Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:34-36


[page 34, column 2:]


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.

Usher and Rosicrucianism: A Speculation

The connection between Gnosticism and the themes and imagery of “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been demonstrated by Barton Levi St. Armand [“Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies, 5 (June 1972), 1-8]. The possibility that the tale also draws upon Rosicrucianism, a philosophical movement closely linked to Gnosticism by common sources, especially alchemical literature, similarly deserves investigation. In The Rosicrucian Enlightenment [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972], Francis A. Yates argues that historically the Rosicrucian movement represents a “phase in the history of European culture which is intermediate between the Renaissance and the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century” [p. xi] and that the Rosicrucian alchemy characteristically “expressed both the scientific outlook penetrating into new worlds of discovery, and also an attitude of religious expectation, of penetrating into new fields of religious experience” [pp. 225-226]. The synthesis of rationalism and romantic vision in such a tale as “Usher’ suggests why Poe might have been interested in Rosicrucianism. Furthermore, an inquiry into this possibility seems called for by Usher’s painting of a vault mysteriously bathed in light, for the image points to a central event in the Rosicrucian myth, the story of the discovery of the tomb of Christian Rosencreutz. As Yates describes this discovery, the miraculous opening of a door exposes a vault, upon which the sun has never shone, lighted by an “inner sun”: “the discovery of the vault is the signal for the general reformation; it is the dawn preceding a sunrise” [p. 44].

Scanty but suggestive evidence implies that Poe may have been sufficiently acquainted with Rosicrucianism, shrouded though it is in mystery and secrecy, to draw upon its lore for this image. One of his friends during the Philadelphia years, George Lippard, may have been a Rosicrucian, and Poe’s writings allude to three figures whom Yates identifies as Rosicrucian thinkers — Raymond Lully, Robert Fludd, and Tammaso CampanellaC the latter two represented by books in Usher’s library. [It should be noted, however, that in each case Poe’s citations probably came from secondary sources; see T. O. Mabbott’s notes, Works, 11, 420-421, 645.] Finally, Poe’s 1842 review of Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni implies a working knowledge of Rosicrucianism:

The idea of the novel is borrowed from the dreams of the old Rosicrucians, and of the predecessors of that sect as far back as the Chaldeans. These visionaries imagined that man, by a rigid practice of virtue and the sublimation of every earthly feeling, could attain to a perfect comprehension of the most hidden secrets of nature — could hold communion with, and exercise control over, the unseen powers of the air — and could even preserve human life to an indefinite extent by acquiring the means by which it might be perpetually renovated. [Complete Works, XI, 116]

If Poe’s knowledge of Rosicrucianism can be established, then a variety of possibilities for interpreting “The Fall of the House of Usher” suggest themselves, chief among them the implication that

Usher is to be associated, if only ironically, with the members of the Fraternity of the Brothers of the Rosy Cross. Just as the Rosicrucian brothers were supposed to heal the sick secretly, Usher’s family had “of late” practiced “deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity” [Works, II, 399]. Yates quotes a work, the Fama Fraternitatis, documenting the Rosicrucian mandate that “every brother should look for a worthy person, who, after his decease, might succeed him” [p. 243], suggesting why Usher might have summoned the narrator and subsequently tutored him in occult ideas. Furthermore, Yates notes that “teaching through pictures on the walls” was an important part of the tradition [p. 49]. Usher, whose name is an archaic term for teacher, “painted an idea” into which he put “an intensity of intolerable awe”; the painting itself, of course, with its vault bathed by a sourceless “flood of intense rays” [Works, II, 406], implies that Usher was using this means to initiate the narrator into a central mystery of Rosicrucian lore. In light of this reading, the narrator’s rationalistic and uncomprehending responses, as well as Usher’s choice of him as a successor, seem clearly ironic. Similarly, Madeline’s illness and Usher’s inability to heal her suggest an ironic waning of the Rosicrucian’s powers, as does the terrified oppression Usher suffers from the occult reality he can perceive but not control. Finally, the meaning of Usher’s painting, which points toward a regenerating “sunrise” in Rosicrucian terms, ironically foreshadows a nightmarish reversal of the myth: Usher avoids the tomb that holds the house’s essential mystery, the doors of the narrator’s chamber open to discover this mystery in the horrifying apparition of Madeline released from her vault, and brother, sister, and house collapse into a death mockingly presided over by a “full, setting, and blood-red moon” [Works, II, 417; my italics].

