Text: Roger Forclaz, “A Source for ‘Berenice ’ and a Note on Poe’s Reading,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:25-27


[page 24, column 2:]

A Source for “Berenice”
And a Note on Poe’s Reading

University of St. Gallen, Switzerland

Despite his well-known habit of “borrowing” and “adapting” from other works for his own, Poe’s “Berenice” (1835) is one of the stories for which no precise source has as yet been found. Indeed, it is likely that the tale is the product of a multiplicity of sources from the Gothic and sensationist periodical literature of his times. Thirty-five years ago, Killis Campbell suggested that Poe found the subject of his tale in a paragraph about grave robbers seeking teeth for dentists in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for 23 February 1833 (1). But that would account for one element of the story only, the motif of the teeth, which Poe also could have found in a story published in The New York Mirror [X (6 April 1833), 313-314], “An Event in the Life of a Dentist,” in which a dentist pulls out two teeth of a young girl. In addition, Poe probably read a story in the famous Phantasmagoriana (which, incidentally, prompted the writing of Frankenstein) , “The Death’s Head.” In this story, an antiquary carries off the tooth of a corpse (2). It has also been suggested that Poe drew upon Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for the “life-in-death” theme as it is represented in the heroine of the story and for the method of presenting it (3). But no source has been found for the most important element of the tale, the visionary hero. It has, it is true, generally been assumed that Aegeus is no other than Poe himself. A typical view is that of J. H. Ingram, who says of “Berenice”: “It may be better described as an essay on its author than as a tale” (4). A confirmation of this view is supposedly found in the dedication of Eureka to “the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities” [p. 5 in the 1848 New York edition]. For Aegeus, too, dreams are the only realities. Likewise, the passage in which the narrator relates how he becomes absorbed in trifles suggests Poe’s personal experience.

But this view does not take into account Poe’s relation of the origin of the tale, which implies that even though he may have endowed Aegeus with some of his own characteristics, Poe did not obey an irresistible impulse when he wrote “Berenice.” In his letter to White on 30 April 1835, he agrees with him that the subject matter of his tale is “by far too horrible,” but he claims that “Berenice” originated in “a bet that [he] could produce nothing effective on a subject so singular” (5). Few critics seem willing to take Poe’s words at their face value; but Poe’s explanation seems by no means incredible if one is familiar with the kind of literature to which he has reference. It is especially significant that Poe refers to contemporary tastes in defense of his tale, saying: “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature to Berenice” [Letters, I, 57]. The matter of taste, he goes on, is little to the purpose: “To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity” [I, 58]. [page 26:]

In reference to the tastes of the public, Poe gives several examples of tales published in English magazines, and he stresses the fact that the best English writers, such as Bulwer-Lytton, have not thought writings of this nature unworthy of their talents. His indebtedness to Blackwood’s, Fraser’s, and the New Monthly stands in no need of proof (6), but he doubtless also had in mind the American magazines. In the contemporary periodicals, Godey’s Lady’s Book, The Casket, The New York Mirror, The Knickerbocker, and others, dozens of similar tales can be found. One of these, “Doings of the Dead” in The Knickerbocker [I (May 1833), 294-298], could have suggested to Poe the vision of the dead in their graves in “The Premature Burial.” Another, “Letter from a Revived Mummy” in The New York Mirror [IX (21 January 1832), 227], was perhaps the source of “Some Words with a Mummy” (7). A third, N. P. Willis ’ story “The Mad-House of Palermo” in The New York Mirror [XII (27 September 1834), 97-98], probably suggested “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (8). “Ms. Found in a Bottle” seems to owe something to Simms ’ “A Picture of the Sea” in the Southern Literary Gazette [I (December 1828), 208-215] (9). “The Gold Bug” certainly owes something to Seba Smith’s “The Money Diggers” in the Gentleman’s Magazine [VII (August 1840), 81-91] (10). And stories of premature burial or of madness and crime are numerous in contemporary magazines — for example: “The Sexton of Cologne,” “A Maniac’s Story,” and “The Dead Alive” in Godey’s Lady’s Book [VII (July-October 1833), 54-56, 157-160, 193-196]; “From the Manuscript of a Murderer,” “Superstition,” “Solitary Confinement,” and “Confession of a Deformed Lunatic” in The New York Mirror [IX (August 1831-May 1832), 45-46, 284, 353-354, 372].

Thus it is no surprise to find in 1832 in one of the Philadelphia periodicals, The Casket, a tale which anticipates Poe’s “Berenice”: “The Visionary” by one L. H. M., who was a woman and who soon published another striking story in The Casket, “The Cholera” (11). “The Visionary” is the story of a girl named Beatrice who from her childhood has lived in a world of her own. She spends most of her time in the family library, living in communion with the invisible world. Repelled by her mother because she was born on the day her father died, she prefers to “wander alone and live in the imaginings of her own wild fancy” [p. 197]. She is encouraged in this disposition by her nurse, who tells her “tales of superstition and of dread” [p. 198]; her death increases Beatrice’s gloom and inclination to mysticism. Eventually she dies “the victim to a deluded and overwrought imagination” [p. 200] after the death of her lover, killed by mistake by her brother, who had fired on seeing a shadow vanishing in the night because he was convinced that Beatrice’s illness had been brought about by one of her former suitors who wanted to be revenged upon her.

