Text: J. Lasley Dameron, “Popular Literature: Poe’s Not-so-soon Forgotten Lore,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1980


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Poe’s Not-so-soon Forgotten Lore


Professor of English, State University of Tennesee
Memphis, Tennesee

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I was honored to deliver the following speech to the Baltimore Poe Society on Sunday, October 7, 1979, the one hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. It was fitting that Poe’s memory was honored on this date in Baltimore, Maryland, the site of his death and burial. For the reader’s aid and possible benefit, I have documented my text in a traditional fashion, although I surmise that Mr. Poe — if he were alive and well and could glance over my speech — would be amused by my pedantic inclinations.

Lasley Dameron
Memphis, Tennessee
November 1, 1979

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For years I have read extensively in the files of the serials Edgar Allan Poe read so diligently as a journalist. I enjoy examining issues of British and American periodicals like the Edinburgh Review, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the Knickerbocker Magazine, and the Southern Literary Messenger. I delight when my university library announces the purchase of a complete run of a little known periodical like the Foreign Quarterly Review, one of many nineteenth-century publications Poe no doubt used as journalist and artist.

But my middle-age enthusiasm, unfortunately, has to be tempered from time to time. Being a North Carolinian would, it seems, help me to understand my fellow Virginian, Mr. Poe. But fellow Virginian he is not, either in time or place. His education and training were largely classical, and most of his students, including myself, are ill-equipped to catch the nuances of his frequent allusions to classical literature and culture. Bred on late eighteenth-century rhetorical theory, Poe read rhetoricians and aestheticians like Hugh Blair, Lord Kames, Archibald Alison — names unfamiliar to many students of American literature. Though reared a Southerner, Poe was born in Boston and spent most of his mature productive years as a struggling journalist in Northern cities along the Atlantic coast. A brief glance at the facts of his life clearly suggests his dedication to hard work as editor of and contributor to a variety of American magazines. His life was to a large degree dull, hard, and exasperating. Yet art to Poe was sacred. It was not an imitation of life, but primarily a means to achieve a variety of effects, both aesthetic and psychological. He often creates in his reader a sense of another world lying beyond the reader’s conscious and rational experiences. In nearly all of his best narratives, he stimulates the reader’s imagination by probing the feelings and sensations of characters under great stress.

My intent is to present some of my findings bearing upon Poe’s use of popular literature, specifically the frequently read British and American quarterly, monthly, or weekly [[periodicals]], which circulated throughout the United States during the period between 1820-1840. To a large degree, I am attempting to follow where three of Poe’s scholars have gone before, each of whom has contributed much to an understanding of Poe’s cultural background and sources. Professors Robert Jacobs(1) and Margaret Alterton(2) have examined Poe’s writings in the light of these reviews and quarterlies, and have demonstrated how Poe depended upon these serials. It is to Ruth Leigh Hudson that I am most indebted. Her 1935 doctoral dissertation, entitled “Poe’s Craftsmanship in the Short Story” (University of Virginia), is perhaps the most thorough investigation ­[page 2:] of the backgrounds of Poe’s fiction. In her two-volume study, we find over a hundred analogues to Poe’s tales that suggest what Poe was attempting to do in his fiction and what would attract the attention of his reading audience. It is she who attempts to trace Poe’s creation of short fiction — “the new genre demanded by the magazine movement” (p. 630), declaring that in subject matter Poe “was both the product of the older Gothicized Romanticism of his time and of the newer warfare of wit and raillery in the contemporary magazine literature . . .” (p. 631). Her unpublished dissertation on Poe’s fiction is a breath of fresh air in Poe criticism, I think, even though written nearly forty-five years ago. She and Margaret Alterton are the first to open a “vista of ‘the little done, the undone vast’ in the matter of Poe’s backgrounds” (p. 632).