Roberta Sharp, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Woodrow Wilson and Julian Hawthorne on Poe:

Letters from an Overlooked Scholarly Resource

In 1895-96, the Shakespeare Society of New York City waged a successful campaign, directed at the New York Legislature, to preserve the cottage Poe had lived in at Fordham, Bronx, by moving it from the path of an expanding thoroughfare and creating a small park around it. As part of that effort, Frederick M. Hopkins and Albert Shaw solicited testimonial letters from eminent people on the need to preserve the cottage, and Hopkins edited and published thirty-five whole or partial responses under the title “Shall We Preserve the Poe Cottage at Fordham?” [Review of Reviews, 13 (April 1896), 458-462; Hopkins may be the Frederick Mercer Hopkins, a “former dealer in rare books,” according to the New York Times obituary of 13 May 1848, who is mentioned in Reginald Bolton’s The Poe Cottage (New York: Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences, 1922)]. Among those responding to Hopkins’ appeal, the character of which is implicit in his prefatory commentary, were Rudyard Kipling, then living in Brattleboro Vermont, and such prominent Americans as Theodore Roosevelt, john B. Tabb, William Dean Howells, George Washington Cable, Cardinal Gibbons, Henry Cabot Lodge, James B. Angell, Thomas Nelson Page, Horace E. Scudder, Henry Van Dyke, and Frances E. Willard.

This assembly of letters, which has been lying fallow and virtually unremarked for eighty-three years, deserves to be studied as a valuable index to Poe’s reputation at the end of the nineteenth century. These frequently eloquent testimonials give proof, for example, that by 1896 the hostility of the Temperance Movement early afflicting Poe had largely, although not totally, been dissipated [see my discussion “The Temperance Movement and Its Friends Look at Poe,” Costerus (Amsterdam), 2 (Summer 1972), 119-144]. And some writers, notably Thomas Dunn English, R. H. Stoddard, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, offer revealing statements contradicting or amplifying remarks on Poe they had made elsewhere. Basic to the study of these materials are the history of the Fordham cottage and the bibliography in John Piper’s [column 2:] unpublished master’s thesis, “The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage . . A Reflection of American Culture and Society” [Univ. of Maryland, 1977; a copy is on deposit in the New York Public Library, Geneological Section. Published accounts of the cottage are inadequate; see Mary E. Phillips, Edgar Allan Poe, the Man (Philadelphia: Winston, 1926), pp. 1545-1550 (erroneous in facts and dates); Arthur H. Quinn Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton,;941), p. 507, n. 25 and its citations; and “Edgar Allan Poe in New York . . . ,” Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, No. 7, N.S., (1923), ed. Henry C. Brown (New York: Valentine’s, 1922)]. The scholarly usefulness of Hopkins’ gathering will grow, of course, as the original texts of the responses are traced. I reproduce below two such texts, the first a sample of what may be many letters written in response to his appeal but not included in the Review of Reviews compilation, the second the full text of a letter that indicates something of his editorial procedures [both are among the Gratz acquisitions of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which has kindly given me permission to reprint them].

The first of these letters, apparently sent too late for publication, is by Woodrow Wilson, then professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University [for Wilson’s sensitivity to and knowledge of literature, see his essay “Mere Literature” in the Atlantic Monthly of December 1893 and Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters (New York: Doubleday, Sage, 1927), 1, 90, 117, 136-137; 11, 47-48, 65-66, 109]. The letter was first published in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), IX, 493, without reference to the Poe cottage campaign or Hopkins’ compilation, and reads as follows: Princeton, New Jersey, 30 March, 1896. My dear Sir,

It certainly behooves us to do this tardy honour to Poe’s memory. We talk as if we could live better than he could, though with his temperament; but we know that we cannot write with any touch of the genius he had and we ought to do what lies in our way to show ourselves liberal in appreciation, generous in reverence for a well earned fame.

