Text: Richard Fusco, “Poe and the Perfectibility of Man,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 19:1-6


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Poe and the Perfectibility of Man

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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In his criticism and fiction Edgar Allan Poe steadfastly opposed the doctrine of human perfectibility: his Gothic vision could permit no other stance. Nevertheless, he found his opinions tempered by ambivalence in that he marveled at the grandiloquence of perfectionist treatises — particularly those in eighteenth-century philosophy. In fact, the works of five European social philosophers shaped Poe’s understanding of perfectibility theory. Biographical evidence suggests that this understanding originated in Poe’s academic career. In the grim reality that Poe perceived, however, the visions of these perfectionists rarified into castles in the clouds — interesting, but unsubstantial.(1)

Poe’s view on the perfectibility of humankind and its influence on his fiction present unusual problems for the critic. The dilemma stems from the ambiguity inherent in the abstract term human perfection. Philosophers as divergent as Plato, Aristotle, Luther, Kant, and Descartes have addressed the issue, each occupying a different position. In analyzing such themes in world literature, one historian identified eight conclusions at which a philosopher may arrive:

1) there is some task in which each and every man can perfect himself technically; 2) he is capable of wholly subordinating himself to God’s will; 3) he can attain to his natural end; 4) he can be entirely free of any moral defect; 5) he can make himself a being who is metaphysically perfect; 6) he can make himself a being who is harmonious and orderly; 7) he can live in the manner of any ideally perfect human being; 8) he can become godlike.(2)

Thus, the critic must ask himself which of these ends Poe had in mind when he discussed perfectibility. The question becomes further complicated upon considering the author’s beliefs in man’s means, inspiration, and capability to achieve such goals.

Poe provided sufficient clues in his work for readers to decipher his personal understanding of perfectibility. Although his views on the issue appear covertly in many of his works, Poe treats them explicitly in two reviews, two letters, and three tales, which not only expound his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from such theories, but also manifest his knowledge of eighteenth-century British and French philosophers, allowing a small, well-read audience to see the perimeters of the concept he repudiated. Although Poe proposed no developed alternative to the theory, his opposition to the idea of human progress represents a central element within his mosaic conception of the human condition.

As stated above, Poe understood perfectibility in eighteenth-century terms. When he used the phrase human perfectibility, he consistently invoked a list featuring the names of five social philosophers. In “Lion-izing. A Tale” (1835), the burlesque of court life [column 2:] included a “human-perfectibility man” who “quoted Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, De Stael . . . .” In the July 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Poe reviewed Alexander Dimitry’s lecture on the progress of civilization, objecting that Dimitry’s views “border somewhat too closely, in our apprehension, upon the eloquent madness of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet and De Stael. . . .” “The Landscape Garden” (1842) includes the following version of this list in the opening paragraph: “The person of whom I speak, seemed born for the purpose of foreshadowing the wild doctrines of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], and Condorcet . . . .” The tale concludes with “a far greater amount of positive happiness than ever glowed in the rapt day-dreams of De Stael.“(3) When Poe reshaped “The Landscape Garden” into “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), he retained both passages quoted above. Not only do the identical philosophers reappear in four works published within twelve years, but, curiously, Poe repeated the same order much in the manner of a student reciting a lesson. Poe’s understanding of the theory of human perfection, one must assume, derives from the writings of these five eighteenth-century philosophers.(4)

The first of the five to address the question of human progress, Anne-Marie-Jacques Turgot, delivered in December 1750 the second of two discourses mandated by his honorary position as Prior at the Sorbonne. His topic was Sur les progres successifs de [‘esprit humain. Contrasting the experience of nature with that of man, Turgot established the essence of his optimistic approach to history in the first three paragraphs:

The phenomena of nature, governed as they are by constant laws, are confined within a circle of revolutions which are always the same . . . .

The succession of mankind, on the other hand, affords from age to age an ever-changing spectacle. . . . The arbitrary signs of speech and writing, by providing men with the means of securing the possession of their ideas and communicating them to others, have made of all the individual stores of knowledge a common treasure-house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age. Thus the human race, considered over the period since its origin, appears to the eye of a philosopher as one vaste [[vast]] whole, which itself, like each individual, has its infancy and its advancement.