In continuing her investigation of the popular periodicals of Poe’s day, I find, as Ms. Hudson suggested, that Poe’s stories often reveal his response to the growing interest in the scientific found in the popular literature of his time. Tale after tale in a variety of current magazines and quarterlies Poe had opportunity to read — for example, American periodicals like the Southern Literary Messenger and the Knickerbocker Magazine; or British serials like Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser’s, and the weekly Athenaeum (London) — touches on phrenology, mesmerism, metempsychosis, hypochondria, and other subjects of scientific investigation and theory. I will focus on three stories: “The Balloon Hoax,” “The Man of the Crowd,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” each of which has received considerable critical attention. In considering these tales as a response to popular literature, I will concentrate on analogues to these tales that, to my knowledge, have not been noted before. These analogues were likely drawn from a “common literary background” (p. 110), and are not necessarily among Poe’s direct sources. I will suggest what Poe in part intended when he wrote these tales, and how he blended two widely diverging facets of the popular taste of his readers during the early decades of the nineteenth century: 1) a preference for classical literary form and tone in fiction, and 2) an insatiable appetite for any reading material touching upon timely scientific investigations and theories. Poe presents a commonplace subject or subjects of topical interest in the form of narratives that are both plausible and sensational. Each tale is designed to engage the reader’s attention by presenting an extraordinary and remarkable experience of a singular character.

First, Poe as an aspiring artist could hardly neglect the prevailing classical taste throughout America.(3) Current theories of romanticism, ­[page 3:] writes Robert Jacobs, were not the primary tenets of his critical thought. Many of the periodicals he read adhered to eighteenth-century literary standards; only a few like Fraser’s Magazine were bold enough to extol the Gothic tales of German authors like Tieck and Hoffmann. Poe’s best tales, although clearly romantic in subject matter, are very often classical in rhetoric and in tone.(4) His satires and humorous tales, not the best of his canon, owe much to a Gothic mode defined as the “grotesque.” These focus on events, circumstances, and conditions that are sharply bizarre and at times shockingly absurd. In “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “William Wilson,” the Gothic mode is restrained and functional, less obtrusive than in Poe’s early tales such as “Metzengerstein” or “The Assignation.” In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, character and environment have decorous relationships; Roderick Usher’s destiny transcends his particular traits as a character type, and his decaying mansion is a vital centrality within his baneful and preternatural universe. Poe would likely agree with an Athenaeum critic who in 1836 wrote:

There is no more prevailing fallacy among young writers, than the mistaking of distortion for originality — than the selection of monsters and prodigies, whether from human bodies or human souls, as the groundwork of their stories. They forget that it requires a double share of power, and the nicest and most experienced taste, to arrange and combine such strange ingredients with any show of probability (p. 698).

Poe, in his preface to his 1840 edition of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, flatly denied an affinity with German authors of Gothic tales, commenting that “with a single exception, there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognize the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call Germanic . . .” (p. 6).

Poe’s critical theory of the tale plainly reflects his classical taste and standards. His reviews set forth neoclassical attitudes and principles. Neoclassicism, a term generally applied to the renewed interest in classical or ancient literature during the eighteenth century, was much alive in the popular serials of Poe’s day. Harry H. Clark, in writing on the history of literary criticism in America, argues that Poe “best represents the persistence in America of certain eighteenth-century tendencies. . . .”(5) He goes on to describe Poe’s critical method in these words:

Having in his review of Hawthorne elaborated five laws of the short story (compression, immediacy, verisimilitude, totality of effect focused on ­[page 4:] “one pre-established design,” and finality), Poe was distinguished for his ruthless “tomahawk” style, a “particular and methodical application” of these laws or rules, on the principle that the critic’s primary task is one of “pointing out and analyzing defects” (p. 27).

