with “my beautiful girl of the little parlor” she answers to the name of “Mam'selle Salsafette” and begins to undress. Before she can put “herself upon a par with the Medicean Venus” she is subdued “by a series of loud screams, or yells, from some portion of the main body of the château” (p. 1,014). This is the first occurrence of the shrieking by the tarred-and-feathered staff, which the narrator later misperceives as Ourang-Outangs. Clearly, Mlle. Salsafette is mad, but the narrator craves her body rather than her mind; he begins to fantasize that the screams he hears are the aural embodiment of his sexual arousal. Sex accounts for his density. With Mlle. Salsafette in mind, too much drink, and the symbol of his lust howling through the walls, the narrator is sufficiently distracted from the puzzle of Maillard's true identity to decode him, his hoax, or even his tar and feather pun. Thus it is no surprise that when the real tarred-and-feathered staff breaks in, the sexually distracted narrator does not see men but rather shrieking apes, a palpable representation of his Id coming like the bogey man to punish him for his fixation. No one else sees Ourang-Outangs; no one else fails to get the pun. The narrator's sexual obsession has made him the fool.

In replaying the Ape as a figment of sexuality rather than an actual murderous beast, Poe advances from the obscure hoaxing of “Rue Morgue” to a fully functional antiritual of satire. Whereas “Rue Morgue” conceals the connection between Poe's sexual anxieties and Dupin's dalliance with the irrationality and sexuality of the Ape, “Tarr and Fether” allows Poe to play within the confines of ritualized hoax and to detach himself from madness and sex by weaving them as separate patterns in the fabric of his hoaxing: he projects them onto a mastermind and a dunce, respectively. Maillard's madness is a low-key, Ahabian sagacity, a frank admission of the precariousness of imagination and rationality and a cynical awareness of the political implications of this metaphysical condition. The narrator's obsession reveals the power of sexuality to translate men into Apes. In the end, Poe exorcises the demons these two characters represent by bringing them to a mutual comic defeat.

Politically, Poe's satire is a ritualized encounter between author and reader in a problematic democratic context: Maillard is the creator whose experimentation with the irrational lifts him above the liberal democracy that is attacked through the faulty egalitarianism of his own ill-advised “soothing system.” Similarly, Maillard's hoax undermines the confidence of the American narrator, whose liberalism, like the reader's, is clouded by his libertinism. In the process, the pretensions of cosmopolitan amiability are lampooned, thus making Poe's tale a satiric denial of geniality and benevolent governance, democratic or otherwise. But more significant, by allowing the reader a critical distance from both narrator and Maillard, Poe lifts the reader with him up to higher ground. The sharing of laughter implies separate victories for artist and reader: Poe's tentative exorcism of irrationality and our now more wary “confidence” in democracy and rationality. This humorizing of satiric intent is an uncharacteristically generous moment in Poe's comic development, one that makes a small but distinct further advance in Poe's final Ape Tale.


Poe's third tale of an ape, one of the last tales to be published before his death in 1849, bears no structural resemblance to its predecessors: the narrator is reliable and restrained. If anything, Poe's savage conclusion is made all the more effective by the third-person speaker's cool detachment. Moreover, “Hop-Frog” is not a hoax on readers challenging us to parry Poe's misdirections and distinguish fact from illusion. It is, however, the depiction of a jester's deadly hoax against his king. It is about humor that kills. More explicit in its satiric intent and symbolic use of the Ourang-Outang, “Hop-Frog” is a further allegorization of Poe's relationship to his reader, but it is as well his darkest comedic self-portrait.

Hop Frog, so called because of his dwarfish size and irregular gait, endures the king's vicious practical jokes until the monarch throws wine in the face of the jester's true love, the dancer Trippetta. Hop Frog plans his revenge by proposing a unique entertainment for the upcoming masquerade. It is a garish spectacle known as “the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs,” guaranteed to frighten the ladies.30 The king and courtiers will be covered with tar (as in “Tarr and Fether”) and, this time, flax. Manacled to each other in a circle, they will pretend to have just escaped from their keeper (as in “Rue Morgue”) and break in upon the masqueraders, who take the disguised men to be real apes. “The contrast,” Hop Frog assures the king, “is inimitable.” The king can't wait. But after their fearsome entrance creates its predicted stir, Hop Frog departs from the plan; he attaches the circle of “apes” to the lowered chain of a chandelier, lifts them above the crowd and out of reach, and sets them all on fire. Shrieking like apes, the men are burned to “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass.” The end. Hop Frog and Trippetta escape never to be heard of again (p. 1,354).

This fairy tale of tyrants flambés may be a delicious fantasy for American democrats, but the allegory is finally more personal than political. Hop Frog, an outcast easily “excited … almost to madness” by wine (p. 1,347), is Poe, whose drinking problems by 1845 had alienated friends and then, too, the town of Boston. (Hop Frog's role as jester also squares with Poe's numerous burlesques.) Trippetta's “grace and exquisite beauty” (p. 1,346) link her as much to the various women Poe courted in his final years as to the powers of Imagination. Indeed, she lifts Hop Frog through the ceiling of the domed ballroom (an architectural symbol of the arts) and assists his climb to freedom.31 The tale is also a personal statement about Poe's audience. If Hop Frog and Trippetta represent a symbolic marriage of humor and beauty, then the king and his ministers are the gourmandizing public who, demanding entertainment rather than art, enslave these muses. The king is the japing critic: “We want characters … something novel” (p. 1,347). It is the familiar Romantic demand for originality, which Poe himself, in countless charges of plagiarism against rival litterateurs, strongly endorsed even as he plagiarized others.32 But the king/critic confuses novelty for originality. He is “alive to a joke,” Poe's narrator begins (secretly relishing the irony that by tale's end the king will be roasted by a joke), but he has no appreciation of humor, only the practical joke. His sense of humor is a Rabelaisian bog that lacks the Ligeian “strangeness” that sets true beauty apart from lesser forms. The king's abuse of Trippetta and his desire to frighten women suggests the kind of apish sensibility that wishes only to be titillated by novelty, not elevated through originality. Hop Frog's monarch and ministers of “taste” cannot be educated to recognize the vital difference. Demanding something “novel,” they get something “original” indeed, the backfire of their own laughter and the fire of the jester's revenge.

But while burning one's critics to a crisp and getting off scot-free is any writer's fantasy, the joke backfires on Poe, too. As Hop Frog snares his apish prey, he glares “with maniacal rage,” grinds his fanglike teeth, foams at the mouth, and leaps about “with the agility of a monkey” (p. 1,353). The jester has lost both humor and humanity; he also reveals the subterranean link between satire and irrationality. Like Maillard, the dwarf has made apes out of men but, this time, to murder rather than to tease and teach. While the French doctor is as cunningly mad as his American dupe is sexually obsessed, Hop Frog's satiric intent leads to deeper debasements; it turns him into an animal. His humor plunges from whim to rapacity—there is no regeneration, only annihilation. The fiery transformation rectifies neither transformer nor the transformed: one becomes charcoal; the other, an ape. Hop Frog's satiric attack, understandable in its aim but bestial in manner, belies all humor. Jest is one animal's attack upon another to gain identity through dominance. “I shall soon find out who they are” (p. 1,353), Hop Frog shrieks as he mockingly plays about the highly combustible autocrats with his torch, pretending to illuminate their concealed identities. The fetid, horrifying results reveal that the satirist's impulse to expose is in fact the will to destroy. While it may be the subtlety of Voltaire that Poe aspires to in his satiric art, it is nevertheless the transformation of readers into dust that he accomplishes here. In “Hop-Frog” Poe himself becomes Jocko, the intellectual beast, the Ape of UnReason.

“Hop-Frog” is Poe's resentful farewell to literary critics and other thoughtless readers. Throughout his career he had used laughter in various ways—the hoax, burlesque, Romantic irony—to create fictions that might unnerve his audience into deeper processes of thought. For these fictions to work, readers would have to spar with the author and “play along” within a unique world of illusion based upon the logics of irrationality, beauty, and desire. To engage this self-contained “culture,” they would have to expose themselves to attack, learn the uncanny, and reinterpret the familiar. Poe's Ape Trilogy reveals, through its replaying of symbol, the means by which Poe developed this strategy. The defamiliarizing jest in “Rue Morgue” fails to establish a ritualizing context for readers; its hoax is itself too hard to find, too original, too much submerged within Poe's own anxieties, and finally too disparaging of readers. “Tarr and Fether” is a friendlier hoax, a functional antiritual of satire that proposes an alliance with readers. But “Hop-Frog,” a straightforward ritual of satire, is an admission of comic defeat: Poe's farewell to the hoaxes and jests and to the novelty of trying to approach originality.33 Still, this death of satire implies a rebirth of humor, and we may find in “Hop-Frog” four hints of a humorizing of Poe's satiric intent: its focus on humor as a subject of its allegory, its narratorial detachment, its sentimentality, and its transcendence of self.

Seen as an allegory of conflicting social and aesthetic values, “Hop Frog” depicts humor and satire engaged in a battle of mutual self-destruction. Humor fails because the monarchs of social convention will not allow it to succeed; their laughter is a Hobbesian hoot of superiority, an emblem of power seized through the humiliation of lessers. (Poe's most immediate social butt here is the Knickerbocker establishment, whose armchair humor was for him a genial cover-up of more vicious editorial putdowns of his work.) Society is sustained by the abuses of satire. But satire, too, fails because its attacks are finally rooted in the fear, inadequacy, and self-loathing of the perpetrator. Just as the King perverts good humor and makes an ash of himself, so too does Hop Frog pervert his good humor as a self-destructive antidote to the King. The resultant mutual annihilation leaves both humor and satire morally and socially spent. And yet, the fact that Hop Frog's good-humored jesting precedes his satiric perversions suggests a nostalgic valorization of humor. Thus the hidden well of sentiment in this otherwise horrific tale is the allegory that humor is simply too good for this world. And there is no riper theme in the annals of humor than this one.

Poe's detachment adds a coolness to the narrative that has the contrasting effects of intensifying horror and yet containing self-loathing. This second hint of humor is the end product of Poe's essaying of narratorial strategies throughout the Ape Trilogy. Each tale demonstrates a new way to narrate a confidence game. In each, someone cons someone else: Dupin cons his sidekick and the reader; Maillard cons the narrator and us; Hop Frog cons the king. But each pursues the game from a different perspective and with variant degrees of reliability.

When read as a hoax, “Rue Morgue” is a literary con game narrated by one of its victims, Dupin's friend, who insures the reader's victimization by relating events through the clouded vision of his subordinate sensibility. Even though the narrator's deduction that madness is at the heart of Dupin's game proves him to be more reliable than we at first surmised, readers of “Rue Morgue” are forced into a dependency upon Poe's less reliable self-projection, Dupin. “Tarr and Fether” operates on a similar strategy. Its dense narrator is misguided by his own inner drives but despite our ability to “excel” him, we find ourselves driven toward the paradox of Maillard's mad morality. The movement from the confusion of self-image and sexuality in “Rue Morgue” to the more comprehensible if not entirely conventional ethos of Maillard's sane madness suggests a development toward a more sincere, even amiable relation to readers. The move in “Hop-Frog” away from hoax altogether and to a detached third-person speaker is the crucial third step in this process of “humorization,” for though the tale's content is vicious, its structure is unencumbered by any problematic speaker. In this regard the narrative is more ritual than antiritual in that the reader stands in a more confident relation to the author. Moreover, the authorial distancing allows Poe to stage his self-projections in terms of an allegorical and sentimental fairy tale while it simultaneously removes us from any involvement as a victim in the jester's con game. We are no longer being duped or attacked; we are allowed to observe and share in the excoriating laughter. In this final tale of an ape, Poe's detachment is his comic redemption.

And yet, paradoxically, the narratorial detachment of “Hop Frog” enhances the latent sentimentality of its variation on “Beauty and the Beast.” If in his replays Poe himself devolves into the Ape, his women evolve away from viciousness, sexuality, and madness toward Beauty. The L'Esplanayes are battered corpses: abused, up-ended, ripped, raped, and reified. However, the Ligeian Venus, Mlle. Salsafette, though mad, is nevertheless that kind of daemonic beauty who trips between the Platonic realms of Actuality and Ideality; she is an alluring link to another world, harassed and beset by apelike staffers and the ape-minded narrator's leering sexuality. And Trippetta ascends even higher: a dancer in both worlds, she enables the jester's transcendence; she is Beauty, now. As the endpoint of this succession of women, Trippetta also represents the elements of joy, creativity, and repose, rich veins of sentiment that link her to amiable humor. Hop Frog's alliance with Trippetta is Poe's only moment of unsatirized amiability, a brief, good-humored caesura of self-composure amid the trammels of despair and illness besetting the author in his final year.

Finally, this transcendence of self may be best articulated in terms of comic ritualizing. Poe's third replaying of the Ape is not only the endgame of a process of self-exposure (the symbolic transformation of himself into the Ape beginning with the hidden identification in “Rue Morgue”); it also signals a transformation from hoaxy antiritual to more amiable ritual. Poe's first impulse was to work out his relation to the culture's Ape imagery through the form of antiritual so that by hoaxing readers he might challenge their benign public notions of Jocko and play upon his own private assumptions of the Ape's deeper sexual savagery. At first the psychological impetus for this playing derailed the social function of the antiritual; hence the facile aggrandizement of Dupin. But in “Tarr and Fether,” by refocusing on men who are made to appear like apes and a narrator who cannot see the difference, Poe constructed a more functional antiritual that allows readers to play along. Here Maillard may be less charismatic than Dupin, but he is nevertheless more honest. Still, in “Tarr and Fether” as in “Rue Morgue,” Poe buries his identity as he satirizes society. The hints of pathological self-exposure and excoriation of the audience reveal a personal “ethos” that cannot operate within the conventional “worldview” expectations of the larger society. However, with the fairy tale “Hop-Frog” Poe plays a more open ritual of satire that, while it rejects society's loathsome autocracy, embraces the higher universal values of broader and sentimentally attainable transcendental community. “Hop-Frog” levels its attack evenly on the reader/critic, on American mobocracy, and most significantly on Poe himself. This inclusiveness rises above the audience annihilation of former replays and asks the reader to join Poe and Trippetta in the realms of Beauty and Creation. While we cannot say that this transcendence makes “Hop-Frog” a work of humor rather than satire, we can nevertheless see how Poe's satiric thrusts have moved toward humor and how the replaying of comic form and symbol act as a ritual in bringing a single author into a deeper coordination with the communal needs of his culture.


The humorizing process in the latter stage of Poe's career corresponds to a pattern found in Melville's comic development. While Ishmael's first-person sincerity is a sign of his amiability, Melville later experimented with ironic inversions of this genial self-projection throughout his short stories (as in the lawyer in “Bartleby” and Amasa Delano in “Benito Cereno”), replaying the possibilities of narratorial unreliability. The Confidence-Man culminates his experimentation with a detached yet effective, third-person con man narrator, one whose radical restraint forces readers to act out their desires for transcendence and faith. As with “Hop-Frog,” the silencing of authorial personality enabled Melville to grow beyond the satiric intent of his novel and temper personal anger and despair. On the surface Melville's narratorial development seems to contradict Poe's: whereas Melville shifted his humor from ritual to antiritual, Poe shifted his satire from antiritual to ritual. But these countermovements achieved similar ends. In abandoning first-person sincerity for third-person unreliability, Melville divested himself of the ineffective genial personality in his prose in order to problematize and thereby strengthen its amiable humor. Similarly, Poe's adoption of a detached but reliable third-person speaker allowed for a removal of personality from his hoaxy narratives as a means of establishing a more effective containment of self. The motive contained within these small aesthetic transcendencies is each author's separate will to humorize, to grow beyond Self.

In locating a pattern of humorization in two writers, we might speculate upon a deeper historical necessity linking humor and democracy. That is, a liberal democracy must laugh in order to survive; and it will insist upon amiable modes of humor that promote self-definition amid communal pressure rather than satiric modes of putdown and attack. Satirists will emerge but even the most strident will give in, like Poe, to the ritual of humor. Hoaxing will thrive to tease sagacity out of an otherwise dangerously dense citizenry, but such ritualized unreliability operates finally for the edification of its victims: Poe's hoaxing worked only when he used the antiritual to contain his potentially bestial self-image rather than using it to bludgeon his audience. Ultimately, audiences play along with hoaxes, and in playing they tacitly agree to put controls on the divisive factionalism of democratic life.

No modern democracy is stable. The engines of evolution are the only constant, and comic rituals and antirituals are patterns of social and aesthetic behavior that reflect the specificities of that evolution. Similarly, though, no set of rituals is stable; they evolve along with the culture, and the instruments of change are the culture's constituent authors (as broadly defined a group as we want to make it) struggling to shape their being within the culture. For Poe and Melville, laughter in the Republic was a means of measuring sexual, political, and metaphysical insights against the nation's increasingly divisive life. Their resistant playings with audience, comic symbol, and structure are their repeated attempts to link private needs to public ends. Although these attempts at creative linkage failed in the marketplace, they remain useful facts of literary history. For the instabilities of antebellum culture to which these facts respond—factionalism and racism—are oddly familiar to us today. Melville and Poe were perhaps “lucky” to be part of an avant garde that was reinventing and exploiting symbolism in new ways. They could work public images—cosmopolite and ape—into the private accommodations of self and society in their art. They were perhaps luckier than we today who have yet to land a symbol—melting pot or mosaic—that can ritualistically fuse the problems of a multicultural age as effectively as Melville and Poe could for the audiences of their divisive age. They used comic ritual to contain selfhood and satiric thrust and to see America more clearly.

Aside from the current malaise in comic symbolism—where are the “Catch-22s” of yesteryear?—America is also experiencing a growing fear of laughter amid the muddled falsity of “correctness,” a desire to erase factional, racial, religious, and sexual joking rather than determine the functionality (base or elevating as it may be) of these rituals and rechannel that energy into new, more constructive comic forms and symbols. The problem is not that we lack comic talent or resources but that the explosion of comic forums and formats in film, television, shock radio, stand-up comedy, stage, and print has done little more than mirror the nation's anxieties rather than clarify them. The comic jeremiad for the millennium is this: “Are we laughing yet?”

The case of Poe can only articulate rather than answer that question. Here is an individual whose comic development grew through burlesque, hoax, and satire toward a hint of amiability. It is tempting to wonder where Poe, if he had lived much past “Hop-Frog,” would have taken humor—its rituals, antirituals, and his own sense of it. But one stops short of envisioning a kinder, gentler Poe. This is no Irving, and he shall remain the bad boy of American humor perhaps because our current historical overview of humor—sentimental yet hoaxy, redemptive yet disturbing—would have him so. And yet the humorizing of Poe reveals a pattern of personal evolution and clarification that reminds us that America's sense of humor is not a static collectivity (a “Treasury” full of “Chestnuts”), but that it is equally evolutionary and equally capable of re-formation. We may not be laughing now, but we shall be, soon enough.


  1. For a comprehensive history of the development of amiable humor in England, see Stuart M. Tave, The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960). I have extended some of Tave's findings into the American Renaissance in Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).

  2. See Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1956), p. 138; John Stafford, The Literary Criticism of “Young America”: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature, 1837-1850 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1952), pp. 74-75; and Bryant, Melville and Repose, pp. 45-46.

  3. See “About Critics and Criticism,” in Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 1,039; and “Notice of Democratic Review,Broadway Journal, 2 (20 September 1845), 169.

  4. For a development of this historicist view of satire, see Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963).

  5. For a contrasting view that takes The Confidence-Man as an undiluted satire and correlates many of Melville's characters to specific historical figures, see Helen P. Trimpi, Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1987).

  6. Sheldon Sacks explores the mixed genre of the apologue in his Fiction and the Shape of Belief: A Study of Henry Fielding, with Glances at Swift, Johnson, and Richardson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1964).

  7. See “American Humor,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 17 (1845), 215.

  8. The phrase appears in Evert Duyckinck's reflections on Punch and other British satirical magazines (see Donald Yannella and Kathleen Malone Yannella, “Evert A. Duyckinck's ‘Diary’: May 29-November 8, 1847,” in Joel Myerson, ed., Studies in the American Renaissance, 1978 [Boston: Twayne, 1978], p. 242). Melville uses similar phrasing in a 3 March 1849 letter to Duyckinck (see Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth, vol. 14 of The Writings of Herman Melville [Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1993], p. 121).

  9. The Confidence-Man: The Con-Man as Hero,” Studies in the Novel, 1 (1969), 421.

  10. Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 164, 34.

  11. See English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 4.

  12. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables, ed. William Charvat et al., vol. 2 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1965), p. 38; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, vol. 6 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1988), p. 226; and Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Comic,” in Letters and Social Aims, vol. 8 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), pp. 155-74.

  13. See J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949), p. 5.

  14. Clifford Geertz, “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man,” in his The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 43.

  15. See “Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 131.

  16. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, vol 10 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1984), p. 183.

  17. See Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, vol. 9 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1987), p. 241.

  18. See Lawrence Buell, “Moby-Dick as Sacred Text,” in New Essays on “Moby-Dick,” ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 53-72.

  19. Huizinga calls this process “methectic,” or “a helping-out of the action.” Ritual is not “merely imitative [mimetic]; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself” (Homo Ludens, p. 15). Accordingly, in Melville's antiritual of humor in The Confidence-Man, readers repeatedly experience the “sacred happening” of the interplay of confidence and doubt.

  20. “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 218.

  21. Georges Louis LeClerc Buffon, Buffon's Natural History, Modernized from the Most Recent Authorities (New York: Scribner, Welford, n.d.), p. 126.

  22. In the notes to her edition of The Confidence-Man (New York: Hendricks House, 1954), Elizabeth S. Foster records only Marzetti's performance as Jocko in 1849, when Melville was residing in Manhattan (p. 328n). Marzetti also performed the play as early as 1846, when Poe was editing the Broadway Journal (see George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 15 vols. [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1927-49], V, 240). T. Allston Brown, however, reports that Marzetti came to New York in 1836 and that, before his arrival, the Ravels performed another ape skit in 1831-32, “The Dumb Savoyard and the Monkey” (see History of the American Stage [New York: Burt Franklin, 1870; rpt. 1969], p. 237; and History of the New York Stage [New York: Benjamin Blom, 1903], p. 40). At some point later in the century a Mr. Morris Cronin offered theatergoers the spectacle of “Solomon: the wisest of them all,” an actor impersonating a monkey dressed in tuxedo. Then came King Kong.

  23. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), II, 533.

  24. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (New York: Gordian Press, 1966), p. 328.

  25. See Burton R. Pollin, “Poe's ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’: The Ingenious Web Unravelled,” in his Insights and Outlooks: Essays on Great Writers (New York: Gordian Press, 1986), pp. 101-29.

  26. Critics generally read Dupin more positively as a “balance of intuition and reason” (Dennis W. Eddings, “A Suggestion for the Unity of Poe's Fiction,” in The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe's Satiric Hoaxings, ed. Eddings [Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1983], pp. 161-62).

  27. See The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Harold Beaver (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976). Anthologists have taken Arthur Hobson Quinn a bit too seriously when he dismissed the tale as “not important” (see Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography [New York: Appleton-Century, 1941], p. 470). Subsequent critics such as Bernard A. Drabeck (“‘Tarr and Fether’: Poe and Abolitionism,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 14 [1972], 177-84) and Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (“Poe's ‘Tarr and Fether’: Hoaxing in the Blackwood Mode,” Topic, 31 [1977], 29-40; rpt. in The Naiad Voice, pp. 136-47) have bemoaned the neglect among those for whom the tale would be a natural focus. G. R. Thompson in Poe's Fiction and David Ketterer in The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), for instance, give the ironic tale no berth at all.

  28. For the Dickens connection, see William Whipple, “Poe's Two-Edged Satiric Tale,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 9 (1954), 121-33, which Richard P. Benton discounts (“Poe's ‘The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether’: Dickens or Willis?” Poe Newsletter, 1 [1968], 7-9). The notion that the tale attacks the nineteenth-century psychotherapy known as the “Moral Treatment” remains convincing. Fisher, who is not so sure of Benton's dating of the tale, reads it as another Blackwood's parody. Drabeck considers it as an attack on abolition. See also Daniel Hoffman for the political discussion (Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1972], pp. 197-200).

  29. Edgar Allan Poe, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” in Collected Works, III, 1,004.

  30. Edgar Allan Poe, “Hop-Frog,” in Collected Works, III, 1,350.

  31. Thomas H. Pauley contends that the escape chain links Hop Frog up to Trippetta but also down to the corrupt world (see “‘Hop-Frog’—Is the Last Laugh Best?” Studies in Short Fiction, 11 [1974], 307-9).

  32. Poe's most familiar statement concerning originality occurs in his reviews of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (see Essays and Reviews, pp. 568-69 and 569-77). Joseph N. Riddel treats the issue in Purloined Letters: Originality and Repetition in American Literature, ed. Mark Bauerlein (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1995).

  33. See Bruce K. Martin, “Poe's ‘Hop-Frog’ and the Retreat from Comedy,” Studies in Short Fiction, 10 (1973), 288-90.

Jerome DeNuccio (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: DeNuccio, Jerome. “History, Narrative, and Authority: Poe's ‘Metzengerstein.’” College Literature 24, no. 2 (June 1997): 71-81.

[In the following essay, DeNuccio examines the narrative authority in Poe's story “Metzengerstein.”]

It is perhaps fitting that in “Metzengerstein,” his first published tale,1 Poe explores the authority a writer wields over his narrative. What makes the tale interesting, however, is the strategy Poe employs: he uses a writing character's loss of authority to affirm his own. Poe's strategy hinges on the dual metempsychosis that occurs in the tale. On the surface, of course, the tale strongly implies that the soul of Count Berlifitzing has transmigrated to a horse, thereby exacting revenge on his hereditary enemy Baron Metzengerstein. But a second, less apparent, metempsychosis takes place between Metzengerstein and the narrator. Indeed, in the process of recounting Metzengerstein's obsessive desire for unbounded subjectivity, the narrator enacts a parallel desire for narrative authority. Both, however, overreach, devaluing or ignoring the historical and textual determinants of subjectivity that resist the imposition of intention. Thus, just as Metzengerstein's coercive quest for self-authorization generates its own subversion, so too does the narrator's attempt to present Metzengerstein's story buckle under the weight of his own need to contain and control its meaning. When the dust settles, only Poe himself remains standing.


The attitude of the narrator toward “the doctrines of the Metempsychosis” and “the words of an ancient prophecy” he posits as the supposed “origin”(94)2 of the hostility between the Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein families reveals both his strategy for artistic control and the source of its subversion. He begins with a curious refusal to date his narrative:

Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell? Let it suffice to say, that at the period of which I speak, there existed, in the interior of Hungary, a settled although hidden belief in the doctrines of the Metempsychosis.


The narrator invokes history with such phrases as “in all ages” and “at the period of which I speak” but simultaneously brackets it by his unwillingness to assign a temporal origin to his tale or a causative agent to such salient cultural facts as recurrent “horror and fatality.” Time and space, history and locale, are significant only as abstractions, a vague context for characters and events detached from animating and shaping historical forces. In freeing himself from temporal and spatial specificity, the narrator creates a site into which an alien experience can irrupt that will suspend the conventions and relations with which his readers are familiar. In his opening sentences, then, the narrator bridles both the story and its audience.

The narrative begins to slip from his control, however, when he turns to a discussion of metempsychosis. Although he notes its currency as a folk cultural belief, he hedges on the matter of its reality: “Of the doctrines themselves—that is, of their falsity, or of their probability—I say nothing”(93). He immediately reverses this careful neutrality, however, by declaring the Hungarian version of metempsychosis—a version he gives at second hand, citing a French translation of a Hungarian text—a “superstition … fast verging to absurdity” in its belief that the soul can be reembodied in an animal. And while he uses a quote from La Bruyere to dismiss even the less objectional forms of the belief as “incredulity”(93), he includes in a footnote three authoritative advocates of metempsychosis. These shifts from anthropological impartiality to outright rejection to qualified concession exhibit the narrator's ambivalence toward the doctrine, an anxious groping for a perspective on a phenomenon that both affronts his reason and attracts his interest. Indeed, the scholarly objectivity by which he seeks to characterize himself through the apparatus of quotation, footnoting, and documentation sets the stage for its own subversion, for while the narrator declines comment on the reality of metempsychosis, the authorities he cites affirm what his tale will go on to ratify: that the transfer of soul from human to animal can, in fact, occur.

