Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, December 1973, Vol. VI, No. 2, 6:49-50


[page 49:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

Poe’s “Usher” Tarred & Fethered

Recently, Poe’s tale “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” has been viewed in the light of its satiric elements, that is, as satire directed toward N. P. Willis, Charles Dickens, and methods of treating insanity current in Poe’s day. [See William Whipple, “Poe’s Two-edged Satiric Tale,” NCF, 9 (1954), 121133; Ada B. Nisbet, “Poe and Dickens,” NCF, 9 (1955), 308-314; Richard P. Benton, “Poe’s ‘The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether’: Dickens or Willis?,” PN, 1 (1968), 7-9. See also Richard Wilbur’s reading in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall 1967), pp. 17-18; Edward Wagenknecht, Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 128-129, 244; Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), p. 470.] Nobody has noticed, however, what I think is an unmistakable resemblance between this tale and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Given the fact that elsewhere Poe lampooned his own and others’ methods of popular horror fiction, while continuing himself to purvey such wares, I think it likely that he intended self-parody in “Tarr & Fether.” “Usher” first appeared in 1839, “Tarr & Fether” in 1845, by which time Poe had already succeeded in (a) writing good burlesque, in “The Premature Burial” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and (b) writing for an audience divided between general readers, who would see only the face value of the narrative surface, and elitist readers, who would see humorous strains subtly functioning beneath the surface. Because the most obvious intent in “Tarr & Fether” is satire, the other — burlesque — type of humor has been passed over.

Both tales open with narrators on horseback, solitary and forlorn, approaching foreboding old mansions, as only Daniel Hoffman has noted [Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1972), pp. 201, 204]. “Usher” reads “I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit”, and “Tarr & Fether” reads “Its aspect inspired me with absolute dread.” Both narrators meet similar languishing but frightening young women, and both receive unsatisfactory answers from their hosts to queries about the ladies. Both girls dwell in madhouses, for the House of Usher is the abode of the mentally disintegrating Roderick and of Madeline in her maddened quest for revenge. Both Madame Joyeuse (perhaps another pun) and Madeline commit animal acts, the former comically crowing like a rooster, the latter angrily ravaging as a vampire might. [Madeline’s vampirism is noted in Lyle H. Kendall, “The Vampire Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ CE, 24 (1963), 450-453, and J. O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” AL, 35 (1964), 455-466.] The terrifying noises and the subsequent tumult occasioned by the madmen in both tales are strikingly similar, and in both doors shatter under gruesome circumstances. The French madmen attempt to consign reality to the tomb, that is, to bury it beneath the house, just as Usher attempts to bury his sister; and in both tales a hair-raising vengeance is wreaked by the victims. Both tales end in a reverberation of noise and violent motion although in “Tarr & Fether” the comic effect of the “apes,” who prove to be men, with their “stamping, scratching, and howling” in a “perfect army,” suggests in its hyperbolic rhetoric an exaggeration aimed at amusing rather than terrifying, which is the net effect at the close of “Usher.” In both tales mental death occurs for madmen, as roles are reversed. The French madmen [column 2:] are returned once more to a death-in-life, further imprisonment within an asylum, and the implication is that if the sane keepers had not attempted such permissive treatment of the insane the entire astonishing reversal would not have occurred.

Because the events in “Tarr & Fether” are more plausible — though the situation is one of comic farce — than those over which the supernatural hovers in “Usher,” we might suspect Poe’s intent, in the later tale, to ridicule readers who relish overdone supernaturalism. Indeed, to reverse Poe’s own famous dictum, we confront here an example of the grotesque turned into the ludicrous. Furthermore, the madhouse setting and the obviously satiric aspects of “Tarr & Fether” should, in conjunction with the similarities to “Usher” noted above, prepare us for other forms of potential humor residing in this tale. We are led, by means of the narrator’s curiosity, farther and farther into a madhouse where, literally and figuratively, reality and unreality mingle ever more mystifyingly. Ultimately, we must realize, in the manner that the narrator realizes, that we have been treated to a fairly severe tarring and feathering of our customary perceptions.

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, Habnemann Medical College


Is Roderick Usher a Caricature?

In the current re-evaluation of Poe’s writings on the basis of his known interest in parody and burlesque, the one work which seems least likely to be a topical satire is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But it seems always true with Poe that when he keeps his face most serene his laugh is deepest. Poe’s presentation of Roderick Usher is no exception if one examines it in the context of a remarkable series of parallels with the real character of James Gates Percival (1795-1856), American poetaster, lexicographer, geologist, and neurotic. Indeed, if Poe’s story is a burlesque of Percival, our principal criticism must be that the fictional madman is but a pale — or perhaps subtle — imitation of the real Percival. Even Poe’s description of Usher’s physical appearance seems hyperbolic until one compares it with the recollection of Dr. Erasmus D. North’s first impression of Percival at the Yale College chapel: “His classical features, his blonde complexion, his large humid eyes with dilated pupils, the tear starting and then setting back into its well in the socket, his whole expression as of one who had no communion with those around him, attracted my notice and led me to inquire his name and character.” Henry E. Legler, James Gates Percival (Milwaukee: Mequon Club, 1901), p. 30.] A later observer noted the same telling details: “His countenance was indicative of his extreme sensitiveness and timidity; pale and almost bloodless; the eye blue, with an iris unusually large, and when kindled with animation, worthy of a poet; the nose rather prominent, slightly Roman in outline, and finely chiseled; while the forehead, high, broad, and swelling out grandly at the temples, marked him as of the nobility of the intellect” [Legler, pp. 32-33].