In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in Graham’s Magazine in May, 1842, Poe for the first time presents his mature thoughts on what literature should be. Here he distinguishes between poetry and the tale and avows the importance of structural unity. He cites some of the varieties of the “modes or inflections of thought and expression” a skillful tale writer “may bring to his theme”: the “ratiocinative,” the “sarcastic,” and the “humorous.”(6)

Poe’s close attention to the rudiments of literary form and to structural unity in his reviews is frequently matched by his fellow journalists. British and American reviewers in the 1830’s and 1840’s repeatedly engage in generic criticism by defining the essential attributes of a variety of literary forms. Critical judgments are based upon specified standards for literary types, ranging from didactic poetry to the prose Romance. Variations of Poe’s phrase “unity of impression” appear throughout their critical essays. Poe, in sharing this generic approach to literature, clarified the requirements of the tale in line with his classical inclinations and neoclassical heritage. Although affected by the emerging romanticism exemplified in the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and August W. Schlegel, Poe and many of his contemporary reviewers were perhaps hesitant to discount the all-pervading classical taste of their reading audience.

Second, Poe tends in part to be classical in his practice of fiction. His satires and burlesques, including a host of tales like “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” “A Predicament,” and “King Pest,” are notable examples of a neoclassical temperament. In the manner of Swift and Pope, Poe attacks journalists, political figures, and contemporary modes of literary practice in these tales. More important, in his best tales Poe is largely classical in portraying character-types whose wills are supremely tested. His narrators, often traditionally Gothic, lose their identities as particular individuals; and comparable to heroes and heroines in ancient Greek drama, take on general qualities. In relating their bizarre experiences, they lose their distinctive traits and become vivid representatives of mankind. Poe accentuates their plight — the universality of their experiences — rather than their particular attributes of character. But Poe was not altogether attuned to traditional classical values in his tales; for example, a didactic purpose, a direct and restrained ­[page 5:] style of verbal expression, and a preference for the actual as opposed to the imaginative — are not to be found in his tales.

Examining some of Poe’s stories and their analogues which Poe encountered in his reading of popular serials suggests his efforts to blend the sensational theme with the dictates of a traditional classical taste. Drawing from subjects of a topical and scientific interest, Poe uses short, tight form of prose narrative to depict an uncommon experience — one that is unparalleled, and, above all, adventurous. “The Balloon Hoax,”(7) for example, is more than a hoax; it is an account of remarkable exploit.

Since the late eighteenth century, ballooning has offered opportunities for grand adventure along with engaging challenges in technology. Recently three intrepid Americans, landing their helium balloon in a wheat field near Paris, were reported as “conquerors of the Atlantic’ and were mobbed by thousands of jubilant Frenchmen. In his story “The Balloon Hoax,” appearing as an “Extra” of the New York Sun on April 13, 1844, Poe also describes a successful crossing of the Atlantic by eight balloonists who, intending to cross the British Channel on April 6, 1844, seize the opportunity to be shunted through the air by an east wind and successfully land their carrier on Sullivan’s Island, near Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, just after 2 P.M. on April 9. Their seventy-five hours of adventure, writes Poe, is “the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man” (III, 1082).

Although depending heavily upon two pamphlets by Monck Mason, a noted British aeronaut, for phrasing and technological description, Poe addresses his tale to his reading audience who, in the classical mode, prefer tales having structural unity. Two of Poe’s passengers — Monck Mason and Robert Holland(8) — are well known aeronauts who took a prominent part in the very successful “Weilburg Voyage” in November, 1836, when the famous Vauxhall or “Nassau” balloon crossed the channel in eighteen hours from London to Weilburg in the Duchy of Nassau, Germany.

Poe begins his hoax by announcing the first successful Atlantic crossing by a balloon he calls the Victoria. He then proceeds to explain some of the significant components of the Victoria, at the same time briefly introducing the reader to the science and history of aerostation Then Poe, having prepared the reader with just enough expository discussion and technological background, binds his hoax into a tale of ­[page 6:] climactic unity by quoting passages extracted from the journals composed by two of Poe’s balloonists. The noted aeronaut Monck Mason and the popular novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, no doubt familiar names to many of Poe’s readers, serve as Poe’s reporters. They narrate, among other things, what they did to insure their safety and successful landing. Appropriately, it is the novelist Ainsworth who conveys the sublime effects and visual grandeur of their journey. As Poe brings his tale to a close, the reader has little difficulty in identifying with the aeronauts and in sensing the intensity of their remarkable experience. But their identities as noted personages are of little significance at that point in the tale when Poe’s agent, Mr. Forsyth, purportedly quotes from their journals; Mr. Mason and Mr. Ainsworth have witnessed a grand adventure, and are eager to announce its impact upon the human consciousness.

