Text: David Ketterer, “The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe
Source: Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1987, Vol. XX, No. 1, 20:16-19


[page 16:]


The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe

Douglas Robinson. American Apocalypses: The Image of the End of the World in American Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. 283 + xviii pp. $25.00.

Continually deferred, the end of the world (with or without the revelation of a spiritual reality) has much in common — perhaps everything in common — with what Derrida has taught us about the endless deferral of meaning. Hence we now have Douglas Robinson’s revision of his 1983 University of Washington dissertation (sections on Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon have been excised), a sophisticated, insightful, largely deconstructive study of the central apocalyptic tradition in American literature, and of Poe as the dominating figure in that tradition. This book, then, like John T. Irwin’s American Hieroglyphics, offers a radical reevaluation of Poe’s importance. But as one would expect and as Robinson himself points out, American Apocalypses does not reach any final conclusions. Instead there is a lost, apparently unnecessary footnote to the concept of an open-ended “dialogue, which at least sidesteps the Hegelian implications of a progress toward a telos” (p. 243): “I use the term dialogue here in the sense developed by Thomas R. Whitaker in William Carlos Williams. . . esp. pp. 77-91” (p. 270, n. 6).

Because Robinson does not indicate what Whitaker’s sense of dialogue is and assuming that the footnote existed only because Whitaker’s usage is not the standard one, I took a look at William Carlos Williams. The pages specified treat In the American Grain with its “principle of dialogue or conversation. In theme and in style, In the American Grain is a dialogical encounter with the New World.” Whitaker goes on to talk about a “counterpoint of voices,” a “dialectical sequence of voices” leading to a “dialectical synthesis,” and a “dialogical recognition of the need for openness and the possibility of self-deception” ( William Carlos Williams [New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968], pp. 78, 81, 89). There is nothing here to suggest anything other than the dictionary definition. [column 2:] And, in fact, Whitaker’s sense of dialogue conflicts with Robinson’s if it includes the notion of the “dialectical” because Robinson replaces the teleological term “dialectic” with the non-teleological “dialogue” (p. 243). It seems that Robinson’s final footnote is something of a red herring calculated simply to draw the reader into the dialogue between books and perhaps particularly that between American Apocalypses and In the American Grain. In that work Williams strikingly revises the common view of his culminating literary figure, Edgar Allan Poe. Williams stresses Poe’s American-ness: in Poe “American literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground” (In the American Grain: Essays [1925; London: MacGibbon s Kee, 1966], p. 226). Williams was the first critic to consider Poe the key figure in American literature, not at all the anomalous outsider sketched by Baudelaire.

The concept of dialogue is particularly important to Part Two of Robinson’s book which offers extended analyses of Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom! and Giles Goat-Boy. Robinson points out that his earlier book, John Barth’s “Giles Goat-Boy”: A Study (1980), provided the “germ” for American Apocalypses and the “antiapocalyptic thrust” (p. 268, n. 19) that he believes from Moby Dick onwards increasingly characterizes the American vision of apocalypse. In fact, “antiapocalypse . . . is the dominant topos of American postmodernism” (p. xvi). Simply put, dialogue is our only hope, the only alternative to the now secularized apocalypse of total nuclear destruction. The individual must be reintegrated into the community, not alienated from it. Robinson does not explore the matter, but the antiapocalypse appears to be a variant of the American jeremiad tradition.

In the overall context of Robinson’s complex argument, it is clear that this antiapocalypse develops from a species of apocalyptic vision that is uniquely American. But what exactly does “apocalyptic” mean here? In the opening chapter entitled “Apocalyptic Hermeneutics,” Robinson enters the critical fray with an attack on R. W. B. Lewis’ preference in his seminal essay “Days of Wrath and Laughter” (1965) for the “Augustinian,” conservative, allegorical interpretation of the Book of Revelation over the “Lutheran,” literal, predictive, and therefore potentially revolutionary one. For Robinson, “the apocalypse is never a merely formal pattern in an American work but the author’s interpretive [ “ideologically seditious” ] stance on the future of the world and on the past of the text, its relation both to history as con-text and to previous apocalypses as pre-text” (p. 7). Robinson [page 17:] is also critical of John R. May’s approach in Toward a NevJ Earth: Apocalypse in the American Novel (1972) and my own New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (1974).