We see the establishment of societies, and the formation of nations which in turn dominate other nations or become subject to them. Empires rise and fall; laws and forms of government succeed one another; the arts and the sciences are in turn discovered and perfected, in turn retarded and accelerated in their progress; and they are passed on from country to country. Self-interest, ambition, and vainglory continually change the world scene and inundate the earth with blood; yet in the midst of their ravages manners are softened, the human mind becomes more enlightened, and separate nations are brought closer to one another. Finally commercial and political ties unite all parts of the globe, and the whole human race, [page 2:] through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection. (5)

For Turgot evidence for such an interpretation was twofold. First he maintained that every stage of mankind’s growth was represented in the variety among the world’s contemporary cultures. He assumed that if all cultural and physical conditions were equal, each nation would arrive at the same constant truths of nature at a uniform rate; but nature distributes her gifts unequally among men and nations, creating a spectrum from anarchistic barbarism to the modern state. Searching for evidence to support his theories, Turgot simultaneously reviewed recorded history, noting particularly the rise and fall of great empires. He concluded that even with the most frightening of social change — revolution — eventually ’ ‘the evil . . . disappears [,] the good remains, and humanity perfects itself” (p. 44).

Aided by the development of writing and by the advances of the sciences and of ethics recorded by each generation when unfettered by superstition or political repression, man proceeds haphazardly yet inevitably toward the summit of his potential. Still, his course is marked by error. Such misfortune is the product of cultural amelioration, for from birth to educational maturity successive generations must assimilate more information and more abstractions on a greater variety of subjects. Consequently, “[t]his chaotic blend of ideas and expressions grows and becomes more complex all the time; and when man starts to seek for truth he finds himself in the midst of a labyrinth which he has entered blindfold. Should we be surprised at his errors?” It is curious to note, however, that the “real advancement of the human mind reveals itself even in its aberrations; the caprices of Gothic architecture are never found among those who possess nothing but wooden huts” (p. 45). For Turgot, then, whether by intuitive insight or through experience by error, the furtherance of man’s knowledge prefigures his perfection.

Poe’s remaining perfectionists repeated, with occasional variation, Turgot’s arguments. In his 1787 sermon The Evidence for a Future Improvement in the State of Mankind, clergyman-philosopher-economist Richard Price took inspiration from the prophecy in Revelation of Christ’s thousand-year reign. The only one of the five to assert perfectibility exclusively in nonsecular terms, Price analyzed ecclesiastical history based upon his anti-Catholicism, asserting at one point in his essay that the decline in the influence of the Jesuits demonstrated the improvement in man’s relationship with God and, hence, in man himself. Sympathizing with the rebels in North America, Price saw their revolution as a hallmark of the progress of all men.(6) Joseph Priestley, Poe’s third perfectibility theorist, advocated the concept of the advancement of the human race throughout his life, highlighted in An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Theory (1769). Taking a cue from his limited knowledge of incremental evolution in nature, Priestley theorized [column 2:] that the next great leap on humanity’s road to destiny would involve the struggle for the liberalization of rights and institutions.(7)

With Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet — social philosopher, mathematician and revolutionary leader — Poe turned to a theorist who linked human progress to violent social change. Condorcet’s view that the French Revolution was the watershed for a new age of man underlies his Esquisse d ‘un tableau historique de progres de [‘esprit humain (1795). In the treatise Condorcet distinguished nine separate epochs of man’s growth and alluded to the dawn of an inevitable and marvelous tenth, heralded by the radical cultural changes in late eighteenth-century France.(8) The last of Poe’s perfectionists was Anne-louise-Germaine Necker de Stael — novelist, playwright, critic, historian, philosopher, and political figure in four successive French regimes — during which she gained the distinction of becoming a personal enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1800 Madame de Stael published De la litte‘rature consideree dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales, in which she addressed in passionate terms two areas of human progress theory: the dissociation of the tenets of perfectionism from their unfortunate linkages with the Reign of Terror, and the reaffirmation of those tenets as part of man’s blind hope for his destiny.(9)

