Text: Henry Austin, “Preface,” The Murders in the Rue Morgue and A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, R. F. Fenno & Co., 1899, pp. 5-24


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Preface

ON February 20th, 1841, public announcement was made that Edgar Allan Poe had taken editorial charge of Graham’s Magazine, a periodical which had then a circulation of about six thousand copies. Poe signalized the first month of his editorship by publishing in the April number “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” following it in May with “The Descent Into the Maelstrom,” as if to give his reading constituency a most vivid contrast of his powers in the providing of intellectual entertainment.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” marked an entirely new departure on the part of Poe in choice of theme and in literary manner; and this tale, of purely intellectual interest, with “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” published in Snowden’s Lady’s Companion, at the close of the year succeeding and the beginning of [page 6:] 1843, and “The Purloined Letter,” published two years later in The Gift, can be truly said to have set a new fashion in the writing of detective stories. A tale of Ratiocination, as Poe classed it, this begins like an essay, in sharp difference from what one might naturally expect after the somewhat journalistic sensationalism of its title. Probably few short-story writers to-day would risk opening a tale with a thousand words of disquisition on the relative merits, as intellectual stimuli, of the games of chess, checkers and whist; for they would be afraid of boring their readers at the start.

Poe nearly always paid his public the compliment of apparently taking it for granted that they were animated by an intellectual taste and curiosity for knowledge akin to his own. He never was afraid of writing over their heads, and so, even when treating a highly sensational subject, he deliberately chose to invest it with a certain profundity of reason. It is this that redeems Poe’s detective stories in the vision of criticism from [page 7:] utter condemnation as mere, sheer wastes of his genius. One might, indeed, be willing to give them all up for a single little gem like “Silence — a Fable,” or for another “MS. Found in a Bottle,” or “A Cask of Amontillado”; but, while in the tally of beauty and artistic values they cannot be rated of much account, nevertheless they are of importance and extrinsic attraction because they throw light, they give insight, into certain large chambers of Poe’s mind and emphasize his possession of practical analytic faculties.

His was, in fact, an intellect exquisitely balanced, and, but for the poverty that hampered and the natal defects of temperament which perhaps no favor of environment could have entirely kept from occasional manifestation, Poe might possibly have given to mankind a mass of work as even in quality and as imposing in bulk as that which Balzac left for the delight and astonishment of Posterity. As it is, Poe’s bequest to Humanity and Literature is large, and we need not reduce [page 8:] the measure of our gratitude merely because it might have been so much more.

In his creation of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, the amateur detective from bias and mental training, and hero of “The Murders,” “The Mystery” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe was merely putting forth a shadow of one side of his own mental character: he is a crucible solely for the solution of problems. Poe, to be sure, in order to give him a certain vitality, invests him with a semi-poetic atmosphere of dreamy domesticity when he describes how Dupin and his friendly historian live in a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, tottering to its fall, in a desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris. “Enamored of the night for her own sake,” at the first dawn they close all the massy shutters, light a couple of perfumed tapers and give themselves up to dreams, or reading, or writing, or desultory talk over their pipes “until warned by the clock of the advent of the [page 9:] true darkness.” Then they sally forth into the streets to seek, “amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.”

This is the only touch of a high color in the story, examined as a work of art; yet it must be admitted that Poe, in depicting the processes of Dupin’s mind, contrives to make him linger in memory as a reality, as an individual, although there is absolutely no development of him in an emotional way. He takes not the slightest hold on our sympathies, and still he captures and keeps our interest. We accept him, all mentality and no cordiality as he is, for a type of possible actuality; and we could accept more of him. In other words, Poe could have carried this creature through a dozen further adventures without wearying the average reader, or critic, either; for a first-rate detective story, though low in the order of Literature, is not without its charm and occasional refreshment for the artistic mind. [page 10:]

The popularity of his new hero and new method, as evinced by the instant success of this first detective story, must have gratified Poe greatly. It is peculiarly pleasant to an author to gain the attention of a fresh audience or to please his present constituency with a break into fresh fields. Even in Poe’s lifetime “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” translated into French and published simultaneously by La Commerce and La Quotidienne,” began to give him a European reputation.

