Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe and the Art of the Well Wrought Tale,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (1978), pp. 5-12 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 5:]

Poe and the Art of the Well Wrought Tale



OUR essays intend to serve Poe studies by treating textual history and evolving versions of the tales. Our author was, doubtless, a matchless and never satisfied craftsman, although that very trait has worked against him as much as it has highlighted his excellencies. His revisions have been noticed in far fewer critiques than they warrant since the collations and essay generally assessing them were appended by R. A. Stewart to the long-standard Harrison edition of Poe’s works (1902). Barren spots in these areas have been discerned by such subsequent scholars as Thomas Ollive Mabbott (late editor for The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe), Killis Campbell, and Floyd Stovall.

Textual analyses of Poe’s tales have come slowly, although several do exist, while other matters took precedence. Thus, Campbell’s edition of the poems (1917) includes a keen analysis of the writer’s thoughtful changes in his verse. Supplementing Campbell, Dudley R. Hutcherson explores what might be a selective edition of the poems printed in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum (March 4, 1843), where variants appear in a biographical sketch of Poe; and John C. Broderick evaluates the alternate texts of “Lenore.” The Harrison oversights receive partial correction in Woodberry’s revised biography (1909), and Mabbott records additional appearances of tales, furthering the work of John Cook Wyllie. The forthcoming volumes of fiction in the Harvard edition will surely reveal more relevant material. Recently, a valuable examination of Poe’s theory of fiction appeared in an article on the different versions of the Hawthorne reviews.(1)

Long ago, in a lamentably unpublished dissertation, Ruth L. Hudson selected stories for a study of evolving texts. Her only publication from these pursuits, an essay on “Ligeia,” opens new paths for study, even though it contains definitive work. A. H. Quinn called attention [page 6:] to a manuscript of “Morella,” with an ending different from printed versions, and a recent commentator cites a misprint in the same tale that has persisted in various publications. Similar inaccuracies occur in “Ligeia” and “The Assignation.”(2) Some writers cause confusion or debate because of imperfect textual approaches to Poe. The former use the apparent original of a given tale, but actually cite a later, variant appearance.(3) The latter produce interesting critiques employing the same materials to reach widely divergent conclusions.

Revisions in “The Oval Portrait,” “Metzengerstein,” “The Assignation,” and “Berenice” have received greatest notice prior to our collection, although Professor Hammond has considered changes in other works, and Boll and Pollin — though the latter not so centrally have examined alterations in “Murders,” “Mystification,” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”(4) Analyses of the first three tales listed above indicate various attitudes toward Poe now current. “The Oval Portrait” — originally “Life in Death” — draws greatest comment. Typical of some peculiarities in Poe scholarship today is the latest study, which neglects to cite its predecessors!(5) “Metzengerstein,” too, calls forth polar opinions about its humor and sobriety. Probably intended to elicit sneers for its cliché Germanism or Gothicism in the context of the Folio Club, it also attracts seekers for a comic underside, which humor the revisions do not bear out. We must not forget Poe’s letter to Harrison Hall, a Philadelphia publisher who he hoped would get out a collection of fiction, in which the comic substance of the critical portions, rather than the tales themselves, in the Folio Club collection would be emphasized. The loss of these critical inter-chapters has caused speculation concerning the early fiction. Thus, these tales generally have no clear-cut serious or humorous implications, although Hammond’s study below gallantly addresses this much vexed matter.(6) “The Assignation,” especially, invites divided views, as Professors Benton, Thompson, and I indicate. Happily, until a challenge is hurled its way, a recent survey of revisions in “Berenice” entails no disputatious bifurcation.(7)