Madame de Stael is a fitting last member of Poe’s set of perfectionists, for her views coincide with Turgot’s, suggesting a philosophical cycle that is complete. All five of these writers either anticipate or react to revolution, implying that Poe’s understanding of perfectionist theory included its historical development through the last half of the eighteenth century. If so, an interesting possibility arises: Poe may have unintentionally juxtaposed Price and Priestley in his repetitive order of presentation. The bulk of Priestley’s works on perfectibility predate Price’s by over a decade. Philosophically, Priestley’s views more resemble Turgot’s; Price’s conception is closer to Condorcet’s. Thus Poe’s ordering of the list Turgot, Price, Priestley, Condorcet, and de Stael would work better in two ways if Priestley preceded Price. First, the chronology of publication among the above writers would be preserved. Second, the list would follow more accurately the development of perfectibility theory. Turgot and Priestley thought that such progress ought to be evolutionary, that progress must be gradual in order for it to have any permanent effect upon humanity. Turgot hoped that change could be brought about by government; consequently, he sought social reforms using existing political means. On the other hand, Priestley maintained a discreet distance from government. With Price, the theory of perfectibility became linked with revolution. His observations on the American Revolutionary War, and to some degree the French Revolution, promoted the notion that radical change could benefit mankind. Condorcet believed in the efficacy of revolution even more fervently, at times implying that revolt is the most effective tool in man’s effort [page 3:] to control his destiny. Writing during her country’s readjustment, de Stael returned to Turgot’s hope for social evolution, repudiating the connection between social violence and man’s perfectibility. As will be seen, Poe’s comprehension of the subject in his scattered commentary resembles an academic lecture, especially in his strong insight into the confounding of the issue of human perfectibility by such historical factors.

Poe’s response to these philosophers was essentially negative, but not without ambivalent overtones. Although he found their methodology intriguing and, subconsciously, may have hoped that mankind could achieve greatness, intellectually he could not reconcile such optimism with his despondent view of the human condition. As such, Poe is a negative romantic, as opposed, say, to Madame de Stael, whose insights on perfectibility in De la litterature Chateaubriand called a “prospectus of Romanticism.“(10) Evidence for Poe’s negative stance on this issue can be assembled from his tales, reviews and letters.

As noted above, in “Lion-izing” of 1835 Poe presented twelve “Lions and Recherches” in obvious sarcastic light, the eleventh of whom is “a human-perfectibility man. He quoted Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, De Stael, and the ‘Ambitious Student in rather ill health.‘“(11) One year later, an unsigned review of James Kirke Paulding’s Slavery in the United States appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger while Poe was its editor; the reviewer defines perfectibility using utopian abstractions reminiscent of Turgot’s reasoning: “The absolute and palpable impossibility of ever unlearning what we know, and of returning, even by forgetfulness, to the state of mind in which the knowledge of it first found us, has always afforded flattering encouragement to the hopes of him who dreams about the perfectibility of human nature.” In the following passage, Condorcet’s argument is played against Price’s: “At one time human nature is to be elevated to the height of perfection, by emancipating the mind from all the restraints imposed by Religion. At another, the same end is to be accomplished by the universal spread of faith, under the benign influence of which every son of Adam is to become holy, ‘even as God is holy‘” (Complete Works, VIII, 266). Here, though, the reviewer challenged the optimism inherent in human progress theories with his own historical perspective, supported interestingly by analogy much in the manner of Turgot and Priestley:

But it is lamentable to observe, that let research discover, let science teach, let art practice what it may, man, in all his mutations, never fails to get back to some point at which he has been before. The human mind seems to perform, by some invariable laws, a sort of cycle, like those of heavenly bodies. . . . However eccentric the orbit, the comet’s place in the heavens enables the enlightened astronomer to anticipate its future course, . . .