The use of citation embroils the narrator in textuality, an interpenetration of texts that results in a polyphonic production of meaning. The irony Poe creates is inescapable: marshaling multiple texts representing multiple voices to validate his credibility and authorial agency, the narrator instead opens himself to an intertextuality that renders all notions of authorial agency tenuous at best. The narrator fails to see, in short, that he is positioned in language, not above it—that language itself enacts a kind of metempsychosis whereby meaning, slipping from one signifier to another, persistently resists authorial intention.

Poe uses the narrator's treatment of the “ancient prophecy”(94) to make clear that the nature of language itself undermines all attempts to constrain and shape its production. The prophecy, seemingly the “origin” of the feuding between the houses of Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein according to the narrator, states, “A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing”(94). The narrator scornfully dismisses the prophecy as “silly” words that convey “little or no meaning”(94). Instead, to explain the families' animosity, he offers a list of sociopolitical reasons, ranging from long-standing rivalry in governmental affairs to Berlifitzing jealousy of the more ancient, more influential, and wealthier Metzengersteins. In effect, the narrator rejects the prophecy because of its figurative and oxymoronic manner of articulation. A literalist, he seeks to tie signifiers firmly to signifieds, to make language as referential as possible; thus, his grounding the feud in politics and social status. Only with reference to such realities can the prophecy mean, can word and world connect. But in separating and hierarchizing the literal and the figurative, fact and fiction, the narrator fails to recognize that the figurative is literal. The figurative binds even as it articulates difference, making the absent or inexpressible provisionally present and expressible—in short, making it factual. Thus, the literal is a form and effect of the figurative. For this reason, the narrator's project—an objective, carefully circumscribed and cautiously reasoned account of the nature and strange conclusion of a centuries-long “hereditary jealousy”(94)—is subverted from the start.

The narrator's misinterpretation of the prophecy signals this subversion. Recognizing its basic ambiguity—does the “lofty name” risking a “fearful fall” when “the mortality of Metzengerstein” triumphs “over the immortality of Berlifitzing” refer to Berlifitzing or Metzengerstein?—he nonetheless imposes on it a meaning congruent with the sociopolitical conditions he adduces: “The prophecy seemed to imply—if it implied anything—a final triumph on the part of the already more powerful house”(94). This reading instantiates the narrator's authorial power, for it arbitrarily constrains the prophecy's meaning by neutralizing its linguistic ambiguity. However, by concluding with the triumph of Berlifitzing, not Metzengerstein, the tale eludes the narrator's control because he believes that events dictate language and fill it with pre-existent, transparently encodable meaning. In effect, then, the prophecy emblemizes language itself, for, like language, it is without origin and unremittingly figural; thus, again like language, it resists the determinate meaning, the preemptive appropriation, the narrator attempts to impose.

Indeed, the prophecy itself exemplifies a kind of linguistic metempsychosis, for it is a persistence through time and space of what Poe, in “The Power of Words,” terms “the physical power of words”(637), their capacity for shaping events and altering perceptions. In that tale, the angel Agathos explains to the “new-fledged” spirit Oinos that words, “in the end, impress every individual thing that exists within the universe.” This influence “upon all particles of all matter” modifies “old forms,” resulting in “the creation of new” forms” (634, 36). Because words constantly after the “old forms” to which they refer, creating ever new ones in their place, a sign can have no central, stabilizing presence by which meaning is fixed. As signifiers, endlessly modifying their “forms” or signifieds, words point only to an absent origin.3 Similarly, the prophecy posits a false presence, for, as even the narrator acknowledges, its authorizing origin is absent. It is a past in the present which points to further, ever receding, finally unknowable pasts. The narrator's misreading of the prophecy indicates that subjective desire, not inherent or objective truth value, governs linguistic meaning. Meaning is willed, imposed, an arbitrary attempt to corral the play of language, to affix it to an interpretive need. To tell Metzengerstein's story is to try to appropriate it, to embed it in discourse so its meaning can be controlled and coerced. In his treatment both of metempsychosis and the prophecy, the narrator seeks to position himself above the events he narrates. In Roland Barthes's words, he seeks “to make ridiculous, to annul the power (the intimidation) of one language over another” (S/Z 98). Inevitably, such an endeavor falters, for the narrator's words, expressing his situated and interested assumptions, can be no more empirical, no more objectively referential, than any other words. Just as Metzengerstein's desire to dominate the horse reflects his need for uninhibited subjectivity, so the narrator's desire to dominate his tale reflects his bid for an encompassing artistic agency. However, rather than controlling the events that precipitate Metzengerstein's “fearful fall,” the narrator replicates them at the level of writing.


Orphaned at 15,4 Metzengerstein enters into his father's “vast possessions”: “castles … without number,” land so extensive the “boundary line of his dominions was never clearly defined,” and a “fortune … unparalleled” by any “nobleman of Hungary” (95). The combination of youth, willful temperament, and unlimited resources quickly generates dissolute behavior. During a three day spree Metzengerstein “out-Heroded Herod,” engaging in “shameful debaucheries—flagrant treacheries—unheard-of atrocities” which demonstrate that “no punctilios of conscience” checked “the remorseless fangs of” this “petty Caligula” (95). Seemingly, Metzengerstein is uncircumscribed, his limitless material possessions the trigger, scene, and emblem of his limitless subjectivity. In this first tale, then, Poe creates a character who would frequently reappear in subsequent tales: the aristocrat for whom the historical present means loss and vulnerability, and who consequently engages in massive acts of self-display designed to elevate the self above that historical present. In effect, such characters attempt to turn dislocation into empowerment, to inhabit “an idealized realm” where “specific social contexts” (Leverenz 222) fall before a subjectivity that, like the young baron's property, knows no “boundary line.” But the opening description of centuries-long rivalry with the family of Berlifitzing, as well as the allusions to Herod and Caligula, intimates that Metzengerstein is, in fact, bound by history.5 The narrator's rumination on the young baron's age reinforces this point. “In a city, fifteen years are no long period—a child may still be a child in his third lustrum: but in a wilderness—in so magnificent a wilderness as that old principality, fifteen years have a far deeper meaning” (94). Time differs in the “old principality” because there Metzengerstein is embedded in a context of hereditary history where events, persons, passions are recursive. Childhood, as a time of forging identity, does not exist; rather, identity is bequeathed, intact, from the past. The “deeper meaning,” thus, is that selves are interchangeable markers, revealing the cycles of a recurrent, changeless history.

It is the tapestry, however, which most clearly indicates Metzengerstein's entanglement in history. Because it “represented the shadowy and majestic forms of a thousand illustrious ancestors” (95), it serves as a historical text, a chronicle of the events and characters that have preceded him, the “forms” of which he is a function. Sitting in the tapestry chamber, “a vast and desolate upper apartment of the family palace,” on the night that fire consumes the Berlifitzing stables—an arson “the unanimous opinion of the neighborhood” (95) attributes to Metzengerstein—he finds his gaze has become riveted “without his consciousness” on “the figure of an enormous, and unnaturally colored horse, represented in the tapestry as belonging to a Saracen ancestor of the family of his rival,” whose “rider perished by the dagger of a Metzengerstein” (96). At first, “a fiendish expression” crosses the young baron's lips as the congruence of the burning stables with the tapestry's text rises to his awareness. Unaccountably, however, his reading of this text induces an “overwhelming anxiety which appeared falling like a pall upon his senses. It was with difficulty that he reconciled his dreamy and incoherent feelings with the certainty of being awake. The longer he gazed the more absorbing became the spell” (96). Momentarily diverted by the flaring conflagration, his gaze returns “mechanically” to the tapestry only to find, “to his extreme horror and astonishment,” that “the head of the gigantic steed had … altered its position,” extending fully toward Metzengerstein, the eyes fiery red and the “distended lips of the apparently enraged horse” disclosing “his gigantic and disgusting teeth.” Terrified, the baron stumbles to the door where, upon opening it, “a flash of red light” casts his shadow upon the tapestry. The shadow assumes “the exact position, … precisely filling up the contour, of the relentless and triumphant murderer of the Saracen Berlifitzing” (96).

The tapestry text has, in effect, adduced its own power to signify—a power the narrator, in discussing the prophecy, had denied to texts. What, then, generates this power, this capacity to hold its reader spellbound, to transform him from malevolent satisfaction to “stupified … terror” (96)? Berlifitzing, while alive, constantly reminds Metzengerstein of his historical boundedness, his situatedness in time, the intractable relation to an other that has solidified across the centuries. To murder his rival is to erase the ties of history that obstruct the young noble's complete freedom to assert his subjective desire. But as Gregory Jay points out, “to murder or repress … others in the service of one's own identity involves an intense attraction to them as objects, and a repetition of them in reflection that subsequently leaves a resistant trace of the other in the dream of originality” (187). The mutual gaze that locks together Metzengerstein and tapestried horse, the parallel between his Caligula-like “remorseless fangs” and the horse's “gigantic and disgusting teeth,” and, most saliently, his shadow occupying the form of his murderous ancestor attest that Metzengerstein orbits within a looped historical script, doomed to a repetition that dissolves subjective agency, no better off, finally, than his less powerful enemy. This dawning realization provokes first his anxiety, then his terror. He has read into the tapestry text his own latent fear of an imperiled self.

A text's represented forms assume reality, Poe suggests, by virtue of readers who rather than decoding a pre-established and inserted meaning, instead encode themselves into it, and the meaning they contrive springs largely from needs submerged beneath conscious awareness. The tapestry's location in “a vast and desolate upper apartment” suggests, and the baron's “unwitting” fixation on it makes clear, that subconscious elements animate the text he reads, destabilizing its system of signs and binding them to their own, unfamiliar logic. Moreover, when the exact material “counterpart” (96) of the represented horse appears immediately after Berlifitzing's death in his flaming stables, bearing on its forehead Berlifitzing's brand, Metzengerstein quickly forms a “perverse attachment” to it because “the animal's ferocious and demon-like propensities” and “intractable audacities so well accorded with his own spirit” (98-99). As the reincarnated Berlifitzing, the horse embodies the “resistant trace of the other” to which Gregory Jay refers—produced from an “intense attraction” to the victim objectified and murdered “in the service” of Metzengerstein's “own identity.” Because Berlifitzing emblemized the lengthy, iterative history he inherited and to which he was bound, the newly orphaned Metzengerstein seeks through his destruction to remove the last barrier to untrammeled selfhood, “the dream of originality.” Berlifitzing's reappearance, however, as a horse which mirrors “his own spirit” revives Metzengerstein's sense of an identity threatened by historical recurrence, for the metempsychosis experience simultaneously involves the loss and repetition of the self. The horse, then, acquires a double otherness, both Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein's externalized fear of and rage at self-dispossession.

To defuse this threat, Metzengerstein withdraws behind the walls of his estate and obsessively devotes himself to riding the horse. In attempting to channel its energy and bend it to his will, Metzengerstein seeks to dominate the other that haunts his dream of independent, autonomous subjectivity. However, he does not ride the horse so much as he is ridden by it. The narrator deftly captures this ambiguity of authority when he remarks that “the young Metzengerstein seemed rivetted to the saddle” (99). Metzengerstein's reluctance to name the horse, despite his having given “characteristic appellations” to “all the rest in his collection” (99), further indicates his inability to gain mastery, for to name is to define, and to define is to control. Ultimately, ambiguity shades into inversion as the horse carries the shrieking Metzengerstein into “the whirlwind of chaotic fire” consuming his own palace, an ironic repetition of the past he sought to transcend. Metempsychosis stands, then, as Poe's figure for history and its capacity for permeating and dissolving identity boundaries. Metzengerstein creates the conditions for his own subversion because, in his arrogance, he fails to realize that, as Karl Marx observed, individuals do not make history “under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (595).


Metzengerstein's attempt to hurdle the fault lines of history and assert individual agency is matched, at the level of writing, by the narrator. What begins as an objective account of Metzengerstein's story, with its cited authorities, rational causations, and adherence to established fact, quickly shifts to a different narrative register. Since he did not see Metzengerstein enter or leave the tapestry chamber, how does the narrator know Metzengerstein was there while the fire raged at Berlifitzing's stables? Since he is a first person narrator, how does he know “the Baron listened, or affected to listen,” to the uproar, “or perhaps pondered upon some more novel, some more decided act of audacity” (95-96)? How does he know the baron's “eyes became unwittingly rivetted to the figure” of a horse embroidered on the tapestry (96)? Most significantly, how does he know that the horse alters its position, that Metzengerstein's psychic state spikes from anxiety to horror, and that the baron's shadow assumes the very position of his pictured ancestor? Obviously, the narrator could not see what Metzengerstein sees, feel what he experiences, unless he were deliberately developing a narrative intention, shaping events to conform to a subjective desire.

At this point in the tale, then, the narrator expands his authority beyond the carefully circumscribed bounds he initially established. As Metzengerstein reads the tapestry, the narrator reads Metzengerstein reading, thus arrogating the same kind of controlling agency Metzengerstein himself seeks. Just as the shadow of Metzengerstein fills the contour of a triumphant predecessor, the narrator occupies Metzengerstein, entering and interpreting his consciousness. Indeed, the narrator enacts what he earlier discounted—metempsychosis. Just as Berlifitzing entered the horse to stage his vengeful agency, so the narrator, to accommodate his desire for authorial agency, enters Metzengerstein, using him as a subject position in which to situate his own need for ascendancy. The subject of the tale thus becomes a twofold subjectivity: the desire of Metzengerstein for an authorizing self and the desire of the narrator for an authoring self. At its halfway point the narrator's tale, like Metzengerstein's principality, has become a site for wielding power.

He moves to consolidate this power in the second half of the tale by deploying rationalistic discourse: explanations for the baron's self-imposed isolation and strange attachment to the horse, measurements documenting the horse's prodigious leaping ability, observed instances of its impressive intelligence, affirmations by “all the retinue of the Baron” of his “extraordinary affection” (99) for the horse. Oppositional voices, however, are summarily silenced with an arrogance as callous as Metzengerstein's. He scornfully dismisses criticism of the baron's social withdrawal as the disappointed expectations “of many a manoeuvering mamma.” He ridicules Berlifitzing's widow who, in response to Metzengerstein's insulting refusal of all social invitations, hopes “‘that the Baron might be at home when he did not wish to be at home, since he disdained the company of his equals; and ride when he did not wish to ride, since he preferred the society of a horse.’” Declaring the widow's words “singularly unmeaning,” he ascribes them condescendingly to “a very silly explosion of hereditary pique” and an old woman's desire to say something “unusually energetic” (98). In addition, he marginalizes as hardly “worth mentioning at all” the lone dissenting voice in the baron's retinue, a page who claims that fear and hatred, not “extraordinary affection,” characterize the baron's relation to the horse. His “opinions were of the least possible importance,” the narrator maintains, because he is “an insignificant and misshapen little page, whose deformities were in everybody's way” (99). Such assertions, astonishingly at odds with the rationalism he affects, indicate his thorough absorption into the system of asymmetrical power that Metzengerstein's class privilege affords. Significantly, the conclusion of the tale bears out both the widow and the page; the obviously terrified Metzengerstein is carried into his flaming home—riding “when he did not wish to ride” to a place, presumably, “he did not wish to be.”

The narrator, thus, disclaims the truth his tale tells. Seeking to insulate and empower his discourse, he excludes difference, a maneuver as totalizing in its projection of self as that undertaken by Metzengerstein. In his will to narrative power, he adopts the discourse of Metzengerstein and, thus, is shaped by it, becoming an effect of the language he uses. The narrator has made himself into a figure of speech, a metaphoric replacement of Metzengerstein who himself stands as a metaphor of historical forces. In effect, he asserts the authority of his narrating self by displacing it onto the contingent self of Metzengerstein, a strategy that denies his centrality in the very act of affirming it.

“Language is never innocent,” Barthes observes in “Writing Degree Zero”; words bear their own historicity, “the stubborn after-image” of their past usage. To write is to become “a prisoner of someone else's words and even of [one's] own” (37). And, as with words, so with the texts fashioned from them: “texts are not, after all, autonomous and self-contained,” Gerald Graff notes. Inevitably, “other texts and textualized frames of reference” inhere in them and catalyze their meaning (256). Writing, in short, is historically saturated. It mobilizes previous texts which themselves reflect particular codes and contexts. Writing is certified as writing—is authorized—by conditions that resist an individual writer's narrative intent. Such a narrative impasse requires, first, recognition, and second, a capacity for negotiating the competing claims of subjective desire and textual trace—“freedom and remembrance” (37) as Barthes puts it. And precisely here lies the narrator's failure. Having aligned himself with Metzengerstein, having appropriated his subjectivity for the supposed unharnessed power informing it, the narrator is in turn possessed by it. Having lost the distinction between himself as narrating subject and Metzengerstein as the subject of narrative, the narrator's self collapses into Metzengerstein's, thereby forfeiting the very control he seeks. He suffers, at the level of narrative, the same provisionality, the same contingency of identity, that history inflicts upon Metzengerstein. Thus, the narrator can only watch, in stupefied amazement, his tale sabotage the conclusion toward which it pointed: “a cloud of smoke settled over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of—a horse!” (100). Berlifitzing triumphs; metempsychosis occurs; and Metzengerstein's “fearful fall” from power is also the narrator's.


But not Poe's. John Irwin calls Poe “a master at creating narrators who in the attempt to establish the credibility of their narratives manage to unravel their own efforts. … They add a detail that arouses our distrust, usually a revelation of doubleness” (118). In constructing a text that displays a narrative metempsychosis, a spilling of the narrator's subjectivity into Metzengerstein's, Poe argues for his own literary identity. “A skilful literary artist,” Poe declares in his May 1842 review of Hawthorne, accommodates incidents to intent: “having conceived … a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents … as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect” (572). The narrator, in contrast, permits incidents to dictate intent. He loses, in the collapse of self into other, the critical space, the narrative “outsidedness,”6 that allows the design of incidents to accommodate a predetermined effect. Thus, the strange, even horrifying, phenomenon of self-division, of a narrator creating a text that aborts its rhetorical trajectory and undermines him and itself—precisely the effect Poe aims at.

Moreover, the aesthetic distance or “outsidedness” required of the “skilful literary artist” helps explain the oddly historical ahistoricity of many of Poe's tales. Such tales as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Ligeia,” “The Assignation,” “Berenice,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” share the vague temporality, the indefinite pastness, of “Metzengerstein”; yet, also like “Metzengerstein,” a palpable sense of history strongly suffuses them. A devastating plague, the chaotic carnival, a dilapidated city on the Rhine, the storied palazzos of Venice, the ancient halls and crumbling mansions, the played out lines of family descent—all evoke a historical context never precisely defined, places steeped in a history at once present and abstract, or present but on the verge of absence. The decontextualized historical “feel” of these tales contributes to their decentering effect, especially the discomforting way they invite yet slip away from precise historical appropriation. More importantly, the historical reticence of these tales reflects Poe's engagement with the problematics of literary authority and representation. Situated both out of and in history, the tales become sites where Poe can negotiate the twin demands of authorial autonomy and representational authenticity. Poe does not deny history so much as use it as a rhetorical strategy, a way to orbit historical contexts without surrendering to their gravitational pull, to retain narrative credibility without relinquishing narrative authority. In “Metzengerstein,” the narrator loses both, and in his disappearance from his own tale Poe most clearly appears.


  1. “Metzengerstein” first appeared in 1832 in the Saturday Courier of January 14. Poe revised it for inclusion in the Southern Literary Messenger of January, 1836. Four years later he revised it again for his collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

  2. All references to this tale are from Poe's “Metzengerstein.”

  3. Agathos does assert that only “a being of infinite understanding” could “trace” the “modifications of old forms” performed by words “onward and upward” to their ultimate origin at “the throne of the Godhead.” Human beings, however, lacking infinite understanding, cannot exercise such “analytic retrogation” (636). They are caught in a continually changing chain of signification over which they exercise no control. Meaning thus is, at best, provisional and arbitrary.

  4. Metzengerstein's age is 18 in the 1836 version of the tale.

  5. Metzengerstein's immersion in history is paralleled by the narrator's, for his use of Herod and Caligula to epitomize egregious evil testifies to his reliance on cultural codes—always arbitrary—to fashion and convey his meaning.

  6. This term is borrowed from Bakhtin, who argues that “creative understanding” requires not a renunciation of self but a location of self outside the object of understanding, so as to surmount “the closedness and one-sidedness” of its “particular” meaning (7)

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Noonday, 1974.

———. “Writing Degree Zero.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986. 31-61.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987.

Irwin, John. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Jay, Gregory, S. America the Scrivener: Deconstruction and the Subject of Literary History. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Leverenz, David. “Poe and Gentry Virginia.” The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 210-36.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart. The Marx-Engles Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978. 594-617.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews. New York: Library of America, 1984. 569-77.

———. “Metzengerstein.” The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edward H. O'Neill. Vol. 1. New York: Knopf, 1964. 93-100.

———. “The Power of Words.” The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edward H. O'Neill. Vol. 2. New York: Knopf, 1964. 634-37.

Merrill Cole (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7203

SOURCE: Cole, Merrill. “The Purloined Mirror.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 8, no. 2 (October 1997): 135-51.

[In the following essay, Cole investigates the sexual and gender role of the mirror and mirroring in Poe's fiction, specifically focusing on the tale “The Assignation.”]

Does the mirror tell the truth? Does it consolidate a fiction that becomes the truth for the viewer? A mirage of unwavering identity, an unreachable oasis which fixes in permanence the hazy limits of sexuality and gender? Does it reveal not only who is the prettiest, but also who best fits an ideal, heterosexual model? How then would the mirror position the queer viewer? In “The Purveyor of Truth,” Jacques Derrida contests Jacques Lacan's use of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, “The Purloined Letter,” “to illustrate,” to mirror the meaning and the truth of a psychoanalytic law: according to Derrida, in Lacan, “the letter will always refind its proper place … will be where it always will have been, always should have been, intangible and indestructible via the detour of a proper, and properly circular, itinerary”1 (Derrida 177). Lacan states in his seminar that, “what the ‘purloined letter’ … means is that a letter always arrives at its destination” (Seminar 53). Derrida reifies the argument into its insistence on closure in order to focus upon Lacan's logocentrism. Derrida counterclaims that the Poe story “imprints … effects of indirection … the play of doubles, divisibility without end, textual references from fac-simile to fac-simile, the framing of the frames … ‘The Purloined Letter’ operates as a text which evades every assignable destination”2 (Derrida 204). Poe's œuvre also evades, though Derrida does not spell this out, the compulsory delegations of normative gender and sexuality.

Lacan's assertion of the perfect return of the signifier in the symbolic reduplicates his claims about the fixity of the mirror in the imaginary. As Jacqueline Rose succinctly states in her explication of the Lacanian imaginary, “the image returned” to the subject “is fixed and stable” (Rose 172). Although the subject may angle herself or himself at variance with this proper view of the image, there is a proper image, a proper mirroring that totalizes the subject's self-identity. “The libidinal drive,” according to Lacan, “is centered on the function of the imaginary” (Book I 122). The mirror configures sexual orientation, and tells the story of the subject's sexuality. Everything “depends upon” the subject's “position in relation to the real image”3 (140); and the correct position in Lacan is invariably the heteronormative, replete with its strict gender binary. If this “coherent” vision of the self is always a delusion for Lacan, it is a necessary fiction for the constitution of the subject, and therefore a fiction that tells the truth.

What if the mirror, instead of insuring the lack-predicated closure of the subject, disrupts identity claims, deflects the compulsion to truth, and multiplies unstable subject-positions to infinite proliferation, beyond the possibility of proper assignation? In other words, what if the mirror operates like the Derridean sign, or the Deleuzian desiring-machine, and thereby suspends Lacan's division between the symbolic realm of language and the imaginary realm of images? Judith Butler argues that the mutation of Lacan's supposedly unalterable law will “call into question not only the compulsory heterosexuality attributed to the symbolic, but also the stability and discreteness of the distinction between symbolic and imaginary registers” (Butler 106). This problematizing of the boundary between registers serves as a queer reading strategy that raises the imaginary contestations of identity in queer politics to the power of intervening in and changing the symbolic law. Lacan claims that the imaginary is subordinate to the signifier, to the letter, and, therefore, to the unalterable symbolic law; but what if the signifier is the mirror?

To illustrate the non-illustrative figure of the mirror in Poe, the little-known short story, “The Assignation,” provides an example of the problematics of attempting to extract a singular truth from a text.4 While “The Assignation” gestures toward exemplification, especially in relation to its protagonist, it brings into question the truth value of this interpretive process. The story shows that even the exemplary figure may be impossible to retrieve. Of course I implicate myself in the play of mirrors: a reading of Poe that hopes to describe the intertextual play of gender and textuality, of sexuality and truth, necessarily submits itself to the logic of the text's mirror chamber, where every viewpoint is immediately doubled and reversed, every stance creates its opposite, and the play of reflection recedes into the endless abyss of opposing mirrors.

In “The Assignation,” interpretive models that involve figures of representation like the mirror, the eye, and the statue problematize the possibility of any sort of hermeneutic recovery on the part of the reader, as well as that of the narrator. Instead of establishing a progression of readerly codes that would render the text transparent or decipherable, Poe's use of these figures in explicitly and convolutedly intertextual contexts redoubles and confounds every issue of concern. Just as the narrator's journey within the past time of the narrative is a quest for knowledge that never succeeds fully, so is the quest of the implicit reader: the identity of the mysterious figure, the model who serves as a mirror around whom the text revolves, must remain undecidable. A tracing of the interaction of poetry and prose, of allusion and storyline, sketches out the text's dynamics of identity. Questions of genre and allusion redouble into questions of sexuality: the mysterious figure fails to become the kind of self-enclosed entity that the narrator wishes to presume him to be. His interactions with the other two characters, the Marchesa and the narrator, operate in terms of mirroring and reflection that inscribe identity as mirror, and a kind of inter-subjectivity that transgresses boundaries of heterosexual desire precisely where it crosses textual boundaries. These mirror moves do not effect all characters symmetrically; often the Marchesa is reduced to playing the flat surface on which the male characters reflect their desire for each other, and even so, it is the protagonist, not the Marchesa, who the narrator figures as the perfect mirror. While the protagonist and the narrator use the Marchesa to embody in themselves alternative forms of subjectivity, she, as a passive object upon which to act and to reflect, is never granted permission to destabilize actively her gender, or her sexual identity.

If such conflation of textuality with sexual identity engenders a male homoerotics, its representational basis, the mirror, allows no foreclosure of meaning into fixed, characterizing terms like “homosexual.” Indeed, the term, “character,” becomes questionable in the interpretation of “The Assignation,” for it suggests the possibility of determining assignations. Thus, the stakes in a deconstructive, queer theory reading do not concern proofs that the characters are queer, or that Poe is queer. Rather, my reading points both to Poe's subversive homoerotic textuality—a topic heretofore almost completely ignored in Poe criticism—and to a far less fixed setting for the imaginary than Lacan's.5

A multiple mystery whose complex hermeneutical figures undo all possibility of solution to the ostensible plot, “The Assignation” is a difficult text to summarize—so treacherous, indeed, that traditional commentary has either treated the story as a failure; or, after Richard P. Benton, characterized it as a hoax.6 The story begins with the reflections of an anonymous narrator on a protagonist whom he never names. He recalls their meeting in Venice, where, as the protagonist rescues the child of the Marchesa from the Grand Canal, the narrator speculates upon the Marchesa, the meaning of her gestures, and her relation to the protagonist. He is unable to comprehend what he sees. The narrator and the protagonist agree to meet at the protagonist's exclusive quarters. While they discuss art and the Marchesa, the narrator espies a poem written by the protagonist, which offers clues to his inscrutable identity. The protagonist unveils a portrait of the Marchesa and offers to share a drink with the narrator. The drink of the protagonist is poisoned, and he dies. Just as this happens, a page rushes in to tell of the Marchesa's similar demise.