It is never easy to produce an aaccurate” summation of another person’s argument, and for the most part Robinson’s account of the relevant secondary literature is both informative and insightful. In my case, Robinson objects that the apocalypse “is brought about not through the revelation of the true world but through the creation of other worlds” (p. 21). Actually in my admittedly expanded usage of the term “apocalyptic,” “other worlds” includes the spectrum of invented worlds and the possibility of a true, spiritual reality. Robinson has smuggled in a false distinction. Likewise, my visionary strain of apocalyptic fiction includes both a material and an immaterial notion of transcendence. While it is true that a “positivistic ideology” (p. 21) underlies much science fiction, it does not underlie all, and hence my identification of an American visionary tradition of science fiction that owes something to the work of Poe. In fact, the unexplained omission of any discussion of the apocalyptic theme in American science fiction, irrespective of its positivistic or antipositivistic orientation, is strange indeed, particularly since the barrier image that Gary K. Wolfe analyzes in The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979) clearly belongs with the avail/mirror/mask/wall/door image cluster” (p. xiii) that divides the “familiar” from the apocalyptic revelation of whatever lies beyond. The quest in science fiction and in the works that Robinson treats is for perceptual and conceptual breakthrough.

Finally Robinson expands the “two apocalyptic hermeneutics” in Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) — “‘naive’ or predictive apocalypse and ‘clerkly skepticism’ or ethical antiapocalypse“ — into a range of

five interpretive stances or topoi by which the apocalypse might be understood: (1) the biblical prediction of an imminent end to history, controlled by God so as to provide for a paradisal continuation; (2) the annihilative prediction of an imminent end to history controlled by no God at all and followed by the void; (3) the continuative prediction of no end at all, but of simple secular historical continuity; (4) the ethical internalization of apocalyptic conflict as a figure for personal growth in ongoing history; and (5) the Romantic or visionary internalization of the fallen world by an act of imaginative incorporation, so that the world is revealed as the paradise it already is. (p. 26)

Various relationships become apparent when these hermeneutics are arrayed aaround a Fryean fivepoint circle” (p. 26). It is especially notable athat the Romantic hermeneutic specifically mediates between . . . the biblical and annihilative interpretation” of the apocalypse and the antiapocalyptic “ethical and continuative interpretations” (p. 28).

Following Chapter 1, Robinson’s careful organization allows for a dialogic parallelism between the three chapters that make up the generally apocalyptic Part One and the three chapters that make up the generally antiapocalyptic Part Two. The problematic of judgment (good and evil, authority and oppression) informing analyses of Carol Balizet’s The Seven Last Years (1979) and Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom (1662) in Chapter 2 returns recomplicated in the treatment of Giles Goat-Boy in Chapter 7. The prow lematic of time (the gaps between present and past, present and future) informing the Bloomian analysis of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (modified versions of Bloom’s five tropes are lined up with the five apocalyptic hermeneutics) in Chapter 3 returns, equally recomplicated, in the analysis of Absalom, Absalom! in Chapter 6. The central apocalyptic texts, Emerson’s Nature and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, treated in Chapter 4, are balanced against the treatment of the central antiapocalyptic text, Moby-Dick, in Chapter 5.