Not less eccentric, and far more deeply interesting to us, is the orbit of the human mind. . . . (Complete Works, VIII, 266-267)

Scholars have spilt much critical ink arguing whether Poe or Nathaniel Beverley Tucker authored the review. [column 2:] Both were anti-perfectibilians, but Tucker’s comprehension of human progress theories appears to have had more nineteenth-century sources. Thus given the allusions to eighteenth-century argumentation in the essay, I would side with those who tenuously attribute it to Poe.(12) Nevertheless, even if Tucker composed the Paulding review, Poe would have had at least a hand in editing it, and undoubtedly he approved of the reviewer’s philosophical stance. Poe would agree that mankind’s cycle included “fanaticism and irreligion” in the pursuit for happiness. The orbit’s nadir is revolution, when the unthinking mob — which Poe so abhorred — reduces the human condition back to social barbarism. Whereas the perfectionists looked at history and saw reason to hope, the Paulding reviewer and probably Poe only observed blood-filled parallels in the English, French, and West Indian rebellions.(13)

Poe’s brief introductory paragraph of 1839 to the text of Alexander Dimitry’s “Lecture on the Study of History, applied to the Progress of Civilization” attests to the poet’s delight in reading perfectibility doctrines:

A brilliant and bold production, bearing the impress of the mind of its author. With the tenets, however, here so well supported by Mr. Dimitry we will not altogether coincide. They border somewhat too closely, in our apprehension, upon the eloquent madness of Turgot, Price, Priestly [sic], Condorcet, and De Stael — yet, strange to say, none of these names occur in the Lecture with the exception perhaps, of that of Priestly [sic], in an incidental manner! There can be no doubt, however, at what sparkling fountains our author has imbibed his scarcely tenable notions of the perfectibility of man. For to this end, more than to any other, tend the doctrines and the arguments of the essay. In the position itself we have little faith, but great faith in the ability of our friend to make the best of a bad topic.(14)

In “The Landscape Garden” of 1842, the Poe narrator seemingly joined the opposition:

The person of whom I speak, seemed born for the purpose of foreshadowing the wild doctrines of Turgot, Price, Priestley, and Condorcet — of exemplifying, by individual instance, what has been deemed the mere chimera of the perfectionists. In the brief existence of Ellison, I fancy that I have seen refuted the dogma — that in man’s physical and spiritual nature, lies some hidden principle, the antagonist of Bliss. An intimate and anxious examination of his career, has taught me to understand that, in general, from the violation of a few simple laws of Humanity, arises the Wretchedness of mankind; that, as a species, we have in our possession the as yet unwrought elements of Content; and that, even now, in the present blindness and darkness of all idea on the great question of the Social Condition, it is not impossible that Man, the individual, uncle. certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy.(15)

The narrator’s qualifications here are telling. He labels the doctrines of the perfectionists as wild, and couches his observations of Ellison’s principles with the word fancy. Only man the individual, not society as the perfectionists would claim, has the chance for happiness. Finally, Ellison’s brief lifespan suggests that even if happiness is achieved — which does not necessarily imply perfection — it would be ephemeral. Moreover, the sources Poe used for his story, such as Thomas Cole’s sequence of works The Voyage of Life, cast shadows on his Edenic descriptions. Jeffrey A. Hess suggests that Poe’s and Cole’s efforts resemble each other in portraying the innocent fancies of youth; yet an inconsonant element exists in such visions: “In [page 4:] using the image of the Edenic Garden as the symbol of artistic perfection, Poe makes the possibility of achieving such perfection extremely ambiguous: for when the creator is man, it is nearly impossible to separate the symbol of Paradise from that of Paradise lost.“(16) Consequently, the reader must look askance at the concluding claim “. . . that Ellison thought to find, and found, an exemption from the ordinary cares of Humanity, with a far greater amount of positive happiness than ever glowed in the rapt day-dreams of De Stael” (Works, II, 712; Poe’s italics).