During the 1830’s and ‘40’s much was said about aerostation in the popular serials. Two brief essays on the subject which Poe could have read and which have not been noted by Poe’s critics and editors are 1) “The Balloon Expedition” in the Athenaeum (London) for November 19, 1836, and 2) three pages of commentary by George Croly appearing in a section entitled “The World We Live In, No. III,” in Blackwood’s, January, 1837. In the first Poe had opportunity to acquaint himself with the successful flight of the Vauxhall balloon and some of its chief components. The second article in Blackwood’s, which also focuses on the Vauxhall balloon, would have suggested to Poe that crossing the Atlantic in a balloon can be a timely topic for a short narrative. The Athenaeum article, moreover, may be one possible source (among many) for the form and narrative structure of Poe’s hoax. This article, signed “W. P.,” combines historical facts, technological explanations, and, most important, quoted entries from a journal composed by an aeronaut who participated in the Vauxhall venture in 1836.

Parallels between the Athenaeum’s report and Poe’s hoax are easily documented. The balloon excursions are secretly planned, and specific details, including, for example, what is taken on the journey and the chilling effects of traveling in an open carrier high above the earth are similar. Poe’s balloon, like the Vauxhall, is powered by coal gas, described by Monck Mason as carburetted hydrogen. Poe and the Athenaeum stress the importance of one significant technological addition to ballooning utilized by the Vauxhall, namely the “guide-rope” invented by Charles Green, pilot of the Vauxhall. Poe goes into considerable detail in explaining how the guide-rope can control the direction ­[page 7:] of the balloon as well as its ascent and descent. He describes it as “merely a very long rope which is suffered to trail from the car, and the effect of which is to prevent the balloon from changing its level in any material degree” (III, 1074). Poe and the Athenaeum explain the small kegs of copper according to that function as liquid ballast at the end of a guide-rope or trail rope. The Athenaeum reporter emphasizes the safety purpose of the guide-rope or ropes which, he writes:

consisted of three thin copper vessels, each of them containing ninety-eight pounds of water, which served as ballast, and might be poured out when necessary. . . . Thus, if the aeronauts found themselves going at a rapid pace over the North Sea or the Atlantic, and considered it prudent not to continue their voyage, they intended, on a fitting occasion (such as the approach of a ship), to lower the copper buoys, exhausted of their water ballast, but with their weights attached to them, and, by letting out small quantities of gas, gradually to descend until the copper cylinders reached the water. . . . The travellers would thus be enabled to hail a ship, and to receive assistance (p. 816).

Both Poe and the Athenaeum declare that their aerial voyages are based upon authentic reports just received. Poe acknowledges his source to be an agent named a “Mr. Forsyth” of Charleston, South Carolina, who is one of several fictional creations cited in Poe’s hoax. The Athenaeum claims its article comes from a narrative by a friend of one of the aeronauts who was present when the Vauxhall ascended. Nearly one-half of Poe’s story is devoted to Mr. Forsyth’s rendition of the coauthored journal by Monck Mason and W. Harrison Ainsworth, and one-third of the Athenaeum report is comprised of a letter from a Mr. [Robert] Hollond who, in the form of a journal, provides an hour-by-hour commentary on the Vauxhall voyage. These journals, composed by the participating aeronauts, serve as fitting climaxes for these compositions and maintain the reader’s interest. As if to balance Mason’s technical descriptions, Ainsworth concentrates on pictorial effects and the emotions of the passengers. He notes the “immense flaming ocean” and “mountain surges” that “suggest the idea of innumerable dumb gigantic fiends struggling in impotent agony” (III, 1079). In a similar vein, Hollond, in his letter quoted by the Athenaeum, writes that at 4 o’clock on Tuesday, November 8: “The clouds having dispersed, we saw extensive plains of mist immediately on the earth, which had the appearance of water; the rustling of the forest leaves at the same time producing a sound exactly like the waves of the Sea” (p. 816).