Although the narrator claims to recognize “the entire and terrible truth” (80) of the situation, the reader never learns the identity of the protagonist, or whether the poisoning is a dual suicide or a murder. A plot summary cannot indicate adequately the variety of questions “The Assignation” raises; an abstracted plot performs the action for which Derrida criticizes Lacan, fishing out a structural semantics, “a message,” for the text in disregard to its specifics (Derrida 178). “Lacan excludes the textual fiction from within which he has extracted the so-called general narration” in such a way that the “formal structure of the text is overlooked, in a very classical fashion, at the very moment when, and perhaps in the extent to which, its ‘truth,’ its exemplary message, allegedly is ‘deciphered’” (180). Poe continually disrupts the itinerary of the message by multiplying and dispersing, rather than reducing, its possible destinations.

While the title of the story, “The Assignation,” sets up the expectation that its subject will be a lover's tryst, the inset couplet immediately following the title, and the parenthetical note attached to it, suggest a particular type of assignation:

Stay with me there! I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
[Exequy on the death of his wife, by Henry King, Bishop of Chichester]


There is nothing unconventional about beginning a piece of prose fiction with an inset quote from another author; nor is it particularly unsettling to suggest that “The Assignation” will here mean the meeting of a woman and a man after death. Yet the way the couplet gets played out in the opening narrative unsettles every word of it. It bears strange relation to the prose, which, in mirroring it, distorts the confines of genre and gender:

ILL-FATED and mysterious man!—bewildered in the brilliancy of thine own imagination, and fallen in the flames of thine own youth! Again in fancy I behold thee! Once more thy form hath risen before me!—not—oh not as thou art—in the cold valley and shadow—but as thou shouldst be—squandering away a life of magnificent meditation in that city of dim vision, thine own Venice—which is a star-beloved Elysium of the sea, and the wide windows of whose Palladian palaces look down with a deep and bitter meaning upon the secrets of her silent waters. Yes! I repeat it—as thou shouldst be.


Both poetry and prose begin with an apostrophe to a missing person and continue in an invocatory manner that connotes loss and misery, implying that such bereavement serves as the occasion for the elegiac mode. Since the narrator's construction of mourning involves envisioning the other only as he should be, in the “Elysium” of Venice, it echoes the implied “Heaven” of the couplet, and thereby suggests that the narrator of the couplet, too, has placed his lost beloved in what I shall call the realm of “the shoulds.” Poetry, then, would be an idealization of the other, a conditional discourse removed from the other as she or he truly is. The “hollow vale” becomes not “that city of dim visions,” but Elysium; and the meeting described in the couplet, an imaginative journey. The description of the waters creates a surface/depth dichotomy, which presupposes the possibility of disclosing “secrets,” of enacting a hermeneutic operation that would comprehend a mystery.

The passage itself, however, enacts a double mystery: how can prose be poetry, and how can an assignation involve two men? For the “other” changes sex, from female to male, and the prose mimes the poetry, registering the doubling effect of a discourse of the supposedly same, of a man on a man. The narrator not only desires the protagonist: he identifies with him. Even though this “mysterious man” has fallen already into the flames of his own imagination, and destroyed himself therein, the narrator goes on to write, “in fancy I behold thee!,” reduplicating the protagonist's self-destructive trajectory. In his construction of the protagonist in the realm of ideality—that is, “the shoulds”—as a basis for his own identity (insofar as the narrative constructs this identity), the narrator will appear to perform the same action that the Lacanian subject takes in relation to the ideal, unified image in the mirror. This identity, which I will discuss later in relation to the description of the features of the protagonist, is a construct, a fiction that promises “a deep and bitter meaning,” a “truth” about loss it will refuse to deliver.

The action of the story commences with another apostrophic note, a woman's cry of loss: “a female voice … broke suddenly upon the night, in one wild, hysterical and long continued shriek” (70). She shrieks because her child has fallen out of her arms and into the Grand Canal. Upon moving closer, the narrator recognizes her as “the Marchesa Aphrodite—the adoration of all Venice—the gayest of the gay—the most lovely where all were beautiful” (70). If the unusual name itself does not establish her as a symbol for, or invocation of, the goddess of love, the list of superlatives situates her more surely within traditional discourse about Aphrodite. Yet it is not the Marchesa, but the protagonist, who proceeds to act like the goddess: after plunging “headlong into the canal” to rescue the child, “in an instant afterwards, he stood … by the side of the Marchesa, his cloak, heavy with drenching water, became unfastened, and, falling in folds about his feet, discovered to the wonder-stricken spectators the graceful person of a very young man, with the sound of whose name the greater part of Europe was then ringing” (72). The allusion to Aphrodite rising out of the ocean to the acclaim of the world is unmistakable; this literary reference, however, serves to describe a displacement from female to male as object of ultimate desire, which occurs when gender attributes switch sex. The figure of the goddess also serves to elucidate the narrator's desiring gaze upon the protagonist, at the same time flattening the Marchesa into a reflective surface.

Between the loss of the child and its recovery, a play of mirror images complicates the Aphrodite shift:

She stood alone. Her small, bare, and silvery feet gleamed in the black mirror of marble underneath. Her hair … clustered, in curls like those of the young hyacinth … yet—strange to say—her large lustrous eyes were not turned downwards upon the grave wherein her brightest hope lay buried—but riveted in a widely different direction! … Nonsense! Who does not remember that, at such times as this, the eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees in innumerable far off places, the woe which is close at hand?


Just as the male protagonist metamorphoses suddenly into a simulacrum of a female goddess, so the Marchesa is likened to Hyacinth, in Greco-Roman mythology a male lover of Apollo, after whose untimely death the grief-stricken god changes into a flower. The trope of metamorphosis reappears when the narrator likens the Marchesa to a “statue” (72). The concluding sentence provides another model for the representation of loss: a generative source, the eye, reduplicates its interior bereavement in a repetitive projection onto a far away place. Its topography could be heaven, Venice, or, as it is in this scene, “The prison of the Old Republic” (71). The source, the mirror, is “shattered,” no longer capable of the one-to-one representation that might allow it to recuperate the object of its sorrow. Instead of fixing the object of loss, the eye, as reflective surface, “multiplies” it. Loss does not prefigure a unitary idealization, an “assumption of the armour of an alienating identity” (Ecrits 4). Although the Marchesa becomes a statue, she fails to turn into the totalized art-object the protagonist later will demand. The shattered mirror disperses loss, and the absence thereby reaffirmed fails to consolidate the mourning self.

In the figure of the protagonist, the narrator looks for a mirror that will return a proper reflection, a wholeness he can appropriate. He describes the unfragmented features of the protagonist after the Romantic type of the artist:

his were features than which I have seen none other more classically regular, except, perhaps, the marble ones of the Emperor Commodus. Yet his countenance was, nevertheless, one of those which all men have seen at some period of their lives, and have never afterwards seen again. It had no particular—it had no settled predominant expression to be fastened upon the memory; a countenance seen and instantly forgotten—but forgotten with a vague and never-ceasing desire of recalling it to mind. Not that the spirit of each rapid passion failed, at any time, to throw its one distinct image upon the mirror of that face—but that the mirror, mirror-like, retained no vestige of the passion, when the passion had departed.


A face like a statue, like a mirror; a face that mirrors the passions, implicitly, of the narrator; is a face that recalls not only Narcissus but the water into which he gazes. The passage is prototypical of explanations of homosexuality that rely upon the Narcissus model.

In “On Narcissism,” Sigmund Freud's text upon which Lacan bases much of his reading of the imaginary, Freud explains his discovery,

in people whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, such as perverts and homosexuals, that in their later choice of love-objects they have taken as a model not their mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object, and are exhibiting a type of object-choice which must be termed “narcissistic.”


Yet the narrator figures his choice as an ideality, not as a perversion, and obviously the mother figure of the Marchesa plays a role in this construction. Indeed, as Michael Warner points out in “Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality,” “[w]here Freud initially argued that an intricate confusion of the desired object with the image of what one would like to be is just the pathological derivation of homosexuality, Lacan shows that such an investment always structures the erotic” (198). In other words, the imaginary misunderstanding said to organize homosexuality is also the precondition of heterosexuality; Lacan, however, fails to follow through with a depathologization of homoerotic desire. Although Lacan notes “the narcissistic character of the relationship of imaginary love, and … how and to what extent the loved object is confounded, by means of one whole facet of its qualities, of its attributes, and also on its impact on the psychic economy, with the subject's ego-ideal” (Book I 112), he still censors the homosexual for narcissism: “[i]t is himself whom he pursues” (221). This is in contradiction to the insistence that the “exact equivalence of the object and the ego ideal in the love relationship is one of the most fundamental notions in Freud's work” (126).

Poe's narrator might be said to offer an oppositional model to Freud and Lacan for the proper interaction of identification and desire, an interaction within which the two terms serve not as bipolar opposites, but as complements to each other. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues in Epistemology of the Closet that “modern, homophobic constructions of male heterosexuality”—which include the traditional explanations of psychoanalysis—

have a conceptual dependence on a distinction between men's identification (with men) and their desire (for women), a distinction whose factitiousness is latent where not patent. The (relatively new) emphasis on the “homo-,” on the dimension of sameness, built into modern understandings of the relations of sexual desire within a given gender, has had a sustained and active power to show how close may be the slippage or even the melding between identification and desire.


Although Poe does not have access to the power prefix, “The Assignation” enacts the subversive slippage of which Sedgwick speaks. The story proposes a model of identity in which the homophobic dichotomy simply does not operate.

An ideal model. Not only does the protagonist's face recall—with the important difference that there is no shattering here—the eyes of the Marchesa and the water into which she does not look, but it also reinscribes the site of mournful recollection in aperfect mirror. A theory of the composition of masculine identity is drawn as easily from this passage as a theory of male homosexuality: selfhood is a mirror that reflects past versions of the self; every man has once looked into this mirror and desires to recover it to the present but cannot, because the very imaginative act that recreates it as it should be posits that it never was what he imagines it to be now—that there never was a perfect mirror with which to begin.

However much this theory of the mirror may resemble Lacan's description of the mirror-stage, locating self-conception in the gaze of the other, it is important to note that the narrator concentrates not on the facility of this image in constructing his own identity, but on its irretrievable loss. An identity based on the mirror guarantees no stability. “The Assignation” presents a figure who exemplifies the impossibility of determining what an example might mean. Irene Harvey argues that “Exemplarity, as the transformation of a given into a sign for something else (either not present now but with the capacity to be made present, or never present intrinsically) or as the transformation of the given into a case, a particular that illustrates or represents a universal, always evokes the same metaphysical assumption” (265). It is the assumption of an intrinsic meaning to the sign, a signified absolutely corresponding to its signifier, a proper return—an assumption that Poe problematizes with his mirror-figure who totalizes no reflection and remains irrecoverable. Because the question of who the protagonist “truly” is—which contains the question of what his name is—receives no answer, the reader, after the narrator, can construct no more than a fiction of whom the protagonist might or should be.

As the narrator enters the quarters of the protagonist, the later suggestively says, “With one exception you are the only human being besides myself and my valet, who has been admitted within the mysteries of these imperial precincts … !” (75). The implication is that the Marchesa has been there, too; but the protagonist, through the mediating language of art, proceeds to dismiss her:

“Ha!” said he thoughtfully, “the Venus—the beautiful Venus?—the Venus of the Medici?—she of the diminutive head and the gilded hair? Part of the left arm (here his voice dropped so as to be heard with difficulty), and all the right are restorations, and in the coquetry of that right arm lies, I think, the quintessence of all affectation.”


Broken and unsuccessfully restored, the feminine statue—like the Marchesa on the Grand Canal—fails to articulate the self-identical oneness the protagonist demands of an “original” work of art. Shattered, she most certainly cannot assume centrality: like Luce Irigaray's “female imaginary” in This Sex Which Is Not One, she is relegated to “the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself, to copy himself” (30). Paradoxically, the Marchesa also serves as the necessary mirror which allows the narrator to “see” the protagonist; like the figure of woman, the image of the Marchesa subtends phallocentric representation.

The protagonist then states his choice:

Give me the Canova! The Apollo, too!—is a copy—there can be no doubt of it—blind fool that I am, who cannot behold the boasted inspiration of the Apollo! I cannot help—pity me—preferring the Antinous.


The Antinous represents the Roman Emperor Hadrian's male lover. Socrates and Michelangelo quickly follow, two figures enframed most prominently in the discourse of (sublimated?) homoeroticism, the same tradition to which the Apollo Belvedere and the Antinous belong. The convoluted statement about the Apollo implies that the protagonist is a “blind fool” because he cannot envision what is impossible to envision: how a copy, a mirrored thing that is like the memory of a mirror, allows imagination to work, and therefore is a perfect mirror. The question of how a copy can do the work of the “original” is problematized by the lack of the “original.” When, after paraphrasing Socrates, the protagonist dismisses a Michelangelo couplet on the basis that it is not original, that it is a mere paraphrase of what Socrates already said, he quotes the couplet, and, in doing so, ends up repeating its sentiment for the second time. Condemning mirror-like reiteration, he does it himself, and thus proposes a model of artistic production at odds with the organicism of a possible “Socrates who said the statuary found the statue in the block of marble” (76). That he cannot be sure Socrates first uttered the sentiment suggests the unrecoverability of its origins. The passage also implies that the artist finds his statue in other statues and the poet finds his poems in other poems, just as the description of the protagonist implies that the male subject finds his identity in other men. The “original” recedes from view: in terms of the constitution of a subject's gender and sexuality, this means that there is no immutable heterosexual ideal that can claim an originary precedence. A poem relates to other poems; a sexual identity relates to the identities of others, who may or may not pose as the heteronormative “real image.” These associations of texts and of bodies need not be unequivocal: there is no fixed one-to-one correspondence that rules out divergence from the model.

The narrator relates his “discovery” of “English lines” (77) in the protagonist's apartment. He finds the poetry enfolded in the first native Italian tragedy about other than the first poet, Orpheus. Yet the book, like the protagonist, lays “upon an ottoman,” and is “tainted with impurity” (77). Such tainting suggests homoerotic content, but more striking is the way in which the protagonist violates the rigid masculine/feminine affective pattern the narrator expects: instead of feeling “heart-stirring excitement” (77), the protagonist cries; and the particularity of the handwriting may indicate a feminine style. The narrator frames the poem intertextually, somehow related to a previous literary production. In spite of psychological overtones and tears—which position the poem as the spontaneous outcome of strongly felt emotion—the narrational frame for the poem problematizes the “purity” of such emotion. Although, arguably, the poem presents an ideal of autotelic poetic beauty and of a self unified through the consolidation of loss, its ties to the ongoing narrative render its autonomy questionable.

The poem sets up the kind of topographical paradise of desire described at the commencement of the story's narration: “A green isle in the sea, love, / A fountain and a shrine” (77) echoes the description of Venice, implying that this paradise, too, serves as the site of an imaginary, perfect origin. The repetitiveness of the narrative's ever doubling mirror imagery finds reflection in the poetic refrain. Naming a present separation—“Ah, dream too bright to last; / Ah, starry Hope that didst arise / But to be overcast!”—the speaker creates a distance from the unnamed other, a tactic which allows him the pretense of autonomous selfhood and the aggrandizing title of “poet.” The speaker of the poem can assert his autonomy only because he isolates himself: separation generates voice. Loss is supposed to provide cohesive subjecthood. The “dream too bright to last” recalls the mysterious man “bewildered in the brilliancy” of his own imagination and residing in the realm of “the shoulds.” The other is figured in terms that the speaker fabricates in order to feel a present loss: “starry Hope that didst arise / But to be overcast!” The speaker supposes the poem will constitute a stable and separate identity through the holding power of poetry: “(Such language holds the solemn sea / To the sands upon the shore)” (77). If the speaker tells us his dreams are with the beloved, “In what ethereal dances, / By what Italian streams” (77), is he the narrator talking about the protagonist, or the protagonist talking about the Marchesa? Again, loss fails to foreclose identity, and this is important because it allows the identificatory slippage that permits expression of homoerotic desire.7

The protagonist unveils the portrait of the Marchesa to the narrator, which causes the narrator to burst “instinctively” (79) into poetry. Yet the poetry is a quotation from another author, Chapman; and it speaks of a man, not a woman: “He is up / There like a Roman statue! He will stand / Till Death hath made him marble” (79).

Since the citation suggests the erection of the penis, as well as the rigidity of death, it shows how the Marchesa once again serves as an image that manages the transfer of desire between two men. However, to assume that, like the portrait of the Marchesa, the true face of same-sex desire can be unveiled or admitted is to postulate the hermeneutic recovery of a preexisting homosexuality. The portrait, in its mirror capacity, may less reflect than generate a textual homoerotics. Instead of consolidating heterosexual identities, it multiplies the possibilities of identification and desire: the narrator can identify with either the protagonist or the Marchesa, and desire either—all combinations are available.

After twice commanding, “Come!” (79), the protagonist shares his wine with the narrator. This improper communion ends with swallowing. The protagonist says twice, “It is indeed early” (79), emphasizing the impropriety and helping to give the paragraph the kind of reiterative refrain the poem has. The protagonist goes on to speak of “that land of real dreams whither I am now departing” (79). Although the phrase foreshadows his ensuing demise, it is unclear whether he knows he has drunk poison, or merely comments on the effects of alcohol. The phrase recalls the realm of “the shoulds,” the realm of poetry and unified identity. After repeating the Henry King lines quoted at the opening of the story, he throws himself “at full length upon an ottoman” (80), at once suggesting femininity and the Nineteenth Century's fantasy of the feminizing Orient.8

A page enters to tell of the death of the Marchesa. The way the narrator inscribes his statement gives the reader yet another apostrophic, invocatory voice for which to account: the page “faltered out, in a voice choking with emotion, the incoherent words, ‘My mistress!—my mistress—poisoned! Oh beautiful—oh beautiful Aphrodite!’” (80)—words which might apply to the narrator's feeling for the protagonist. The final paragraph begins with the narrator “Bewildered” (80); in the first paragraph of the narrative, the word, “bewildered” appears fifth from the beginning and applies to the protagonist. Again, the narrator follows the trajectory, the life journey, of the protagonist.

Bewildered, I flew to the ottoman, and endeavored to arouse the sleeper to a sense of the startling intelligence. But his limbs were rigid—his lips were livid—his lately beaming eyes were riveted in death. I staggered back towards the table … and a consciousness of the entire and terrible truth flashed suddenly over my soul.


The narrator italicizes “death” as he italicizes “shouldst be” in the first paragraph; death is, of course, a version of the realm of “the shoulds.” This final paragraph completes the literalization of Henry King's opening couplet, enacting it in a prose context which places it under the critique of irony. For who come together in “The Assignation,” but the narrator and the protagonist? Insofar as the prose reinscribes or mirrors the couplet's heterosexual assignation, it does so as a same-sex parody of “the couple,” a parody that, through its dissonant reiteration, renders the “shouldst be” of compulsory heterosexuality visible and, therefore, questionable. As Judith Butler writes, “the ideal that is mirrored depends upon that very mirroring to be sustained as an ideal”9 (14). But Poe skews the mirrors and complicates proper assignation. Exposing and problematizing the complex hermeneutic figure of the mirror, “The Assignation” challenges the mimetic truths of the very interpretive system that perpetuates heterosexist discourse.

Yet “The Assignation” does not place the reader, blissfully, in the realm of the queer. Although the mirrors in the text refuse to reflect a stable, unitary heterosexual masculine identity, disseminating idealities of ambiguous gender and sex formation that challenge phallogocentric formulations of the proper image, the story requires a reified femininity and a backdrop of financial superabundance to enframe its mirrors. Without the hypostatized image of the Marchesa Aphrodite, the story would lack its mechanism for the conveyance of homoerotic desire. The desire of the Marchesa herself does not speak in “The Assignation”: were it to do so, it would disrupt her passive position as mirror. The story, thus, depends upon an idealized and flattened femininity to represent its desire, to serve as a facsimile of legitimacy, at the same time excluding the feminine from the scene of action. Within the narrative, the Marchesa always already exists in the realm of “the shoulds”: that is, elsewhere. If the reader can pull fragments of a theory of depathologized homosexuality from “The Assignation,” it is a theory of aristocratic, androcentric homosexuality. Homosexuality, like poetry, for Poe, is the prerogative of the wealthy, highly cultured, European elite. Interestingly, Poe presents an aristocratic ideal that is only ideal because it has vanished; that aristocracy, and with it homoeroticism, it would seem, have nowhere to go but the realm of “the shoulds.” This is the realm of statues, and of the dead. Aristocratic homosexuality can exist in art, perhaps, and in the fictional constructions of memory, but not in everyday life. Nor does it have a name.

The narrator makes the protagonist into an exemplary figure whose name is often hinted but never confirmed. It is unclear how the narrator comes to recognize “the entire and terrible truth,” which would include the protagonist's name and the motive behind his death. The story sometimes hints that its protagonist is none other than Lord Byron, and sometimes shows that he cannot be Byron. A “very young man, with the sound of whose name the greater part of Europe was then ringing” (72), probably “an Englishman” (78) whose personality traits mime those of the Romantic poet, the protagonist's sad trajectory, however, does not parallel the historical Byron's. Far from halting the text's mirror play of identity, the entry of Byron only compounds it: the “historical” Byron becomes one more countenance/mirror against which to diffuse identity. Byron's “presence” is no more than a diffusion of inscriptions and myths; the reader encounters neither a documentary slice from the life of Byron, nor a fictional character who merely resembles Byron, but fragments of the famous poet that allude to his life and legend without allowing positive identification. As Dennis Pahl writes in “Recovering Byron: Poe's ‘The Assignation,’”

“Byron” stands as a point of presence, a fixed origin, that vanishes the moment language, or representation, submits itself to its primary activity of interpreting … Interpreting Byron, Poe's language effaces the very origin it desires to obtain.


Perhaps Poe's “language” desires to efface origins, not “obtain” them. The insertion of the name, “Byron,” into interpretation fails to establish a hermeneutic grounding from which the security of unified identity and stable exegesis can ensue. Poe does not disclose the proper name; such designation would be “at once the setting of a boundary, and also the … inculcation of a norm” (Butler, 8).

“The Assignation” offers no privileged hermeneutic route of recovery; nonetheless, a reading that fixes the play of identity, and thereby offers exemplary meaning, threatens to reify the text. The absence of any centered and authoritative voice precludes the possibility of closure, of a proper return. Poe's deconstruction of identity makes the project of recovery itself seem contingent, gendered, and constructed—as is assuredly the case with “The Assignation.” The proper image recedes from the frame of possibility, producing chains of simulacra that reveal no truth firmly set behind them. The itinerary of attempting to circle back, the very trajectory of nostalgia, narrates the significatory function of the imaginary. The imaginary, instead of serving as a vaguely pre-discursive site always already subordinated to the symbolic action of the signifier, itself is structured like a language. As such, it cannot offer the perfect correspondence of signifier and signified through an analogy to the mirror and the image it reflects.10 Without the guarantee of proper mimesis, any claim to recourse to a “real image” belies the fact that the “real image” is nothing other than an idealization, a transposition of “as thou art” to “as thou shouldst be.” If this transposition compels the regulatory law that dictates the formation of the subject, its efficacy depends upon the invisibility of its action. To conceive the heteronormative as the image of reality requires a blindness to its contingency, to its position as one of many simulacra of the self. Through the figure of the mirror and the various permutations it produces, Poe narrates not the closure of identity, but its unstoppable proliferation. “The Assignation” thematizes the project of idealization, of constructing the exemplary, as a fiction that cannot claim the status of singular truth. The mirror, it would seem, has many stories to tell.


  1. Derrida quotes the words “to illustrate” from Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” (29).

  2. Slavoj Žižek, for whom Derrida's critique is a misreading that “exhibits what we could call a primordial response of common sense,” claims that “Lacan's exposition of the way a letter arrives at its destination lays bare the very mechanism of teleological illusion” (9-10). Yet this “illusion” is inescapable, since the letter's “true addressee is namely not the empirical other which may receive it or not, but the big Other, the symbolic order itself which receives it the moment the letter is put into circulation.” Žižek abjures Lacan of a logocentrism which his own essay subtends, as indicated by the “true addressee” and the all-swallowing symbolic. “[T]he symbolic debt has to be repaid” (16): to avoid it is to go outside the realm of proper subjecthood. “Stricto sensu, there is a subjective position within which a letter does not arrive at its destination, within which the repressed does not return in the shape of symptoms, within which the subject does not receive from the Other its own message in its true form: that of a psychotic” (26, n. 30). Against the implications of this reasoning, Judith Butler writes,

    though the symbolic appears to be a force that cannot be contravened without psychosis, the symbolic ought to be rethought as a series of normativizing injunctions that secure the borders of sex through the threat of psychosis, abjection, psychic unlivability … The presumption that the symbolic law of sex enjoys a separable ontology prior and autonomous to its assumption is contravened by the notion that the citation of the law is the very mechanism of its production and articulation. What is ‘forced’ by the symbolic, then, is a citation of its law that reiterates and consolidates the ruse of its own force. (14-15)

  3. My critique of Lacan does not extend beyond The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I, the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Mirror,” and “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” Thus I am open to the charge of selective focus, though I believe such reification is necessary.

  4. A singular truth could be a psychoanalytic law, or as it is for Dennis Pahl, the very principle of indeterminacy.

  5. Recent readings of “The Assignation” from psychoanalytic and deconstructive perspectives do not broach the topic of homoeroticism. See Dennis Pahl, David Ketterer, and Katrina Bachinger. Their readings, which begin to address the textual erotics of Poe's prose, build on a long-standing and little-contested critical tradition of circumscribing Poe within the confines of heterosexuality.

  6. For a summation of the dismissive attitude of traditional American critics toward Poe, see Jonathan Culler, “Baudelaire and Poe.” Also see Richard P. Benton, “Is Poe's ‘The Assignation’ a Hoax?”

  7. To give a name would be, indeed, to foreclose identity.

    Bodies only become whole, i.e., totalities, by the idealizing and totalizing specular image which is sustained through time by the sexually marked name. To have a name is to be positioned within the symbolic … the paternal law produces versions of bodily integrity; the name, which installs gender and kinship, works as a politically invested and investing performative. To be named is thus to be inculcated into that law and to be formed, bodily, in accordance with that law. (Butler 72)

  8. For a detailed reading of the feminized Orient and European homosexual projection onto the East, see Joseph A. Boone, “Vacation Cruises; or, the Homoerotics of Orientalism.”

  9. Butler further argues,

    [t]he expressive power of the symbolic is itself produced by the citational instance by which the law is embodied … The imaginary practice of identification must itself be understood as a double movement: in citing the symbolic, an identification (re)invests the symbolic law, seeks recourse to it as a continuing authority that precedes its imaginary instancing. The priority and authority of the symbolic is, however, constituted through that recursive turn, such that citation … effectively brings into being the very prior authority to which it then defers. (108-9)

  10. Lacan states that to understand the imaginary, “we should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope or a photographic apparatus” (Book I 75). In such an optics, “for each given point only in real space, there must be one point and one corresponding point only in another space, which is the imaginary space” (76). Thus, there is an exact replication from the real to the imaginary: “the reflection in the mirror indicates an original noetic possibility” (125).

Works Cited

Bachinger, Katrina. “‘The Somber Madness of Sex’: Byron's First and Last Gift to Poe.” The Byron Journal 19 (1991): 128-40.

Benton, Richard P. “Is Poe's ‘The Assignation’ a Hoax?” Nineteenth Century Fiction 18 (1963): 193-197.

Boone, Joseph A. “Vacation Cruises; or, the Homoerotics of Orientalism.” PMLA 110:1 (January 1995): 89-107.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Culler, Jonathan. “Baudelaire and Poe.” Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur 100 (1990): 61-73.

Davidson, Edward H., ed. Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Purveyor of Truth.” The Purloined Poe. Ed. John P. Miller and William J. Richardson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. On Narcissism: An Introduction. Ed. Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Harvey, Irene. “Structures of Exemplarity in Poe, Freud, Lacan, and Derrida.” The Purloined Poe. Ed. John P. Miller and William J. Richardson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Ketterer, David. “The Sexual Abyss: Consummation in ‘The Assignation.’” Poe Studies 19.1 (1986): 7-10.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’.” The Purloined Poe. Ed. John P. Miller and William J. Richardson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I. Trans. John Forrester. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Pahl, Dennis. “Recovering Byron: Poe's ‘The Assignation.’” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 26.3 (1984): 211-229.

