Text: J. V. Ridgely, “Annotating Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:57-59


[page 57, column 2:]

Annotating Poe

Stuart and Susan Levine, eds. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1976. G33 pp. Cloth 112.95; paper $9.95.

Harold Beaver, ed. Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Penguin Books, 1975. 311 pp. Paper $2.95.

Agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi. — “Eleonora”

Like the intrepid adventurers of Poe’s “Nubian geographer,” Stuart and Susan Levine have “ventured into the sea of darkness, in order to explore what it might contain.” The log of their exploration of Poe’s short fiction is an elegantly printed, large format volume of more than six hundred pages, about one-third of which is devoted to commentary, annotation, and illustrations. No other one-volume edition of the tales has offered more; the product of its editors’ eight years of combing the work of previous investigators (all scrupulously acknowledged) and of considerable original research, this anthology may crow unabashedly over near-achievement of its main objective: to bring together “all of the information one needs to understand Poe’s stories.”

And yet, recalling the many faces of Edgar Poe which have been limned over the decades, no user of this volume is likely to forget the maxim that one critic’s Poe is another reader’s poison. The cavils may well begin with the introductory essay by Stuart Levine, author of the recent Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Levine here addresses himself to “The New Image of Poe,” and he opens with the somewhat ritualistic gesture of driving the stake more deeply into the old ghoul-haunted, bat-enshrouded Poeposeur. Pulling down the spooky decor that has surrounded the image of a mad, drug-crazed genius, he admonishes, “Today we feel that Poe was a far more conscious and methodical a craftsman than we used to think.” The sepulchral organ notes stilled, Levine now steers us into the thesis that will dominate both the arrangement of the tales into clusters and the interpretations of them. The “major revision” in our view of Poe, he finds, is the result of our newer understanding of his peculiar artistry. Conventional anthologists have erred in representing him only by “major” Gothic tales like “Ligeia.” “The line between Poe’s so-called ‘major’ and ‘minor’ fiction is becoming increasingly blurred,” as more attention is paid to those tales which are “relatively cool in tone” and to the satires. Poe delighted in “playing with ideas, associations, and language itself not only for satirical purposes but also for the pure joy of creative play.” And this kind of play goes on not only in the formerly neglected works “but also in many of the most familiar tales as well, until it is impossible to tell when Poe is playing games with us and when he is being serious. Our own feeling is that he is playing games with us almost all the time: the two are not really incompatible.”

Why they are not is soon explained: Poe produced much of his art “within the context of an occult worldview” that is characteristic of the Romantic age but alien [page 58:] to ours. Unlike us “children of the Enlightenment,” the occultist, viewing the world as “alive, sacred, and an organic whole,” hates any compartmentalizing of man’s roles. “To an occultist, there are no divisions, and the artist cannot be separated from the scientist, the seer, the prophet. He is more like the tribal medicine-man than the writer-in-residence.” Poe’s Eureka is “literally an attempt to write occult scripture, and the majority of his tales can be seen as enactments of the nature of perceiving the complex and outre patterns and associations which he believed led to the core of reality.” This thesis patently guides the editors’ arrangement of the Poe canon under fifteen headings, with such rubrics as “Unimpeded Visions,” “Salvation Through Terror,” and “Occult Fantasies” — though other tales are captioned less tendentiously as “Popular Journalism” or “Science, Technology, Oddities.” The editors feel constrained at points to acknowledge that their categories are “largely arbitrary” and that certain stories “could go elsewhere.” And they concede in the head-note to section 12 — “Multiple Intention” — “In truth one could devote perhaps a third of this edition to tales of multiple intention.” This statement means not only that Poe was responsive to “mixed artistic motivation” — for example, creating “philosophical stories which have, for the alert reader, political asides tucked within them” — but also that he supplied a hedge against a reader’s incredulity. As a footnote to “Ligeia” explains, “Poe frequently provided readers with an alternative ‘rational’ way of accounting for the fantastic. In ‘Ligeia,’ the narrator’s ‘incipient madness’ and his addiction to opium provide the needed margin of credibility: all that follows may be an illusion.”

Yet, despite disclaimers, the groupings of the tales are clearly vital to emphasis upon Poe as “occultist.” Thus “The Power of Words” is seductively introduced: “For the reader who wants to understand Poe’s metaphysics, this is his most important story.” And the initial grouping is one alluringly captioned “Unimpeded Visions” — five items including “The Island of the Fay” and “The Domain of Arnheim” — in which, however, as the head-note warns, “nothing much happens.” But action is minimal, it is quickly explained, because, “in general, the easier it is for one of the perceptive characters in Poe to perceive, the less complex the plot of the piece in which he appears.” The “ideal artists” of these sketches “are, in short, visionaries or, if you will, occult saints.” If you won’t, you will at least have the pleasure of combatting a rigorously argued thesis.

