Text: J. Marshall Trieber, “A Study of Poesque Humor,” from Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:32-34


[page 32, column 2:]

The Scornful Grin:
A Study of Poesque Humor

Pembroke State University

The symposium on Poe’s satire in the October 1969 Poe Newsletter would seem to modify the old charge that a study of Poe’s humor might consist of twenty blank pages. The symposium, however, had little to say about Poe’s humor per se, and I would like to offer an observation or two on this head. There is not much of Poe’s humor that anyone could actually laugh at; there are many things that some readers might smile over; there are some things that some readers could marvel at as examples of polished wit. The point which many critics have overlooked, however, is that a study of Poe’s humor should be based on Poe’s idea of humor, not the reader’s. Indeed, critics have led us into confusion on the point. Joseph Wood Krutch, unfortunately, takes as his basic assumption the idea that Poe had no sense of humor:

He could not, for example, though he tried often, be humorous, because he had not one trace of humor in his make-up and fancied that it consisted in mere mechanical facetiousness. He would begin drearily enough, and then in spite of himself he would veer round to the subjects which alone interested him and his comic tale degenerated into a jauntily delivered list of horrors (1).

If we follow Krutch, we conclude that Poe realized that there was money to be made by writing humor, that he tried to introduce humor when he did not feel any such emotion, that he was not able to control himself when he was writing humor and so “would veer round” to horror. We are left with a picture of a man writing under some kind of compulsion, a man with a fixed idea that so obsessed him that he always politely bowed to it at the end of each dance, no matter how the music began. Krutch admits that Poe wrote mystery and science fiction in addition to horror but fails to see the contradiction between that variety and the fixed idea concept. If Poe had been compelled to veer around to horror when he attempted humor, then he would have been compelled to veer around to horror when he wrote science fiction. Such is simply not the case. Humor was, instead, an integral part of Poe’s make-up.

What did Poe himself say? We know that Thomas White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote Poe in 1835 objecting to the morbidity of “Berenice,” and Poe answered that its nature consisted “In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical” (2). In reality, that quotation does not explain anything. It merely rationalizes Poe’s feelings into something logical, and for publication. It is the sort of ex post facto reasoning that Poe loved to use to cover up deeper and more personal factors. It is a quotation which deliberately avoids commenting on humor. Irony, fear, wit, and mystery are touched on by the quotation, but not humor. But when we look directly at the material which Poe considered humorous, we discover, no matter how ingenious his various categories or how learned those of his critics (3), that there is one dominant thrust to it all — that of projective triumph, which Poe characterized as “Grin.” The grin flashes, vanishes, is almost hidden, and reappears again and again.

The most cogent expression of this is in “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences,” wherein Poe states that “man was made to diddle” — that is, hoax, take advantage of, con. “This is his aim — his object — his end. And for this reason when a man’s diddled we say he’sdone.’ “ Poe defines diddling: “Minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin.” Poe then goes out of his way to define just what he means by “grin.”

Grin: — Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done — when his allotted labors are accomplished — at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainmenr. He goes home. He locks his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle. He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done, and your diddler grins (4).

That kind of grin fits all the examples of the diddle that Poe gives. He tells of various ways of selling something a person does not own, passing counterfeit money, and defrauding job-seeking gentlemen. The victims include a housekeeper; a shopkeeper; a gentleman “with an honest air”; people going to a camp meeting; a barkeeper; a lady of “ton”; a landlady; and some young gentlemen [column 2:] piously inclined. It is hard to resist the speculation that these are people Poe would have liked to overcome in real life.

And how does such thinking apply to Poe’s total work? Can we not imagine Montresor grinning the night after sealing Fortunato in the wall? Can we not see the grin of the detective Dupin after he has found the purloined letter and retired for the night? Note that Dupin has outsmarted both the thief and the police. The grin of the swindler or diddler, the grin of the detective, the grin of the murderer all have one thing in common. The grin springs from a feeling of pleasure in triumphing over an adversary.

The unfortunate Fortunato (note the ironic pun and how effective it is in the horror tale) is a connoisseur with the “true virtuoso spirit.” It is the greater virtuoso, Montresor, who tricks the jester, or trickster, though. The grin triumphs over Fortunato’s clown’s bells. The Diddler, the Grinner, as Poe creates him with various names, conquers.

In “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” Poe deals with the silly lady writer, a member of various writing societies, who is told by the great editor of Blackwood’s that she should kill herself and record her sensations. This kind of mockery, this laughing at women writers and at a great established editor, is another example of Poe’s basic impulse to project himself through his writings into situations in which he could dominate, and yet it links Poe’s humor with his serious writings. Again, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe, speaking with the voice of Montresor, states:

There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honor of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned. (Works, VI, 169)

The humor here of denigrating the servants is the same as that of the triumphant diddler or detective, who, in his superiority, manipulates predictable fools around him. Consider, also, the servant in “The Gold-Bug” who did not know his left eye from his right.

Edward Davidson, in commenting on the inferiority of Poe’s comic tales to his Gothic tales, observes that the problem with Poe’s humorous attacks is that, in comparison with the tales of horror, they seem “undirected and objectless” (5). But surely so light a story as “X-in” a Paragrab” has as obvious a victim as has “The Cask of Amontillado.” The same kind of planning and revenge occurs in both. In the former story, an editor eliminates a definite enemy, his rival editor, whose end, while not as horrible as Fortunato’s, is as decisive. John Smith, editor of the Alexander-the-Great-o-Nopolis Gazette finds a rival editor, Mr. Touch-and-go-Bullet-head, establishing a new paper, the Alexander-the-Great-o-Nopolis Tea-Pot. Like Montresor, Smith vows revenge. Mr. Bullet-head writes editorials with an abundance of “O” exclamations. Smith triumphs by removing all his rival’s “O” letters and the great editorial of Mr. Bullet-head as printed cannot be understood. Mr. Bullet-head is forced to sneak out of town “and not even the ghost of him has ever been [page 33:] seen since.” He has been as neatly eliminated as if he wffe buried alive. It is certainly true that the “thousand injuries of Fortunato” have been condensed into two insulting editorials, but one man’s love of the letter “O” is as effective a means for destruction as is another’s love of Amontillado. There is the same kind of direction in both stories.