Rose, Jacqueline. “The Imaginary.” Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Warner, Michael. “Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality.” Engendering Men. Ed. Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Why does a Letter Always Arrive at Its Destination?” Enjoy Your Symptom. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Daniel J. Philippon (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Philippon, Daniel J. “Poe in the Ragged Mountains: Environmental History and Romantic Aesthetics.” Southern Literary Journal 30, no. 2 (spring 1998): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Philippon considers whether Poe based his story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” on the extant Ragged Mountains in Virginia and that “the discrepancy between the actual Ragged Mountains and the fanciful landscape his protagonist envisions is crucial to a complete understanding of the story.”]

A later work, written at the same time as some of his best-known tales of horror and ratiocination—such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,” “The Black Cat,” “The Premature Burial,” and “The Purloined Letter”—“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) has never been considered one of Edgar Allan Poe's more successful stories. As Doris V. Falk has noted, the plot seems to be “deliberately obscure, full of multifarious Romantic-Gothic elements which never quite cohere,” and as a result, the very intricacy of the tale has probably “discouraged criticism, to say nothing of readers” (540). At the same time, however, Poe is said to have identified “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” as one of his favorite compositions (Miller 32), and it is the only work in which he refers specifically to his experience in Charlottesville, where he attended the new University of Virginia during most of 1826.1 Despite its weakness, “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” raises two important questions that deserve consideration: first, did Poe base his tale on the actual landscape of the Ragged Mountains, and second, how might his having done so affect our reading of the tale?

William Carlos Williams claimed that Poe was “intimately shaped by his locality and time” (216) and that the local was Poe's “constant focus of attention” (218). “It is the New World,” Williams wrote in In the American Grain (1925), “or to leave that for the better term, it is a new locality that is in Poe assertive; it is America, the first great burst through to expression of a reawakened genius of place” (216). Yet Williams also suggested that Poe's work grew out of the local conditions “not of trees and mountains, but of the ‘soul’” (227). Although most of Poe's tales do indeed explore the inner landscape of his characters at the expense of the natural world, “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” is an important exception to this rule. Close attention to the environmental and cultural history of the Ragged Mountains demonstrates not only that Poe most likely did base his tale on this familiar landscape, but also that the discrepancy between the actual Ragged Mountains and the fanciful landscape his protagonist envisions is crucial to a complete understanding of the story.

“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” opens with the narrator's description of Augustus Bedloe, one of Poe's typical protagonists—a thin, corpse-like young man, pale and melancholy, who suffers from neuralgia. For this condition, he has long been treated by Doctor Templeton, an elderly physician trained in mesmerism. As a result, says the narrator, “a very distinct and strongly marked rapport, or magnetic relation” had grown up between the patient and his doctor.2 A sensitive and excitable character, with a vigorous imagination and a heavy morphine habit, Bedloe would each day “set forth alone, or attended only by a dog, upon a long ramble among the chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville, and are there dignified by the title of the Ragged Mountains” (942).3 One evening, when Bedloe returns home late from one of his daily jaunts in “rather more than ordinary spirits,” Templeton and the narrator are treated to a most extraordinary tale.

After several hours of walking in a drug-induced swoon through the “dreary desolation” of the mountains, Bedloe says, he was surprised to hear the beating of a drum, “a thing unknown” in these hills. Soon thereafter he encountered “a dusky visaged and half-naked man” rushing past him, followed closely by a hyena. When Bedloe paused a moment to collect himself, he then discovered that the tree beneath which he rested was a palm. Astonished by these strange events, he found himself entering into a dream like state in which he was overlooking—and then entering—an arabesque city with “long winding alleys” that “absolutely swarmed with inhabitants” (945). As he became caught up in the tumult and excitement of the crowd, “by some inconceivable impulse” he joined a British-led party battling the city's inhabitants, but was quickly killed in combat, shot in the right temple by a poisoned arrow “made to imitate the body of a creeping serpent” (947). Following his death, Bedloe says, he experienced a violent shock “as if of electricity”; he seemed to rise above his corpse; and he departed the city. Upon returning to the location where he first encountered the hyena, Bedloe was then awakened by another sudden shock, and he bent his steps “eagerly homewards” (948).4

At the conclusion of Bedloe's tale, a visibly shaken Doctor Templeton announces that “the soul of man today is upon the verge of some stupendous psychal discoveries,” and proceeds to inform Bedloe that “at the very period in which you fancied these things among the hills, I was engaged in detailing them on paper” (949). According to Templeton, Bedloe's vision perfectly matched a memoir he had been writing of his own experiences as a twenty-year-old British officer in Benares, India, serving under the administration of Warren Hastings. “The riots, the combats, the massacre, were the actual events of the insurrection of Cheyte Sing, which took place in 1780,” Templeton says, “when Hastings was put in imminent peril of his life” (949). Moreover, says Templeton, Bedloe's experience not only paralleled the shooting death of a fellow British officer named Oldeb, but Bedloe's “miraculous similarity” in appearance to Oldeb was what first attracted the doctor to his patient many years ago.

At this, Poe's narrator closes the story by reprinting the newspaper obituary of Bedloe, who died one week after the events narrated. According to the death notice, Bedloe had contracted a slight cold and fever on his expedition to the Ragged Mountains, and to relieve the swelling in his head, Doctor Templeton bled Bedloe with leeches applied to the temples. Unfortunately, Templeton unknowingly applied a poisonous leech—the “poisonous sangsue of Charlottesville”—to Bedloe's right temple, thus causing his untimely death. As the newspaper account reveals, the “poisonous sangsue of Charlottesville may always be distinguished from the medicinal leech by its blackness, and especially by its writhing or vermicular motions, which very nearly resemble those of a snake” (950). Just as Oldeb was killed by a snakelike, poisoned arrow to his right temple, therefore, Bedloe died in a similar fashion from a snakelike, poisoned leech applied to his right temple by Templeton. Finally, to cement the connection between the two men, the narrator notes that Bedloe's name was misspelled in the obituary as “Bedlo”—a fact “stranger than any fiction,” he declares, “for Bedlo, without the e, what is it but Oldeb conversed?” (950).

To make sense of this swirling mass of incidents and coincidence, most commentators have understandably turned their attention to the tale's most prominent themes: mesmerism, metempsychosis, and animal magnetism. In an influential 1947 article on “Poe and Mesmerism,” Sidney E. Lind distinguished between the mesmerism (hypnosis) and metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) in the tale, arguing that “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” was “intended by Poe to be a study in hypnosis, with the theme of metempsychosis subordinated to one character, Dr. Templeton” (1085). In 1969, however, Doris V. Falk argued, contra Lind, that Poe meant the story to be a study not in mesmerism but in “animal magnetism—that electromagnetic force capable of maintaining the nervous organization, complete with physical sensations, even after death, making time and space unreal and relative” (540).

These and other critics have avoided much discussion of the landscape of Poe's tale in part because it seems so irrelevant to the plot.5 James Southall Wilson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and the first editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, for instance, claimed that “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” had “no local color” (216). Likewise, Frances Winwar wrote that although Poe “drew on the nature he observed … the story was as far removed from normal experience as an opium dream could make it” (242). And Daniel Hoffman has even suggested that “for those Poe stories in which the characters are still alive, it may be inessential, indeed distracting, to establish a recognizable place as the locus of the action” (206). Taken in by the circuitous windings of Poe's plot, critics such as these fail to recognize the degree to which Poe not only grounded his tale in the Virginia landscape, but also used the realities of that landscape to both justify and spoof the Romantic visions Bedloe claims to experience.

Although the extent of Poe's familiarity with the Ragged Mountains cannot be determined with certainty, documentary evidence suggests that the region sometimes served as a refuge for students, possibly including Poe, during the early years of the University of Virginia. The most detailed record of this practice appears in a letter of Thomas Goode Tucker, one of Poe's classmates, to Douglass Sherley, a student at the University in the late nineteenth century. Sherley incorporated the substance of the letter into one of his columns, called “Old Oddity Papers,” published in the University of Virginia Magazine in April 1880. According to Sherley, in May 1826, when Poe was enrolled at the University, a number of students fled to the Ragged Mountains to escape the local sheriff, who was seeking to bring them before the Albemarle County grand jury on charges of gambling. “With Edgar Allan Poe for a leader,” Sherley recounts, “they, to use the college expression, indiscriminately ‘bolted’ … off to the ‘Ragged Mountains’ over an unfrequented by-path, but one well known to Poe, and over which he had often travelled” (432). Although the minutes of the Faculty and other University records confirm the main features of this story, “Tucker's statement that Poe was the ringleader of the band is unconfirmed and probably fictitious,” Floyd Stovall suggests (6-7). Likewise, John S. Patton, librarian of the University of Virginia in 1908, characterized Poe's leadership of the fleeing collegians as “a graceful fiction” (726).

With the exception of his own participation, Poe himself confirmed the basic facts of Tucker's account in a letter written to his foster father, John Allan, on 25 May 1826:

Soon after you left here the Grand Jury met and put the students in a terrible fright—so much so that the lectures were unattended—and those whose names were upon the Sheriff's list—travelled off into the woods & mountains—taking their beds & provisions along with them—there were about 50 on the list—so you may suppose the College was very well thinned—this was the first day of the fright—the second day, “A proclamation” was issued by the faculty forbidding “any student under pain of a major punishment to leave his dormitory between the hours of 8 & 10 AM—(at which time the Sheriffs would be about) or in any way to resist the lawful authority of the Sheriffs”—This order was very little attended to—as the fear of the Faculty could not counterbalance that of the Grand Jury—most of the “indicted” ran off a second time into the woods and upon an examination the next morning by the Faculty—Some were reprimanded—some suspended—and one expelled—

(Letters I: 4).6

Because Poe was not among the “indicted,” if he went with the students who fled to the Ragged Mountains, Stovall concludes, “it was evidently not as ringleader and apparently not from fear of the sheriff; it might have been for fear he would be called as a witness, or it might have been only for the fun of it or because he was better acquainted with the area than other students” (10).

Even if Poe did not participate in this particular trip, it seems more than likely he at some time traveled to the mountains—or at the very least was acquainted with their characteristics. Poe's best biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, claims that the description of the scenery in this tale “probably was based on memories too deeply impressed on a young imaginative mind to be forgotten” (114), and the many accounts of student excursions to the mountains of Virginia during the nineteenth century suggest that Quinn is probably correct. Antebellum novelist William Alexander Caruthers, for instance, described his 1818 expedition to the Natural Bridge with three friends from Washington College in “Climbing the Natural Bridge” (1838); Henry Ruffner recounted his many visits to House Mountain, west of Lexington, in his autobiographical novel Judith Bensaddi (1839); and Henry Clay Pate's American Vade Mecum; or, The Companion of Youth, and Guide to College (1852) includes a representative account of a trip to the Peaks of Otter, near Bedford. Just as Poe seems to have derived his description of the streams of the imaginary island of Tsalal in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) from his knowledge of the mineral springs of Virginia, so too did he probably base his description of the “chain of wild and dreary hills” in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” on his knowledge of the local landscape.7

Poe's likely familiarity with the Ragged Mountains is further indicated by a close reading of the early portion of the tale, in which Poe alludes to the historic inhabitation of this region by American Indians. According to the narrator, Bedloe departed for the hills “[u]pon a dim, warm, misty day, towards the close of November, and during the strange interregnum of the seasons which in America is termed the Indian Summer” (942). Bedloe himself also refers to the distinctiveness of the season when he notes that “[t]he thick and peculiar mist, or smoke, which distinguishes the Indian summer, and which … hung heavily over all the objects, served, no doubt to deepen the vague impressions which these objects created” (943). One of the earliest references to the term “Indian Summer” was made by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in a 1778 essay on “A Snow-Storm as It Affects the American Farmer,” in which Crèvecoeur simply described the period as “a short interval of smoke and mildness” (41), but a later, further detailed reference to the term is more revealing—and may even have influenced Poe's own usage. In his 1824 Notes, on the Settlement and Indian Wars, of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, the historian Joseph Doddridge claimed that the “smokey time” known as Indian Summer was so called “because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare” (266). A popular text in mid-nineteenth-century Virginia, Doddridge's Notes were appended to Samuel Kercheval's widely read History of the Valley of Virginia (1833), a book with which Poe may well have been familiar. Placed in the context of Doddridge's definition, then, Poe's choice of seasons can be seen not only to foreshadow the events that take place in the “Indian” city of Benares, but also to link these events to the American Indian history of central Virginia.

Although no battles similar to the insurrection of Cheyte Sing occurred between Indians and settlers in Albemarle County (in which Charlottesville is located), warfare was common between rival tribes before the arrival of Europeans. The earliest reference to the Indians of this region appears on John Smith's 1612 map of Virginia, in which Smith indicates that a group of Indians called the Monacans lived in this area and that their chief village was named Monasukapanough. Amoroleck, a Manahoac Indian from the Rappahannock River region, described the Monacans as peaceful in August 1608, according to Smith's General Historie (1624): “The Monacans he sayd were their neighbors and friends, and did dwell as they in the hilly Countries by small rivers, living upon rootes and fruits, but chiefly by hunting” (II: 176). But in the text accompanying his 1612 map, Smith offered a more bellicose description of the tribe, in his discussion of the tidewater Powhatans in relation to the Monacans: “They seldome make warre for lands or goods, but for women and children, and principally for revenge. They have many enemies, namely all their westernely Countries beyond the mountaines, and the heads of the rivers” (I: 165).

Another important source from which Poe may have learned of the Indian inhabitants of this region was Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), written by Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia. In Query XI of his Notes, Jefferson explained how he examined a Monacan burial mound north of the Ragged Mountain region, “on the low grounds of the Rivanna [River], about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town [Monasukapanough]” (98). The mound, Jefferson says, “was of a spheroidical form, of about 40 feet in diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude, though now reduced by the plow to seven and a half, having been under cultivation about a dozen years” (98). After making a number of excavations, Jefferson observed that the mound held about one thousand bodies arranged in several layers, with each layer being covered with dirt and stones. Given that he discovered no holes “as if made with bullets, arrows, or other weapons” in any of the bones, Jefferson also conjectured that this was probably not the grave marker of a great battle, nor was it “the common sepulchre of a town” (99). Whatever the occasion for the mound, Jefferson concluded, the bones “are of considerable notoriety among the Indians”:

for a party passing, about thirty years ago, through the part of the country where this barrow is, went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road, which they had left about half a dozen miles to pay this visit, and pursued their journey.


Although no burial mounds of this size exist farther south, twelve sites—including two rock shelters—are located in the Ragged Mountain region, along the north and south forks of the Hardware River (Holland 12).8

According to Albemarle County historian John Hammond Moore, local legend also has it that another party of Indians appeared in the county sometime around 1840, seeking permission to perform memorial services at a burial mound near the Ragged Mountains. When their request was granted, the Indians “conducted a series of dances watched with considerable interest by many citizens,” and then, like the Indians observed by Jefferson, went away without incident (5-6).9 Poe, in Philadelphia at the time, in all likelihood remained unaware of this particular event (if indeed it did occur), but he nevertheless must have learned something about the situation of the American Indians by the mid-1840s, because he was clearly growing sympathetic to their cause. Two years after “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” appeared, Poe argued in Graham's Magazine (Dec. 1846) that the term “Appalachia” was preferable to “America” as a name for the United States because “in employing this word we do honor to the Aborigines, whom, hitherto, we have at all points unmercifully despoiled, assassinated and dishonored” (Brevities 310).

In addition to his allusions to the American Indian inhabitants of the region in his tale, Poe also relied on popular stereotypes of the poor whites who lived in the Ragged Mountains to strengthen the credibility of Bedloe's visionary experiences. Although Bedloe emphasizes that he may have been “the first adventurer—the very first and sole adventurer who had ever penetrated … [the mountains'] recesses,” he also claims to have remembered “strange stories told about these Ragged Hills, and of the uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns” (943).

Despite the limited information that exists about the mountain people of this region during the mid-nineteenth century, a few pieces of evidence suggest that Poe's characterization of their unfavorable reputation was in keeping with the popular beliefs of his time.10 In a 15 April 1875 letter to John Henry Ingram, Poe's English biographer, George Long, one of the first professors at the University, wrote that the Ragged Mountains were

inhabited by a considerable number of very ignorant, brutal whites. This hilly region is very picturesque and the geology very interesting. I often rode out to see it, but I kept clear of the barbarous inhabitants one of whom I had unintentionally offended by a harmless joke. In those days a Virginian was a dangerous man to joke with, for he could not comprehend a joke and could only take it as an insult.

(“Poe at the University” 166)

A similar account appears in a fictional sequel to “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” written by Emory Widener, a student at the University, for the University of Virginia Magazine in 1909. In Widener's updated “Tale,” the narrator describes an expedition he and two other students took to the Ragged Mountains one morning in May, in tribute to “poor Eddie Poe.”

The little hills seemed only a short distance away when we started, but it was high noon ere we reached their summit. And such mountains! Only a nest of hills, inhabited by a strange, rude people, who have lived in the shadow of Mr. Jefferson's institution since its founding without ever being able to write a word that is spoken there. As we climbed the mountain, one of these fellows was standing in his yard. He motioned us towards him. “Any booze?” he queried, and when we denied him, he went into his cabin, sad. Such is the life of the inhabitants of Ragged Mountains.


The economic circumstances of these people is further illustrated by a comment in the Rev. Edgar Woods's 1909 history of Albemarle County, in which Woods writes that “[i]n early times the Mountains … were called Ragged, from their disordered appearance, and not from the garments of their inhabitants, as has sometimes been suggested” (20).

Unfortunately, the most detailed discussion of the residents of this region does not appear until more than 68 years after Poe's story first appeared, when the University of Virginia Civic Club in 1912 published An Investigation of Conditions in the Ragged Mountains of Virginia. Assuming that the situation of the inhabitants of this region would most likely have improved, and not declined, over time, this 26-page booklet—heavily marred though it is by class bias—may nevertheless offer some indication of the conditions in which the inhabitants of the Ragged Mountains must have been living in the mid-nineteenth century. “The larger part of the Ragged Mountain people,” the club found, “are reasonably prosperous, of good intelligence and moral fiber, and possess at least a rudimentary education” (25). A small portion of the inhabitants, however, were discovered to be living “in a practically separate community—which is vastly more backward, in greater poverty and moral darkness than its neighbors” (25). Situated within a narrow strip of land eight miles long and from two to four miles wide, and located a little more than two miles southwest of Charlottesville, this community was said to be composed of people “not only very poor, but also tainted with various forms of physical and moral degeneracy which make them not only useless citizens but bad neighbors” (16). It is their moral laxity, according to the Civic Club, that “has in times past cast an unmerited reproach upon all the inhabitants of the Ragged Mountains” (25).

Given the continuity that seems to have existed throughout the years in the perception of these people by outsiders, Poe's local audience in the nineteenth century probably would have recognized a similarity between Bedloe's fear of the “uncouth and fierce races of men” who lived in the Ragged Mountains and the “deep sense of animosity” he felt toward “the swarming rabble of the alleys” in Benares (946), just as they might have associated the Indian summer of the tale's setting with the idea of warfare. Nevertheless, in the same way Poe's sympathy with the American Indian today helps us find irony in his use of the Indian summer as a foreshadowing device, Poe's local audience would no doubt also have recognized a difference between the dwellings of this poorest class of Ragged Mountain residents and the Oriental city envisioned by Bedloe. According to the Civic Club, the homes of “this community of backward and, in part, aberrant individuals” (5) are “of the wretchedest type” (20):

the cabins are pitifully small, the families occupying them pitifully large; and often the pigs and chickens live in the same room with seven or eight people. Some of the cabins are so tumbled down and open to the weather that it is amazing that human beings can dwell in them, particularly in the winter. The premises about the cabins are in equally as bad condition; stables, pigsties and privies are placed without regard for drainage into the wells and springs; the stables and other outbuildings are often merely shelters, sometimes built of the thick branches of trees; and the fences, porches, and yards are ill kept and unkempt to a degree that is astonishing. Horses and cows are rarely owned by these people, but nearly every family has one or more pigs and a collection of chickens; there are few agricultural implements, and these are of the poorest type, and in bad repair.


The contrast between this description and Bedloe's view of Benares could not be more striking. Looking down on the Indian city from above, Bedloe notes:

The houses were wildly picturesque. On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandahs, of minarets, of shrines, and fantastically carved oriels. Bazaars abounded; and in these were displayed rich wares in infinite variety and profusion—silks, muslins, the most dazzling cutlery, the most magnificent jewels and palanquins, litters with stately dames close veiled, elephants gorgeously caparisoned, idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners and gongs, spears, silver and gilded mace. And amid the crowd, and the clamor, and the general intricacy and confusion—amid the million of black and yellow men, turbaned and robed, and of flowing beard, there roamed a countless multitude of holy filleted bulls, while vast legions of the filthy but sacred ape clambered, chattering and shrieking, about the cornices of the mosques, or clung to the minarets and oriels.


Noting that Poe's references to “strange stories” and “fierce races” are reminiscent of similar devices used by Washington Irving in “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), Stuart Levine suggests that Poe “may have selected the mountains of Virginia for much the same reason that Irving chose the Catskills: because he thought he could ‘get away’ with more than he could in more prosaic places” (138-39). Moreover, Levine argues, the hint of folklore present in the tale suggests that Poe, “like Hawthorne and other contemporaries, was worried by the problem of creating romance in a matter-of-fact new country” (139). While Levine is correct in suggesting that Poe was following the practices of other Romantic authors in his use of folkloric elements in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” unlike them, Poe was also interested in satirizing Romantic aesthetics. Indeed, if Poe's only intent was to romanticize the mountainous Virginia landscape, he could have developed the roles of the Indian and the mountaineer much further than he did. Instead, by turning to India to provide the substance of his tale—by choosing to transform “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” into “A Tale of Benares”—Poe was able to poke fun at the very Romantic practices he seemed to be embracing. As Mukhtar Ali Isani points out,

Poe's choice of an Oriental element for his tale appears to have been influenced by the contemporary vogue for Orientalism in America. Only in this case, Poe was not writing an Oriental tale, though he may for a while give this impression. … Poe's Orientalism is a lure, the claims to authenticity skillfully diverting the reader from the more mundane truth that the story is a tale of Charlottesville, with a psychological explanation of the exotic cover.


In other words, as Edward Said has written, Poe's Orientalism “has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” (12).11

Poe further suggests that Bedloe's Romantic vision is literally “out of place” in the Virginia mountains by borrowing elements of his Orientalized landscape from other sources. Of the many studies that trace the sources of this tale, the most convincing are those that discuss the similarities between “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and Thomas Babington Macaulay's famous essay on Warren Hastings, which first appeared in the Edinburgh Review in October 1841.12 Like Poe, Macaulay writes of Benares as a “labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines, and minarets, and balconies, and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by hundreds”; he describes India as filled with “the black faces, the long beards, the yellow streaks of sect; the turbans and the flowing robes; the spears and the silver maces; the elephants with their canopies of state”; and he refers to “the jungle where the lonely courier shakes his bunch of iron rings to scare away the hyaenas” (Mabbott III: 937-38).

The extent of Poe's borrowings from Macaulay to orientalize his Virginia setting also suggests the degree to which we should interpret the rest of his tale as a spoof on popular Romanticism in America. Poe not only plays on the contemporary taste for exotic destinations, but he also makes fun of those Romantic writers who suggest that every landscape is a knowable entity with which one can communicate. Between the delight Bedloe expresses in the “pleasant fog” of Indian summer and the oppression he feels from his “thousand vague fancies” about the mountains and their inhabitants, Bedloe also experiences another emotion—a drug-induced Romantic revery. As his walk progressed, Bedloe recounts,

the morphine had its customary effect—that of enduing all the external world with an intensity of interest. In the quivering of a leaf—in the hue of a blade of grass—in the shape of a trefoil—in the humming of a bee—in the gleaming of a dewdrop—in the breathing of the wind—in the faint odors that came from the forest—there came a whole universe of suggestion—a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought.


Such rhapsodies do not bring about transcendence for Bedloe, of course, but rather the heightening of terror, a state of fearful agitation, and, ultimately, complete delusion.13 Our attempts to “commune” with nature in the Romantic fashion, Poe seems to suggest, are doomed to utter failure. Nature, despite our deepest desires, will always remain a foreign country.

Poe's exposé of Romantic aesthetics in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” culminates in the device by which the narrator announces the death of Bedloe: his contact with “one of the venomous vermicular sangsues which are now and then found in the neighboring ponds” (950). As Thomas Ollive Mabbott points out in his introduction to the tale in the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1969-78), “Neither in fact, nor in fable (before Poe's), can a poisonous sangsue (or leech) be found” (936). In addition, according to W. Otto Friesen, Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia, of the ten or so pond leeches found in and around the Charlottesville area, not only is none poisonous, but many are not even bloodsuckers. As Mabbott also notes, although Poe may have found the French term for the leech (sangsue) in either Cuvier's Le Règne Animal (1817) or Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1832), he may also have chosen to pun on the name of Samuel Leitch, Jr., a Charlottesville merchant who billed John Allan for a debt of $68.46, incurred by “Edgar A. Powe,” while at the University (952-23).14 Whatever the source of his leech, Poe's intention is clear: Romantics who surrender themselves completely to nature—who allow their imaginations to overwhelm their perceptions—can expect to meet with a deadly fate. Inattention to the actualities of the landscape, in short, can have tragic consequences.15

Although the mesmerism, metempsychosis, and animal magnetism of “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” all provide a convenient explanation for Bedloe's Romantic vision, these aspects of the tale fail to address the full significance of his experience. Restoring the centrality of the landscape to Poe's tale helps us better to understand Bedloe's vision as an expression of both the ease with which we can find the supernatural in the natural and the consequences of our looking for more in a landscape than it actually contains. According to Reinhard H. Friederich, “In a number of ways ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ is typical of what irritates the reader in much of Poe's fiction: there are both oblique and obvious repetitions, excitement and exhaustion, exotic prospects which turn out to be commonplace. For a while life seems to invent exciting alternatives to a normally drab existence, but after a short while such semblances collapse in death” (155-56). Yet this is precisely the point of Poe's tale: “exotic prospects” often exceed the ability of the “commonplace” to sustain them, and “exciting alternatives” are usually nothing but “semblances” of daily life. To succeed, therefore, any search for a “whole universe of suggestion” must be held in check by the realities of the landscape in which it occurs.


  1. Although the narrator dates the events of “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” as occurring during the fall of 1827, Poe attended the University from February to December of 1826.

  2. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969-78) III: 941. Subsequent references to this volume will be made parenthetically in the text by page number.

  3. Modern geological survey maps confine the Ragged Mountains to a few square miles, which include four main peaks: Round Top (919 ft.), Bear Den Mountain (1,248 ft.), Newcomb Mountain (1,262 ft.), and Woodson Mountain (1,297 ft.). Earlier maps of Albemarle County are more generous, however, and the first country history shows the term “Ragged Mountains” to be rather flexible, sometimes designating mountains in the northwest part of the county in addition to those “heaped up for some miles” to the southwest (Woods 15).

  4. Portions of Bedloe's vision resemble Thomas De Quincey's dreams in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), which Poe had read by 1835, especially De Quincey's imagery of mountains and valleys, solitude and crowds, and the terror of the East (Poe, Letters I: 58). For more on Poe and opium, see Hayter and Milligan.

  5. An important exception to the general disregard for the landscape of Poe's tales is Ljungquist, although his discussion of “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” is all too brief (127-29).

  6. Only twenty-five students' names were on the “Proclamation,” according to Stovall, and Poe's name was not among them (9).

  7. For a comparison of Pym and the mineral springs, see Cecil.

  8. For more on the Monacans, see Bushnell; Hantman; and Houck.

  9. See also the account noted by Bushnell in “‘The Indian Grave.’”

  10. These beliefs are consistent with the longstanding negative perception of Appalachian mountain dwellers by outside observers. For the history of the idea of Appalachia, see Batteau and Shapiro.

  11. For more on Orientalism and Romanticism in America, see Kleitz.

  12. Several critics have noticed this similarity, the most recent being Isani. Poe probably read the essay in the first two volumes of the (unauthorized) Philadelphia edition of Macaulay's Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1841), which he reviewed for Graham's Magazine in June (Mabbott III: 937). For other source studies, see Carter; Cobb; Kopley; and Pittman.