Percival had artistic tendencies in common with Usher. Usher the poet of “The Haunted Palace” parallels Percival the poet of “The Suicide,” his most famous poem, which, in the manner of Miss Psyche Zenobia’s best-known work, explores the sensibilities of one in utmost desperation and peril, as in these representative stanzas:

An outcast, self-condemn’d, he takes his way,

He knows and cares nor whether — he can weep

No more, his only wish his head to lay

In endless death ant everlasting sleep

Ah! who can bear the self-abhoring thought

Of time, chance, talent wasted — who can think

Of friendship, love, fame, science, gone to nought

And not in hopeless desperation sink.

Behind are summits, lofty, pure and bright

Where blow the life-reviving gales of heav’n;

Below expand the jaws of deepes’ night,

And there he falls, by pow’r resistless driven.

[Poems by Jamel Gates Percival (Maltby and Co.: New Haven, 1821) p. 170.] [page 50:]

Usher as musician performed on the guitar; Percival in this matter trespasses beyond the sublime: he was adept at the accordion which he is reputed to have mastered after only one sleepless night. Nathaniel Parker Willis described his performance as “Weird-like that noble Shakespearian head of his, the sharply cur, spiritual features, the eyes so full of the wild fire of genius, the thin, curling locks,C all gave him the appearance of a minstrel come down from another age” [Legler, pp. 19-21]. Even more notable is Willis’ description of Percival’s singing:

We had already quieted the room for the expected song. Standing neat him I soon knew, by the motion of his lips, that be was singing. But no one heard him, for I myself could distinguish only the soft breathing of a song of his that was familiar to me. After a while the company, supposing that be was not quite ready to begin, commenced talking again. The bard sang on, and the song was finished; but few beside myself at all suspected that he had been singing. . . . but his own soul had floated off upon his melody, and he had that sufficient reward which many a bard has, — the silent rapture of song. [Legler, p 21]

Percival designed and built a “retirement cottage” which has similarities with Usher’s symbolic painting of a tomb. Willis described the cottage as “a sarcophagus in a cathedral aisle. Three blind windows on the front of a square structure are the only signs of anything ever going in or coming out of it. . . . When [Percival’s] struggling spirit shakes off this little hindrance to his wings, — the visible shape by which we know him, — the ashes might properly be preserved in the sarcophagus he here built and pre-tenanted” [Legler, pp. 44-45]. Finally, there is the matter of Usher’s morbid sensibility, his “trepidancy,” summed up in the epigraph from De Beranger: “Son coeur est un luth suspendu,/ Sitot qu’on le touche il resonne.” Dr. J. H. Barnes, who knew Percival well at Yale, described his mourning the death of a rat in terms which echo De Beranger: “He was morbidly sensitive to pain, and he used to say that he felt as if he were made of glass, and should tumble to pieces if anyone touched him” [Legler, p. 18]. Poe’s narrator attributes Usher’s fragility to opium addiction. Percival attempted suicide by an overdose of opium, and his dilated pupils and dream-like behavior are consonant with an addict’s. His “trepidancy,” perhaps his most striking characteristic, he manifested in several ways — nervousness in society, difficulties with publishers and with Webster, with whom he worked on the dictionary, and sexual fears. While a student at Yale, Percival fell in love with a girl he was tutoring. Because of his “shrinking delicacy of feeling,” however, he was unable to communicate his feeling to her. When he accidentally touched her hand one day, he became completely confused and, blushing, left the room never to see her again [Julius H. Ward, The Life and Letters of James Gates Percival (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866), p. 49].

Underlying all the bizarre and neurotic behavior of the fictional Usher and the real Percival lies that obsessive compulsion to which Poe gave the name “the imp of the perverse.” Percival attempted suicide at age twenty-five and apparently thereafter was never free from periodic depressions which led him to contemplate but shrink from suicide. Charles U. Shepard, who knew Percival as State Geologist of Connecticut, reported that Percival confessed self-destructive impulses while on the edge of a precipice and elsewhere: “While we were examining the great iron furnaces of Salisbury, he told me that he was afraid of walking near the throat of a chimney when in blast, and that more than once he had turned and run from the lurid, murky orifice, lest a sudden failure of self-control should cause him to reel into the consuming abyss” [Ward, p. 403]. If the Percivalian hero is less readily identifiable than its Byronic counterpart of “The Assignation,” perhaps the passage of time is responsible. Quite possibly Poe’s contemporaries missed the point too, which might help to explain the enigmatic footnote to the “other men” who shared Roderick’s belief in vegerable sentience which Poe added to the 1840 printing of “Usher” and which mentions a “Dr. Percival.”

Herbert F. Smith, University of Victoria





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