Of the most central or “seminal apocalyptists” (p. xiv), Emerson and Poe, Poe is demonstrably the more seminal, and the remainder of this review will focus on the Poe texts that Robinson deploys. At the end of Chapter 4, the first such text, “The Power of Words,” is neatly related to the conclusion of Twain’s “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.” Robinson’s equation of 44 with the Satan Of “The Chronicle of Young Satan” (the first “Mysterious Stranger” manuscript) is highly debatable, but 44’s revelation that the universe consists only of the narrator’s thought may not be as nihilistic as usually supposed if it is linked to the notion in “The Power of Words” that aall motion is thought — and the source of all thought is . . . God” (quoted p. 89). However, this technique of using an interpretation of a work by one author to interpret that of another, characteristic of Robinson’s procedure throughout, is more than a little suspect.

In the centrally placed Chapter 4 — “Dream’s Body” (dream has been described as “the characteristic American revision of the apocalypse” [p. 62], but the allusion is mainly to William Blake), [page 18:] Robinson’s extended analysis of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym — Poe comes to dominate the stage. Both Emerson and Poe turn

their critical and self-critical attention to that abysm of difference that stands between them and the fulfillment of their desires tor “that forever separates presence from absence” (p. 119)]. This means that the apocalypse for Emerson and Poe, in very different ways, is always most ironic when it is most mythically apocalyptic. Both writers, as we shall see, seek to incorporate into their apocalypses a radically ironic perspective on the necessary failure of apocalypse, and by so incorporating it, paradoxically to transform irony into a desperate basis for hope. (pp. 93-94)

While Emerson perceives the “transparent body of nature as a mediatory icon” (p. 105), for Poe “the apocalyptic act was less the actual transformation than the figural embodiment of the possibility of transformation in an artistic image” (p. 109) — this image being the mediatory icon. Robinson is sensitive to the latest incarnation of Poe as “the great Proto-Deconstructor” (p. 92), but his reading of Poe amounts to a positive swerve from the purely nihilistic conclusions of the most rigorous of Poe’s deconstructors, John T. Irwin. He is at pains to emphasize, I believe correctly, that Poe’s irony is not a “negation of visionary truth” (p. 109).

I have some reservations about Robinson’s assertion that “Poe’s is an external God, with whom the individual is united not by apocalyptic reflection here on earth, as for Emerson, but only after death . . . ” (pp. 109-110). I would argue for an intermediate species of transcendent or arabesque reality that may be experienced by the visionary imagination in this life. It appears from “The City in the Sea” and “MS. Found in a Bottle” that there are atwo gradations of arabesque reality — one a limbo available in the present, the other awaiting a day of apocalypse” (Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979], p. 175). Robinson’s own observation that “the telos of all Poe’s finest tales” is “the point at which reality dissolves and, with luck, is transfigured” (p. 112) would seem to contradict the aonly after death” fulfillment. An intermediate awareness also seems to be implied by the assertion that, standing at “the spatial or temporal boundary” (rather than attempting to move beyond it), Poe achieves aa dual vision — of earth in terms of God’s transcendent universe and the universe in terms of our present life on earth” (p. 111).

Robinson’s interpretation of Pym corresponds to the combination of the deconstructive, ironic (in the sense of romantic irony), and visionary readings [column 2:] that he projected at the end of his 1982 review of Pym criticism. There he offers the following succinct summary of the account of Pym to come in American Apocalypses:

My own reading of Poe’s novel . . . places it in the context of what Harold Bloom [in Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 535] calls the “American Negative”: a negation of transcendence imagistically . . . through the image of the white figure above the misty veil. Poe can neither transcend nor figure transcendence adequately, and he knows it; what he can do, however, is to record his failure, as an imagistic path toward the desired goal. (“Reading Poe’s Novel: A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism, 1950-1980,” Poe Studies, 15 [December 1982], 52)

More specifically, Robinson adapts Irwin’s analysis of the conclusion of Pym by seeing the white figure alternatively as aa god shadow cast by Christ” (p. 118) or as the Blakean perfected body of Pym. Robinson makes a persuasive case here in the context of his demonstration that Pym develops through three imagistically parallel tableaux, each displaying a “dynamic of intensification” (p. 113). However, I believe Robinson’s dismissal of the possibility of a complementary naturalistic “white sail” reading, first advanced by Charles O‘Donnell and more recently brilliantly elaborated as the white front of the Penguin figurehead in the first of a series of Pym articles by Richard Kopley, is much too perfunctory.