As the late Professor Thomas Mabbott points out in his recent edition of “The Balloon Hoax,” the supreme adventure of the tale ­[page 8:] begins when the Victoria becomes “involved in a strong current of wind from the East,” and bears the craft “with rapidly increasing force, towards the Atlantic” (III, 1077). Perhaps it was a Blackwood’s journalist who suggested to Poe that the Nassau voyage could be the basis for a hoax in which a “dramatic reversal of direction” could become “the crux of his story.”(9) Blackwood’s has this to say about the fears of those who anxiously awaited reports on the Nassau flight:

The late hour at which the balloon had ascended, plunging it into night before it could cross the sea — the uncertainty of its direction afterwards through the night — the confusion produced by the various reports of its arrival — and, above all, the violent wind from the south-west, which, within twenty-four hours of their departure, swept the whole Channel, producing many wrecks, and which, if it had caught the balloon, would inevitably have shot it up the Northern Ocean, or torn it into fragments at once, produced an extreme fear that the aeronauts had either been flung into the sea, or, what would be a still more melancholy fate, were whirling along over the waste of waters, hopeless of return, and feeling themselves doomed to die of famine, cold, and despair. No condition could be conceived more unhappy than that of being whirled along over an almost boundless ocean, seeing, day after day, nothing below them but the waves, in which they must be buried at last. . . . (p. 43).

Aerostation, or aeronautics, is one among many of the scientific topics found in the popular serials of Poe’s day. Phrenology, defined as a science which “teaches correspondence between the formation of the brain, and constitution of the mind,”(10) like aerostation, is frequently discussed by Poe and his fellow journalists. Poe’s tale “The Man of the Crowd,” for example, may be read as a tale that illustrates what can happen when one abuses a particular “Feeling” the phrenologists call “Concentrativeness.” Concentrativeness, writes George Combe, a leading phrenologist of his day, “gives the desire for permanence in place, and for permanence of emotions and ideas in the mind.” An abuse of Concentrativeness, he goes on to say, is a “morbid dwelling on internal emotions and ideas, to the neglect of external impressions.”(11) Robert Macnish, a Scottish physician, describes Concentrativeness as the “seat of that power which enables us to direct the intellect continually to a particular subject of thought” (p. 20). “Its abuse,” he declares, is “absence of mind or abstraction” (p. 21).(12)

Macnish, a popular writer of tales as well as a physician, contributed fiction to Blackwood’s that would have interested Poe. Macnish’s tale “Who Can It Be?” appearing in Blackwood’s for October, 1827, is similar to Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” first printed in December, ­[page 9:] 1840, in that the narrator experiences the anguish of a searching curiosity. As Poe’s narrator, whom Thomas Mabbott calls an “Everyman,” Macnish’s speaker tells us very little about himself. He feels “languid, heavy, and disposed” as he sits at his window looking “into the northern court of the University of Glasgow.” Suddenly, he finds himself interested in a man walking “backwards and forwards” within the courtyard, a man whose “person and dress, though somewhat singular, were by no means so remarkable as to attract any very uncommon degree of notice” (p. 432). Macnish’s narrator then finds himself confronted by a mystery he cannot fathom: who is this man? In a trance for seven hours he is unable to alter his trend of thought. He dwells on the countenance, physical traits, and dress of the man of mystery which, he confesses, “I would have given half of what I was worth to be acquainted with” (p. 435).

Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” is also confronted by a profound mystery. Sitting in a London Coffee-House and recovering from months of ill health, he is perplexed by the countenance of a “decrepid old man” walking about in an area just outside the Coffee-House window. The narrator’s curiosity is heightened to the point that at nightfall he follows the old man throughout London until daybreak, especially through areas of poverty, squalor, and “sin.” As Macnish’s narrator, Poe’s speaker is mystified by the physical features and dress of the figure who absorbs his attention. At one point in Poe’s tale, the stranger “repeats the same walk several times,” just as the anonymous figure in Macnish’s narrative walked in a circle about a courtyard. The identities of both strangers are never divulged; entering the courtyard, Macnish’s speaker finds that his stranger has gone. Poe’s narrator finally observes that his stranger “is the type and the genius of deep crime.” “He refuses to be alone,” the narrator concludes: “He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds” (II, 515).

Both narrators subject themselves to prolonged periods of concentrated thinking. In focusing their attention on a stranger outside their windows, they engage themselves in torturous contemplation. Each is victimized by his own powers of abstraction. Both are in a nervous state of mind perhaps brought on in part by a physical condition. Macnish’s narrator has just dined heavily; Poe’s observer is recovering from ill health. In short, they can be said to experience a syndrome the phrenologists would explain as the abuse of the faculty of Concentrativeness, in having an ungovernable tendency to overdo their powers of ­[page 10:] concentration. Poe and Macnish were aware of the widespread interest in phrenology and were likely to make use of it in one form or another throughout their writings. In fact, Poe alludes to the noted phrenologist George Combe in his first version of “The Man of the Crowd,” and in 1836 Macnish published his popular book on the subject entitled An Introduction to Phrenology.

In addition to having possible scientific interest for the general reader, Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and Macnish’s “Who Can It Be?” present an intensified experience in a carefully structured form. Like “The Balloon Hoax,” the emphasis is upon conveying a state of mind under considerable agitation and tension. Becoming a victim of one’s own powers of concentration can hardly be as adventurous as flying in a balloon, but it may well be just as challenging to the inquisitive mind. Each narrator concludes his account by an all-out effort to resolve his enigma. Poe’s narrator finds his stranger to be an embodiment of “deep crime”; in a lighter vein, the speaker in Macnish’s tale tries unsuccessfully to face the perambulating visitor outside his window. These narrators, furthermore, have no specific traits as characters. They are story tellers who have ventured into the profundities of concentrated thought over an extended period of time. In the classical tradition, they define an experience which is universal and certainly not particular or unique to the narrators themselves. Anyone who abuses his powers of concentration may at times sense the same physical and emotional effects.

“The Fall of the House of Usher,” whatever else it may be, is perhaps Poe’s best adventure story. The reader, in identifying with an unnamed narrator visiting an ill friend and his friend’s emaciated sister, confronts the profound mysteries of death within the confines of an imaginative experience. Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline are the last surviving descendants of the Usher family, and the narrator relates their painful demise when Madeline, apparently in the form of a spectral avenger, embraces her brother in a dramatic moment of terror and horror. Sensing throughout his visit the presence of an ineffable evil which permeates the Usher household, Poe’s narrator shares his innermost impressions and fears. His closing paragraph on the disintegration of the Usher mansion is a magnificent apocalyptic conclusion to a tale which can be described as a metaphysical essay of decay and death.

Poe’s “Usher,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in September, 1839, is often interpreted as a Gothic tale of the supernatural. Its form and tone, however, attest the standards of a classical ­[page 11:] taste. The narrator’s account is brilliantly constructed and without question exemplifies Poe’s critical principle of unity of effect. The characters and the setting have no specific or distinct qualities of time and place. Perhaps Poe’s most successful journey into fear, “The Fall of the House of Usher” reminds the reader of the eternal presence of evil, decay, and death. The fate befalling the surviving members of the Usher family, comparable to a fate experienced by a protagonist in a Greek drama, is not of this world, and Roderick Usher’s dread of his own destiny is an emotion Poe’s readers can readily perceive and understand.