Rather an amusing story has been told in connection with this Parisian publication. The simultaneous advent of Poe’s tale, without his name, rival journals caused a lawsuit, the owner of one believing it had been stolen by his business enemy. When it appeared in evidence that both were steals from an obscure American journalist, the case was laughed out of court, and literary Paris began to guess that a new force to be reckoned with had appeared in the world of letters. Soon after this entertaining episode, in 1846, an edition of some stories, entitled [page 11:] “Les Contes d’ Edgar Poe,” was published in Paris. Seven years later Hachette et Cie produced, under the general title “Nouvelles Choisies,” “The Gold-Bug” (Le Scarabee d’ Or) and “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (L’Aeronaute hollandais). Editions in Germany, Denmark, Spain and Sweden rapidly followed, and in 1855 Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, began his real life-work, the rayonnant reproduction of Poe’s works in the French tongue. These translations, as Edmund Clarence Stedman truly says, “are a miracle of accuracy and effective grave,” and a French critic, Gautier, if I remember rightly, commenting on the fact that Baudelaire owes his fame to Poe and has linked his name indissolubly to that of his master, remarks that, so perfect is the union of this weird pair, it would seem as if the ideas of the American belonged of right to the Frenchman.

Apart from these translations into other tongues, the number of imitators Poe has had is astonishing, and still more [page 12:] astonishing is the freedom with which foreign writers, notably Frenchman, in spite, or perhaps on account, of the familiarity with Poe’s works which their public has acquired, have “appropriated,” to speak politely, plots, ideas and methods from Poe to garniture their own tales, novelettes and plays. But most astonishing — astounding, indeed, to a student of liberal letters — are the openness of plunder and the impudence of display in the matter of borrowed plumage which have recently characterized some of our English “literary” cousins and cozeners. Gilbert’s jackdwa, strutting about in peacock’s feathers, was a symbol of modest honesty in comparison with some of these gentry.

Perhaps the most gaudy example of this kind of freebooter is furnished by Dr. A. Conan Doyle. His alleged detective, Sherlock Holmes, out of whom he has made so undeserved a reputation, will be found, by any one who takes the trouble to compare Holmes’s exploits and methods with those of Dupin, about the [page 13:] crudest and most contemptible imitation of a strong original in all literary annals. Not satisfied with taking the general outlines of this character, Dr. Doyle has even reproduced some of the minor incidents of his methods, thereby showing a paucity of invention that would have brought a blush to the cheek of that prince of dime novelists, the late Harlan P. Halsey, “Old Sleuth.” Nor has this English “man of letters” — limited to the alphabet, surely, he should be! — rested content with such egregious and ridiculous despoliation of the American artist; but, as if to garland his infinite impudence with a fadeless laurel, in one of his tales — or re-tails — he actually endeavors to bluff the reader and critic off the scent by making Sherlock Holmes resent a suggestion from a friend as to the likeness between his methods and those of Poe’s Dupin; Holmes asserting airily that Dupin was clumsy and amateurish in comparison with himself.

There has been but one plagiarist of recent years who merits mention in the [page 14:] same breath with Dr. Doyle and that it Mr. Jon R. Musick, a gentleman who in his “Columbian novels” has had the sublime audacity to take, as recently exposed in the New York Sun, whole slices of dialogue from the works of that English novelist, Charles Dickens, whose continued popularity so vexes the souls of our bogus realists in fiction. But Mr. Musick does not reach as high and rich a note in his performance as Dr. Doyle; for he has not yet evinced a determination to decry the sole source of his invention and inspiration. Mr. Musick is but a promising amateur in bibliomanic burglariousness.

To what extent one writer may incur just indebtedness to another is not incapable of sufficiently clear and close demonstration. Shakespeare was enormously beholden to his predecessors; he “pounced on his own, wherever he found it”; he never refused a character, a fact, a phrase, or whole sentences, because they had been used before; but, herein lies the point, nearly everything [page 15:] he took he re-fused in the glorious crucible of his genius and re-minted it with a sovereign stamp for currency among mankind. He added, improved, renewed.