In a 2 July 1844 letter to James Russell Lowell, Poe asserted his world-weariness in an explicit critique of the doctrine of perfectibility:

I really perceive that vanity about which most men merely prate — the vanity of the human or temporal life. I live continually in a reverie of the future. I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago. The result will never vary — and to suppose that it will, is to suppose that the foregone man has lived in vain — that the foregone time is but the rudiment of the future — that the myriads who have perished have not been upon equal footing with ourselves — nor are we with our posterity. I cannot agree to lose sight of man the individual, in man the mass. . . .(17)

Poe here directly challenges the perfectionists’ comparison of ancient and modern man. More importantly, he implies that analyzing man through the study of social history denies him the very individuality that philosophers such as Priestley treasured. As Poe makes the point in his 1848 Marginalia, “An infinity of error makes its way into our Philosophy, through Man’s habit of considering himself a citizen of the world solely — of an individual planet — instead of at least occasionally contemplating his position as cosmopolite proper — as a denizen of the universe” (Writings, II, 393).

It is curious that Poe’s response to perfectibility did not culminate in Eureka. True, he did include in his treatise an excerpt from a tale with obvious antiperfectibility leanings, but the passage loses much of its philosophic import when divorced from the rest of “Mellonta Tauta.” Integrating poorly within the chain of Poe’s argument in Eureka, the excerpt comes off as a humorous interlude, intended to provide the listener a brief respite before the author resumed his weighty topic. As for the rest of Eureka, a germane discussion of perfectibility would have forced Poe to deal with ramifications that were beyond his intentions. He understood perfectibility within the outlines of social philosophy: in fact, he could not agree with the perfectionists because they insisted in measuring man’s growth through civilization’s progress. In Eureka he avoids elaborating upon social matters, choosing instead to trace the individual’s relationship with the universe. When he does allude to society, it becomes at best nothing more than the sum of individuals. Nonetheless, the essay contains several parallels with Poe’s antiperfectibility stance. His grandiose analogies possibly have stylistic origins among Poe’s five perfectibilians. His conjecture that every particle in the universe contains a seed of self-destruction [column 2:] gives partial insight about why he could not accept the notion of humanity constantly advancing. Perhaps in his belief that the universe will ultimately collapse into God and then into nothingness, Poe finally offered his alternative theory of human history and destiny.(18)

Thus, Poe’s understanding of human progress theory was as inviolate as his reaction to it was inflexible. Such rigidity may suggest that he cultivated his familiarity with perfectibility via his diverse and voluminous reading. Significant evidence exists to suggest, however, that Poe’s conception of the doctrine came to him from secondary sources. One possibility is the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In attempting to establish the composition date of “Lion-izing,” Hammond implies that among the origins of Poe’s perception of perfectibility was the 1832 edition of Bulwer’s Conversations with an Ambitious Student in Ill Health, which alludes specifically to Condorcet and de Stael. Hammond is correct in assessing that Poe intended to satirize the beliefs of the British novelist, which undoubtedly inspired the “human-perfectibility man” passage in the tale (p. 155). Poe presumably recognized the influence of Priestley on Bulwer’s comprehension of human perfectibility. Nevertheless, Poe’s addition of Turgot and Price in his satiric passage in “Lion-izing” challenges the notion that Poe derived his understanding from Conversations. In fact, Poe’s response in his tale suggests that he had a well-formed definition of perfectibility prior to reading Bulwer.

Poe’s conception of perfection theory can best be traced to his years at the University of Virginia. His understanding coincides remarkably with that of George Tucker, Professor of Moral Philosophy there. A number of biographers and critics have argued for the influence of Tucker on Poe. Arthur Hobson Quinn suggests that Poe would have benefited more from Tucker than from any other faculty member. Hervey Allen reports that Tucker acted as a member of a disciplinary committee when Poe and his cohorts ran afoul of local merchants. In his anxiety over finances in December 1826, Poe visited the home of a teacher, possibly Tucker. Because of the similarity of subject matter between Tucker’s Voyage to the Moon (1827) and Poe’s “Hans Pfaall” (1835), some debate among critics centers upon the relationship between the two works: J. O. Bailey argues for the possibility, although Allen and Quinn dismiss it. Perhaps the strongest bond between Tucker and Poe was their shared interest in the Scottish philosophers, whose conservative “common-sense” recommendation probably preconditioned both Tucker’s and Poe’s methodology in their response to the idea of human progress.(19)