  13. Bedloe's reliance upon morphine to induce his hyperesthesia, or intensity of sense perception, heightens the discrepancy between real and imagined landscapes in the tale. See also De Quincey's contrast between the “Pleasures” and “Pains” of opium.

  14. For more on Poe's use of Hugo, see Pollin.

  15. This interpretation is consistent with recent readings of Poe's three landscape sketches—“The Landscape Garden” (1842), “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), and “Landor's Cottage” (1849)—with which “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” shares many elements. See, for instance, Rainwater. For another important discussion of landscape in Poe, see Baym.

Works Cited

Batteau, Allen. The Invention of Appalachia. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1990.

Baym, Nina. “The Function of Poe's Pictorialism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 65 (1966): 46-54.

Bushnell, David I., Jr. “Evidences of Indian Occupation in Albemarle County, Virginia.” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 89.7 (1933): 1-24.

———. “The Five Monacan Towns in Virginia, 1607.” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 82.12 (1930): 1-38.

———. “‘The Indian Grave’—A Monacan Site in Albemarle County, Virginia.” William and Mary Quarterly 23 (1914): 106-12.

Caruthers, William Alexander. “Climbing the Natural Bridge.” Knickerbocker 12 (July 1838): 32-35.

Carter, Boyd. “Poe's Debt to Charles Brockden Brown.” Prairie Schooner 27 (1953): 190-96.

Cecil, L. Moffitt. “Poe's Tsalal and the Virginia Springs.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19 (1965): 398-402.

Cobb, Palmer. “The Influence of E. T. A. Hoffman on the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” Studies in Philology 3 (1908): 1-104.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Vol 3. of The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1889-90.

Doddridge, Joseph. Notes on the Indian Wars of Western Virginia. Wellsburgh, VA: Office of the Gazette, 1824.

Falk, Doris V. “Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism.” PMLA 84 (1969): 536-46.

Friederich, Reinhard H. “Necessary Inadequacies: Poe's ‘Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ and Borges' South.” J of Narrative Technique 12 (1982): 155-66.

Friesen, W. Otto. Telephone interview. 5 Dec. 1996.

Hantman, Jeffrey L. “Powhatan's Relations with the Piedmont Monacans.” Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500-1722. Ed. Helen C. Rountree. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993. 94-111.

Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Holland, Charlton Gilmore, Jr. “Albemarle Before 1700.” Magazine of Albemarle County History 9 (1949): 5-12.

Houck, Peter W. Indian Island in Amherst County. Lynchburg, VA: Lynchburg Historical Research, 1984.

Isani, Mukhtar Ali. “Some Sources for Poe's ‘Tale of the Ragged Mountains.’” Poe Studies 5.2 (1972): 38-40.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1785. Ed. William Peden. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1955.

Kercheval, Samuel. History of the Valley of Virginia. Ed. John W. Wayland. 5th ed. Strasburg, VA: Shenandoah, 1973.

Kleitz, Dorsey Rodney. “Orientalism and the American Romantic Imagination: The Middle East in the Works of Irving, Poe, Emerson, and Melville.” Diss. U of New Hampshire, 1988.

Kopley, Richard. “Poe's Pym-esque ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.’” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu. Ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990. 167-77.

Levine, Stuart. Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1972.

Lind, Sidney E. “Poe and Mesmerism.” PMLA 62 (1947): 1077-94.

Ljungquist, Kent. The Grand and the Fair: Poe's Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques. Potomac, MD: Scripta Humanistica, 1984.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Rev. of Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren Hastings, by G. R. Gleig. Edinburgh Review 74 (Oct. 1841): 160-255.

Miller, John Carl, ed. Poe's Helen Remembers. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1979.

Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Moore, John Hammond. Albemarle: Jefferson's County, 1727-1976. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1976.

Pate, Henry Clay. American Vade Mecum; or, The Companion of Youth, and Guide to College. Cincinnati: Morgan, 1852.

Patton, John S. “Poe at the University.” New York Times Book Review 5 Dec. 1908: 726.

Pittman, Diana. “Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” Southern Literary Messenger 3 (1941): 422-31.

“Poe at the University of Virginia: Unpublished Letters from the Ingram Collection.” U of Virginia Alumni Bulletin 16 (1923): 163-67.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Brevities: Pinakidia, Marginalia, Fifty Suggestions, and Other Works. Ed. Burton R. Pollin. New York: Gordian Press, 1985. Vol. 2 of Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. 4 vols. 1981-86.

———. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969-78.

———. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1948.

Pollin, Burton R. Discoveries in Poe. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1970.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Poe's Landscape Tales and the ‘Picturesque’ Tradition.” Southern Literary Journal 16.2 (Spring 1984): 30-43.

Ruffner, Henry. “Judith Bensaddi: A Tale, Revised and Enlarged by the Author.” Southern Literary Messenger 5 (1839): 465-505.

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St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Ed. Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams. New Haven: Yale UP, 1925.

Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1978.

[Sherley, Douglass.] “Old Oddity Papers.” U of Virginia Magazine 19 (1879-80): 426-45.

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Winwar, Frances. The Haunted Palace: A Life of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper, 1959.

Widener, Emory. “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” U of Virginia Magazine 52 (1908-09): 216-20.

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Judith E. Pike (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Pike, Judith E. “Poe and the Revenge of the Exquisite Corpse.” Studies in American Fiction 26, no. 2 (autumn 1998): 171-92.

[In the following essay, Pike analyzes Poe's preoccupation with death and the “fetishism of the exquisite corpse” during the nineteenth century.]

Although Poe's debt to the Gothic genre is documented in his tales with numerous references to Gothic texts and occult literature, Poe's “architecture of death”1 is not merely a case of belated romanticism.2 The resurgence of the Gothic architectures of death in Poe should instead be read as a literary response to cultural attempts to raze those very structures and replace them with a new ideology of death. By Poe's time, death was being sublimated by a whole new industry and aesthetic of mourning, which in effect commercialized and domesticated death. Although numerous cultural historians have surveyed the shift in the iconography of death from the eighteenth century through to the Victorian period in America, they have failed to theorize fully how the nineteenth-century cult of mourning reveals a profound cultural ambivalence toward the unsublimated dead body, especially the female dead body.3 Poe's writings not only expose this ambivalence but reinvest the dead body with the corporeality that the cult of mourning attempts to eradicate. Poe figures the female living dead as an embodiment of the Lacanian real, which dismantles the nineteenth century's emergent fetishism of the exquisite corpse.

At the heart of the nineteenth-century romantic cult of the dead lay a profound ambivalence towards the dead body. On one hand the dead body achieved a certain stature with its own elaborate memorials—death bed scenes, wakes, monumental tombstones—and even, with the garden cemetery movement, its own private property, a fenced-in private plot.4 On the other hand, the dead body was at the height of its exclusion from public view. One of the period's most popular funerary sculptures, the urn, privileged a pile of ashes—the disembodied body—as the figure of death. The more the dead body was memorialized, the more it was forgotten. Phillipe Ariès cites numerous examples of how memorial representations, such as mourning pictures, replaced the natural body; mourning pictures, he argues, “played the role of the tomb, of the memorial, a sort of portable tomb adapted to American mobility.”5 The body was everywhere immortalized but nowhere to be found.

The profound ambivalence toward the dead body inherent in the cult of mourning gave rise to new technicians of death and sublimation. While garden cemeteries and funerary sculptors had successfully rid themselves of any reminders of the dead body, other aestheticians of death were reclaiming the dead body. With the 1839 invention of the daguerreotype, photographers created a new technological means of disavowing death, through postmortem photography. While the deceased are most often portrayed as sleeping, some postmortem photographs display the dead in more lifelike poses, sitting up in a chair or gazing out at the viewer.6 Later in the century, with improvements in embalming techniques, morticians began vying amongst themselves for the best looking corpse. There was even a competition announced by the National Funeral Director's Association for the best looking corpse after sixty days, with a prize worth $1,000. Morticians became another genre of body snatchers whose task was to replace the natural body with a sublime one that could survive death, at least up to sixty days. This effort to deny death and the decomposition of the dead body nurtured what I am calling the fetish of the exquisite corpse. However, all these elaborate techniques to sublimate the dead body and transform it into a “sleeping beauty” or an exquisite corpse led to a shocking conclusion: the nineteenth-century tombstone no longer marks the site of the dead body nor of the bereaved living, but of the living dead. By the time the body is ready for burial, it has been revived by the photographer's and mortician's arts; in a sense, it is buried alive.

All these nineteenth-century technicians were trying to give the dead body a decent burial. Decent burials, however, are all too often premature burials, replacing the naturalistic dead body with the sublime body of the exquisite corpse that hovers somewhere between life and death. It can neither be too alive, for then it would provoke the dread of the living dead, nor too dead, for then it would provoke the dread of what Ariès has referred to as the transi (the perished one): the worm-ridden corpse.

While morticians were trying to perfect the art of the exquisite corpse, Edgar Allan Poe was writing stories of cryptic women that disclose the failure of the fetish of the exquisite corpse. In his stories we discover that in any constitution of the exquisite corpse as fetish there is an inherent failure, just as there is a failure implicit in the logic of the fetish. Any fetish object evokes great ambivalence, for while acting as a substitute and disguise for some horror or lack (in Freudian terms the castrated mother), it also acts as a signifier of that very lack and thus reinvokes that lack, which is why the fetish is so often abused. In the case of the fetish of the exquisite corpse, the sublimation of the dead body is never completely successful. It is impossible to get rid of all of its remains; there is always something leftover (le reste) that resists sublimation. This remainder, which disrupts the order of things through its failure to be assimilated or introjected, can also be seen in terms of the problematics of incorporation.

Psychoanalytic theorists Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, followed by Jacques Derrida, have drawn a distinction between introjection—the more familiar psychoanalytic term—and incorporation.7 In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud explains how in the case of love, the introjection of the object results in a positive augmentation of ego. The “ego has enriched itself with the properties of the object, it has ‘introjected’ the object into itself” (although in some extreme cases, he finds, the ego is impoverished rather than enriched by an object that usurps the ego's place).8 Whereas introjection leads to a successful assimilation and integration of the object, incorporation is marked by a failure to assimilate such an object into the ego. Instead of being introjected, the object, as Derrida explains, remains immured or encrypted in the ego, as something exterior kept secretly in the interior:

Incorporation keeps still, speaks only to silence or to ward off intruders from its secret place. What the crypt commemorates, as the incorporated object's ‘monument’ or ‘tomb’ is not the object itself, but its exclusion, the exclusion of a specific desire from the introjection process: A door is silently sealed off like a condemned passageway inside the self, becoming the outcast safe.

While the incorporated object is supposedly kept hidden, secreted away in the crypt, “the fantasy of incorporation can and must ‘signify,’ in its own way, the introjection it is incapable of: its impossibility, its simulacrum, its displacement.”9 Thus incorporation always gives itself away through some sign, marking the failure of introjection.

This distinction between introjection and incorporation is highly suggestive for the understanding of Poe's stories, especially those concerning with the encryptment of the dead body. Poe's stories have too often been read as case histories of transference and introjection without taking into consideration the more complex dimension of incorporation. In Harold Bloom's reading, for instance, Poe's characters “live out nearly every fantasy of introjection and identification, seeking to assuage their melancholia by psychically devouring the lost objects of their affections.”10 But although Poe's characters may indeed try psychically to devour their lost objects, these objects are never successfully introjected; they instead mark a refusal of introjection. To complete Bloom's metaphor, the object gets stuck in their throats, impossible to digest or assimilate. Efforts to expel the object (to kill off the other) are not only fruitless but often deadly. In Poe's stories these lost objects take on a life of their own post mortem and come to represent the incorporation of the living dead. While many of Poe's stories touch upon this problem of incorporation, “The Oval Portrait” is perhaps one of the most subtle treatments of this subject.

At first glance this tale appears to be a simple inversion of the myth of Galatea: instead of a statue metamorphosing into a woman, the woman is transposed into an art object. In his discussion of “The Oval Portrait,” J. Gerald Kennedy makes a very interesting argument for reading this metamorphosis as an act of translation:

The painter translates his wife in a double sense—into a visual icon and into a lifeless model. Like all translations, this process entails duplication and effacement, a retracing which both mirrors the original and abolishes it in the sense that every translation sacrifices the letter of the original text to reconstitute its spirit in another language.11

Poe's story problematizes this process of translation in a number of radical ways. Kennedy indicates that every translation involves not only duplication but an effacement of the original text. This is not the case, however, with “The Oval Portrait,” for one of the central problems in this story is that it is impossible to abolish or to introject the original in its entirety. Moreover, it is not “the letter of the original” that resists translation but the impossible remainder of what Lacan calls the real. The untranslatable remainder in this tale has less to do with the insistence of the letter than with the insistence of the real.

We see the first evidence of this untranslatable remainder and the insistence of the real during the scene of the portrait's completion. After the painter achieves “Life itself” and realizes “that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him,” his eyes fall upon that part of the original that refuses sublimation.12 Behind him sits her corpse, that unsublimated remainder that escapes his translation (introjection). This story is not just an inversion of the myth of Galatea, for in the original myth of Pygmalion and Galatea the statue comes so completely to life that nothing remains of the original statue. In the Greek myth the process of sublimation is complete, whereas in Poe's story the sublimation of the natural body cannot be achieved. While a beautiful portrait of “Life itself” stands before him, the grotesque dead body remains behind. It is the repression of the unsublimated dead body that generates the uncanny quality of the portrait.

Through the narrator, we learn of the full repercussions of this problematic sublimation and repression of the dead body. The narrator recounts how during a night's stay at a chateau he discovered in his bed chamber an enchanting portrait of a young woman. He did not understand why such a seemingly conventional portrait could have such a profound effect upon him until he noticed a very uncanny aspect about the painting's allure: “I had found the spell of the picture in absolute life-likeness of expression, which at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me” (569). Freud remarks that the uncertainty of whether something inanimate might in fact be alive is one of the most powerful instances of the uncanny.13 It is this very uncertainty that provokes Poe's narrator to seek out an explanation of the painting in the volume by his bedside, which only creates a greater sense of the uncanny. Through this account of the painting's origin we discover that encrypted in the portrait is a haunting remainder of the unsublimated dead body, which returns in the form of a living dead.

Although the painter tries to introject life itself into the painting and to immure her alive in it, the portrait instead becomes an encryptment in which death rather than life is buried alive. Such an encryptment, as Derrida notes, involves a complex dynamic of exclusion and incorporation of the dead body: “The inhabitant of a crypt is always a living dead, a dead entity we are perfectly willing to keep alive, but as dead, one we are willing to keep, as long as we keep it, within us, intact in anyway save as living.”14 The portrait in Poe's story exemplifies this very paradox of the living dead and at the same time exposes the limits or breakdown of the incorporation of the living dead. A successful encryptment, in Derrida's description, seals death away and incorporates it in a separate domain, insuring that life is not tainted by death.

Poe's story, the original title of which was “Life in Death,” presents us with the breakdown of this encryptment, for the attempt to exclude or to repress the life of death is precisely what comes back to haunt. As Derrida suggests, in any encryptment the fantasy of incorporation signifies “the introjection it is incapable of: its impossibility, its simulacrum, its displacement.”15 The uncanny and lifelike gaze of the portrait, which haunts the narrator, signifies this displacement and impossible introjection of the dead body. The dead body, though displaced, returns encrypted in the lifelike gaze. The narrator, at first fixated and intrigued by the portrait's gaze, is eventually appalled by it, for it provokes the dread of “life in death.” The repressed dead body returns as the living dead to seek revenge for its premature burial.

The painter's desire to animate the inanimate and to create his own fetish of the exquisite corpse through art has gone awry in “The Oval Portrait.” One of major problems inherent in the production of the exquisite corpse is that if it is too lifelike it can no longer function as a fetish; its uncanny reappearance as the undead marks the breakdown of the fetish. Although the fetish is always treated as an ambivalent object, it still functions in the symbolic order, whereas the undead marks an eruption of the real into the symbolic order. This distinction, though, is always very tenuous, for the exquisite corpse always has the potential to return as the undead. The reappearance of the undead is associated with too precipitous a burial. The undead are buried prematurely, before receiving proper obsequies—before they have, according to Lacan, gained access to their proper place in the symbolic order. They return demanding this proper burial and will not rest until it has been accomplished.

Lacan's analysis of Hamlet illustrates this demand for a proper burial, figured as “an inexpiable debt”: “The Other [King Hamlet] reveals himself from the beginning as the barred Other. He is barred not only from the world of the living but also from his just retribution. He has entered the kingdom of hell with this crime, this debt that he has not been able to pay, an inexpiable debt, he says.”16 Barred from the world of the living and yet also barred from their proper resting site, the undead occupy “the place between two deaths”; between biological death and symbolic death, where symbolic accounts are settled. The return of the living dead materializes a certain symbolic debt that persists beyond expiry.”17 In the case of Hamlet, the father's demand for the retribution of his untimely murder is clearly known from the very start of the play when he speaks to Hamlet: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shall hear” (I.v.7).

Although the ghost's demand is quite explicit, the demand of the undead women in Poe's tales is not so evident. And while it could be argued that the young woman in “The Oval Portrait” comes back to haunt due to her untimely demise or murder, Poe's stories offer a more complex inquiry into more problematic representations of the demand of the undead.

In Poe's stories the demand of the undead or of characters buried alive, who figure as versions of the living dead, bears a striking burden of sexual politics. In Poe's tales of the return from the dead of male protagonists their demand, unlike that of their female counterparts, is fully articulated. Moreover, its very articulation often becomes one of the key narrative components in the story. Even in a story such as “Loss of Breath,” in which the protagonist Mr. Lackobreath has been buried alive after having lost his breath and speech, he is not at a loss for words. He narrates the entire story of his loss of articulation and recovery. “Yes! breathless. I am serious in asserting that my breath was entirely gone” (344). In this story live burial becomes an absurd comedy of errors. Moreover, Mr. Lackobreath undergoes numerous humanly impossible ordeals reminiscent of Sade's Justine. First he is thrown off a train after he is presumed dead, which results in broken limbs and a fractured skull; then he undergoes a partial dissection and electric shock; finally he is interred in a public vault. In the crypt he dallies away his time guessing what kind of lives the other corpses around him might have led. Eventually he stumbles upon the corpse of a former acquaintance, Mr. Windenough, from whom he demands the return of his proper breath:

There were no terms with which he was unwilling to comply, and there were none of which I failed to take the fullest advantage.

Preliminaries being at length arranged, my acquaintance delivered me the respiration, for which (having fully examined it) I gave him afterward a receipt.


While Mr. Lackobreath's demand figures here as a desire to regain his breath, he has lost his breath to his wife's former paramour. Thus the comic ordeal of this sublime body turns into a more serious matter: by regaining his breath from his rival, he not only gains his speech back but also regains his proper place in the marriage and in the symbolic economy of the phallic law.18

“Some Words with a Mummy,” a humorous vignette about the reanimation of a museum mummy through electric shock, presents another clear articulation of the demand of the (male) living dead and its relation to the paternal law. The mummy explains that he was in fact embalmed alive. While he protests the vile and abject manner of his “revivification,” he goes on in great detail about his return from the dead for the purposes of “rescription and personal rectification” and explains that he has returned to life to prevent his and his forefathers' history from “degenerating into absolute fable” (458). He too is endowed with a sublime body to insure that his proper place in history will be secured.

The mummy might suggest what Ariès has called the tradition of “the beautiful dead” with its elaborate preservation of the body as an exquisite corpse. In fact real Egyptian mummies were rather horrific figures, by contrast with the products and aims of modern embalming; “unlike modern embalmers, who preserve the body in its usual appearance, the Egyptian mummies were complete only when dressed and masked. If this adornment is removed what one sees are skeletons covered with black, dried skin, rather horrible in appearance.”19 By contrast, in Poe's story the mummy's body, before its dissection at the hands of the modern Egyptologists, is completely intact. Unlike his historical predecessors, Poe's mummy was an exquisite corpse before his revivification. Eventually the doctors repair all the damage they have inflicted while reanimating him and then dress him up in modern attire—“a black dress coat, made in Jennings' best manner, a pair of sky-blue plaid pantaloons with straps, a pink gingham chemise, a flapped vest of brocade, a white sack overcoat, a walking cane with a hook, a hat with no brim, patent-leather boots, straw colored kid gloves, an eyeglass, a pair of whiskers, and a waterfall cravat” (456). Unlike the monster in Frankenstein, who is terrifying after his reanimation, this mummy looks like a buffoonish dandy in his garish costume. While his appearance is quite comical, he is a most articulate gentleman who spends the remainder of the story chronicling his civilization's advancements and reinscribing them for posterity. Live burial for Poe's male protagonists is a humorous adventure in which the order of things is only momentarily interrupted. Instead of provoking the dread of the undead, these stories through a comic vein restore the paternal law.

The undead or live burials of Poe's female protagonists, however, present their demand as exceeding the limits of the paternal law and the symbolic order. Poe's heroines do not escape from their encryptment quite so unscathed as do the heroes of “Loss of Breath” and “Some Words with a Mummy.” Although their debts are paid in full, his heroines persist beyond the grave with an unconditional and impossible demand, which is none other than pure drive. In “Berenice” this pure drive of the female undead tears asunder the very order of things.

Paternal law is very clearly established from the beginning of “Berenice,” represented by the narrator's detailed descriptions of genealogies and ancestral mansions—what Gregory Jay calls “the machinery of inheritance.”20 This inheritance is outlined early on in the story by the narrator: “My baptismal name is Egaeus; that of my family I will not mention. Yet there are no towers in the land more time-honored than my gloomy, gray, hereditary halls” (171). The most distinguished of these halls is his library, which claims his earliest memories. Genealogy and “hereditary halls,” as Jay points out, appear for Egaeus to be grounded in textuality. As with Usher and Dupin, Egaeus's house is the library. “He is a place where other writings meet, less a soul than an intertextual confluence. His identity, and that of Poe's work, appears to be that of a shadow cast by others. Egaeus's ‘anxiety of influence’” (Harold Bloom's term) so holds him that the “noon of manhood” finds him still in the mansion of his forefathers, an edifice of historicism as well as textuality (Jay, 88). Intertexuality is not the only “anxiety of influence” for Egaeus. “The recollections of my earliest years are connected with that chamber, and with its volumes—of which I will say no more. Here died my mother. Herein I was born” (171). The library houses more than just books, for the maternal body invades the text and comes back to haunt. In his analysis of Egaeus' genealogy Jay excludes any reference to the maternal, although he quotes this very passage about the mother's death. “Genealogy,” Jay argues, “becomes the aptest structural metaphor because of its theoretical and historical strengths as a system for dominating and regulating the passage of identity, authority, and property through the mutability of time” (Jay, 88). Yet this genealogy is also based on the repression of the maternal body and the unsublimated female corpse.

When Egaeus first introduces Berenice he again refers to his patrilineal heritage: “Berenice and I were cousins, and we grew up in my paternal halls” (172). These halls are not, however, secure against the return of the maternal body in the form of his ailing Berenice. The female corpse haunts these hereditary halls with a vengeance. At first, though, Berenice's illness serves Egaeus as a means of identifying with his beloved. Through her illness the two become kindred souls (as Freud claims in Group Psychology, identification with another's ailment is one of the most acute symptoms of romantic love and hysteria). In Poe's story, Egaeus and Berenice's ailments bond them together as much as or even more so than their paternal bloodline. This dynamic of identification again raises the question of the role of introjection in romantic love as described by Freud. Gregory Jay argues that Poe's descriptions of heroines like Berenice or Madeleine Usher “mingle [the male protagonist's] own features with hers, as in mourning he introjectively identifies with her to immortalize her” (Jay, 95). The issue in “Berenice,” though, has less to do with introjection than its impossibility.

The story at first appears to offer a model of romantic love based on a Svengalian bond/bondage of identification and introjection. The trance-like quality of Berenice's illness, according to the narrator, is “a species of epilepsy not unfrequently terminating in trance itself—trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt” (172). Berenice's illness renders her the perfect subject of hypnosis, with her sudden trances and “positive dissolution,” even as Egaeus' illness seems to transform him into another monomaniacal Svengali:

In the mean time my own disease—for I have been told that I should call it by no other appellation—my own disease, then, grew rapidly upon me, assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form—hourly and momently gaining vigor—and at length obtaining over me the most incomprehensible ascendancy.


Although his disease seems to have empowered him, it eventually hinders any such Svengalian mastery. For while the mesmerist in a sense introjects the other through hypnosis, Egaeus' acute sensibility renders such introjection impossible. Instead he becomes the one fixated and mesmerized by the other, whose impossible introjection gives way to the fantasy of incorporation and encryptment.

Egaeus' illness manifests itself as an instance of the drive in the psychoanalytic sense. Egaeus describes how his mind became excited and preoccupied by the most trivial and inconsequential of objects, such as the typography of a book or the play of a shadow. According to Freud and, later, Lacan, the object in the drive is invariably insignificant in itself: “This is what Freud tells us. Let us look at what he says—As far as the object in the drive is concerned, let it be clear that it is, strictly speaking, of no importance. It is a matter of total indifference.21 Egaeus repeatedly says that all the objects that draw his attention are of no real significance: “In my case the primary object was invariably frivolous, although assuming, through the medium of my distempered vision, a refracted and unreal importance. Few deductions, if any, were made; and those few perniciously returning upon the original object as a center” (173). Eventually his malady takes as its primary object his beloved Berenice. He becomes riveted not by his love for her but by his fascination with the progressive deterioration of her body. At this point he can no longer see her in her entirety, as the “unparalleled beauty” that she once was (174). Instead she becomes a series of part objects for him, each of which offers its own special allure:

The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once jetty hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with innumerable ringlets now of a vivid yellow, and jarring discorcordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupil-less, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves to my view.


It is Berenice's teeth that become the most alluring part of her body: “In the multiple objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth. For these I longed with a frenzied desire” (175). Yet these teeth function paradoxically in the story. On the one hand they represent a part of the sublime body that lives on even after the natural body has wasted away. While the rest of her body deteriorates, Berenice's teeth remain perfectly intact, “not a speck on their surface—not a shade on their enamel” (175). They represent the fantasy of the exquisite corpse with its sublime immutability. They appear to be the perfect fetish, that single marker of life used to dispel the fear of death and the unsublimated dead body.

Yet Poe explodes this tradition of the exquisite corpse and exposes the inherent ambivalence and violence at work in the construction of the fetish. Egaeus' violation of Berenice's body in order to gain possession of her teeth illustrate quite graphically the ambivalence one has towards one's fetish. Poe's story also offers a powerful critique of the pathology of romantic love and the workings of the fetish. Whereas the fetish is supposed to hide what Slavoj Zizek terms “the empty place of the Thing” and the domain of the real, Berenice's teeth eventually come to occupy that very spot. Her teeth resist not only decomposition and the natural order of things but fetishization and assimilation into the symbolic order.

Ultimately, Egaeus is haunted and repulsed by the “ghastly spectrum of the teeth” (175). The incorruptibility of Berenice's teeth no longer signifies a part of the exquisite corpse's sublime body but rather the ghastly specter of the living dead. While they embody a resistance to the very order of things as do all of the living dead, they also represent the insistence of the return of the repressed. Like the young woman's gaze in “The Oval Portrait,” Berenice's teeth come to represent that impossible remainder, that little piece of the real, which takes on a life of it own and erupts in the symbolic order. The real has invaded Egaeus' paternal halls.