Poe, undoubtedly, did the same to some degree. Several of his themes, or at least the sufficient suggestions of several, can be found in earlier authors whom he must have read without more than a shadow of doubt to the contrary. And some of the scientific data which he introduces in certain places is taken almost bodily, with just a bettering of a phrase here and there, from current scientific works; in one case, even, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

For the very story we are now considering it is by no means improbably he got the hint of the baboon as a murdering, which Mr. Kipling has improved upon in his ghastlier story, “Bimi,” from an actual incident repeated in the Shrewsbury Chronicle, as Mr. W. F. Waller has pointed out, seven years before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was put in [page 16:] type. The story is of a “ribbon-faced baboon” owned by some itinerant showmen which, it was opined, had been taught to “commit robberies at night by climbing up places inaccessible to men and thereby gaining an entrance through the bedroom window.” A Shrewsbury dame was attacked one night by this animal and so fiercely that her husband, coming to the rescue, was fain to let it escape by the window.

Of course, it is well-nigh impossible to settle that Poe in his reading ran across this fact; and such an idea as this which makes the dominant of insinuated horror in the tale under consideration might easily have occurred to any imaginative mind familiar with the prodigious muscular strength and ferocity of the anthropoid ape. But for some of the local coloring, and at least one of the fine touches, in “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains” which I have grouped with the Rue Morgue story, there can be no shadow of doubt Poe was indebted to Macaulay’s essay on Warren Hastings, [page 17:] published October, 1841, in The Edinburgh Review; unless it could be established that Macaulay was never in Benares and took his facile description from a source to which Poe had equal access. For Poe published his “Tale of the Ragged Mountains” in Godey’s Lady’s Book April, 1844, and it is not likely that so capital a short story should have gone a-begging among American editors for over three years, when Poe’s powers as a story-teller were fairly well understood. The parallelisms are far too marked, in the following passages, to be explained away by any theory of curious coincidences. First read Macaulay’s description:

“It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings were crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines and minarets and balconies and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by the hundreds. The traveler could scarcely make his way through the press of holy mendicants and not less holy bulls.

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“The burning sun, the strange vegetation of the palm and the cocoa-tree, the rice field, the tank, the huge trees, older than the Mogul empire, under which the village crowds assemble, the thatched roof of the peasant’s hut . . . the drums, the banners and gaudy idols, the devotees swinging in the air, the graceful maiden, with her pitcher on her head, descending the steps to the riverside, etc.”

And this is Poe’s version.

“On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandas, of minarets, of shrines and fantastically carved oriels. . . . . Besides these things were seen on all sides banners and palanquins, litters with stately dames close-veiled, elephants, gorgeously caparisoned, idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners and gongs, spears, silver and gilded maces. And amid the crown 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. [page 19:]

“Beyond the limits of the city arose in frequent and majestic groups the palm and the cocoa, with the other gigantic and weird trees of vast age; and here and there might be seen a field of rice, the thatched hut of a peasant, a tank, a stray temple, a gypsy camp, or a solitary graceful maiden taking her way with a pitcher upon her head to the banks of the magnificent river.”

Is it not a just inference from the italicized places, (and there are other points that might be added, were they needed), that Poe plagiarized the local color he wanted for a portion of his narrative from the famous English essayist? It may comfort some of the many who have stolen from Poe to find that on occasion he would do such a thing and in so marked a manner; but it will be noted that, even here, are some fine retouches of intensification in the movement and coloring, besides a very considerable editorial improvement of the Englishman’s English.

Poe could afford, perhaps, in the press of his life to do a thing like this occasionally, [page 20:] but his admirers naturally would rather he had not done it so complacently and so obviously; more especially, when one reflects that as a critic Poe was always ready to fling a thunderbolt of righteous irascibility against petty plagiarists. Indeed, he was even so rude and rabid as to attack Professor Longfellow with unnecessary violence for his graceful resettings of the poetic jewels of others and for his facile adoptions of literary manners and methods. Professor Longfellow’s lack of original power, however, never disturbed the public then any more than it does now. He pleased by a certain modesty of character which was reflected in his rhymes; by an ease of utterance and by a simplicity of domesticity, shall we say, that went home to the average mind, or “the bourgeois bosom,” as one writer amusingly puts it. Few, outside of literary circles, cared a rapp whether the amiable Harvard Professor was a thoroughbred, a born poet of imperative impulse, of merely a gentleman of broad literary [page 21:] culture and refined taste who had learned to poetize pleasantly.