Of all the critics who address the relationship, Robert McLean presents the strongest case, positing that Tucker’s essay “A Discourse on the Progress of Philosophy and its Influence on the Intellectual and Moral Character of Man” probably reacquainted Poe with the professor’s views. Interestingly, McLean notes that “[l]ike Poe, Tucker opposed perfectibilian reforms, especially those based upon a priori [page 5:] reasoning; distrusted the “ignorant rabble” of democracies; preferred the life of cities to the joys of rural life; and defended slavery” (p. 142n). The significance of Tucker’s “Discourse” goes beyond what McLean discusses. It was printed in the April 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. One month later Poe published “Lion-izing” in the same magazine. This sequence suggests that the “Discourse” prodded Poe to remember the perfectibility passage in “Lion-izing,” and, consequently, he deliberately chose this burlesque piece from his unpublished Tales of the Folio Club collection in reaction, and perhaps in homage, to Tucker’s lecture.(20)

Perhaps Tucker’s essay had older associations for Poe. As indicated earlier, analyzing Poe’s list of philosophers in a reordered sequence would make for an interesting academic lecture. Poe may have heard such a presentation, either formally in a classroom or informally at a dinner table, given by Tucker in 1826 at the university. Tucker was most certainly aware of eighteenth-century British and French thought. Although he gravitated toward more conservative opinions as he grew older, he had once been a firm Jeffersonian, well acquainted with liberal thought and revolutionary rhetoric. An examination of his writings on perfectibility reveals his movement from optimistic faith to cautious qualifications that culminated in his 1835 essay, which marked the end of his thirteen-year public silence on the subject.

A careful reading of Tucker’s text suggests that he probably knew the writings of Poe’s five perfectionists. For example, the teacher used the perfectionists’ typical comparison of savage with modern man to demonstrate advancement, especially in thought, tangibly represented by the social science philosophy:

The mind therefore becomes, with the progress of civilization, more capable of perceiving relations — more imbued with a knowledge of these relations — more comprehensive — more capable of making remote deductions. It perceives more truths that are complex and difficult — and has more capacity to detect illusion and error. We thus see human reason gradually extending its empire, successfully assailing former prejudice, and fashioning human institutions to purposes of utility. We see men more and more inclined to value every object only in proportion as it conduces to the happiness of the greater number; and to consider nothing as permanently connected with that happiness, but what gives gratification to the senses without debasing them; to the intellect without misleading it. and to the passions when fulfilling their legitimate objects. It is thus we see each succeeding generation regarding with indifference, and even with contemptuous ridicule, what commanded the veneration of a former age.(21)

Here Tucker borrowed concepts from all five of Poe’s perfectionists, yet he named only one, Condorcet. Tucker emulated Turgot’s historical perspective and panegyric to the splendor of language, and he echoed Priestley’s ideas on the relationship between liberty and science with progress. He included a long digression on advances in chemistry, one of Priestley’s fields of expertise. Like Price, Tucker also paid respect to the role of religion in civilization’s improvement. Although he specifically denounced Condorcet’s position as overly optimistic, indeed as verging on pure [column 2:] fantasy, Tucker’s views on medicine and revolution had some similarities with the writings of the French philosopher. Not only did Tucker imitate de Stael’s analysis of the progress in literature, but he also paraphrased her defense of perfectibility against association with the French Reign of Terror.

As McLean suggests, although Tucker advocated progress he looked at man’s future with a conservative eye. As I hope to have demonstrated, Poe followed his teacher’s conservatism, developing the critical approach to its extreme — pessimism about the human condition. Thus if his understanding of perfectibility owed some debt to Tucker, Poe’s reaction to the theory reflected his own mistrust of the human character.(22)

Poe pursued this tone in his fiction. For example, “Some Words with a Mummy” and “Mellonta Tauta” satirize perfectionist methodology and reevaluate historical data negatively. These tales argue that no generation ought to claim superiority over any other, that each age deludes itself that it is preferable to past ages. Such egoism produces confused perception: in “Some Words with a Mummy,” the present misinterprets the ideas and the events of the past; in “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe predicts that the future will similarly misperceive the present. Thus, rather than the logical and inevitable progression seen by Turgot and Priestley, history becomes distorted and absurd, more apt to prove man’s downfall than his apotheosis.

