Text: Robert C. McLean, “Poe in the Marketplace,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 21-23


[page 21, column 1, continued:]

Poe in the Marketplace


Thomas Woodson, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Fall of the House of Usher”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. 122 pp. Cloth $4.95, paper $1.25.

Eric W. Carlson, ed. Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1971. 138 pp. Paper, price unavailable.

William L. Howarth, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 116 pp. Cloth $4.95, paper $ 1.25. 


In recent years, publishers have been competing avidly for the burgeoning freshman-sophomore English market. Growing enrollments in community and junior colleges with inadequate libraries ensure continued publication of “Casebooks” and other collections of relatively inaccessible secondary reading materials. The assumption that ready access to secondary materials enhances rather than detracts from a student’s appreciation of a work of art perhaps is sound, if the anthologies are well edited and provide a representative variety of well-written and perceptive articles. For good criticism and scholarship help a student outgrow his subjectivism, his naive desire for all works of art to be immediately understandable and “relevant.”

Of three recent volumes, two bring together writings on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and one, selections on Poe’s tales. The best of the three, Thomas Woodson’s volume on “Usher” in Prentice-Hall’s “Twentieth Century Interpretations” series, published in 1969, is intended to serve as a classroom text or as supplementary reading; and it also, according to the publisher’s brochure, purports to make readily available the best literary criticism and thus to “help develop sound critical attitudes.” Woodson has written a sensible and informed introduction, placing Poe in his age. In a section titled “View Points,” he devotes thirteen pages to excerpting brief passages from such diverse critics and scholars as Arthur Hobson Quinn (from Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, 1941), Marie Bonaparte (from The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, 1933), Harry Levin (from The Power of Blackness, 1958), Wayne C. Booth (from The Rhetoric of [column 2:] Fiction, 1961), and from commentaries in the popular and influential anthologies edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (Understanding Fiction, 1943) and Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate (The House of Fiction, 1950).

The bulk of the volume, however, is devoted to interpretations of “Usher” by nine critics. D. H. Lawrence’s apocalyptic commentary from Studies in Classic American Literature (1922) is followed by Darrel Abel’s pioneering “A Key to the House of Usher” (University of Toronto Quarterly, 1949), still the best essay devoted exclusively to Poe’s story. The next selection, Leo Spitzer’s pretentious and ineptly titled “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” (Comparative Literature, 1952), illustrates the failure of critics to assimilate the insights of their predecessors, and its placement inadvertently demonstrates a critical sophistication nowhere else manifested in the collections here reviewed. Writing in 1952, Spitzer spars with the early textbook commentary of Brooks and Warren, oblivious that he is merely echoing, reenforcing, and, finally, obfuscating Abel’s reading. Appropriate selections from book-length studies by Charles Feidelson, Jr. (from Symbolism and American Literature, 1953), Patrick F. Quinn (from The French Face of Edgar Poe, 1954), Edward H. Davidson (from Poe: A Critical Study, 1957), and Georges Poulet (from The Metamorphoses of the Circle, 1961), and articles by Lyle H. Kendall, Jr. (“The Vampire Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” College English, 1963) and James M. Cox (“Edgar Poe: Style as Pose,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 1968) complete the collection. Though the selections are sometimes reduced, omissions are clearly indicated.

In addition to “Notes on Editors and Contributors” and a selective, annotated bibliography, Woodson’s volume includes a “Chronology of Important Dates,” a sometimes meaningless juxtaposition of dates significant in Poe’s life with arbitrarily chosen “Historical and Cultural Events.” By consulting this curious chart, a beginning student might be led to believe that Poe was in limbo in 1832, the year the British Reform Bill was passed and Tennyson published Poems and Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” As Woodson should know, however, Poe that year was a hard-working professional, publishing five tales in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. In 1833, Woodson notes, Poe won an award for his “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” but the blank right-hand side of the page suggests that nothing of historical or cultural significance occurred. It is, perhaps, well to observe that in 1836, the year Emerson’s Nature appeared, Poe married Virginia Clemm. But in 1838, when Poe published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “Ligeia,” might not the student-purchaser be told that Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” positing a different view of life, shocked a New England audience? In short, Woodson’s chronology is hastily put together and here reflects the commercialized nature of this volume and the series of which it is a part.