Very Sincerely Yours

Woodrow Wilson

Mr. F. M. Hopkins

Julian Hawthorne wrote the second letter, which was printed in the Review of Reviews without the first and third paragraphs and part of the initial sentence of the second (indicated by brackets in the text). Apparently Hawthorne wrote it reluctantly and was subject to a second appeal from Hopkins’ collaborator, Albert Shaw, a personal acquaintance. [It is misdated as 1876 in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania catalogue because of a dim upper stroke rounding off the figure “9” which looks like a “7.”] The full text follows:

222 West 23d St. N.Y. March 18th 1896

Dear Mr. Shaw:

I have your letter of yesterday’s date: I had before received a communication from some one (possibly Mr. Hopkins) on the subject, but have hesitated to reply because in my opinion it is not obligate [?] to take special measures to preserve the houses or other concrete relics of our men of letters, or of any men. That sort of thing goes in England, the country of preservers: but here I think we should feel that a man’s work is his true memorial and if that be not enough, nothing can save his memory in any real and effective way.

I am [however, apart from review of the matter,] more than willing to say an appreciative word of Poe, and to place it at your disposal. He was one of the few great figures in our little literature, and the good things he did will last, because he had genius, and was unique and not the imitator of others, and no one else will ever again do so well the kind of thing he did. His best work would not fill much space: both in prose and in poetry the physical dimensions of his achievement were small, even in proportion to the moderate amount of his total production: but those few stories and poems on which his reputation rests are invaluable: they could by no means be spared either by his countrymen or by the world. Personally, his figure is touching, pathetic and lovable: no man who knows men can condemn him. He seems to have put into his work what was highest in him: what was not high he tried to conceal: and it is no one’s business to disturb that unhappy privacy.

I much enjoyed my glimpse of you the other day If you see Mr. Walker please give him and his family my cordial regards: and believe me

Very sincerely yours Julian Hawthorne

Albert Shaw Esq.

Burton R. Pollin, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus [page 36:]


“The Man That Was Used Up”:

Further Notes on Poe’s Satirical Targets

Elmer R. Pry has shown that Poe drew upon a contemporary folktale in “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839) [“A Folklore Source for ‘The Man That Was Used Up,’” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 46], which satirizes the Jacksonian era’s veneration of military heroes and of technical progress. In addition, two historical figures have been proposed as originals for Poe’s General A. B. C. Smith. William Whipple argues for Richard M. Johnson [“Poe’s Political Satire,” University of Texas Studies in English, 35 (1956), 81-95] on the grounds that Johnson, a much-wounded veteran of Indian wars, cited his military achievements in campaigning for the office of Vice President in the 1836 and 1840 elections, and that the Whiggish Poe would choose a Democrat as butt of his satire. But a better case can be made for Ronald Curran’s and Daniel Hoffman’s position that Winfield Scott is Poe’s original [Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 196-199].

To begin, Johnson was a Colonel, while Poe’s Smith carried the essentially honorary rank of a Brevet Brigadier General. Scott, as Erasmus Darwin Keyes, his former aide, points out, carried this Brevet rank, which sparked a controversy in the mid-1830’s about the abuse of the privileges of his honorary title [Fifty Years’ Observations of Men and Events, Civil and Military ( New York: Charles Scribcer’s Sons, 1884), pp. 115-116]. Both Scott and Smith were popular with the ladies. Keyes also indicates that Scott was as vain and egotistic as Poe’s character [pp. 8-10]. Cecil D. Eby spoke of Scott’s “prissy Mannerisms,” and George Washington Harris’ widely-circulated cartoon caricatured “Old Fuss and Feathers” (Scott) entering a room: “First a giant plume appeared through the doorway, and far to the rear an immense sword fitted with a small wheel attached to the tip of the scabbard” [“That Disgraceful Affair,” The Black Hawk War (New York: Norton, 1973), pp. 214, 271n]. Furthermore, Keyes refers to Scott’s dependence on his black manservant David, a suggestive parallel to Smith’s Pompey: “He [Scott] required to be waited upon, to be observed, and to be attended without intermission, and his body servant was to be always within call. He occasionally excused himself for this last necessity from the fact that his left arm was partially disabled by a terrible wound he received at Lundy’s Lane” [pp. 48-49]. Finally, Poe’s subtitle, “A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign,” correlates more closely with Scott than Johnson. “Late” implies, as does the story, a relatively recent campaign; Johnson’s military exploits took place some twenty-five years in the past, but Scott had extensive experience in Indian warfare during the 1830’s and was to have faced the Kickapoo in the Black Hawk War, though the War ended before his arrival.