Each of the antiapocalyptic works discussed in Part Two is illuminated by a number of other texts including one or two Poe tales. Deemphasizing Melville’s sympathy with Ahab, Robinson finds a redemptive ironic pragmatism in Moby-Dick when analyzed in terms of the antiapocalyptical Book of Jonah, Leo Bersani’s dynamic of desire and annihilation in A Future for Astyana” (1976), Sharon Cameron’s The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hau“thorne (1981), Ellison’s Invisible Man, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” Robinson’s view of Faulkner’s use of intervocal italics to express the voice Of aa mediatory vision of community” (p. 197) in Absalom, Absalom! is arrived at via “The Fall of the House of Usher” and other fictional world-houses. In the last chapter a reading of Giles Goat-Boy is juxtaposed against readings of The Blithedale Romance, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, The Tempest, and two Poe tales. “The Masque of the Red Death” is interpreted as an example of ethical doubling, these terms being “essentially thematizations of the self-other conflict by means of the organizing image or [page 19:] theme of sacrifice” (p. 206). “The ritual icon of sacrifice is an issue of some consequence to my discussion, of course, for in it culturally lie the two most persistent images of apocalypse: the vision of the remnant, in which the dross is sacrificed in order that it be split off and God’s true people be revealed from behind its obscuring veil; and Augustine’s internalized vision of ethical growth, in which the old self is sacrificed not to split it off but to bring it to the attention of the new self, that it might be recognized, assimilated, and subjugated” (p. 205).

If the reader has gained the impression from my quotations that Robinson’s book is difficult and more than a little jargon ridden, he or she would not be mistaken. The use of such abstract polarities as internality/externality, self/other, and especially absence/presence (“the apocalyptic imagination fascinates Derrida as . . . the most extreme statement of the metaphysics of presence” [p. 251, n. 1]) and of their inversions makes at times for somewhat arid criticism. To analyze relationships between texts on the level of abstract polarities and “thematizations” (both variously distanced from what an average reader might construe as the actual story) is to downplay dangerously what may be important differences.

Poe once more comes to the fore in Robinson’s “Conclusion: Communal Ties.” “Ligeia” and “The Man of the Crowd” are read as different images (or should it be thematizations?) of desire fulfilled. The Ligeia ligament connection via the Latin ligare (to bind) suggests to Robinson that “Poe’s choice of name involves his readers in . . . the problem of interpreting voices that would bind a community by speaking of the beyond” (p. 235). While “Ligeia” atransforms a minicommunity of two, a marriage, into a complex medium for visionary seeing,” “The Man of the Crowd” atransforms a locus of visionary seeing into a vista onto the human community” (p. 240). But although the old man becomes the narrator’s abond or ‘ligament‘to the human community” (p. 241), the narrator’s final identification with the crowd amounts to a loss of self. Robinson concludes that “Poe offers us two ‘religions,’ two communal bindings, as bases for interpretation: a religion of the self, in which the duality of marriage becomes a mystical unity, husband and wife becoming a superpersonality whose intensity as fullness bursts all vessels; and a religion of the city, in which the multiplicity of the crowd becomes a unity that is not mystical but alien, an impersonality whose diffusion as emptiness binds through alienation” (p. 242).

For readers of these pages, Robinson’s dense book is important as a revalidation of the essentially visionary Poe, albeit one complexly qualified, and for placing Poe not just in an American context but at the very center of American literature. How accurate a complement to Patrick Quinn’s French face of Edgar Poe is this bold limping of the American face of Edgar Allan Poe? It cannot, of course, be expected that Robinson’s broad claims, any less than many of his individual readings, will receive immediate assent — or, indeed, immediate comprehension. In fact, there seems little danger that the dialogue concerning Poe will conclude much before the end of the world.

David Ketterer, Concordia University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]