The editors have busied themselves primarily with interpretation and annotation, and the question of their soundness as textual scholars must await more professional examination. I find myself bemused by their prefatory comment: “Because Poe published many of his tales more than once and thus had the opportunity to add or delete, tinker, and catch typographical and authorial errors, his stories pose fewer serious textual problems than most nineteenth-century works.” They do not seem to mind that such a history of publication is precisely what exercises the producers of CEAA-sealed volumes. Copy-text is specifically identified for only a few pieces; for the remainder, there appears to have been heavy reliance on J. A. Harrison’s Virginia edition — even though they note that there has been some important textual scholarship since it appeared in 1902. [column 2:]

Nagging doubts may remain about textual problems, but the ample annotation of this edition is sufficient in itself to make it a necessary addition to any Poe scholar’s library. The simplicity of its design is an added blessing. A seven-page bibliography of source studies keys the reader to the system of citation in the notes; it also adds a useful list of other works that proved fruitful. For our editors, Poe’s tales “are the most complex puzzles which he ever conceived,” and the challenge obviously aroused the Dupin in them: “The tangled and interwoven lines of association which run through them and the thousands of allusions and obscure works which he packed into them must be explained if the reader is to know what Poe is talking about.” The result is an absolute feast of usable data. Indeed, so much is spread before us that the easily glutted mind may revolt at what sometimes seems an almost manic industriousness. For example, of the use of aimable in “Bon-Bon,” we are told: “Exhaustive search convinces us that if there was a fabric by this name, the usage was limited; no guide to fabrics we have seen lists it.” Inevitably, too, there are typos, factual errors, and wrongheaded guesses which warrant emendation in future printings. One minor pleasure, incidentally, of the wanderer through this banquet of erudition is the discovery that now and then one seems to know more than the learned annotators. I am emboldened to offer one of my own: Glossing the word “Appalachia” as used in “The Philosophy of Furniture,” the editors carry on for eighteen lines about “connotations of poverty and backwardness” — linking the word to L’il Abner country. It is more plausible that Poe was simply alluding to contemporary suggestions for a native word to substitute for the name America (see the quotations in The Dictionary of Americanisms.)

But, for all the quibbles that any user is bound to raise, it must be reiterated that this is an extraordinarily attractive edition (for one thing, it opens easily and its pages lie flat) . It is also the most comprehensive handbook yet completed, and I would nominate it as the current text of choice for any instructor who wishes his students to dive more deeply into Poe’s fiction.

Alongside the stately bulk of the Levines’ edition, a new paperback edition of Pym in the Penguin English Library appears puny — and not just in physical size. An alluring little volume because of its colorful (if irrelevant) cover depicting “whale-fishing in a Polar sea,” it may well, because of mass marketing, introduce some readers to Poe’s sea tale. Its virtues end at about that point. The text of the story itself presents an unnecessary bibliographical puzzle; the introduction and notes, though done in a sprightly style, are too often inaccurate, incomplete, or inconsequential. Moreover, Harold Beaver — an English academic who has also annotated two volumes of Melville’s writings in this same series — has little new to offer in the now wide-ranging debate over the tale’s significations. He leans heavily on previous scholarship, and he is not assiduous in distinguishing between data drawn from others and insights which presumably are his own. I find his twenty-four-page introduction largely a rehash of the racist-fantasy interpretation as argued by Kaplan, Levin, and Fiedler and of the “deception” motif advanced by Patrick Quinn. The twenty-nine pages of notes and commentary — extremely skimpy to anyone who has confronted the myriad peculiarities [page 59:] of the text — also draw from numerous books and articles which are credited only by virtue of being listed in a brief bibliography. The residue of Beaver’s editorial work consists of a three-page note on Antarctic exploration, a four-page discussion of “Poe and Melville,” and a thirty-page summation of Jules Verne’s “sequel” to Pym, Le Sphinx des Glaces.

Perhaps an edition aimed at a general audience may be permitted such padding out; it does not lessen the responsibility of an editor to maintain scholarly standards. Beaver’s introduction is hardly a model exercise. In the course of a few pages, he mind-reads: “At work in offices next to the very stores of Ellis & Allan . . . [Poe] wrote his own stories. How memories were stirred! How his mind was carried back to his boyhood. . . .” He credits Poe with nonexistent expertise: “He could play The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as a journalistic scoop — to hoax the great reading public — precisely because he had a long and first-hand acquaintance with the sea.” (This is the same Poe who could in the very first chapter of Pym have a dismasted sloop boom along “under the jib only.”) And he finds Poe in June 1836 “engrossed in an old hobbyhorse that never failed to carry him off: the urgent need for an Antarctic exploring expedition to test a current revolutionary theory, known as ‘Symmes’s Hole.’” Beaver compounds this gaffe by adding that by Poe’s time “the task of promoting Symmesian doctrine had become a whole-time occupation. This was to be Jeremiah N. Reynolds’s self-appointed role.” The extent of Poe’s supposed obsessive concern with Symmes’ “holes-at-the-poles” as well as Reynolds’ current obsessions may easily be checked by reading Poe’s review of an address by Reynolds in the January 1837 Southern Literary Messenger. By that date, of course, Reynolds had long since given up his espousal of the bizarre notions of Symmes, who had died in 1829.

Beaver’s “Note on the Text” also betrays some confusion. He writes, “The first American edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838), as edited by Rufus W. Griswold, is the basis for this text without substantive amendment of either spelling or punctuation.” This seems to say that Griswold’s version as printed in the 1856 Redfield edition was used as copy-text. A spot check, however, of twenty variant readings between the 1838 first edition and the 1856 printing shows that the Penguin text adopts thirteen from 1838 and five from 1856; two of the Penguin readings differ from both texts. Clearly an editorial hand has been at work here, but what guided it is not vouchsafed to us.

Both of these volumes renew the reader’s sense of the perils involved in trying to outwit Poe. Uncomfortably aware of the author’s penchant for deadpan hoaxing, he subliminally senses the face of a mocking Poe behind each crux. Is the game worth the candle? It is a relief to record that the Levines have found that “Though some of the learning is faked, most is not. Indeed, some of the faking is learned: Poe read widely to bluff so well.” This is neatly put, but then the Levines have earned the right to their conclusion by dogged devotion to their texts. By comparison, Beaver is — well — an underachiever.

J. V. Ridgely, Columbia University


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