But, after thus connoting Poe’s bit of plagiary, in this particular instance it would be manifestly unjust not to comment to some extent on the original features of “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains” and the quiet power of style with which the theme of reincarnation is handled. Poe was a master of quietude as well as of intensity, of the lingering delicate touch as of the swift, strong stroke; and in this play of his imagination there is a peculiarly happy blend of light and shadow, while the climactic passage is highly original in its reinforcement of the created and explained mystery by the apparently almost accidental addition of a curious coincidence offered by a common and otherwise commonplace occurrence. Poe could be parsimonious of his artistic effects — or princely lavish — just as he chose.

But his unique power in differentiating his treatments of related and often closely related themes in even more wonderful [page 22:] to my mind than his intense clarity of primal conception and his variety in the invention of illuminative incidents for the building up of his conceptions to harmonious wholes, firm and massive, and almost always with an aerial apex of rememberable finish. In several instances he treats the reader to a first and second climax; or he reaches a climax as in “The Gold-Bug,” at the discovery of the treasure and then, in explaining it logically, gains a second climax of a reflective kind.

In “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains,” as the student of literary values will readily see, he might have closed with the introduction of the sangsue, (or poisonous leech of serpentine character and resembling the serpentine Indian arrow which killed Oldeb in Benares) as the immediate cause of Bedloe’s death, after his weird experience in the West Virginia Mountains. That would have been a climax — is, indeed, a first-rate climax: but Poe lightly tosses another one upon it — and such an easy, natural, realistic [page 23:] one, too, that it delights almost like a humorous touch relieving the pressure of a difficult situation, while at the same time it cunningly heightens the quintessential queerness, the suggestive subtlety of this delicately brilliant story.

Lowell, writing of Poe before they fell apart, says of “The Fall of The House of Usher,” that, had Poe written nothing else, it would have been enough to have stamped him as a man of genius and the master of a classic style.” That is indeed, a far greater, because grander, story of “serene and sombre beauty in concept” and color-scheme and is told in a style of towering power; but one could speak in similar vein concerning “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains,” even with full admission of the plagiary of color in its oriental scene; for it reveals Poe’s exquisite mastery over his materials, his flow and glow of language and his never-surpassed innate faculty of communicating as fact that universal sense of the occult which is no dream, though it relates itself, perforce, to dreams [page 24:] and visions — hallucinations? — or mystic memories?

If the doctrine of the indestructibility of individuality be a delusion, Poe must hold rank as the most logical and most convincing of dreamers. If there be such a thing in men, or in any man, as an immortal soul, Poe must be accounted one of its noblest, although unordained, proclaimers and priests. In others of his graver stories I shall have opportunity to point out the metaphysical and religious value of his contributions to the cause of reasoned spirituality now meeting an organized pressure from the ranks of a crass and scientifically bigoted materialism, and I shall be able to show what a large debt is owing to this long-abused and imperfectly understood artist by that conservative portion of society which has been absurdly taught to regard him as an Ishmaelite, because in his latest adventure amid the “Ragged Mountains” of this world. Poe, the man, so often fell by the wayside.

HENRY AUSTIN.


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Notes:

Henry Austin wrote a brief preface to five of Poe’s tales, arranged in 3 volumes, but was never able to edit the collection he wished would be published. Most of this particular preface was printed at about the same time as “Poe as a Plagiarist and his Debt to Macaulay,” Literature (New York, NY), vol. II, no. 30, pp. 82-84.

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[S:0 - MRMTRM, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Preface to Murders in the Rue Morgue and Tales of the Ragged Mountains (H. Austin, 1899)