Text: Henry Austin, “Preface,” The Mystery of Marie Roget, R. F. Fenno & Co., 1899, pp. 5-15


[page 5:]


“THE Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was originally published in Snowden’s Lady’s Companion beginning in the November issue, 1842, and closing in the February issue, 1843. A story whose details are of such a peculiarly unpleasant nature, (although, it must be admitted, they are handled with that exquisite delicacy which is one of the conspicuous traits of Poe as a writer) seems out of place, indeed, singularly so, in a periodical which, as its title indicates, appealed chiefly to a feminine clientage. Doubtless, it was the highly intellectual treatment Poe applied to the unraveling of the confused threads of a horrible crime which overcame the presumable scruples of the editor of that periodical; but it would be very remarkable, if an editor of a like publication to-day should risk the admission to his columns of a story dealing [page 6:] with similar basic facts, however modestly presented.

There is a grim humor, indeed, in the mere fancy of a man like Poe offering to a person like Mr. Bok, for instance, a “Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” for the intellectual entertainment of the excellent ladies who support that miracle of nullity, The Ladies’ Home Journal. Imagine the chorus of protest, in the shape of indignant letters to the editor, that would arise in such a case! Not merely would the ugly, bare facts of the serial shock the sensibilities of his half-a-million constituents, but the potent method of the literary elucidation of those facts might force a few of the half-million actually to think: — and this would be dangerous for them, or for the editor. And yet probably all these readers peruse closely and avidly the daily papers of our somewhat free country in which nice white sheets all the revolting details of crimes, due to hate and alcohol, or all the disgusting minutiae of divorce cases due to unbridled passion and vulgar vanity are [page 7:] set forth with little regard to decency, the progressive spirit of civilization, or the effect such pictures may have on the minds of the young and the pure. Sometimes, indeed, it seems as if we Americans were growing to be in the mass. like that nation, so noted for smug hypocrisy, which, according to its humorous historian, Macaulay, indulges in a spasm of violent virtue about once in seven years and then remasks itself in a. serenity of humbug for another seven.

Such reflections naturally arise from a consideration of the curious contrast of manners then and now, involved in the publication of a crime-founded tale like “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” in a magazine like Snowden’s Lady’s Companion. Yet, on the other hand, apart from our specially feminine or epicene periodicals such as Mr. Bok’s curiosity of illiterature, there is a much more general carelessness of utterance in our current stories and in what aims to be literature, nowadays, than when the essentially clean-minded Poe was a successful editor. The coarseness [page 8:] of theme and of language which are so marked a quality and so ponderable a quantity in the brilliant, though somewhat hard and hasty, work of Mr. Kipling, both in prose and rhyme, and which has been so generally accepted as a license condonable to genius, had little place in the English literature of Poe’s day and no place at all in American literature.

Maryatt, to be sure, was frequently coarse, not merely in subject but in the handling thereof, and Bulwer in one or two books, his least interesting ones, cast a romantic halo over illicit passion or toyed with dangerously suggestive situations. But the bulk of English and American literature, since that culmination of prostituted genius, Byron’s “Don Juan” has been beautifully clean till within the last decade. Now there appears to have arrived a by no means small and markedly aggressive array of writers and readers who, presumably, believe that a coarse freedom of speech, a license even to the point of lewdness in allusion, signs [page 9:] the veritable advent of a lofty intellectual liberty. Poe held otherwise.

Yet there is no mock-modesty about him. In painting a London night-scene, as he does in “The Man of the Crowd” — and who ever painted that sort of scene more potently, more comprehensively? — he does not hesitate to refer to that rouged and hectic horror which in every great Christian city gives the loud lie to our boasted and boastful civilization. But the reader who seeks the stir of coarseness or the fillip of lubricity in Poe’s works will be summarily disappointed. Poe is always a gentleman, with that reserve in his writings which characterizes the speech of a refined man to a woman or a child. He is fine, but not finicky. As James Hannay, an English critic of note, wrote about him in 1852, Poe “never profaned his genius whatever else he profaned.”

There are some accounts, left by Poe’s enemies mostly, to the effect that, when his weakness in the way of drink overtook him, he blasphemed like a pirate [page 10:] of the Spanish Main, but there is no evidence that obscenity, so often the accompaniment of profanity, ever soiled his lips. A familiar of General Grant has declared that this hero even in his cups never uttered a profane or vulgar word. Still, such might have been the case and yet not represent any real part of a man’s nature. Shakspere realized this fact of psychics, when he made Ophelia in her madness give utterance to language which no virgin is popularly supposed to harbor within her ken; still less, to fling upon the startled air.