The Charles E. Merrill Casebook, Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” edited by Eric W. Carlson, appeared two years later, in 1971. It includes the text of “Usher” and is intended for use everywhere — in classes in “literature,” “practical criticism,” or “composition [page 22:] courses where the instructor wants to expose his students to the discipline of writing a research paper on a literary text” (p. iii). Carlson’s turgid six-page introduction is less helpful than Woodson’s. He points out the “psychological complexity” of “Usher” and groups it with “Ligeia,” “William Wilson,” “Berenice,” and “Morella” as “tales of psychic conflict” (p. 1): “Each . . . involves, describes, or symbolizes a psychal vision undergone by a hero or heroine of intense or poetic or philosophical energy” (p. 4) .

The collection, in emulation of its Prentice-Hall counterpart, duplicates writings by Lawrence, Abel, Spitzer Feidelson, Quinn, Davidson, and Cox. Carlson adds Allen Tate’s “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” (from Essays of Four Decades, 1968) but neglects to point out that Caroline Gordon is in part responsible for the “Commentary” from The House of Fiction ( 1950) . Two items from The Explicator by William L. Phillips (1951) and K. A. Spaulding (1952) and notes and articles by Richard Wilbur (“The House of Poe,” from Anniversary Lectures, 1959), William Bysshe Stein (“The Twin Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Notes, 1960), Bruce Olson (“Poe’s Strategy in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Notes, 1960), and J. O. Bailey (“What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature, 1964) round out the selections. There is an unannotated bibliography.

Carlson’s collection has an overly elaborate editorial apparatus which will frustrate student and teacher alike. The “Foreword,” written by the General Editor, Edward P. J. Corbett, implies that articles are not truncated. But many are and without editorial indication. For example, Carlson includes, as Woodson does not, Wilbur’s excellent “The House of Poe,” but he silently mangles the text, omitting the first twelve and last twenty-four paragraphs of the lecture and changing the paragraphing within (p. 91). It is true, of course, that what is discarded does not deal directly with “Usher,” but such radical surgery distorts Wilbur’s seminal ideas on Poe’s concept of art and life and leads a novice to assume that “Usher” is somehow unrelated to Poe’s other work. And what is the buyer, very likely a freshman composition student, to think of a writer who seems to begin an essay, as Carlson here shows Wilbur to do, with “These, then, are Poe’s great subjects. . . .”?

One advertised virtue of the “Casebook” is that “the text of the article carries the actual page-numbers of the original source” (p. iii) in brackets. Any value inherent in so ridiculous a simulation of library work is lost through careless indifference to the documentary procedure pedantically pointed out to the student at the close of the volume under “General Instructions for a Research Paper.” Suppose a student wishes to quote the “Marginalia” entry cited by Carlson on page 3. He might, of course, cite Carlson as having quoted it, but he might also wonder why Carlson doesn’t document his citation. Other important confusions exist. If a student wants to cite one of Feidelson’s notes, he will discover that the simulated, bracketed page numbers are not provided. A conscientious freshman researcher will run into yet more trouble if he has occasion to quote the last paragraph of the selection by Davidson. He knows that halfway down page 86 of the “Casebook,” the remaining [column 2:] text is from pages 281-282 of the original, but he will be unable to tell where the change from one page to the other takes place. Who should be graded down: the student? the editor? the publisher?

William D. Howarth’s Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales, another in the seemingly endless Prentice-Hall series, is apparently intended to complement Woodson’s volume and corner another segment of the college market. Broader in scope, it brings together articles dealing with a miscellany of works written over a period of time. Howarth believes that Poe’s tales, in “their brevity, their sensational events, and their common theme, man’s search for identity or self-knowledge, all matched to perfection the story of his life” (p. 2). The naivete of this and other assertions in Howarth’s introduction suggests that he has not carefully assimilated recent criticism and has oversimplified the problems Poe’s fiction presents. For example, he neatly categorizes Poe’s work into three compartments: the “‘grotesque,’ ‘arabesque,’ and ‘ratiocinative’ — corresponding roughly to the early, middle, and late periods” of Poe’s “brief career” (p. 7). The “grotesque” tales anger and confuse Howarth. Although he classifies them all as parodies of popular sensational literature, he innocently describes “Metzengerstein” (1832) as “a horrific account of castles and curses” (p. 2), and sees in it no relationship with such other early stories as “King Pest” (1835), “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838), and “A Slight [sic] Predicament” (1838). Howarth demonstrates his bafflement — and his moralistic bias — by relegating such tales to the realm of the “witty and . . . amusing” and not worthy of discussion: “essays on them,” he portentously announces, “do not appear in this volume” (p. 7).