Poe’s characterization of Smith may also owe details to the political scene preceding the 1839 Whig National Convention, in which three candidates — Scott and William Henry Harrison, both military heroes, and the statesman Henry Clay — competed for the nomination [Robert Gray Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1957), pp. 47-65]. Whipple cites one A. J. S. Smith, a Whig politico, as disparaging Johnson’s achievements in the Battle of the Thames [“By a Working Man,” More Than 100 Reasons Harrison Should Be Elected ( Boston: Tuttle, Dennet and Chisholm, 1840), p. 15. Cited in Whipple, p. 93n]. More important, this Smith supported Harrison by presenting him emotionally as a military hero, a tactic then common in the Democratic party but frowned upon by conservative Whigs, who favored Clay. Himself sympathetic with the conservatives, Poe may have been lambasting A. J. S. Smith’s tactics through A. B. C. Smith’s absurdities. Harrison, who eventually won the nomination, often remained neutral on controversial issues, an indecisiveness which may have provoked Poe’s description of General Smith as a “nondescript” blob.

Richard A. Alekna, Virginia Commonwealth University


A Possible Source for “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

That clairvoyant Andrew Jackson Davis was the subject of one of Poe’s name-juggling squibs — he is referred to in the prefatory letter to “Mellonta Tauta” as “my friend Martin Van Buren Mavis, (sometimes called the ‘Poughkeepsie Seer,’)” — was first observed by Kendall B. Taft [“The Identity of Poe’s Martin Van Buren Mavis,” American Literature, 26 ( 1955), 562-563; see also Works, III, 1305, n. 1]. It also has been reported that Poe called on Davis in January 1846 [See Andrew Jackson Davis, The Magic Staff: An Autobiography of Andrew Jackson Davis, 9th ed. (Boston: William White, 1871), p. 317]. Not previously noticed, however, is the possibility that Poe utilized material from a pamphlet describing Davis’ ideas and methods in his “The Fans in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Mabbott [Works, III, 1228-1229] cites three plausible sources for this tale — one on the use of mesmerism in surgery and two others describing its life-prolonging effects. To these we may add the forty-page pamphlet by Rev. Gibson Smith, Lectures on Clairmativeness, or Human Magnetism [New York: Searing and Prall, 1845], which claimed to clarify “all the Mysteries of Human Magnetism and Clairvoyance” on the basis of certain trance-revelations of “the celebrated Jackson Davis of Poughkeepsie.” The date of the pamphlet’s publication, the publicity it received, and the similarities of its subject matter to that of Poe’s tale support this suggestion.

Rev. Smith, after spending some time investigating Davis, became convinced of the clairvoyant’s authenticity and used Davis’ trance lectures to obtain answers to philosophical and scientific questions. These sessions provided him with material for a series of lectures, delivered sometime between March 1844 and August 1845, which formed the substance of the pamphlet, published in mid-July 1845. This pamphlet received a most favorable — and conspicuous — review on the front page of the New York Tribune [23 July 1845, p. 1, cols. 1-2]. In the same paper five days later Graham’s Literary Depot advertised the pamphlet, priced at twenty-five cents a copy. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was published in December of the same year, and, though we do not know whether Poe ever read this pamphlet, the second of its four “lectures” contains what could well have helped to inspire Poe’s story.

The Valdemar tale describes how an individual at the point of death is mesmerized and thereby preserved from death for seven months. When finally awakened from the mesmeric state, he immediately “crumbles” or “rots away,” becoming “a nearly liquid mass of . . . putridity.” Smith, in his pamphlet, treats a similar idea, discussing the function of “magnetic and electric fluids” in mesmerism and using the hibernation of animals to illustrate the effects of mesmerism. He then cites a strange, apocryphal story, almost certainly one of his own embellishments on Davis’ work: a German woman, Smith claims, is “at this moment” in a magnetic state. She was originally condemned to be executed for a crime, but a physician received permission from the authorities to use her in an experiment. Accordingly, she was enclosed in a subterranean room, seven-foot square, where

she lay about forty-eight hours before she became insensible, and before all vital action ceased. She has been in this state upwards of three years, and she maintains the same appearance that she did on her first becoming insensible, — no signs of decomposition having taken place; and indeed decomposition cannot take place so long as the same temperature is preserved in the room where she is. At the end of the five years, he will restore her again to consciousness and animation by removing her from her confinement. [Clairmativeness, p. 25]

The gruesome possibilities of such a restoration would certainly have interested Poe and may well have played some role in the genesis of the Valdemar tale.

Steve Carter, Northwestern Oklahoma State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1979]