Finally, Poe also attacked more specific targets of perfectibility in his fiction. For example, because of his stance Poe felt it necessary to lampoon a contemporary offshoot of perfectibility theory — such nineteenth-century utopian experiments as Brook Farm. Consequently, “The Devil in the Belfry,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” all present an enclosed society, seemingly utopian in character, but each with an inherent fallacy, and each demonstrating at least one aspect of perfectionism in microcosm. Using both comic and Gothic motifs, Poe traces an ironic downfall in these tales — the irony stemming from the societies’ inherent flaws. By implication, all societies — regardless of how perfect in conception — must eventually fail because they possess “the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.“(23) In exposing the imperfections of small-scale cultures, Poe demonstrates the pitfalls for larger civilizations. Likewise, since utopians pretended to goals similar to those of the perfectionists, Poe’s fictional treatment of one has implications for the other. In essence, then, perfectibilty theory flounders, as the utopian communities in Poe’s fiction flounder, because all things, especially perfection, cannot be sustained. Even if the “rapt day-dreams of De Stael” become reality, they would be short-lived and, consequently, meaningless. Within the dark confines of Poe’s vision, civilization always relapsed to some previous wretched point in the cycle of history.(24)


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1. - My intention in this paper is to investigate the existence and scope of Poe’s views on perfectibility rather than trace in depth their influence upon his fiction. I wish to thank Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, of the University of Mississippi, for his valuable advice. I also wish to pay tribute to Thomas Ollive Mabbott and his wife, Maureen, whose meticulous scholarship in their Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe provided me with clues vital in the development of my thesis.

2. - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Scribner, 1970), p. 27.

3. - “Lion-izing. A Tale,” Works, II, 176. The 1835 reading has been followed. [Edgar Allan Poe], “Lecture on the study of History, applied to the Progress of Civilization. Delivered by Appointment before the Union Literary Society, May 2d, 1839,” Burton’s Gentleman ’s Magazine and Monthly Review 5 (1839), 58. Mabbott attributed this article to Poe; see Works, II, 712n. “The Landscape Garden,” Works, II, 703-712. The 1842 reading is quoted here.

4. - Poe occasionally invoked these five writers in contexts other than those concerning perfectibility. For instance, he notes in a review a defense of Priestley by a young William Hazlitt; see Complete Works, IX, 141. In “Bon-Bon” Poe misquotes Condorcet’s attack upon the imitative nature of Roman philosophy; Works, II, 109, 116n. In an 1836 review of a biography on a minor British writer, Poe mentions the writer’s identification of herself with a passage on the destructiveness of anguish in de Stael’s novel Corinne; Complete Works, IX, 195.

5. - Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics, trans. and ed. Ronald L. Meek (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), p. 41.

6. - See Richard Price, The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement tn the State of Mankind, with the means and duty of promoting it, presented in a discourse, delivered on Wednesday the 25th of April, 1787, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, London, to the supporters of a New Academic Institute on Among Protestant Dissenters (London: T. Cadell, J. Johnson, 1787), pp. 9, 25. Price’s Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution has been included in Richard Price and the Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution, ed. Bernard Peach (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1979).

7 - Joseph Priestley, An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Theory, 2nd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1771), pp. 258-59.

8. - Condorcet grafted to Turgot’s approach to human history as a causal train an optimistic assessment of man’s future: that is, the path to perfection is inevitable; see Condorcet: Selected Writings, ed. Keith Michael Baker (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 215.

9. - See Madame de Stzel-Holstein, The Influence of Literature upon Society, 2 vols. (Boston: W. Wells and T. B. Wait and Co., 1813), 1, 63-66.