Although Egaeus tries to sublimate this horror by calling her teeth “des idées,” he adds that “here was the idiotic thought that destroyed me!” (175). By trying to transform her teeth into ideas, Egaeus is attempting to assimilate or to introject them into his own symbolic order; if he were able to take possession of them, rational order could be restored. For order to be restored, however, there must be a proper mourning of the loss of his beloved Berenice. The mere fact of his premature burial of Berenice proves that mourning is an impossibility for Egaeus. Abraham and Torok suggest that when mourning becomes impossible, the loss remains alive encrypted in the psyche, or in Egaeus' case in his paternal halls:

Grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject. In this crypt reposes alive, reconstituted from the memories of words, images, and feelings—the objective counterpart of the loss, as a complete person with his own topography, as well as the traumatic incidents—real or imagined—that had made introjection, impossible. … [A] whole unconscious world is created, where a separate and secret life is led.22

In Poe's story there are two obvious such secret vaults, in the form of Berenice's grave, where her body has been secreted away, and in the encryptment of Berenice's teeth in Egaeus' “little box,” which it might be argued is no other than a figuration of his own psyche. Egaeus' secret life is described first as if it were a dream from which he had just awakened but had “no positive—at least no definite comprehension. Yet, its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity” (176). He secludes himself in his library struggling over this “fearful page” in his history, hoping “to decipher” it, when suddenly he hears “the shrill and piercing shriek of a female voice” (176). His secret remains inaccessible through language or consciousness. Yet, as Abraham and Torok argue, “‘in the middle of the night,’ the phantom of the crypt may come to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, making strange and incomprehensible signs to him, forcing him to perform unwonted acts, arousing unexpected feelings in him.”23 Berenice's cry is precisely the incomprehensible sign that Egaeus calls “unintelligible recollections.” His unwonted act is suddenly revealed to him when he looks over at his clothes to find them “muddy and clotted with gore” and sees his hand “indented with the impress of human nails” (176). His “dream” suddenly becomes quite clear: he has buried his beloved alive and desecrated her grave to gain possession of her teeth.

Poe appropriately sets this scene in the library—the domain of textuality, but also the locus of the mother's death. These paternal halls, founded on textuality, have been invaded by the return of the female body. Attempts to expel the maternal body, as well as Berenice's body, from these halls fail; Egaeus merely encrypts them there alive. Without a proper burial or proper mourning these figures are destined to return, and return they do with an unconditional demand that manifests itself as a terrifying instance of pure drive. The apparitions that emerge in what Lacan calls “between the two deaths” as a rule address us, common mortals, with some unconditional demand. And it is for this reason that they incarnate pure drive without desire.24

Whereas Egaeus' demand is governed by his “phrenzied desire” for the acquisition of Berenice's teeth, the demand of this female voice is unconditional. In “Loss of Breath” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” by contrast, the demand of the female protagonists is explicitly stated and eventually fulfilled. Although in this story Egaeus' demand at first appears to be undirected, as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that his disease/drive desires a very specific object. The body of the narrative becomes an elaborate explanation for and fulfillment of this demand. Like Hamlet's ghost, Poe's male protagonists express their demand in a language that functions in the symbolic order and is governed by the phallic law. The demand of the female undead is even more terrifying in that it remains unknown, for it is never stated. It insists as pure drive but does not consist in any specific desire or articulated demand. Demand, here, is no longer a clearly defined issue of retribution or assimilation into the symbolic order, but concerns a “traumatic element” that is incorporated in that very order: “The symbolic order strives for a homeostatic balance, but there is in its kernel, in its very center, some strange, traumatic element which cannot be symbolized, integrated into the symbolic order: the Thing. Lacan coined a neologism for it: L'extimite—external intimacy.”25

Berenice's teeth function within the narrative as the traumatic kernel which can never be assimilated into Egaeus' symbolic order but that nevertheless remains encrypted in that order as an extime element. While Berenice's teeth function as this traumatic kernel, the female cry heard at the end of the story functions more as the embodiment of feminine jouissance. In his seminar Feminine Sexuality, Lacan argues that “not all” of the woman falls under the phallic law or the signifier. There is “something more” that exceeds the phallic function, which he designates as a supplemental or feminine “jouissance beyond the phallus.”26 In Poe's short stories the unconditional demand of the feminine undead is beyond the phallus, which is why it can never be articulated. What the feminine undead demand is not their proper burial or mourning but their own proper jouissance, and it is terrifying.

In “Berenice” we see this jouissance figured as the female voice that erupts in the library but that cannot be deciphered, for it is that “not all” that is not entirely under the rule of the signifier. In “The Oval Portrait” it is expressed through the portrait's supplemental gaze that leaves its uncanny effect upon the narrator who vainly seeks for an explanation of it in the book by his bedside. In each case these undead women demand something that exceeds the bounds of language and the phallic law. Moreover, their demand is not expressed through language but through the body—the voice or the gaze. Feminine jouissance, Lacan writes, is “a jouissance of the body.” But whose body is expressing this jouissance? In “Berenice” we cannot even be certain to whom this voice belongs. It may be Berenice's, or perhaps it is the return of the maternal voice/Thing embodied in her voice, or both. What becomes so terrifying about this voice for Egaeus, and for the reader, is that it embodies the pure drive of feminine jouissance, which, although it knows nothing of itself nor of paternal law, still insists. In Lacan's words, “There is a jouissance proper to her, to this ‘her’ which does not exist and which signifies nothing. There is a jouissance proper to her and of which she herself may know nothing, except that she experiences it—that much her knows.”27

Jouissance in Lacan's analysis is still tied to a notion of subjectivity, however, whereas in Poe's stories feminine jouissance manifests itself in a desubjectivized form. His female undead are neither speaking nor desiring subjects, which creates even greater terror for there is no room for negotiation. In “Terminate or Liquidate?: Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition,” Jonathan Elmer reads the horror in Poe as a provocation from a desiring subject who has “an unnatural, illicit desire for us”:

One aspect of the uncanniness of this moment is surely the odd self-recognition it induces, odd because what we are confronted with is something that looks like our own desire turned upside down, inverted—so that rather than the tender and pained grimace that marks the solicitude of the living for the dying, we see directed back at us the steely and lascivious grin of the dead desiring the living.28

Elmer's analysis of the reversal of the gaze and desire from the bereaved to the “dearly departing” is insightful. However, we still need to distinguish between the dying in deathbed scenes and Poe's revenants. Moreover, whereas Poe's male revenants retain their identities as speaking and desiring subjects, the feminine undead go through a more a radical metamorphosis. They have become creatures of pure drive, who, though they do not speak, insist with their gaze or their shrieks. Even in a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where Roderick's sister Madeleine returns in the flesh, she appears more as an embodiment of a thing “reeling to and fro” with her “low moaning cry” than as a subject (191). Mistakenly we ask these creatures, “What do you want?” But their demand is unconditional and unnegotiable; they have evolved beyond desiring subjects, for Poe's undead heroines embody nothing other than the death drive—the real terror of the undead.

The terror Poe evokes through the unconditional demand of his female undead characters dismantles the tranquility and moral edification of deathbed scenes found in postmortem photography and in the sentimental literary tradition. Nineteenth-century literature is replete with sentimentalized feminine or infantile deathbed scenes. In American literature, Stowe's ethereal account of little Eva's death epitomizes this sentimental tradition. Exploring Poe's sensationalizing of this tradition, Jonathan Elmer concludes that “Poe's tales … activate certain dangers that sentimentalism mobilizes but attempts to sublimate: the danger of a kind of absorptive identification, a dubiousness about truth-claims (with concomitant suspension of moral certitude), and a heightened awareness on the part of the reader of the artificiality of discursive closure.”29 While the sentimental tradition tried to give the dead their proper obsequies, Poe's tales reveal a peculiar feminist twist, for his women retaliate against this literary tradition's practice of burying its women as exquisite corpses.

Poe may have refused to give the undead a proper burial so that they could live on in their full terror, but a new industry was on the rise in America that offered the undead new burial grounds. While morticians, landscape architects, postmortem photographers, and writers of consolation literature were giving the dead a decent burial, a new breed of photographers were in their darkrooms preparing a wake for the undead. In 1861 a Bostonian engraver by the name of William Mumler invented a means to capture the living dead in a photograph. Death masks and postmortem photographs recorded for posterity the dead body, but spirit photography provided the means not only to record the afterlife but to present the undead as “exquisite spirits.” One would simply go to Mrs. H. F. Stuart's studio, where Mumler worked, and sit for a regular photograph, and, through the photographer's mediumship (or so he claimed), one's dearly departed would miraculously appear on the negative and final print, either standing right beside the subject or hovering somewhere in the background of the photo.

With the advent of nineteenth-century spiritualism, the living dead were no longer dreaded, but actively courted. By contrast with some versions of popular, women-sponsored mid-nineteenth-century spiritualism, spirit photography relied upon its scientific basis to prove that spirits beyond the grave existed. Numerous studies, offering substantial testimonies and documentation, would eventually be published in defense of this new science. In Photographing the Invisible (1911), James Coates offered a scientific defense of spirit photography on the basis of the “recently discovered N-Rays,” a pseudo-scientific name for the “Human Magnetism” that had been popular since Franz Anton Mesmer's work in the eighteenth century. This name, however, lent greater authority to Coates' argument because of its close affinity to X-Rays, which offered, he said, solid proof that the invisible could be photographed. Beside his various “scientific proofs,” Coates further supported his argument with the testimonies of various reputable individuals. Among them he cites the case of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, who while still in mourning visited Mumler in Boston and, using a pseudonym, requested a photograph of herself. When the picture was developed a figure “as that of the late President” appeared in the photograph beside her, a photograph Coates reproduced.30

Sir Conan Doyle also wrote his own treatise on the subject, The Case for Spirit Photography, in an effort to validate with “conclusive proof” the existence of spirit photography. He even included his own personal experience, in which a medium by the name of Mr. Hope was able without the use of a camera to impress psychically upon a photo plate a picture resembling Doyle's dead sister:

On putting the plate into the solution a disc the size of a shilling, perfectly black, sprang up in the center of it. On development this resolved itself into a luminous circle with the face of a female delicately outlined within it. Under the chin is a disc of white, and two fingers which are pointing to it. The disc is evidently a brooch, and the pointing seemed to indicate it was meant to be evidential. The face bore a strong resemblance to that of my elder sister, who died some thirty years ago. Upon sending the print to my other sisters they not only confirmed this, but reminded me that my sister had a very remarkable ivory brooch which might best have been chosen as a test.31

Spirit photography's cultural contribution was not so much that it could bring back one's dearly departed, like Doyle's sister, but that it could bring back the dead in such a pacified form. Unlike Poe's threatening, uncommunicative undead heroines, these spirits use any means available to communicate with their loved ones, from a familiar brooch to the gesture of a hand. In one of the few extant spirit photographs by Mrs. H. F. Stuart, a female spirit hovers faintly in the background with her hands gently resting upon the gentleman's arm. [Figure 1, “Mrs. Stuart, carte-de-visite spirit photograph, ca. 1861. Boston Athenaeum” deleted from original source]32 Moreover, the spirits always appear in these photographs as somewhat transparent and vague figures that float in “a luminous circle.” These undead are not the ravaged corpse of Madeleine Usher, who appears in a bloody shroud with “the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” (190). With spirit photography the exquisite corpse has finally been disembodied and transformed into an unsubstantial and harmless spirit.

While this transformation contributes to the ideology of the repressed the dead body, its incorporeality was due in part to the photographic process itself. Spirit photographs were achieved through double exposures. In order to avoid effacing one of the images by the other and blackening it out, the photographer would have to run his hand or some other object under the camera during the process. This blurred the outline of the “spirit,” which in turn created the spirit's luminosity or aura. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin famously comments that with mechanical reproduction there is a “decay of the aura” of the work of art.33 Through artifice and unsophisticated (by today's standards) darkroom techniques, spirit photography found new means to create a simulacrum of that aura.

All cultures have invented ways of pacifying the dead to avoid their return. Michel Ragon suggests that the tombstone is perhaps our culture's technique of keeping the dead down under: “Placing heavy stones over a corpse is a way of marking the burial place, but it is also a way of preventing it from rising.”34 Modern technology, however, invented another means to insure that if dead returned they would be completely mortified. Spirit photography became the final burial ground for the living dead. It not only pacified the undead by disembodying them but killed them off once and for all through the photograph. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes that although in every photograph there is a return of the dead, the specter that returns has been anesthetized by the camera. “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means they do not emerge, do not leave; they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.”35 This relationship between photography and death, “thanatography,” as Philippe Dubois has called it, has also been pointed out by Christian Metz, who argues that while film “gives back a semblance of life,” photography “maintains the memory of the dead as being dead.36

Spirit photography became the nineteenth century's best vehicle for enacting the proper mourning of the revenant. While seances might provoke the dread of the fully animated undead, the spirit photograph allows for one's dearly departed to maintain an afterlife without the fear of animation, for these dead never reappeared in the flesh. Even the fetishism involved in the desire for such keepsakes could be better disguished, for these photographs were produced by the hands of science and technology. In the end, spirit photography not only offered American popular culture a new means of reappropriating and pacifying the revenant, but in the process created a more profitable and technological undead.


  1. I have taken this term from Richard A. Etlin's The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge: MIT Univ. Press, 1984).

  2. See Barton Levi St. Armand's “The ‘Mysteries’ of Edgar Poe” in The Tales of Poe, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 25-54. St. Armand provides general background on the Gothic revival and catalogues the references to occult literature in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” See also Maurice Levy's “Poe and the Gothic Tradition,” trans. Richard Henry Harwell, ESQ 18, no. 1 (1972): 19-25.

  3. For major cultural studies of death in American and Western cultures during the romantic and Victorian periods, see Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974) and The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Knopf, 1981), as well as Ann Douglas, “The Domestication of Death,” in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977), 200-206.

  4. See Stanley French's “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the ‘Rural Cemetery’ Movement,” in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 70, and Blanche Linden-Ward, “Strange but Genteel Pleasure Grounds: Tourist and Leisure Uses of Nineteenth-Century Rural Cemeteries,” in Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 1992), 300.

  5. Ariès, Western Attitudes, 79-80.

  6. For an account of nineteenth-century postmortem photography, see Stanley B. Burns, M.D., Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (Altadena: Twelvetrees Press, 1990).

  7. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, “Introjection—Incorporation, Mourning or Melancholia,” in Psychoanalysis in France, ed. Serge Lebovic and Daniel Widlocher (New York: International Universities, Inc., 1980), 3-16; Jacques Derrida, “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok,” trans. Barbara Johnson, in Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's The Wolfman's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986), xi-xlviii.

  8. Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959), 45, 43-48.

  9. Derrida, xvii, xviii.

  10. Harold Bloom, Introduction, in Bloom, ed., The Tales of Poe, 7.

  11. J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 65.

  12. Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 570. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  13. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 132.

  14. Derrida, xxi.

  15. Derrida, xviii.

  16. Jacques Lacan, “Desire and Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982), 44.

  17. Slavoj Zizek, “The Real and Its Vicissitudes,” Newsletter of the Freudian Field 3 (1989): 82.

  18. Marie Bonaparte gives a standard Freudian reading of the narrator's loss of breath during his violent ejaculations against his wife as a case of impotency, which she relates to Poe's own life. See The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker (London: Hogarth Press, 1971), 373-410.

  19. Michel Ragon, The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism, trans. Alan Sheridan (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1983), 6.

  20. Gregory S. Jay, “Poe and the Unconscious,” in Modern Interpretations of Poe, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 88.

  21. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 168.

  22. Abraham and Torek, 8.

  23. Abraham and Torek, 8.

  24. Zizek, “The Real and Its Vicissitudes,” 81.

  25. Slavoj Zizek, “The Object as a Limit of Discourse: Approaches to the Lacanian Real,” Prose Studies 11 (1988): 101.

  26. Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 145.

  27. Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, 145.

  28. Jonathan Elmer, “Terminate or Liquidate? Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 92, 91. Elmer's discussion of the sentimental tradition and Poe's inversion of that tradition draws on the Lacanian registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, gesturing toward the Real only in the article's last sentence, which ventures that Poe's “sensational liquidation” transforms imaginary identification “into what one could call an instance of the Lacanian Real” (113).

  29. Elmer, 109-10.

  30. James Coates, Photographing the Invisible (1911; New York: Arno Press, 1973), 9.

  31. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1923), 23-24.

  32. Early spirit photographs are very difficult to obtain, and I would like to thank Sally Pierce at the Boston Athenaeum for locating this carte-de-visite by Mrs. Stuart.

  33. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken Books, 1969), 223.

  34. Ragon, 16.

  35. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 57.

  36. Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” October 34 (1985): 84.

Terence Whalen (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14514

SOURCE: Whalen, Terence. “Culture of Surfaces.” In Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America, pp. 225-48. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Whalen traces the development of Poe's detective fiction.]

Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains. … I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

(Charles Darwin)1

Despite all disagreements over art and ideology, most critics of detective fiction display a remarkable uniformity of purpose. Their mission, implicitly or explicitly proclaimed, is not so much to interpret a particular work, but rather to examine the flaws inherent in the form itself. Frequently this approach portrays the genre as a kind of literary vice that must be reformed or at least excused. Ernest Mandel begins Delightful Murder by “confessing” his craving for crime fiction, and then, as if to cure himself of an unseemly addiction, he rises to repudiate the form: “the common ideology of the original and classical detective story … remains quintessentially bourgeois. … The criminal is always caught. Justice is always done. Crime never pays. Bourgeois legality, bourgeois values, bourgeois society, always triumph in the end.”2 In another classic denunciation of detective fiction, Edmund Wilson just says no to “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.”3 Even a critic such as Fredric Jameson, who avoids the ranking of genres and who views the detective story as “a form without ideological content,” nevertheless laments the genre's chronic banality. In a discussion of the commodification of contemporary fiction, Jameson invokes the detective story as something “you read ‘for the ending’—the bulk of the pages becoming sheer devalued means to an end—in this case, the ‘solution’—which is itself utterly insignificant insofar as we are not thereby in the real world and by the latter's practical standards the identity of an imaginary murderer is supremely trivial.”4

In the detective story form therefore appears as a deficiency or limitation that must be acknowledged before all else. Other genres seem empowered by their stock of conventions and expectations, but for the detective story form is destiny: like a family curse, it arrests free development and condemns the victim to eke out an existence in the ghettos of mass culture. It is certainly possible to defend the genre—one might characterize a novel by Hammett or Chandler as a credit to the form; one might even point to Twain's Puddn'head Wilson and Pynchon's V. as works that overcame formal handicaps to achieve success as respectable literature. Despite all that might be said in apology, however, the form nevertheless seems guilty of something beyond the ideology or occasional incompetence of its practitioners. As Poe himself asked, “where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?” (Letters, 2:328). In the hands of a shrewd prosecutor, of course, such comments could be used to link the detective story to Poe's other literary swindles, ranging from the scientific hoaxes to the falsified circulation figures to the broken promises of such uncompleted works as “MS. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But instead of rushing to Poe's defense, I propose to return to the scene of the crime in order to investigate the trajectory of the detective story in the hands of its inventor. The investigation commences with Poe's minor crime stories, proceeds to general theories of literary evolution, and then moves on to consider the origin and history of the Dupin tales themselves. These three tales, written between 1841 and 1844, show Poe's growing premonition of a world where all truth would be transferred from the metaphysical depths to the material surfaces of culture.5 By considering the Dupin tales as a genre in miniature, I hope to clarify the relation between emergent forms of culture and the general conditions of production in antebellum America. This relation is nowhere more significant than in the detective story, for here can be found the most profound engagement between Poe's material imagination and the developing capitalist economy.


Although “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is widely acknowledged to be the first detective story, I shall begin with a simpler tale by Poe called “Thou Art the Man.”6 It does not fit the pattern of Poe's more famous tales of ratiocination, but as Howard Haycraft observes, it affords “a startling prognostication of the mechanics of the present-day detective story.”7 The narrative opens with the mysterious disappearance of the richest man in Rattleborough. Barnabas Shuttleworthy—no doubt the owner of a textile mill in this New England town—left home on horseback several days earlier and has not been heard from since. A crowd of anxious citizens turns to Charlie Goodfellow, a newcomer in town who has nevertheless become Shuttleworthy's dearest companion and Rattleborough's most beloved citizen. Following Goodfellow's counsel, the whole borough forms a search party. Pennifeather, the unsociable nephew of the missing man, tries to convince the people to disperse throughout the adjacent countryside to make their search more efficient, but Goodfellow convinces them to stay together so they can seek out and interpret clues collectively.

They soon discover the bloody scene of the crime. They also find a number of clues, all of which indicate that Pennifeather has committed the murder, no doubt to expedite the inheritance of his uncle's wealth. Everybody accepts this solution except the narrator, who secretly plots to expose the real murderer—none other than Charlie Goodfellow—at a party hosted by Goodfellow for all the residents of the town. The narrator retrieves the corpse, stuffs a whalebone down its throat, and folds it over in a wine crate so that the body will spring upward upon removal of the lid. When the crate is opened at the party, the corpse rises up, and the narrator, who is also a skilled ventriloquist, has the resurrected body accuse Goodfellow with the words, “Thou art the man.” Goodfellow, completely overcome, admits his guilt and falls dead on the spot. For the people of Rattleborough, the party is over. Pennifeather is released from jail and inherits his uncle's fortune.

This primitive tale reveals the general tendency of detective fiction to reduce social questions of justice to scientific questions of fact: that is why the cases never go to court. As the image of a crowd searching for clues demonstrates, however, the detective story resists not only the asking of social questions but more specifically the collective production of answers. This rejection of popular judgment seems inherent in the very structure of the tale. When Poe's narrator solves the crime, he shows that the crowd must rely on a source outside itself—namely an independent intellectual—for a correct interpretation of available information. In addition, the narrator's solution prevents the diversion or redistribution of wealth, for Goodfellow surely would have spread his money liberally among the townspeople. Seen in this light, Poe seems to have invented the detective story as a kind of ideological intervention in a new and threatening social environment. In the same year that he composed “Thou Art the Man” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe in fact announced that popular fiction could help control the behavior of the urban masses:

[I]t is the fashion to decry the “fashionable” novels. These works have their demerits; but a vast influence which they exert for an undeniable good, has never yet been duly considered. … Now, the fashionable novels are just the books which most do circulate among the unfashionable class; and their effect in softening the worst callosities—in smoothing the most disgusting asperities of vulgarism, is prodigious. With the herd, to admire and to attempt imitation are the same thing. What if, in this case, the manners imitated are frippery; better frippery than brutality.

(ER, 1337)

Always wary of groups—whether editorial cliques or Tsalal natives—Poe in the 1840s grew increasingly concerned with urban crowds. For him the congregation of people in cities threatened not only order and decorum but reason itself. After demonstrating the incompetence of the search party in “Thou Art the Man,” Poe later developed a more precise articulation of the contradiction between reason and collective action. Writing for the June 1849 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, he distinguishes between a people and a mob: “we shall find that a people aroused to action are a mob; and that a mob, trying to think, subside into a people” (ER, 1456). The link between control of the mob and ratiocination is further demonstrated by the actions of French attorney André-Marie-Jean-Jacques Dupin, one of the likely sources for Poe's detective. According to Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France, which Poe favorably reviewed, the French attorney had little trouble pacifying the Parisian masses:

When the working classes appeared upon the public place, and sought to put their hands on the car of state, Dupin signified to them, without the least reserve, that they understood nothing about the matter, and sent them back to their shops.8

In light of such statements, it is no wonder that Ernest Mandel characterizes the majority of detective writers as “ultra-conservative upholders of the established order” (Delightful Murder, 121).

As we have seen, however, the project of classifying Poe's politics is fraught with difficulty, especially if we consider his penchant for duplicity and deceit. Indeed, Poe's celebrated detective—C. Auguste Dupin—sometimes displays a shocking disregard for “the established order.” The major Dupin tales are “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” but I shall conclude this phase of the investigation by considering one last minor murder, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The story is based directly on the sensational case of Mary Cecilia Rogers, who was murdered on or about July 25, 1841.9 Capitalizing on the widespread interest in the case, Poe used reports from the New York newspapers to construct “a series of nearly exact coincidences occurring in Paris” (Letters, 1:200). Though his ostensible object was to provide “an analysis of the true principles which should direct inquiry in similar cases,” he of course hoped that his investigation of the celebrated mystery would “excite attention” and, presumably, sell magazines.

Though it failed to attain the notoriety of the other two Dupin tales, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” nevertheless affords some valuable insights into the development of the genre. The detective story, after all, cannot properly be identified as a form until at least the second instantiation, for only then is it possible to identify common or generic traits. In other words, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” could have served as the prototype of any number of narrative patterns, some of which might have completely dropped the theme of solving crimes, especially since Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter were not murdered by a human perpetrator but (merely) killed by an escaped orangutan. Thus the second Dupin tale could have dealt with two chums who track down escaped animals, or with an American in Paris who supports fallen aristocrats, or with a fallen aristocrat who reclaims his social standing by proving that there is nothing criminal in the violent death of property owners. The narrator of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” in fact seems put off by the very idea of a sequel, believing that he had completely fulfilled his design in the first Dupin story by faithfully depicting the “mental character” of his friend. “It did not occur to me that I should ever resume the subject,” says the reluctant narrator, but “late events … have startled me into some farther details, which will carry with them the air of extorted confession” (PT, [Poetry and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe] 507).

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” provides further insights into the form because of its basis in actual events. When Poe was trying to sell the story in 1842, he emphasized fact over fiction, just as he had done at the beginning of “Pym”: “Under pretence of showing how Dupin unravelled the mystery of Marie's assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York” (Letters, 1:201). By 1845, however, Poe was engaged in a subtle retreat from the facts, perhaps because he feared that a real solution to the case would make his pretentious speculations appear ridiculous.10 In a footnote to a June 1845 republication of the tale, Poe tries to indemnify himself against a break in the case, pointing out that the story “was composed at a distance from the scene of the atrocity, and with no other means of investigation than the newspapers afforded.” Nevertheless, he cannot resist making claims on reality: “all argument founded upon the fiction is applicable to the truth: and the investigation of the truth was the object” (PT, 506). In his anonymous review of himself (October 1845), Poe again tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, he credits himself as the only person to have shed any light on a crime otherwise “shrouded in complete mystery.” On the other hand, he suggests that the tale is most important as an example of the ratiocinative method: “‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’—although in this, the author appears to have been hampered by facts—reveals the whole secret of their mode of construction. It is true that there the facts were before him—so that it is not fully a parallel—but the rationale of the process is revealed by it” (ER, 872). What stands out here is Poe's emphasis on “the mode of construction.” He singles out the tale for revealing the secret—not of Mary Rogers's death, but of how stories about such mysteries can be fabricated out familiar materials.

In its capacity as a sequel, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” begins the process of selecting the thematic and structural elements that will ultimately characterize the genre. As in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin is called upon to solve a violent crime which baffles everyone, and in both cases the crime has somehow agitated the public and threatened the social order. Crime and politics seem nearly interchangeable in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”; as the narrator indicates, during “the discussion of this one momentous theme, even the momentous political topics of the day were forgotten” (PT, 509). As in the first story, Dupin makes sense out of a conflicting mass of information and thereby leads the city out of confusion and impending chaos. In both stories, the narrator also plays a mediating role between common intelligence—whether of the police or of the public—and the extreme brilliance of Dupin. This in turn fosters a structural identification between reader and narrator, who are both presumably subordinate to Dupin in everything except wonder.

In addition to repeating aspects of the first story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” refines the characterization of urban life and intellectual labor. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” conjures up an unreal urban space where anything seems possible. “Enamored of the Night for her own sake,” Dupin and the narrator block out the light from their desolate chambers; reveling in their seclusion, the two indulge “wild whims with a perfect abandon” (PT, 401). When darkness falls, they cruise the city in search of anonymous delights: “Then we sallied forth into the streets, arm in arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford” (PT, 401). In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” on the other hand, Dupin and the narrator seem far less smitten with the charms of urban life. Before undertaking the case, the two men had completely secluded themselves in their house for nearly a month. The narrator explains that they had been “engaged in researches” which “absorbed our whole attention” (PT, 510), but the story suggests other motivations for remaining indoors. The city is first of all a place of violence, and the narrator refers casually to the presence of criminal gangs and “the great frequency, in large cities, of such atrocities” as the murder of Marie Rogêt (PT, 510). The city is also woefully lacking in solitude and natural beauty:

Those who know anything of the vicinity of Paris, know the extreme difficulty of finding seclusion. … Let anyone who, being at heart a lover of nature, is yet chained by duty to the dust and heat of this great metropolis—let any such one attempt, even during the weekdays, to slake his thirst for solitude amid the scenes of natural loveliness which immediately surround us. At every second step, he will find the growing charm dispelled by the voice and personal intrusion of some ruffian or party of carousing blackguards. He will seek privacy amid the densest foliage, all in vain. Here are the very nooks where the unwashed most abound—here are the temples most desecrate. With sickness of heart the wanderer will flee back to the polluted Paris as to a less odious because less incongruous sink of pollution.