Poe’s use of peculiar names is poor humor, admittedly, but even there we find Poe’s grin. The carefully thought out word-plays and wit are somehow encased in the concept of the “superior,” all neatly fitted into a story based on word-battles. The puns notwithstanding, the absurdity of the story just mentioned has the kind of calculated humor that might be compared to Poe’s careful solving of a cryptogram. The whole situation is set up neatly for the purpose of being solved — for the purpose of letting the solver sit back triumphantly. And grin.

“The Unparalleled Adventures of Hans Pfaal” has been called the earliest of Poe’s hoaxes. The tale starts out with a mock quotation by “Tom O’Bedlam” and contains such names as the burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and the professor Rubadub. These names, the result of someone trying too hard to be funny, are mixed in with thoughts of vengeance on Duns, a creditor, of “wild and sometimes unintelligible reasonings” of the writer of a book which the narrator has found, and of “a horrible nausea “ that eventually overcomes Pfaal. The balance of the light and the dark is deliberate and is not a turning toward horror. There is much talk of scientific equipment, and in the end the author reports that many people considered the whole thing a hoax. We cannot understand the real humor here, without remembering that in it is the same Poe who later published an article in the New York Sun dealing in great seriousness with the alleged arrival in Charleston of a trans-Atlantic balloon, and that he then, as Krutch speculates (p. 159), “laughed heartily when, incredible as it may seem, at least a portion of the public swallowed the tale as sober fact.” Poe’s real humor may be glimpsed not from his over-methodical and heavy-handed story of Pfaal, but from his taking the theme of the long-since published story and, by writing it as news, fooling so many people. Again, the humor is of projective triumph.

In several comic stories, Poe attempts to puncture pomposity with scornful and comic humor. In the comic story “Some Words with a Mummy,” the Count, late of ancient Egypt, demonstrates to modern Americans how much grander Egyptian cities were than modern American ones and talks about the despotism of Mob, now called democracy. In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” Poe tells how, after having told a thousand and one fabulous stories, Scheherazade, being of a happy frame of mind on the thousand and second night, tells a true story of the wonders of science. Footnotes verify the truth — for the reader. For example, she tells of an elastic body that could spring forward and back at the rate of nine hundred million times a second, which, the footnote tells us, is the vibration of the retina under the influence of the violet ray. The king, however, has her killed for deluding. The irony is obvious, and the narrative voice of the tale triumphs over the foolish, disbelieving king and the foolish Scheherazade who loses [column 2:] her head for attempting to tell the truth to the unimaginative. The grin is more exaggerated than Montresor’s, but it is the same kind of grin.

In other of Poe’s scenes, we find a narrator telling of a person being thrown from a coach, breaking many bones, finally being hanged; or of another person being held prisoner in the face of a clock until the hand of the clock cuts her head off, the head falling hilariously to the ground. Such humor, one step beyond that of the tale of Scheherazade, is the attempted humor of scorn. We find no horror. Absurd things do not hurt; exaggeration renders the horrible ridiculous, turns terror into smiles.

Contrary to what some critics have suggested about Poe’s humor, it involves no real sadism, no pleasure derived from causing other people to suffer. There is, however, a quality akin to sadism, the quality that lies back of slapstick comedy, that takes pleasure not in causing pain, but in hearing about pain, called Schadenfreude in German but with no name in our own language. It is a feeling of real humor, though. It is the enjoyment we might feel if we heard of a pompous person slipping on a banana — the humor of scorn, wherein our own superiority is tacitly affirmed. This quality Poe often manifests.

Several of his biographers note Poe’s partiality for the game of leap frog. It is hard not to see some symbolic significance in this predilection; it is in leap frog that the person leaping is, literally, overcoming an adversary. Then he grins. If literary art is fundamentally the art of self-projection, then Poe’s humor is as important as horror in understanding the man and his art. Poe’s humor shows his delight in overcoming others, a delight his humorous stories share with his horror and detective stories. Though the art of self-projection may have made for good horror stories, it failed Poe in his attempts at making others laugh: nevertheless, Poe’s humor cannot be regarded as a separable part of his work. The humor behind the grin is integral to Poe’s artistic impulse (6).



(1) Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius (New York, 1926), p. 203.

(2) Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1948), I, 57-58.

(3) See, for example, Stephen Mooney, “Comic Intent in Poe’s Tales: Five Criteria,” Modern Language Notes, 76 (1961), 432434; “The Comic in Poe’s Fiction,” American Literature, 33 (1962), 433-441. Also see Terence Martin, “The Imagination at Play: Edgar Allan Poe,” Kenyon Review, 27 (1966), 194209; and Robert Kierly, “The Comic Masks of Edgar Allan Poe,” Unanesimo, 1 (1967), 31-41.

(4) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1902), V, 213. Other references to Poe’s works are to this edition.

(5) Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1957), p. 140.

(6) See Eugene R. Kanjo, “‘The Imp of the Perverse’: Poe’s Dark Comedy of Art and Death,” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 41-44, for related remarks on this matter.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]