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” cannot fail to impress a student of Poe’s mind with this characteristic of especial delicacy in the management of a subject full of unsavory possibilities. Poe’s many imitators in this vein have not. copied this peculiarity. It is the general mark of literary copiers that they imitate the poorest, not the best, points of the original and it is rather difficult, even for a lover of Poe, to forgive him for having been the inspirer of so many absurd and [page 11:] trivial detective tales. Unquestionably some evidence exists that Poe overprided himself on this class of productions, which he rather pompously styled “Tales of Ratiocination” and that he valued them far above their intrinsic merits. That they do produce a prodigious effect on the average reader, and even on a trained mind at first reading, cannot be denied. Much of their popularity, when they appeared, no doubt was due to their being in a very novel key. Now, when that attraction of newness cannot be counted so much as a factor, they are still popular, still attractive of intelligent readers. The reason of this is no secret. Their apparent ingenuity is immense.

But as Poe’s first, and worst, editor, the Rev. Dr. Griswold, justly queries, in regard to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” what real ingenuity is displayed in unraveling a web which has been woven for the express purpose of unraveling? The chief ingenuity, after all, consists in the casting about them such an uncanny atmosphere, in couple with [page 12:] such precision of method and luminous logic, that the reader is insensibly led to identify the patient profundity of the grave imaginary Dupin with that of his cool, smiling creator.

This rather depreciatory criticism, .however, does not apply to “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” as to “The Murders” and “The Purloined Letter,” because in the former case Poe was putting his really extraordinary, almost unparalleled, powers of analysis and synthesis — to the task of unraveling a real mystery, namely, the atrocious murder of a cigar-girl, named Mary Rogers, in the city of blew York — a crime too frequent now to cause much popular excitement, but which in those days of less population and stimulation to crime was sufficiently rare to result in a widespread and long-continued sensation. It is worthy of note that Poe, far from the scene of the crime and supplied only with fragmentary data in the shape of newspaper clippings, had little difficulty in evolving the truth of the matter. Here, then, [page 13:] was a real, indisputable ingenuity ab initio.

Putting out of court, however, all these points and considering these detective stories merely in the light of literary exhibits, I think we must class them far below his other compositions. They have no great effects, though they are distinguished by unflagging effectiveness. In this they resemble the ruck of modern plays, particularly those of the Parisian school, with which our stage is now afflicted and the English imitations of that cheap and gaudy drama of artificial situations and much more artistic scenery. The hair-splittings which Dupin indulges in his incidental remarks, occasionally lengthening into disquisitions, are never tedious, but become especially effective, exactly like some of the artfully worked — out finales of the plays just of reference, by holding up the reader for a moment or two in suspense till his mind calls imperatively for the action of particular elucidation to continue — and then, presto! it continues, to [page 14:] the reader’s easy satisfaction and the author’s quiet amusement at his own ability to string his prey along so skilfully — to play him, as a fisherman plays a salmon or a bass.

In other words, Poe never loses himself at any moment through these tales of detection. He is present all the time as the master juggler. Not so in the best of his other stories. There you forget all about the author, for — there he is not juggler, but enchanter. You get lost in the gloom and grandeur and loveliness which his pen evokes for your entrancement — and for his own. You think nothing, as you read, about his ingenuity, his immense cleverness. He has charmed himself out of your sight and stays hidden in the cloud of his true mystery till the very end: till long after the end, sometimes; for the spell of certain of his prose-poems lasts wondrously and casts one into a day-dream like a soft narcotic. This is the real magic, the perfect rope ποιησις — that we shall not begin to reflect and analyze and think about the art as art, [page 15:] the artist as an artist, until a considerable time has elapsed from our absorption of, and by, his particular deed of art.

Then, of course, comes another legitimate delight, the delight of sequent, step by step, criticism; the re-traveling of the path with an eye keen for each beauty by the way, each minute effect, up-leading, up-blending, to make the rich totality.




Henry Austin wrote a brief preface to five of Poe’s tales, arranged in 3 volumes, but never edited the collection he wished would be published.

Edward Bok (1863-1930) was the editor of the Ladies Home Journal.


[S:0 - MMR, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Preface [to The Mystery of Marie Roget] (Henry Austin, 1899)