Roderick and his sister Madeline each suffer from the symptoms of a medical disease frequently alluded to throughout the popular serials Poe had opportunity to read. Usher’s hypochondria and his sister’s catalepsy would have interested Poe’s readers savoring the ghastly and gruesome. In three instances, Poe’s narrator calls Roderick Usher a “hypochondriac,” and twice refers to Madeline’s maladies of “a cataleptical character.” He says this about Usher’s paintings:

If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least — in the circumstances then surrounding me — there arose out of the pale abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvas, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which I felt ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli(13) (II, 405).

Just at that moment before Roderick Usher and the narrator close the lid to Madeline’s coffin, the narrator observes:

The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death (II, 410).

First, the Southern Literary Messenger, which Poe edited for several months, includes in its June, 1837, issue a character sketch entitled “The Hypochondriac” (signed “G. C. H.”) concerning a young merchant Horatio who, like Roderick Usher, has an artistic temperament and suffers greatly from a debilitating fear. The “spectre of ruin and embarrassment overpowered his mind” (p. 391), and he is often subjected to regular periods of animation and depression. He becomes a farmer, who for “five long summers did this demon of unhappiness shed its baneful influence around him,” and even at fifty years of age he is “still occasionally afflicted with this unaccountable malady” (p. 392). Of all the medical treatises on hypochondria or hypochondriasis available to Poe and his contemporaries — Dr. John ­[page 12:] Reid’s(14) Essays on Hypochondriacal and Other Nervous Affections (1817) is perhaps one of the most clearly written. “An undue fear of death,” declares Reid, “is one of the most ordinary symptoms of hypochondriasis, and not the least frequent perhaps among the causes which produced it. . . .” (p. 17). To the hypochondriac, “existence is a chronic malady” (p. 18), and in the “rich and diversified store-house of nature he sees merely a vast laboratory of poisons and antidotes” (p. 208). He cites instances of hypochondriacs who “have been driven even to suicide by the dread of dissolution” (p. 20).

Second, in the Southern Literary Messenger for July, 1839, appears a five-page letter (signed “M”) summarily written by a physician (Marcus C. Buck) describing an unusual case of catalepsy. A young woman, as Madeline Usher, is subject to death-like trances, falling into a “comatose state, which would continue from one to twelve hours” (p. 433). The physician reports seeing her “with her eyes open, and immoveably fixed upon the ceiling for several hours, with a countenance the most placid and serene, yet luminous, that I have ever beheld, and which many of her visitors pronounced unearthly and angelic; during all this time there was no apparent respiration” (p. 433). Throughout his letter, the physician notes instances of her perceptive and prophetic powers accompanying her malady. In time the disease never returned, and his patient is presently married “to a worthy gentleman” and a mother of “one or two children” (p. 438).

Third, Madeline’s return from her entombment as a spectral apparition suggests a familiar literary mode found throughout the popular fiction of Poe’s day. In the New Monthly Magazine for June, 1832, appears, for example, an account of a dying young student who, in a dialogue with a friend, relates the return of his dead lover in a dream after reading some of her letters. “Above all things deeply interesting to the heart in every time and age,” he says “has been the theory of Ghosts and Apparitions — the return of the dead to earth. . . .”(15) Robert Macnish, in the second edition of his frequently printed monograph entitled The Philosophy of Sleep published in 1834, examines the physical and emotional origins of spectral illusions. Among the causes he includes “excitement of the perceptive organs,” “nervous irritation,” and a “large development of the organ of Wonder.” “Individuals with such development,” he theorizes, “are both strongly inclined to believe in the supernaturality of ghosts, and peculiarly liable to be visited by them” (p. 216). In his An Introduction to Phrenology, Macnish classifies the organ of Wonder as a Sentiment, the organ that ­[page 13:] stimulates “a love of the strange, the new, and the marvellous . . . ,” and “disposes to the belief in witches, apparitions, and superstition in general” (p. 65). Perhaps Poe’s contemporary readers anticipated Madeline’s return at that point when the narrator confesses that he is “oppressed . . . by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder [my italics] and extreme terror were predominant” (pp. 414-15). Although Poe offers no rational explanation as to just how Madeline arose from her tomb, both the narrator and Roderick Usher may be said to be in a mental condition which might induce a spectral illusion.(16) Whether illusion or actuality, Madeline’s return as a spectral avenger has overtones that are supernatural, for she initiates the catastrophic conclusion of Poe’s tale and the ultimate dissolution of the Usher line.