(PT, 541-42)

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe represents Paris as a sophisticated and anonymous European metropolis, but in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” he abandons this favorable depiction because Paris must “coincide” with New York, the city where Mary Rogers died and where Poe endured the most crushing poverty of his career. Paris accordingly becomes a place of violence and overcrowding, a polluted haven for criminal gangs which offers few gratifications to Dupin's refined taste. It has often been argued that Poe avoids American settings and themes, but the transformation of “Paris” from metropolitan playground to urban nightmare should help dispel the myth that Poe was “a man without a country.”11

Most importantly, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” subtly reconstructs the scene of intellectual production originally presented in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Whereas Dupin had solved his first mystery to amuse himself and (secondarily) to exonerate an innocent man, he now works as a paid consultant to the police. Nothing in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” suggests that ratiocination might become a regular form of paid labor; Dupin earns no reward, and in the denouement the chagrined Prefect of Police affirms “the propriety of every person minding his own business” (PT, 431). Only in the second story does Dupin emerge as a paid “cynosure of policial eyes” (PT, 508), that is, as a nineteenth-century version of the independent expert or consultant. Dupin's brilliance has become a marketable commodity, and as the narrator indicates, “the cases were not few in which attempt was made to engage his services at the Prefecture.” When the reward in the case of Marie Rogêt reaches 30,000 francs and still brings no result, the frustrated Prefect makes Dupin “a direct, and certainly a liberal proposition, the precise nature of which I do not feel myself at liberty to disclose” (PT, 511). The method of investigation has also changed. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin stumbles upon the newspaper report of the murders and then spontaneously decides to visit the scene of the crime. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” his investigative labor is more systematic and more dependent on previously accumulated information. Dupin even relies on the narrator to gather his raw materials: “I procured, at the Prefecture, a full report of all the evidence elicited, and, at the various newspaper offices, a copy of every paper in which, from first to last, had been published any decisive information in regard to this sad affair” (PT, 511). In order to solve the crime, Dupin must approach the past through the mediation of a great “mass of information” (PT, 511) created by the organized labor of police officers and newspaper reporters.12 But instead of representing these intellectual workers as competitors, the story suggests that their accumulated information must remain “raw” or meaningless until it is processed by Dupin.

In other words, Poe's detective operates in the privileged and perhaps utopian niche between capital and labor, between the accumulated mass of information and the working masses accumulating in American cities. On the one hand, then, there would seem to be some basis to the ideological assault on detective fiction, for even the earliest examples of the genre betray a dim view of city dwellers: ruffians, rakes, impostors, bungling bureaucrats, gullible mobs, ambitious commoners, and of course slow-witted American expatriates. On the other hand, however, Poe's detective fiction confronts and challenges the emergence of information as the form taken by capital in the signifying environment. This confrontation does not have to be inferred from the detective tale alone, for on numerous occasions Poe identified capital as an enemy of literature and literary producers. As an editor, Poe chafed at the control exercised by capital—personified as “fat” proprietors—over all aspects of the publishing industry.13 As a commercial writer, Poe extended his criticism from the owners of capital to physical capital itself. In his article on anastatic printing, for example, he explicitly advocated the elevation of “literary value” over “physical or mechanical value” because with this reversal “the wealthy gentleman of elegant leisure … will be forced to tilt on terms of equality with the poordevil author” (Works 14:158). Finally, as a writer of detective stories, Poe continued his endeavor to subdue or challenge the apparently independent power of information capital, chiefly by demonstrating how it was utterly worthless until “finished” by specialized intellectual labor.14 The literary implications of this struggle will be explored below, but the ideological lesson is straightforward: an enemy of the masses is not necessarily a friend to capital.


Whence do new literary forms arise? Are they the serendipitous creations of literary genius? Or are they the predictable consequences of evolving social conditions? Such questions are seldom innocent, for in topics ranging from “nation” to “language” to “people,” the debate over origins generally occurs in the distorting shadow of some contemporary struggle. Literature is no exception. One should therefore be suspicious of all aggrandizing references to the originator of a literary tradition, especially when such a founder serves as the norm which justifies the relegation or exclusion of minor writers.15 But should the origin of a form be discounted altogether, or can it, if only in retrospect, tell us something meaningful about the social conditions that bend us to our destiny? In what follows I affirm the latter position, first by disputing a general (Darwinian) theory of literary evolution, and then by considering the detective story as a test case in the history of literary forms.

One of the boldest recent attempts to downplay the significance of literary origins comes from Franco Moretti, who develops a Darwinian theory of literary history that distinguishes between the random generation of new forms and the socially determined selection of “survivors.”16 Appropriately, Moretti begins his Darwinian argument with an attack on a new Lamarckian view of human history formulated by Stephen Jay Gould. In the following passage, cited by Moretti (“On Literary Evolution,” 262), Gould uses Lamarck to distinguish between cultural and biological history:

Human cultural evolution, in strong opposition to our biological history, is Lamarckian in character. What we learn in one generation we transmit directly by teaching and writing.

Moretti admits that, in regard to acquired traits, “human history is indeed Lamarckian,” but he disagrees with Gould over the relationship between variations and evolution. As Moretti explains, Lamarckian theory treats variations as being oriented toward some environmental condition and therefore “preferentially inclined toward adaptation,” whereas Darwin treats variations as “wholly random attempts among which nature later selects those with greater potentialities for adaptation” (“On Literary Evolution,” 262-63). In Gould's refashioning of Lamarck, Moretti detects vestiges of a Hegelian dream in which human history is “an undivided development where problems only arise when solutions are already at hand.” Finding this view implausible, Moretti follows Darwin and divides literary history into two distinct stages: “Chance alone will be active in the first stage, in which rhetorical variations are generated; social necessity will preside over the second stage, in which variations are historically selected” (“On Literary Evolution,” 263).

Now it would seem absurd for a critic writing “in the interest of materialism” to claim that the movie western, or the sonnet, or tragic drama originated by “chance,” especially in light of Marx's famous distinction between animal and human production.17 Nevertheless, Moretti offers the Darwinian distinction between origin and selection as a strict scientific theory of culture, and to this extent his argument is fraught with logical and empirical inconsistencies. Among other things, Moretti's argument tends toward circularity: literary “species” are selected because they are superior, and they are superior because they are selected. The distinction between chance and necessity is also problematic. The fact that social necessity may play a smaller role in literary innovation than in literary selection does not mean that the origin of a form is completely accidental. And even though an originator may not have foreseen the future course of a rhetorical variation, we should still investigate what motivated certain kinds of experimentation rather than others or, better still, what motivated any sort of experimentation in the first place.

The detective tale offers a perfect opportunity to assess the relation between a specific publishing environment and a specific innovation in literary form. Three aspects of Poe's publishing environment merit investigation: the nature of intellectual labor, the new conditions for literary production, and the new relations between the writer and the mass audience.

Wherever science and the systematic accumulation of knowledge had abetted a bourgeois revolution, the intellectual ceased to be a repository of wisdom and became instead a storehouse of information. Poe was aware of this as a general cultural phenomenon, but he also drew from several specific examples when he devised his own model of the new intellectual. The Reverend John Bransby, master of the boarding school Poe attended in London, was noted for possessing a “fund of miscellaneous information.” Arthur Hobson Quinn speculates that Poe, “noticing how effective ‘miscellaneous information’ may be when given offhand, took Mr. Bransby as his model later in the acquiring of all kinds of valuable odds and ends of literary and scientific knowledge” (Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, 72). André-Marie-Jean-Jacques Dupin possessed a similar reputation. According to Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France, the French attorney was a consummate polymath:

To judge from his writings, Dupin must be a perfect living encyclopædia. From Homer to Rousseau, from the Bible to the civil code, from the laws of the twelve tables to the Koran, he has read every thing, retained every thing; he knows so many and such different things, that it is not astonishing he only half digests what he knows.


Poe expands upon this when he portrays the superior intellectual as a “helluo librorum” or devourer of books. Whereas the human encyclopedia might “half digest” what he knows, the helluo librorum consumes information and then transforms it into productive capital: “It is true that, in general, we retain, we remember to available purpose, scarcely one-hundredth part of what we read; yet there are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever” (ER, 1318).

As one might expect, however, this ideal of the helluo librorum merely served to compensate for a publishing environment that was in many ways hostile to intellectual labor. Tales such as “The Gold-Bug” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, commence with reclusive aristocrats who pursue knowledge with a bitter and vengeful intensity. Instead of producing profit or enlightenment, they use their talents to wreak revenge upon the social order that had cast them out. Legrand accordingly uses the gold bug to “punish” the narrator, and Dupin cannot help gloating about having “defeated [the Prefect of Police] in his own castle” (PT, 595, 431). For Poe, the prospect of defeating or humiliating an intellectual rival was a recurrent fantasy. He decried false erudition as “the most sickening” vanity of the unlettered pedant, and he once proposed writing a magazine story about a young man who exposes a “flippant pretender to universal acquirement” by confronting him with an armful of books (ER, 102, 1440). What matters about Poe, however, is that he engaged in a similar confrontation with the publishing environment itself. If he had felt resentment only toward other writers, he scarcely would have conducted so intense an investigation into literary form and literary value. Since he sometimes perceived the entire publishing industry as a kind of enemy, he occasionally put aside his differences with other writers in order to mount broader attacks. In fact, Poe invoked the unity of writers as a class precisely when he denounced systemic or structural problems. He adopted this strategy, for example, when he lobbied for a new magazine to be controlled by a “coalition of writers” (Letters, 1:247), and when he decried democracy itself for neglecting “the right of property in a literary work.” According to Poe, “the autorial body is the most autocratic on the face of the earth. How, then, can those institutions even hope to be safe which systematically persist in trampling it underfoot?” (ER, 1375). Though “autorial body” seems to be a synonym for the literary elite, Poe consistently viewed solidarity among writers as a prerequisite to radical change in the republic of letters.

Such a strategy might appear to be an endorsement of Jacksonian Democracy or collective action per se, but Poe avoided identification with the American masses by using foreign models. And when Poe reached back into the past for ideological weapons, he generally ignored the practical implications of class struggle and instead offered vague, rhapsodic paraphrases of revolutionary slogans. In an 1836 review of the British author Henry Chorley, for example, Poe portentously alludes to “the wide atmosphere of Revolution encircling us” and then issues his first battle cry against all those forces which compel writers to “succumb to the grossest materiality” (ER, 164). These examples suggest that the place to investigate Poe's politics is not in his scattered pronouncements about Andrew Jackson or the Whigs or even abolitionists, but instead at the point of production itself, where he acknowledged his material ties to other writers and where he felt most intensely the pressures of economic necessity.

New forms are created in the crucible of this necessity. [Poe] felt that he lived in an era characterized by a superabundance of “thinking material,” an era “forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested in place of the voluminous” (ER, 1377). He also knew that the surplus of thinking material would have dire consequences for commercial writers: “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge, is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”18 The detective story responds to this predicament by creating a general climate of mystery where information is scarce and where the truth arises less from some “well-digested” quantity of thinking material than from the rare and unalienable skill of a thinking being. More than a simple reflection of bourgeois subjectivity, Poe's tales of ratiocination confront a signifying environment where knowledge is not only a commodity, but more precisely a commodity whose value is imperiled by overproduction. In the United States the tendency toward overproduction in the publishing industry was more pronounced because of lax copyright laws, a widespread ideological commitment to the dissemination of “useful knowledge,” and a massive public and corporate investment in the national communications infrastructure. It is therefore inadequate to characterize Dupin as “the essential romantic hero” or to explain away Poe's emphasis on the unknown by noting that “for romanticism, mystery is the condition of the world.”19 Poe's romanticism must itself be seen against the background of its dialectical opposite, namely a historical situation that systematically extirpates mystery from the workplace and from the very texture of everyday life.

The emergence of the detective story is therefore more complicated than the Darwinian model suggests. To say that forms emerge by chance and are only selected by context ignores the importance of repetition in establishing a literary form. As argued above, the detective story can only be called a form upon its second instantiation; despite numerous efforts to project the entire history of the detective novel back onto “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the tale of ratiocination only became a form when it had been repeated enough times to establish its generic elements. In the case of the detective story, of course, this selective process was somewhat skewed because Poe himself wrote two more Dupin tales, thereby transforming his own creation into the origin of a series, if not of a full-fledged genre. But in a larger sense, the origin of a literary form is always already selected, for the original must be selected for repetition—even if by the same author—before it can be retrospectively classified as the prototype of a new genre.

Even if a single work could represent a form, there would still be problems with Moretti's attempt to conflate natural and literary history. Aside from the fact that the theory of evolution concerns itself with a completely different object of study (biological species rather than cultural forms), Moretti neglects a crucial point in Gould's Lamarckian argument. Moretti cites Gould's statement about cultural transmission from one generation to the next, but he omits what follows:

Acquired characters are inherited in technology and culture. Lamarckian evolution is rapid and accumulative. It explains the cardinal difference between our past, purely biological mode of change, and our current, maddening acceleration toward something new and liberating—or toward the abyss.20

Two facets of Gould's argument are obscured by Moretti's presentation. First, Gould refers to change rather than “Hegelian” progress. He does not believe, as Moretti asserts, that human history is “an undivided development where problems only arise when solutions are already at hand” (“On Literary Evolution,” 263). Instead, Gould merely says that Lamarckian theory explains, “by analogy only,” what the human species has accomplished “for better or worse” (The Panda's Thumb, 83). Second and most importantly, Gould views the social accumulation of information as the distinguishing feature of human history. Marx also traces the central importance of “the general productive forces of the social mind,” and for him as well the key point about knowledge is that it accumulates outside of—and sometimes at the expense of—the individual human subject.21

Poe, it should be recalled, held similar views. One of his most interesting references to the frailty of the thinking subject appears in Thomas Wyatt's Synopsis of Natural History, a work collecting (with some emendations) the writings of Lemmonnier and other naturalists. Poe helped Wyatt prepare the volume late in 1838; in his review of the book for Burton's Poe remarks that “the useful spirit of the original [by Lemmonnier] has been preserved—and this we say from personal knowledge, and the closest inspection and collation.”22 It is impossible to say with certainty which portions were written or edited by Poe, but he probably prepared a chapter (derived from Cuvier) on the “Varieties of the Human Race.”23 This chapter contains the following description of the origin of writing:

By means of this intelligence [man] alone, among all other beings, has been enabled to form for himself a language. Through this, fathers transmit to their children their experience, their ideas; and this heritage, in passing from generation to generation, always increased in its progress from the preceding generation, becomes at length a treasure which memory is no longer capable of preserving. This accumulation upon accumulation of facts gave birth to writing and then again to printing, the province of both of which is, to render language perceptible by the eye in all places and at all times.24

Cuvier describes “language and letters” as an “indefinite source of perfection,” but he says nothing about the origin of writing. The author of the above passage, in contrast, views writing as the result of the inadequacy of individual memory when confronted with a vast and expanding accumulation of facts.25 Although the intellectual heritage is described as a “treasure,” writing and especially printing appear as symptoms of a signifying environment in which the individual has forever lost the capacity to grasp the totality of knowledge.

We might add, then, that the “accumulation upon accumulation of facts” which gave birth to printing also inspired the creation of the detective story. The new form responded not merely to “society” in a general sense but specifically to an emerging tendency that imperiled literary labor and signification itself, namely the tendency toward overproduction, which left many observers “astonished that human thought or human industry could have produced such an accumulation.”26 The detective story therefore challenges notions of an autonomous realm for art because it registers the crisis of accumulation in its form as well as its content. Far from being a chance event, the emergence of a literary form constitutes the zero degree of mediation between culture and society.

For this reason the detective story registers—almost against Poe's critical principles—the evolving relationship between writer and mass audience. Raymond Williams has observed that during the crucial years of British Romanticism, the bond between writers and readers was undergoing fundamental changes, and “a different habitual attitude toward the ‘public’ was establishing itself.” Keats accordingly proclaimed that he lacked the “slightest feel of humility toward the Public”; Shelley refused to accept any “counsel from the simple-minded”; and Wordsworth denounced the “small though loud portion of the community, ever governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, passes itself upon the unthinking, for the PEOPLE.”27 As we have seen, Poe displays a similar habitual attitude in his disparagement of the mob, in his attacks on the practice of “puffing” inferior authors, and in his general skepticism toward popularity as a measure of literary value. The detective story, however, is expressly designed to be popular among those readers whom Poe least respects. In his review of himself, Poe notes that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is especially favored “among literary people—though with the mass, the ‘Gold-Bug,’ and ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ are more popular, because of their unbroken interest, novelty of the combination of ordinary incident, and faithful minuteness of detail” (ER, 871). Rufus Griswold would later concur with this assessment of the popularity of the tales of ratiocination. Writing in 1847, he remarked that “the analytical subtlety and the singular skill shown in the management of revolting and terrible circumstances in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ produced a deep impression, and made this story perhaps the most popular that Mr. Poe has written.”28

In his quest for popularity through ratiocination, Poe sometimes modified or abandoned his professed mistrust of public opinion. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Dupin even goes so far as to celebrate the collective wisdom of the multitude:

Now, the popular opinion, under certain conditions, is not to be disregarded. When arising of itself—when manifesting itself in a strictly spontaneous manner—we should look upon it as analogous with that intuition which is the idiosyncrasy of the individual man of genius. In ninety-nine cases from the hundred I would abide by its decision. But it is important that we find no palpable traces of suggestion. The opinion must be rigorously the public's own.

(PT, 539)

In this case, of course, Dupin is free to disregard the popular opinion because it has been shaped by misleading newspaper reports. It is also important to note that the public can only be trusted where there is no possibility of deception or false suggestion—in short, where there is no need for ratiocination. The compliment therefore turns out to be rather backhanded, and in his personal correspondence, Poe admits that the detective story itself manipulates popular opinion. Writing to Philip Pendleton Cooke in 1846, Poe describes how the public has been duped by Dupin: “You are right about the hair-splitting of my French friend:—that is all done for effect. These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious—but people think them more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method” (Letters, 2:328). In other words, Poe expected that most readers would be mystified by the detective tales. As with “The Gold-Bug,” these tales refuse the sympathetic bond between reader and writer which Poe believed to be the basis for all genuine aesthetic experience. A form purporting to dispel all mystery ends up concealing from the mass audience “the more delicate pulses of the heart's passion” (ER, 581). As we shall see in the next section, Poe's major detective tales refuse not only sympathy but also the obligation to convey some useful information. In so doing the tales combine—if only to violate more efficiently—the inner laws of aesthetic appreciation and the horrid laws of political economy.


Early in March 1841, printers Barrett & Thrasher were busy in their shop at No. 33 Carter's Alley, Philadelphia. After setting an article called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” into type for the upcoming April issue of Graham's, they threw the original manuscript into the wastebasket. A young apprentice printer named W. J. Johnston later retrieved it from the trash and carried it home with him that evening (Poe Log, 319). As he examined the manuscript in his lodgings, he may have noticed that it was in a rather untidy condition, which perhaps explains why Barrett & Thrasher disposed of it so unceremoniously. Three years later, Poe produced another disorderly manuscript. In a letter to Edward L. Carey, publisher of the Gift, he asked to examine the proof copy of “The Purloined Letter.” “I am not,” he explained, “usually, solicitous about proofs; but in this instance, the MS. had many interlineations and erasures, which may render my seeing one, necessary” (Letters, 2:706). It was extraordinary for Poe, who viewed chirography as an indication of character,29 to submit text in such poor shape. According to Mabbott, “most of his printer's copy was carefully prepared and unusually clean”; the poor condition of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” he observes, can be found in “no other surviving manuscript of a Poe story.”30 Without delving into Poe's theory of autography, it is possible to draw some provisional conclusions from this. First, he probably wrote the tales very quickly, indicating that he knew how they would end from the start (this is what he really meant by writing a story backwards). Second, the fact that he did not recopy them implies a certain habitual attitude toward this form of literature. Perhaps he felt that they did not warrant improvement, or perhaps he felt compelled to rush them to market, but whatever the reason he was anxious to dispose of the tales as quickly as possible.31 Finally, we may read in the hurried and automatic acts of the laborer something more profound—not about the laborer himself but about the productive process that summons him into existence.

“Murders in the Rue Morgue” has long been touted as the first detective story, and as such it has been subjected to extensive critical analysis. Although much criticism has centered on Dupin as a bourgeois individualist and on the police as a bungling bureaucracy,32 there has been comparatively little investigation of the social significance of the two necessary components of any crime: victim and perpetrator. John Cawelti and other mass cultural theorists have discussed the necessity for detective fiction to minimize reader identification with the victim, and Judith Fetterley has emphasized the prevalence of murdered women in Poe's fiction.33 But something more about Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter emerges from the details that Poe carefully selects from the crime reports. To begin with, many residents of the Rue Morgue believe that Madame L'Espanaye was a fortune teller. Aside from its resemblance to the economic puns of “The Gold-Bug,” fortune telling is a mysterious art which in Poe's time was being displaced by such “scientific” practices as autography and phrenology. One of the witnesses disputes the rumors about fortune telling, but Madame L'Espanaye certainly did not earn any money from rent. Although her house was large and in good condition, she “became dissatisfied with the abuse of the premises by her tenant, and moved into them herself, refusing to let any portion.” Madame L'Espanaye therefore lived alone on the fourth floor of the house, leaving the first three floors completely vacant. Finally, we must consider the money. One of the clues designed to disprove robbery as a motive is the wealth accumulated in the apartment. When the police arrived, they found old coins, jewels, and most importantly, 4000 francs in gold, which Madame L'Espanaye had withdrawn from her bank three days before her murder. Like the house, the money is potential capital that the idiosyncratic Madame L'Espanaye refused to put into productive circulation. This estrangement from productive society makes it possible to reconsider the status of the two women. There is an old woman who believes in magic but not in capitalism, and a young woman who has failed to enter the sexual economy through marriage. In other words, the house defines a space that is oppositional to both capitalism and patriarchy, and if the women who inhabit the space make unsympathetic victims, it is partly due to their distance from the dominant social order. As one of the witnesses observes, “the two lived an exceedingly retired life” (PT, 407).

When the victims are described in these terms, the logical perpetrator would be some agent of capitalism, and in fact the police arrest Adolphe Le Bon, clerk at the bank from which Madame L'Espanaye withdrew the 4000 francs.34 The arrest of Le Bon draws added significance when Dupin explains his own motives for wanting to solve the crime. As he tells the narrator, he will unravel the mystery, first because it will afford him amusement, and secondly because the bank clerk has rendered Dupin an unidentified service for which he is still grateful.

If the victim and suspect encode larger political or economic conflicts, it only fair to inquire about Dupin's social position. In establishing Poe rather than Voltaire or E. T. A. Hoffmann as the originator of the detective story, critics often point to the relatively recent emergence of detection as a line of work. As Howard Haycraft puts it, “Clearly, there could be no detective stories until there were detectives. … The first systematic experiments in professional crime-detection were naturally made in the largest centers of population, where the need was greatest. And so the early 1800s saw the growth of criminal investigation departments in the police systems of great metropolises, such as Paris and London.”35 Clive Bloom extends this notion of the detective as paid professional, depicting Dupin as someone who uses his intellect as capital and who “always works only for money.”36 Like Haycraft, Bloom explores the link between the emergence of a literary form and some phenomenon of economic history, though for him what matters is not the birth of a new profession, which can be dated quite precisely, but instead a broader ensemble of social practices grouped loosely together under the rubric of capitalism.

Yet both Haycraft and Bloom erroneously project the events of later Dupin stories back on to the first, for in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin does not work for money and cannot be classified as a professional detective. He takes his first case as a lark, seeking only amusement and (secondarily) the exoneration of the bank clerk Le Bon. After forming a hypothesis about the deaths of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter, Dupin commences a spirited quest for truth rather than a calculated search for wealth. At the end of the story, the owner of the orangutan offers him a financial reward, but Dupin is after something else: “My reward shall be this. You shall give me all the information in your power about these murders in the Rue Morgue” (PT, 427). In other words, Dupin uses his “means of information about this matter” (PT, 428) to accumulate yet more information, a strategy that accords perfectly with the analogy Poe elsewhere draws between the semi-autonomous realms of capital and thought: “knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold” (ER, 1318). Only in Poe's later detective tales do the discrete realms of capital and thought blend into one. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Dupin refuses to work without a contract, and in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin pursues the letter for its cash value rather than its truth content, so that knowledge breeds gold instead of further knowledge. The new detective therefore stands in a fundamentally different relation to knowledge, state power, and production itself. Like a prototypical data processor, Dupin ultimately ends up as a conduit for information that can bring him no enlightenment.

It is hard to overestimate the literary and social importance of Dupin's transition from free thinker to hired intellectual. To grasp how radical a break Poe makes with the ideology of universal enlightenment, it is useful to turn for contrast to Richard D. Brown's account of information diffusion in antebellum America.37 Among other things, Brown explores “the ideal of universal information in the enlightened republic” through the exemplary life of William Bentley, a Congregational minister who was, with Thomas Jefferson, one of the preeminent polymaths of his age. Unlike such figures as Jefferson and Franklin, however, Bentley neglected original or creative work in order to devote himself almost entirely to the collection and dissemination of already existing knowledge. His compulsion to know “everything about everything” (Knowledge Is Power, 198) fed a complementary compulsion to inform everyone about everything. To acquire his knowledge of the world, Bentley drew from many sources: periodicals, books from many countries (he read twenty languages), and conversations with all manner of people, especially merchants and foreign visitors.38 Bentley distributed this information in correspondence, sermons, social interactions, and perhaps most notably in a biweekly news digest that ran for nearly twenty-five years in the Salem newspapers.

Near the end of his life, Bentley became less optimistic about the possibility of achieving a republic of perfect information. Distressed at newspaper sensationalism, in 1796 he denounced a “licentious press” and vowed to “communicate everything to the public, which has in our judgement the truth, happiness, usefulness, or good government as its object” (Knowledge Is Power, 214). Despite his best efforts, Bentley's goal became increasingly difficult “in an era when the volume and variety of information were expanding dramatically” (217). Though Brown does not recognize the immanent contradiction between information and enlightenment, the ideological foundation of Bentley's project was clearly most imperiled at the very moment when technological conditions should have been most favorable. As Brown observes, “A shadow was falling across his own bright hopes for a free press as the foundation of an informed population. Indeed in an era when information and the media presenting it were increasing at an explosive rate, Bentley was unrealistic to have supposed that multitudes of citizens would have the inclination and ability to inform themselves broadly according to the ideal of the genteel cosmopolitan” (215). In other words, a society characterized by a “superabundance” of information would ultimately render impossible both the enlightened republic and the polymath who best embodied it.

Poe's fiction is nevertheless replete with polymaths. In his gothic tales he depicts his most sublime polymath in the figure of Ligeia; in his satires he ridicules pseudo-polymaths who construct their seeming knowledge out of scissors and paste; his in “Pinakidia” and “Marginalia” Poe himself plays a polymath very much like Bentley when he assembles copious selections of useful and entertaining knowledge. But the greatest polymath of all is Dupin. With the possible exception of Ligeia, Dupin is the character who comes closest to knowing “everything about everything”; from his first appearance in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” we are encouraged to marvel at “the vast extent of his reading” and to view his mind as “a treasure beyond price” (PT, 400). The crucial difference between Dupin and other polymaths—the list would include Jefferson, Franklin, Bentley, and Poe's old schoolmaster Nicholas Bransby—is that Dupin refuses to share his information. Despite the paternalism implicit in the republican visions of Bentley and Jefferson, each believed in the need for an enlightened citizenry. They of course assumed a close connection between enlightenment and productivity, but they did not yet conceive of information as something which re-entered the production process directly. Although Jefferson and other polymaths would often treat educated people as “human capital,” they did so from the perspective of the nation as a whole rather than from the perspective of a capitalist economy. Poe, who studied at Jefferson's university, no doubt recognized the republican tradition behind the ideal and the ideology of “universal information.” More importantly, he was aware of the many new attempts to institutionalize the individual efforts of the great polymaths.39 Aside from the educational societies and circulating libraries that were springing up everywhere, the legacy of the French philosophes was embodied in the many American encyclopedia projects.40 But although Poe's Dupin is himself a walking encyclopedia, he utterly lacks the ideological commitment which animated Bentley and Jefferson. When the narrator first encounters Dupin, he notes that the fallen aristocrat has “ceased to bestir himself in the world” (PT, 400). “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” shows the pair in a similar condition of isolation: “Strange as it may appear, the third week from the discovery of the body had passed, and passed without any light being thrown upon the subject, before even a rumor of the events which had so agitated the public mind, reached the ears of Dupin and myself. Engaged in researches which had absorbed our whole attention, it had been nearly a month since either of us had gone abroad, or received a visiter, or more than glanced at the leading political articles in the daily papers” (PT, 510). In short, Dupin is a polymath who has turned his back on the public and who harbors no desire to disseminate his knowledge.