Like others in the “Twentieth Century Interpretations” series, Howarth’s anthology begins with “View Points” — here a series of snippets from Harry Levin’s The Power of Blackness (1958), Stephen L. Mooney’s “Poe’s Gothic Wasteland” (Sewanee Review, 1962), Terrence Martin’s “The Imagination at Play” (Kenyon Review, 1966), Yvor Winters’ In Defense of Reason (1947), Joseph M. Garrison, Jr.’s “The Function of Terror in the Work of Edgar Allan Poe” (American Quarterly, 1966), and William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain (1925). Under “Interpretations,” upon which the hungry student will most feed, he selects critics dealing with Pym (Charles O’Donnell, “From Earth to Ether: Poe’s Flight into Space,” PMLA, 1962), “Usher” (I. M. Walker, “The ‘Legitimate’ Sources of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Review, 1966; and John S. Hill, “The Dual Hallucination in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ Southwest Review, 1963), “Ligeia” (Clark Griffith, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 1954; and John Lauber, “‘Ligeia’ and Its Critics: A Plea for Literalism,” Studies in Short Fiction, 1966), “William Wilson” and “Ligeia” (Donald B. Stauffer,”Style and Meaning in ‘Ligeia’ and ‘William Wilson,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 1965), “The Black Cat” (James W. Gargano, “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 1960), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (E. Arthur Robinson, “Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 1963), and, finally, a general essay on Poe’s detective stories (Robert Daniel, “Poe’s Detective [page 23:] God,” Furioso, 1951). In the “Chronology of Important Dates,” Howarth, more thoroughly than Woodson, charts relationships between Poe’s career and events of the world, finding, for example, that in the year Poe was taken into the household of John Allan, Napoleon was beating a retreat from Moscow.

As Howarth ingenuously points out in his introduction, Poe’s popularity is “a publisher’s delight” (p. 2); and these collections bear eloquent testimony to the eagerness of commercial publishers to capitalize upon that fact, in however slipshod a manner. Consider, for example, the editors chosen to oversee these volumes. Carlson has published scholarly articles on Poe, but neither Woodson nor Howarth can be considered what the marketer of their wares proclaims, “an outstanding authority” on Poe. Indeed, the publishers blatantly advertise on the book covers that Woodson’s previous publications “include articles on Melville, Thoreau, Robert Lowell, and the American literary tradition” and that Howarth “has published an essay on Stephen Crane, edited A Thoreau Gazetteer, and is compiling a descriptive catalogue of Thoreau’s manuscripts.” In all three introductions, moreover, the editors scramble to impose some pattern of “relevance” upon Poe’s career and writings. Woodson, for example, argues that Poe’s relationship with John Allan “suffered from a ‘generation gap’ “ (p. 5); Carlson believes that “If we can speak of the ‘psychedelic transcendentalism of Woodstock,’ we should be able to appreciate the transcendental psychal impressions by which Poe’s main characters are turned on in a mind-expanding or’soul’deepening way” (p. 4); more embarrassing yet, Howarth proclaims that Poe is concerned with “the problem of identity: We are all alone, and yet we all need each other” (p. 4).

Such nonsense should be recognized for what it is — commercial opportunism parading as scholarship. Though Poe, an ironist well versed in the art of “puffing,” might well enjoy these promotional efforts, even at his own expense, it is proper that scholarly journals scrutinize such “Casebooks,” “Interpretations,” and the like, lest their quality deteriorate yet further.

Robert C. McLean, Washington State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


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