Finally, it is possible, I submit, that Poe could have responded to the very analogues I have cited. His “The Balloon Hoax,” “The Man of the Crowd,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” do render a commonplace subject or subjects of topical interest into carefully wrought narratives. Each tale presents an extraordinary experience that is adventurous, sensational, and plausible. In writing these tales, Poe blended two facets of the popular taste held by his contemporary readers: 1) a preference for classical literary structure and tone in fiction, and 2) a desire to digest any reading material touching upon timely scientific investigations and theories. Further study of the popular periodical literature of Poe’s day is, I am convinced, essential and necessary if we are to understand Poe’s contribution to short fiction.

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1.  Robert Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

2.  Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965).

3.  For background discussion on classical thought and tastes I have relied chiefly upon Walter Jackson Bate’s From Classic to Romantic (New York: Harper and Row, 1946) and William Charvat’s The Origins of American Critical Thought 1810-1835 (1936; rpt. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1961).

4.  I use the word “tone” in a broad sense in referring to Poe’s method of narration and approach to his subject.

5.  “Changing Attitudes in Development of American Literary Criticism 1800-1840” in The Development of American Literary Criticism, ed. Floyd Stovall (New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press edition, 1964), p. 27. ­[page 14:]

6.  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), XI, 109.

7.  References to Poe’s tales are from Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1978), volumes II and III. Poe’s “Hans Pfaall,” first appearing in the Southern Literary Messenger in June, 1835, is also a hoax on ballooning, but more in the burlesque vein than “The Balloon Hoax.”

8.  The correct spelling is “Hollond.” Also, the Nassau flight occurred in 1836, not in 1837 as Poe indicates.

9.  See Professor Mabbott’s footnote #19, III, 1086.

10.  Robert Macnish, An Introduction to Phrenology (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1836), p. 4.

11.  George Combe, The Constitution of Man (Hartford: Silas Andrus & Son, n. d.), p. 9.

12.  See also Macnish’s The Philosophy of Sleep, 2nd ed. (New York: D. Appleton, 1834), pp. 253-62, for specific cases of those who fell “into a state of abstraction” from “a large development of the organ of Concentrativeness.” I used a reprinted edition of Macnish’s The Philosophy of Sleep in volume X of Significant Contributions To the History, of Psychology 1750-1920 (Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1977).

13.  Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), an English painter.

14.  John Reid (1776-1822), an English physician. David W. Butler in his “Usher’s Hypochondriasis: Mental Alienation and Romantic Idealism in Poe’s Gothic Tales,” American Literature, 48 (March, 1976), 1-12, alludes to several medical treatises on hypochondria Poe may have read.

15.  [Bulwer, Edward (Earl Lytton)], “Conversations with an Ambitious Student in Ill Health, No. VIII,” p. 237. Bulwer’s series of “Conversations,” appearing in the New Monthly Magazine in 1831 and 1832, have been cited as a possible source for several of Poe’s tales. I am the first to attach any importance to the student’s “dream vision.”

16.  On Usher’s mental state, see Edward Hungerford’s “Poe and Phrenology,” American Literature, 2 (November, 1930), 224-27.



This lecture was delivered at the Fifth-seventh Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 7, 1979. The lecture was presented in the Wheeler Auditorium of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

© 1980 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - PLPNFL, 1980] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Popular Literature (J. L. Dameron, 1980)