Text: Henry Ridgely Evans, “Introduction,” Edgar Allan Poe and Baron von Kempelen’s Chess-Playing Automaton (1939), pp. 9-11 (This material may be protected by copyright)


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INTRODUCTION

NEARLY half a century ago, Richard Henry Stoddard, critic and man of letters, sat down at his writing desk, dipped his pen into gall, so to speak, and wrote the following lines: “Edgar Allan Poe was a curious compound of the charlatan and the courtly gentleman; a mixture of Count Cagliostro, of Paracelsus, who was wisely named Bombastes, and of Cornelius Agrippa — the three being intermoulded from the dust of Apollonius of Tyana, and Elymas the Sorcerer.” (Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. 43, p. 109, January, 1887.)

After reading the above indictment of one of America’s greatest poets and writers, I ask myself the question: Why did not Mr. Stoddard, who had known Poe and was perhaps jealous of his talent, drag in a few more necromancers and magicians, to say nothing of mesmerists and spirit mediums, when he indited his bitter critique? He might at least have compared the celebrated “Apostle of Mystery” with Mesmer and Daniel Dunglas Home, and then his diatribe would have been complete. Well, much water has flowed under the literary bridge since Stoddard penned his reminiscences of Poe. The author of “The Raven” and the wonderful “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” has come into his own, whereas Stoddard and his works are all but forgotten by the present generation of readers. The fame of Edgar Allan Poe rests secure. Time has laid in the dust the withered laurels of most of his contemporaries, but Poe’s memory will live as long as great literature lasts. He worked a field peculiarly his own — that of the weird and the wonderful. Who can forget his “Ligeia,” which deals with metempsychosis; “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which treats of premature burial; “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which has to do with hypnotism; and “The Gold Bug,” which discusses cryptograms.

In addition to his poems and stories, Poe made incursions into philosophy and mechanics, which latter subject brings us to his masterly treatise on “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” which belongs to the realm of modern magic; for many famous prestidigitators of the past included automaton figures in their entertainments — pseudo-androids like the chess-player, etc. Maelzel, be it known, did not invent the chess-player; it was originally conceived and built by the Baron von Kempelen. of Pressburg, Hungary. But Maelzel [page 10:] introduced some improvements in the construction of the famous android.

Many persons pronounced the chess-player to be a genuine machine, but careful observers, who published their views in various newspapers and brochures, thought otherwise, among them being Edgar Allan Poe. His keen, analytical mind practically solved the secret of the so-called automaton, in all but a few of its mechanical details, which were subsequently made known to the public by Doctor Mitchell, of Philadelphia, Pa., the last owner of the android.

Hervey Allen, in his Israfel: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), says: “It is possible that Poe’s interest in this automaton was early aroused by an article in the Baltimore North American to which Henry Poe had contributed in 1827. Many persons had been more mystified than amused by the manœuvres of the automatic man, and the exposé, although only partly correct, created quite a little furore. It was the first of Poe’s work in which he emerged as the unerring, abstract reasoner and foreshadowed the method he followed later in his detective stories such as the ‘Murders in the ‘Rue Morgue’ — a method which has been embalmed in the triumphs of Sherlock Holmes.”

Poe published his expose of “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” in the Southern Literary Messenger, of Richmond, Va., April, 1836, dwelling particularly on the psychological aspects of the subject. He was the first, so far as I can discover, who emphasized this phase of the problem.

J. W. Krutch, in his Edgar Allan Poe: a Study in Genius (1926), speaking of Poe’s “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” says this dissertation was “the first extended example of the author’s skill in what he called ratiocination.”

In conclusion I confess myself an ardent admirer of the literary and poetical genius of Edgar Allan Poe. He stands alone in the field of the supernatural. His talents were recognized in Europe before they were in this country. Charles Baudelaire, the celebrated French poet, sympathetically and faithfully translated his poems into the French language, and pronounced him to be the most original genius in belles lettres that America had produced. Poe is in the same class with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman; grouped together they form a literary triumvirate hard to beat.

In 1881, when I was doing newspaper work in Baltimore, Md., I met Prof. John H. Hewitt, musician, poet, and journalist, who was editing a weekly paper devoted to literature, the drama, and society affairs, called The Item., which was published by Maurice [page 11:] I. Loeb. Hewitt was eighty years of age at the time of which I write, and had known Poe intimately. In fact, he was one of the poet’s competitors in a prize contest for the best short story and poem, offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, July, 1833. Poe won the first prize of $50 with his tale, “A Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” and Hewitt the second prize of $25 for the best poem. Hewitt’s verses are completely forgotten, but Poe’s story is immortal. Professor Hewitt told me many anecdotes of Poe. It was in Mr. Loeb’s journal, The Item, that I published my very first historical studies of conjuring and magic, entitled “Magic and Magicians.” Hewitt expressed great interest in my dissertations and encouraged me to delve deeper into the fascinating subject of necromancy old and new, to say nothing of automata. He claimed to have played a game with Maelzel’s chess-player, when it was exhibited at the Fountain Inn, Baltimore, and was very much mystified at its manœuvres.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - EPBKCPA, 1939] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Edgar Allan Poe and Baron von Kempelen's Chess-Playing Automaton (H. R. Evans) (Introduction)