This story bears a number of resemblances to Poe’s “Berenice” and could have given Poe the idea of his hero living in a dream world, had he read it. Its title is the same as that of another Poe story, which he later changed to “The Assignation.” The name of the heroine, too, is not far from that of Poe’s Berenice, and her story is strikingly similar to that of Poe’s Aegeus. In a way, though with significant differences, each story points a similar [column 2:] “moral”: the dangers of imagination. Beatrice is a female Aegeus: like him, she spends most of her time in the library. The setting of the opening scene is “a large gothic library,” where the girl sits “wrapt in deep meditation” [p. 197]. Like Poe’s hero, she retires from the world and creates her own world: “From the depths of her visionary fancy, she called forth a creation and learned to love it as reality” [p. 197]. Similarly, Aegeus says of himself: “The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn — not the material of my everyday existence — but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself” (12).

As with Aegeus, Beatrice’s absorption in her dreams completely distorts reality and brings about a fatal ending. But the writer concludes her story with a moral comment: mothers and guardians, she says, should not allow children’s minds to be “poisoned with nursery tales of superstition”; indeed, it would be better for them to die than “to live a terror to themselves, a burthen to their friends, a helpless, hopeless ill-fated visionary” [p. 200]. This conclusion is in keeping with the didacticism of the times; Poe, of course, felt that a story should be left to speak for itself. And yet, “Berenice,” like the Casket story, exemplifies the dangers of imagination. So much has been made of Poe’s opposition to didacticism that one might think him averse to teaching a lesson in a story. But several of his tales — “William Wilson,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” even “The Black Cat” — speak against this view and reveal Poe as by no means indifferent to the moral contents of a story. The same may be said of “Berenice,” which illustrates Poe’s conception of the moral of a story as it is expressed in his praise of one of Miss Sedgwick’s novels: “It [the moral] is to be found, as it should be, rather in the incidents and character of a story than in a prosing comment by the author” (13).

A comparison between “The Visionary” and “Berenice” thus shows that Poe’s originality lay in his superiority over his contemporaries rather than in any radical difference in the subject-matter of his tales. Even though it cannot be proved that Poe read the Casket story, it is likely that he did as part of his general reading of the Gothic fiction selling in the magazines of his time. In any event, it is interesting to find, in the very year when Poe began his career as a tale-writer, a story which has much in common with one of the most characteristic of his tales. “Berenice” is by far the better story, but the fact that it had been anticipated, to some extent, by a story now lost in the pages of a forgotten magazine bears out Howard Mumford Jones ’ words about Poe in Ideas in America: “His originality consisted in doing better than anybody else what everybody else was trying to do.”



(1)  The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), p. 167.

(2)  A review of the book was published in Blackwood’s Magazine III (August 1818), 589-596, in which this story is mentioned.

(3)  Darrel Abel, “Coleridge’s ‘Life-in-Death ’ and Poe’s ‘Death-in-Life ’,” Notes & Queries, CC (May 1955), 218-220.

(4)  Edgar Allan Poe — His Life, Letters and Opinions (Glasgow 1890), p. 93. [page 27:]

(5)  The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. W. Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), I, 57.

(6)  See Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (Iowa City, 1925), pp. 7-45; and Ruth Hudson’s dissertation “Poe’s Craftsmanship in the Short Story” (University of Virginia, 1935).

(7)  See Lucille King, “Notes on Poe’s Sources,” University of Texas Studies in English, X (1930), 130.

(8)  Reprinted in 1836 in Willis ’ Inklings of Adventure. See Richard P. Benton’s article, “Poe’s ‘The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether ’: Dickens or Willis?” in the first issue of the Poe Newsletter. I had arrived at the same conclusion independently of Professor Benton, who, incidentally, does not mention a further important similarity between the two stories: in both, we find a girl of singular beauty who turns out to be mad.

(9)  See John C. Guilds, Jr., “Poe’s ‘Ms. Found in a Bottle ’: A Possible Source,” Notes & Queries, CCI (October 1956), 452.

(10)  See Killis Campbell, “Miscellaneous Notes on Poe,” Modern language Notes, XXVIII (March 1913), 65-66. A story of the same title appeared in The Casket ten years before [V (June 1830), 246-248].

(11)  “The Visionary” is found in VII (May 1832), 197-200. L. H. M. is referred to as “lady” in a poem addressed to her [”To L. H. M.,” The Casket, VII (November 1832), 489]. “The Cholera” is found in VII (October 1832), 434-437.

(12)  Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), II, 17.

(13)  Review of Miss Sedgwick’s Wealth and Worth in Graham’s Magazine, XX, no. 2 ( February 1842); p. 3 of cover. This review is ascribed to Poe by William Doyle Hull, “A Canon of the Critical Works of Edgar Allan Poe . . .” (Doctoral Diss., U of Virginia, 1941).


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]