“The Purloined Letter” reveals the material basis for Dupin's reticence. Whereas “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” had at least made a perfunctory nod to “the popular opinion,” “The Purloined Letter” displays an unmistakable disregard for the masses. In this tale, of course, the issue is not the murder of commoners but high level intrigue involving a state minister, a stolen letter, and “a personage of the most exalted station” (PT, 682). The theft of the letter threatens the stability of the state, but unlike the crimes of earlier tales it does not stimulate the formation of a potentially violent urban mob. Strangely, it is Dupin himself who conjures the mob into existence. In order to distract the minister, Dupin hires a man to act the part of a lunatic and to fire a musket (without a ball) into a crowd of women and children. This produces the desired effect, for through the window Dupin and the Minister hear “a series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a mob” (PT, 697). Whereas in the first tale Dupin had exercised his ingenuity to disperse the mob, the hired detective employs his ingenuity to arouse and exploit the crowd, giving little thought to the consequences. Dupin's attitude is most clearly demonstrated when he discounts the popular esteem of mathematical reason with a quotation from Chamfort: “Il y a à parier que toute idée publique, toute convention reçcue, est une sottise, car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre” (PT, 691). [You can bet that all popular ideas and received conventions are stupid, because they've been accepted by the masses.] But even if Dupin were devoted to mass enlightenment, the special circumstances of the case would forbid any public disclosure. Whereas both “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” conclude with a dissemination of Dupin's findings, “The Purloined Letter” ends with Dupin telling only the narrator, and not even the narrator learns the contents of the letter.

Poe has therefore grasped the value of information, but he has done so from the standpoint of the producer. His evolving attitude toward the value of information can be seen in the difference between “Pinakidia” and the “Marginalia.” In “Pinakidia” Poe is, rather like Bentley and Jefferson, willing to disseminate information useful to other writers, a strategy which aids his competitors and perhaps the nation as a whole, but which gains him little in return. In the “Marginalia” Poe turns this concept of value on its head. The introduction to the series explicitly confounds the prevailing belief in useful information: “the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this is what imparts to them a value” (ER, 1309). The perversion of value attains its fullest realization in the tales of ratiocination, for these embody Poe's longstanding dream of a culture of surfaces where the raw material for literary production (variously dubbed truth or information) may be easily obtained by the writer of genius. As early as 1831 Poe had argued that the greatest truths are found in “palpable places” rather than “huge abysses”41; “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” elevates this preference for “palpable places” into a methodological principle. In the story Dupin criticizes Vidocq—his rival from real life—for the “intensity of his investigations.” By holding the object of study too close, Vidocq “lost sight of the matter as a whole,” and this myopia prompts Dupin to restate the case for a culture of surfaces: “Thus there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial” (PT, 412).

“The Purloined Letter” takes the culture of surfaces one step further. At a basic level, the concept of superficial truth serves to elevate Dupin by depreciating the labor of his intellectual competitors. The Parisian police work hard, but they are limited by the fact that “their own ingenuity is a faithful representative of that of the mass” (PT, 690). In other words, Dupin contends, their method depends “not at all upon acumen, but altogether upon the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers” (PT, 691). This disparagement of “mere care, patience, and determination” must be understood in the context of a political economy that emphasized the broad dissemination of objectified information rather than the education or cultivation of a few intellectuals. Poe, who repeatedly lobbied for better copyright laws and higher pay for authors, was painfully aware that he worked in a signifying environment suffering from a surplus of both information and intellectual workers.42 The culture of surfaces elegantly responds to the crisis in the signifying environment, first by devaluing “deep meaning” in favor of a superficial realm of knowledge, and then by making this realm the special province of the writer of genius, whose ability “to seek … and to seize truth upon the surface of things” elevates him above the mass of merely industrious writers.43 If we understand capital as both the industrial base of the publishing industry and the rapidly accumulating supply of thinking material, and if we understand “labor” as both the “poor devil authors” Poe competed with and the anonymous mass audience he so mistrusted, then the culture of surfaces appears not as an attempt to resolve the structural antagonism between capital and labor in favor of one class or another, but instead as a symbolic attempt to abolish capitalist production altogether by establishing a signifying environment where writers assume material dominion over all.44 [This] fantasy—dimly adumbrated in the detective story—receives grandiose expression in Poe's angelic dialogues.

In any event, Poe revealed his general disenchantment with the prevailing relations of production on numerous occasions, especially in his calls for an international copyright agreement, in his comments on the magazine business, and in his excessive optimism over the radical potential of new inventions like the daguerreotype or anastatic printing.45 It must be emphasized that in all these instances Poe attacks the relations of production, and as such his critique extends beyond politics narrowly so-called to confront more fundamental social practices. This is most clearly demonstrated in “The Purloined Letter.” At the same time that Poe disparages the masses and shores up the dominant political order (in this case a monarchy), he also smuggles into his ratiocination an astonishingly radical critique of value. In an inverted world where truth is most concealed when it is most revealed, Poe offers a tale where, as he slyly insinuates in his review of himself, “there is much made of nothing” (ER, 872). This inversion of production is explicitly noted in the story:

“The present peculiar condition of affairs at court … would render the instant availability of the document—its susceptibility of being produced at a moment's notice—a point of nearly equal importance with its possession.”

“Its susceptibility of being produced?” said I.

“That is to say, of being destroyed,” said Dupin.

Dupin and the narrator mean to say the letter must be nearby so that the Minister could, in a pinch, quickly dispose of the evidence. The two of them instead end up playing upon, or confounding, the difference between production and destruction.

In his account of the letter's value, Poe likewise rejects the democratic faith in universal enlightenment. This is how the narrator links the letter with power:

“It is clear,” said I, “as you observe, that the letter is still in the possession of the minister; since it is this possession, and not the employment of the letter, which bestows the power. With the employment the power departs.”

(PT, 683)

According to the classic theory of supply and demand, overproduction would affect information in the same way that it would affect any other commodity—it would drive its price down to zero. But in Poe's inverted world, a fall in exchange value is also accompanied by a corresponding decline in use-value or utility. If the contents of the letter were published, if the personal affairs of a certain exalted personage were to become common knowledge, then this information would lose its special utility, namely the political power it confers on its possessor.

If this were also true of information in general, it would imperil all hopes for an enlightened republic. Exponents of the society of perfect information generally assume the possibility of an absolute increase in civility, wisdom, and most especially productivity.46 Poe shatters this assumption with two swift retorts from the dismal science. First he depicts a zero-sum society where all gains are offset by relative losses somewhere else, where knowledge affords a competitive advantage only amongst the ignorant. Second, he insists that the possessor of information, like the owner of any other commodity, is legally and morally entitled to sell it only to the highest bidder. From the macroeconomic perspective of the nation, Bentley was an information hero, but from the microeconomic perspective of producers, he was a fool. As indicated by Dupin's anecdote of the rich miser who tries to wheedle free medical advice (PT, 687-88), Poe wants to ensure that intellectuals receive compensation for their labor. He especially wants to combat the tendency of intellectual workers to give away their productions, whether in the form of spoken advice or as literature properly so called. Poe of course was not alone in this. In the same year that “The Purloined Letter” was published, a writer in the Weekly Mirror actually lamented the fact that authors did not treat their texts like other commodities: “What a butcher would think of veal, as a marketable commodity, if everybody had an ambition to raise calves to give away, is very near the conclusion that a merely business man would arrive at, in inquiring into the saleableness of fugitive literature.”47

Whether out of desperation or perversity, Poe sometimes attacked a social formation regulated by the laws of political economy by making those laws universal. Tales of ratiocination like “The Purloined Letter” accordingly reproduce, at the level of form, the lived contradiction between the society of perfect information and a signifying environment where information functions as a commodity or, more precisely, as capital itself. Aside from banishing all profundity or metaphysical depth, then, the culture of surfaces would ultimately subject all knowledge to market forces. As Marx would say, the culture of surfaces heralds “the time of general corruption, of universal venality, or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time when everything, moral or physical, having become marketable value, is brought to the marketplace to be assessed at its truest value.”48 Though this seems a rather improbable solution to the predicament of the antebellum author, it actually represents Poe's calculated response to the overproduction of information, a fact made clear by his curious yet consistent advocacy of superficial knowledge.49 And although the detective tale risks subjecting all signification to the laws of commerce, it also renders everything—from the broken nail in the window casement to the pasteboard card-rack on the mantel piece—an object of extreme fascination, if only because every inconspicuous detail might be the first link in a signifying chain leading to great wealth.

But although he invoked the virtues of commerce in imaginary realms, Poe had little practical faith in the laws of political economy. In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” for example, he rejects the very premise of the culture of surfaces when he complains that “the cost of an article of furniture has at length come to be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit” (PT, 383). Further doubt emerges from his lifelong view of poetry (rather than the tale) as the highest field of artistic endeavor. For one thing, Poe frequently implied that poetry was inconsistent with a life of money getting, though it should be noted that his position was not entirely consistent.50 More important is Poe's intimation of a contradiction between the poetic sentiment and the rights of property. In one of his last and most conciliatory articles on Longfellow's alleged plagiarisms, Poe magnanimously admits that the poetic sentiment “implies a peculiarly, perhaps abnormally keen appreciation of the beautiful, with a longing for its assimilation, or absorption into the poetic identity” (ER, 758). After a poet “assimilates” a poem, “he thoroughly feels it as his own,” and years later this assimilation can give rise to acts of unintentional plagiarism. Poe goes on to draw a direct correlation between the magnitude of poetic sentiment and the susceptibility to “poetic impression,” so that “for the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms, we must search the works of the most eminent poets” (ER, 759). This effectively turns the concept of literary property on its head. If poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty (as Poe argues in “The Rationale of Verse”), and if beauty inherently subverts the proprietary status of literature because of its susceptibility to “assimilation,” then one can only conclude that poetry is theft. As we shall see in the following chapter, the line between theft and poetic inspiration is never clearly drawn, not even in Poe's most sublime creations.

In the tales of ratiocination, however, sublimity is out of the question. Instead of fleeing beyond the space and time of capitalist regulation, the Dupin tales look forward to a culture where emergent economic tendencies have become dominant. It is this very strategy of intensification which plants the seeds of instability and disintegration. That is to say, Poe's attempt to universalize the horrid laws of political economy gives rise to a culture of surfaces, but this is always on the verge of being transformed into its dialectical opposite, namely a culture of collective meaning where the laws of political economy are universally violated. The detective story therefore represents Poe's most profound response to the transformation of the publishing industry and the birth of a vaguely ominous mass audience. Stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” attempt to outwit the crisis of overproduction in the literary market by imagining the reverse situation—a social crisis caused by a scarcity of information. This scarcity of information enables intellectuals like Dupin to overcome the power of capital and to escape artistic annihilation at the hands of the anonymous urban masses. In the first detective story, however, Dupin does not yet sell the product of his intellectual labor to the highest bidder; he instead relies on the patronage of his American sidekick. The lingering reliance on patronage comes to an end in “The Purloined Letter,” a tale which not only denies the triumph of literary over market value, but which also questions whether the mass cultural text can be the bearer of any socially useful meaning whatsoever. Regardless of what it may have meant to a certain exalted personage, the stolen letter retains its power only so long as its contents remain secret. By the inner logic of both the tale and the emerging relations of production, information would lose all value the instant it became common knowledge.


  1. Nora Barlow, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (London: Collins, 1958), 93-94.

  2. Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 47.

  3. “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” rpt. in The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), 395.

  4. The reference to ideology comes from “On Raymond Chandler,” in The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, ed. Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 124. Jameson's comment about supreme triviality appears in “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (winter 1979): 132.

  5. It is important to note, however, that the culture of surfaces can be read or deciphered only by an uncommon few, such as analytical detectives and calculating angels.

  6. Originally published in Godey's Lady's Book, November 1844; rpt. in PT, 728-42. Mandel prefers it to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Delightful Murder, 19), and Julian Symons, himself a mystery writer, affirms that “it is also emphatically a tale of detection, including as it does false clues planted by the villain, and the first instance of the marks made by a rifle barrel being used as a clue in solving a crime.” See Symons, The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin, 1978), 222.

  7. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (New York: Appleton-Century, 1941), 10. For Haycraft “Thou Art the Man” is not, strictly speaking, a detective story, because crucial evidence is withheld from the reader until after the crime is solved.

  8. See Robert M. Walsh, trans., Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France, by Louis L. de Loménie (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1841), 221. Poe reviewed this volume for the April 1841 Graham's Magazine, the same issue where “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” first appeared.

  9. For information on the case, see Mabbott's introduction to the story in Collected Works 3:715-22. For generous excerpts from contemporary newspaper accounts, see William K. Wimsatt, Jr., “Poe and the Mystery of Mary Rogers,” PMLA 56 (March 1941): 230-48; and John Walsh, Poe the Detective: The Circumstances behind the Mystery of Marie Rogêt (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967). For an excellent reinterpretation of the significance of the tale, see Laura Saltz, “‘(Horrible to Relate!)’: Recovering the Body of Marie Rogêt,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 237-67.

  10. Although the review refers to being “hampered by the facts,” it later praises Poe for clearing up much of the confusion surrounding the case: “To this day, with the exception of the light afforded by the tale of Mr. Poe, in which the faculty of analysis is applied to the facts, the whole matter is shrouded in complete mystery. … At all events, he has dissipated in our mind, all belief that the murder was perpetrated by more than one” (ER, 872).

  11. Larzer Ziff, Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 67. Ziff argues that Poe's “poems and tales are only rarely set in a recognizable part of America, bear no conscious relation to the habits of abstract speculation that marked much of its literature, bypass explicit moral themes, are unconcerned with social matters, and adhere to a ‘literary’ diction that is confected.” There is some truth to Ziff's description, but as I indicate throughout this study, Poe was never isolated from American contexts and contradictions. If he produced the appearance of isolation, then that is an artistic achievement which must be investigated in its own right.

  12. In his 1845 footnote, Poe points out that the tale “was composed at a distance from the scene of the atrocity, and with no other means of investigation than the newspapers afforded” (PT, 506). He nevertheless feels confidence in the correctness of his general conclusions and “hypothetical details.”

  13. Poe complained of having “no proprietary interest” in the Southern Literary Messenger, and when describing similar experiences at Graham's Magazine, Poe keenly explained that insofar as “Mr. G[raham] was a man of capital and I had no money … I was continually laboring against myself” (Letters, 1:205).

  14. One of the narrator's comments in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” emphasizes this point: “Upon reading these various extracts, they not only seemed to me irrelevant, but I could perceive no mode in which any one of them could be brought to bear upon the matter in hand. I waited for some explanation from Dupin” (PT, 536).

  15. Among other things, this process of exclusion denies the collective nature of literary production; as Walter Benjamin warns, cultural treasures “owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” “These on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 256.

  16. “On Literary Evolution,” in Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays on the Sociology of Literary Forms, rev. ed (London: Verso, 1988), 262-78. Moretti advocates an extreme version of literary Darwinism partly because he believes that no one else has yet made the attempt; according to him, only the Russian Formalists came close with their theory of literary change as a “mutation of systems,” and even this had “no lasting impact” (268). Moretti is in error here, because other materialist critics have made strikingly similar uses of Darwin. In the thirties, Sidney Hook argued that there is “an important distinction between the origin of any cultural fact and its acceptance. In art, for example, all sorts of stylistic variations or mutants appear in any period. The social and political environment acts as a selective agency upon them.” See Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation (New York: The John Day Company, 1933), 160. (It should be noted that Hook later went on to advocate very different critical and political positions.) Presumably, Moretti also did not know of French critic Ferdinand Brunetière's application of Darwin to literary studies, made some forty years before Hook's. In 1889, Brunetière argued that literary genres evolve like animal species, and he accordingly sought to demonstrate “in virtue of what circumstances of time and place [genres] originate; how they grow after the manner of living beings, adapting or assimilating all that helps their development; how they perish; and how their disintegrated elements enter into the formation of a new genre.” See Brunetière, L'Evolution de la poésie lyrique; quoted in Irving Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912; New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1963), 325.

  17. “A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labor process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning.” See Marx, Capital, 284.

  18. Review of Theodorick Bland's Reports of Cases decided in the High Court of Chancery of Maryland, Southern Literary Messenger 2 (October 1836): 731.

  19. For Dupin as Romantic hero, see Stephano Tani, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 4-15. For the importance of mystery in romanticism, see Richard Alewyn, “The Origin of the Detective Novel,” in The Poetics of Murder, 74.

  20. Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb (New York: Norton, 1980), 84.

  21. Collected Works, 29:84.

  22. Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, July 1839; rpt. Complete Works, 14:27. For the date of the collaboration between Poe and Wyatt, see Poe Log, 259.

  23. The chapter is based on Georges Cuvier's Le règne animal (Paris, 1817), which was translated (with supplements) by Edward Griffith et al. as The Animal Kingdom by Baron Georges Cuvier (London, 1827). The relevant passage on language, from the English translation, is as follows: “The results of human experience, transmitted by language, modified by reflection, and applied to our various wants and enjoyments, have originated all the arts of human life, whether useful or ornamental. Language and letters, by affording the means of preserving and communicating all acquired knowledge, form, for our species, an indefinite source of perfection” (92). As indicated in the text, Poe sees the accumulation of facts as the cause of writing, giving the passage a very different sense from the original. Additional evidence for Poe's authorship comes from his 14 February 1847 letter to George Eveleth, where Poe claims that he translated passages from Cuvier for The Conchologist's First Book, the first work on which he and Wyatt collaborated (Letters, 2:343). If Poe translated Cuvier for this book, he probably did it for the Synopsis as well.

  24. Thomas Wyatt, A Synopsis of Natural History (Philadelphia, 1839), 21.

  25. Cf. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally et al., trans. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). Saussure depicts language (langue) as an impersonal and autonomous system, which is distinct from both human speech (langage) and individual acts of speaking (actes de parole). Because it is a complex social system, “language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity” (14). From a more liberal perspective, Thomas Kuhn argues that “Scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all.” Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 210. Kuhn seems to miss Saussure's (and Poe's) implication: knowledge that is intrinsically the common property of the group is intrinsically beyond the ken of the individual subject.

  26. Lucian Minor, “Selection in Reading,” Southern Literary Messenger 2 (February 1836): 19.

  27. Cited in Williams, Culture and Society, 35-37.

  28. Prefatory essay to The Prose Writers of America, quoted in Poe Log, 694. Interestingly, Griswold praises the new ratiocinative aspects (the “analytical subtlety”) as well as aspects that might be found in a gothic horror tale (“revolting and terrible circumstances”). To reinvoke the discourse of biological evolution, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” would represent a sort of missing link between Poe's tales of horror and a “pure” tale of ratiocination like “The Purloined Letter.”

  29. See his series on “Autography,” his remarks on N. P. Willis (ER, 1125), and his comments in the November 1844 Marginalia (ER, 1322-23).

  30. Collected Works, 3:972.

  31. He was in such a hurry to sell “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” that he offered it simultaneously to two different publishers. See Letters, 1:199-203.

  32. See, for example, Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 39-66; and Franco Moretti, “Clues,” collected in Signs Taken for Wonders, 130-56.

  33. John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1976), 91-92; Judith Fetterley, “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 154-58.

  34. As to the real perpetrator, it is important to recall the unlikelihood that either Poe or his readers had ever seen an orangutan. The strangeness of the orangutan would allow its contours to be filled out by a political imagination, and in antebellum America such an imagination would perhaps see a similarity between Poe's orangutan and black slaves. See my “Edgar Allan Poe and the Horrid Laws of Political Economy,” American Quarterly 44 (September 1992): 381-417.

  35. Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure, 5, 7.

  36. Clive Bloom, “Capitalizing on Poe's Detective: the Dollars and Sense of Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction,” in Nineteenth-Century Suspense: From Bloom to Conan Doyle, ed. Bloom et al. (Hampshire, UK: Macmillan, 1988), 24.

  37. Brown, Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  38. Both Poe and Bentley had their appetites for information whetted by their upbringing in merchants' households. According to Brown, Bentley's circle of commercial friends enabled him “to become expert in commercial matters and well-informed regarding the overseas interests of his community without venturing outside his own parish. … Raised as he was in a merchant's household, Bentley respected the knowledge and prowess of men of affairs whose information was often fresher and more direct than what Bentley could glean from print. Moreover what he learned from his merchant friends was not available in any library” (203).

  39. Jefferson wrote ten thousand personal letters, many of them designed to instruct or to convey useful knowledge. Although it would be difficult for an individual to duplicate that feat, an institution or a mass-circulation periodical could perform a similar task with relative ease.

  40. To get a sense of how these were marketed, it is worthwhile to cite the subtitle of Arnold James Cooley's The Book of Useful Knowledge, a multivolume work that Poe mentioned many times as editor of the Broadway Journal. The title page of each volume proclaimed “A Cyclopedia of Several Thousand Practical Receipts, and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades,—including Medicine, Pharmacy, and Domestic Economy. Designed as a Compendious Book of Reference for the Manufacturer, Tradesman, Amateur, and Heads of Families.”

  41. “Letter to Mr.——,” PT, 13. In this regard it is worthwhile to note Emerson's 1842 journal entry on the “superficial” nature of American urban life: “In New York City lately, as in cities generally, one seems to lose all substance, and become surface in a world of surfaces. Everything is external, and I remember my hat and coat, and all my other surfaces, and nothing else.” Quoted in Robert H. Byer, “Mysteries of the City: A Reading of ‘Poe's Man of the Crowd,’” in Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 221-22.

  42. As noted above, this predicament was due to many factors, including technological advancements, the efforts of the state and nongovernmental associations, and lax copyright laws, which enabled American publishers to reprint foreign works at will. Concerning the relative surplus of professional intellectuals, it should be pointed out the phenomenon was first perceived as a problem by the intellectual elite. James Madison, for example, advised his nephew that “the great and increasing number of our universities, colleges, and academies, and other seminaries, are already throwing out crops of educated youth beyond the demand for them in the professions and pursuits requiring such preparations.” Madison to Richard D. Cutts, 12 September 1835. Cited in Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 203.

  43. ER, 1062. The culture of surfaces was partly a response to feigned brilliance and a false erudition. Cf. Poe's remarks on Robert Southey: “Erudition is only certainly known in its total results. The mere grouping together of mottoes from the greatest multiplicity of the rarest works, or even the apparently natural interweaving into any composition, of the sentiments and manner of these works, are attainments within the reach of any well-informed, ingenious and industrious man having access to the great libraries of London” (ER, 343). Bulwer is more vehemently denounced for trying to “ape the externals of a deep meaning” (ER, 1062). Similar charges, of course, could be leveled against Poe himself.

  44. Extending the concept of a “zeroworker,” one might classify Dupin as a kind of zerowriter. The term “zerowork” (the refusal of capitalist labor) comes from the Italian Autonomia movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. For information on Autonomia and the work of Antonio Negri, the theorist closely associated with the movement, see the Introductions by Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Maurizio Viano to Negri's Marx Beyond Marx (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1984). For one version of what Poe may have wished for in a signifying environment, see “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” quoted below.

  45. Poe's comments on the daguerreotype originally appeared on 15 January 1840 and are reprinted in Brigham, Edgar Allan Poe's Contributions to “Alexander's Weekly Messenger,” 21-22.

  46. Modern-day heralds of the information society share many of the same assumptions. According to Daniel Bell, for example, a post-industrial society is characterized “not by a labor theory of value but by a knowledge theory of value.” Extrapolating from ideological and economic trends of the sixties, Bell wants to chart the ascendancy of a knowledge class that would rationally organize data, scientific research, and society itself. For him, this ascendancy is virtually guaranteed by certain intrinsic differences between information and industrial commodities, differences that make information “a collective good” that can be distributed to all and yet remain with the producer even after it is sold (xiv). See Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York: Basic Books, 1976). This is not the place to offer a critique, but in retrospect Bell would have been more correct to predict the rise of a new information proletariat. Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic increase in information sector employment, an increase consisting largely of lower paying jobs in telecommunications, computer services, and data processing. See James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: The Technological Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 24.

  47. New York Weekly Mirror, 12 October 1844, 15. Cited in Bruce I. Weiner, The Most Noble of Professions: Poe and the Poverty of Authorship, (Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1987), 9.

  48. Quoted in Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 20.

  49. In “The Rationale of Verse” Poe argues that “it is the nature of Truth in general, as of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial” and that “the clearest subject may be overclouded by mere superabundance of talk” (ER, 27).

  50. Like the romantics, Poe believed that “the higher order of poetry is, and always will be, in this country, unsaleable” (Letters, 1:216). Unlike the romantics, however, Poe often viewed wealth, especially the wealth which renders one “independent,” as a positive aid to poetic creation. Thus in “The Domain of Arnheim,” Poe's happiest poet is also his wealthiest character. See Chapter Nine for a discussion of the tale.

Further Reading

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Allen, Thomas Michael. “Out of the Fold: Difference in American Literary History.” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 135-50.

Evaluates the influence of Poe on the work of literary critic Barbara Johnson.

Brand, Dana. “Rear-View Mirror: Hitchcock, Poe, and the Flaneur in America.” In Hitchcock's America, edited by Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington, pp. 123-34. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Assesses Poe's influence on the renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation.” In Death and Representation, edited by Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen, pp. 103-29. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Finds parallels between Poe's “Ligeia” and Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo.

Brown, Arthur A. “Literature and the Impossibility of Death: Poe's ‘Berenice.’” Nineteenth Century Literature 50, no. 4 (March 1996): 448-63.

Analyzes the role of death in Poe's story “Berenice.”

Brown, Byron K. “John Snart's Thesaurus of Horror: An Indirect Source of Poe's ‘The Premature Burial?’” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 8, no. 3 (summer 1995): 11-14.

Locates a possible source for “The Premature Burial.”

Carter, Steven. “The Two Terns: A Note on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Chapter II of Walden.The Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 223 (spring 1998): 1-2.

Considers the image of the tern in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

Frey, Matthew. “Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” Explicator 54, no. 4 (summer 1996) 215-16.

Offers a reason for the fall of the house of Usher.

Frushell, Richard C. “Poe's Name ‘Ligeia’ and Milton.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 11, no. 1 (winter 1998): 18-20.

Suggests that Poe “appropriated the name Ligeia from Milton's Comus.

Ginsberg, Lesley. “Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe's ‘The Black Cat.’” In American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, edited by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, pp. 99-128. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Finds allusions to the slavery issue in “The Black Cat.”

Ljungquist, Kent P. “‘Raising More Wind’: Another Source for Poe's ‘Diddling’ and its Possible Folio Club Context.” Essays in Arts and Sciences XXVI (October 1997): 59-70.

Identifies the sources for the alternative titles of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.”

Nelson, Dana D. “The Haunting of White Manhood: Poe, Fraternal Ritual, and Polygenesis.” American Literature 69, no. 3 (September 1997): 515-46.

Explores Poe's racial attitudes and interest in fraternal rituals in “Some Words with a Mummy.”

Whalen, Terence. “The Code for Gold: Edgar Allan Poe and Cryptography.” Representations 46 (spring 1994): 35-57.

Analyzes the relationship between “capitalism, cryptography, and the rise of mass culture in antebellum America” found in “The Gold Bug.”

Zimmerman, Brett. “Allegoria and Clock Architecture in Poe's ‘The Masque of Red Death.’” Essays in Arts and Sciences XXIX (October 2000): 1-16.

Examines Poe's concern with time in his story “The Masque of Red Death.”

Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 11; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74, 248, 254; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Mystery and Suspense Writers; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, 55, 78, 94, 97; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 9; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 4, 7, 8; Something About the Author, Vol. 23; Supernatural Fiction Writers; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; and Writers for Young Adults.

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Poe, Edgar Allan (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Poe, Edgar Allan (1809 - 1849)