10. - R. P. Adams, “Romanticism and the American Renaissance,‘’ American Literature 23 (1952), 430; Robert Escarpit, ‘’Steel, Madame de,” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropedia, 1981 ed.

11. - Works, II, 176. Richard P. Benton suggests en passant that the human-perfectibility man in the tale is a burlesque of Buler-Lytton; see “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’: A Quiz on Willis and Lady Blessington,” Studies fn Short Fiction 5 (1968), 242. Alexander Hammond supports Benton by noting that both the human-perfectibility man and Bulwer’s narrator in Conversations with an Ambitious Student f n Ill Health quote Condorcet and de Stael; see “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’ and the Design of Tales of the Folio Club, ” ESQ, 18 (1972), 155. [column 2:]

12. - For a thorough discussion of the history of this attribution controversy, see Bernard Rosenthal, “Poe, Slavery, and the Southern Literary Messenger: A Reexamination, ” Poe Studies 7 (1974), 29-36. Ironically, in his Beverley Tucker: Heart Over Head f n the Old South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 112-13, 239n, Robert J. Brugger bases his assessment of Tucker’s stance on perfectibility upon an analysis of the Paulding review.

13. - 1n his 1849 Marginalia Poe wrote: “The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.” “In drawing a line of distinction between a people and a mob, we shall find that a people aroused to action are a mob; and that a mob, trying to think, subside into a people“ — see Writings, 2: 377, 380.

14. - ‘‘Poe, “Lecture,” p. 58. Poe obviously borrowed the term eloquent madness from Bulwer. Attempting to understand the “Student in Ill Health,” Bulwer’s narrator comments, “You have inclined, then to the eloquent madness of Condorcet and De Stael!” See Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Student: A Series of Papers by the author of “Eugene Aram,” “England and the English, ‘’ sc. sc., 2 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835),11, 132-34. Bulwer changed the title to the above in the first English Printing in book form.

15. - Works, II, 703. “The Domain of Arnheim” essentially repeats the same text.

16. - Hess, “Sources and Aesthetics of Poe’s Landscape Fiction,” American Quarterly, 22 (1970), 178.

17. - Letters, I, 256-57. Poe wrote similar passages in a letter to Chivers dated eight days later; see Letters, I, 260.

18. - William Drake reasonably cautions against regarding Eureka as the summative key that unlocks Poe’s thinking in the rest of his writings; see “The Logic of Survival: Eureka in Relation to Poe’s Other Works,” in Poe as Literary Cosmologer: Studies on Eureka, A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1975), p. 17. Rather than treating Poe’s annihilation principle as his answer to perfectibility theory, then, it may be better to accept Adams’s assessment of Poe as a negative Romantic, one who could not offer adequate alternative explanations against those theories he attacked — see p. 430.

19. - Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941; rpt. New York: Cooper Square, 1969), p. 102; Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Farrar and Rinehardt, 1934), pp. 133, 143, 146; Bailey, “Sources for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, ‘Hans Pfaall,’ and Other Pieces,” PMLA, 57 (1942), 512-535. For a discussion of Poe’s debt to the Scottish school, see Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist s Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 20-27; for Tucker’s background in the same, see Robert Colin McLean, George Tucker: Moral Philosopher and Man of Letters (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), pp. 133- 134, 155-161.

20. - For an alternate view, see Hammond, pp. 154-156.

21. - “A Discourse on the Progress of Philosophy, and its Influence on the Intellectual and Moral Character of Man: delivered before the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, February 5, 1835. By George Tucker, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Virginia,” Southern Literary Messenger 1 (1835), 405-06.

22. - Given Poe’s willingness to complete even optional collegiate assignments, it is likely that he would have read the works of each philosopher and not rely on Tucker’s summary; for a discussion of Poe as student, see Quinn, pp. 97- 117.

23. - More than any other work of Poe, these three tales fulfill the annihilation principle from Eureka on a social rather than on an individual level.

24. - I plan to analyze more fully the impact of Poe’s antiperfectibility stance upon these tales and others in a future essay.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]