Careful examination of Poe’s methods in polishing his fiction offers new perspectives on that work, despite the quarryings already mentioned. More may come clear about his literary imagination when his conscious artistry and his practical editorial bent, in combination, are more thoroughly analyzed. The latter tendency undoubtedly [page 7:] results in the compressions so frequent in his revisions, in the practice of excising whatever tends away from his prized unity of effect. For example, the openings of “The Assignation” and “Murders” are condensed in order to move readers more swiftly toward the central concerns. The provinces of poetry merge with those of prose under Poe’s management, in matters of sound, symbolism, and syntax. The language in “Metzengerstein” and “The Assignation” is recast so that alliteration reinforces intense situations or emotions. The care in so slight a piece as “A Tale of Jerusalem” also reveals attentiveness to auditory pleasure, when “a half hour” becomes “half an hour.” No less care appears in the verbal variants between the first and final appearances of “The Masque of the Red Death,” a magnificent prose poem in which sentence structures change to create more rhythmic cadences. In “Usher” and “Eleonora” thoughtful refashioning toward less tangibility heightens the undercurrents of meaning and suggestion, i.e., symbolism, as the characters lose concrete physicality and thereby move into the regions of shadow so dear to Poe. The motto added to “Usher” also contributes to making Roderick (and the narrator?) a more ethereal being, but one, nevertheless, of greater literary substance than those of countless other purveyors of fiction in magazines of the day. More vagueness is also introduced into “MS. Found in a Bottle,” through mere turns of phrase. A “windy,” if temporarily topical phrase like “strikes upon my soul with the shock of a Galvanic battery” becomes “excites within my spirit a sense — a sentiment ineffable.” By such means are we persuaded away from sensationalism and into more subtle emotional regions. The punctuating of his works also occupied Poe, not nearly so unwontedly as we might superficially surmise. To note but one example of the slovenly punctuation or proofreading against which he inveighed, we need only turn the pages of Godey’s during the early 1830’s, when Poe began to write fiction, to see an outrageous sprinkling of periods into places where they surely do not belong! The inconsistent spelling of “surprise” (interchanging “z” with the final “s”) in “The Visionary,” Poe’s first publication in that same periodical, further attests its by-no-means faultless editorial labors. Thus these chippings from the workbench and other textual subjects analyzed below shed light on Poe’s relationship to his writings. [page 8:]

Materials for our studies are several. Manuscripts for some tales exist, although they are primarily fair — very fair — copies intended for printers, an exception being that for “Murders.” Because of scant quantity of foul papers, we must turn instead to printed sources, which are numerous, although if a printed text does not have Poe’s authority we do not use it. To cite an example, the texts of “Bon-Bon” from the Courier, SLM, TGA, and BJ carry Poe’s own approval, although that in the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times, April 19, 1845, probably is pirated. With Poe’s attentiveness to matters editorial, we can be sure that he had some hand in the printing particulars of many of his own works, although he could not overlook the ease with which punctuation was frequently botched in the printshops. His position in relation to his publication history differs markedly from many other American writers in that he often enjoyed some editorial capacity for the very journals circulating his writings. Like one of his own narrators, he actively entered the scene, and, consequently, he went beyond many other writers of his day and ours, who do not take lively concern for the practicalities of literary life.

The work in attending to the textual side of Poe often grows as involved as one of his own detective tales. The chronicle of the journeys of the MS. for “Murders” includes hair-breadth ‘scapes from destruction and mutilation, although it now reposes peacefully in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The separation of the fragment of “Silence” from the Introduction to the Folio Club collection involves the Griswolds’ generosity to repositories in Virginia and Massachusetts. Perusal of the MS. for “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” “Hans Phaall,” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” transports the reader to the excellent collections in the Morgan Library. Only the first one, handsomely bound, is easily accessible, the frail condition of the others necessitating microfilm study. The MS. of “The Spectacles,” now in the Humanities Research Center Library of the University of Texas, will afford material for a forthcoming study by Joseph J. Moldenhauer, Jr. “‘Thou Art the Man!’,” in the New York Public Library, has been scrutinized by the late Thomas O. Mabbott, whose results are on record.(8)

The first printings of some tales were long thought lost, and we can see now in perspective that Harrison was not so thorough as he [page 9:] might have been in pursuing such items, despite his Herculean labors for his time. The precarious survival of certain tales in the original is only too emphatic when we realize that the sole known copy of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for October 19, 1833 — wherein “MS. Found” first appeared — survives in the Maryland Historical Society Library in Baltimore. Keeping it company is the Dollar Newspaper — a Philadelphia periodical that ultimately found its way to Baltimore — where “The Gold-Bug” was initially published (June 28, 1843). The casual pursuer of Poeiana is not likely to stumble upon the United States Saturday Post for August 19, 1843, either, although if he does a treasure will be evident on the opening page — the first version of “The Black Cat.” Some recondite texts are available because of twentieth-century scholars’ excavations. The first tales by Poe to see print, in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier during 1832, are conveniently reprinted in John Grier Varner’s handsome edition, the SLM version of “Lionizing” appears entire in Harrison’s notes, and “The Visionary,” from the 1834 Godey’s, is now easily accessible in LC for 1973.


An Emersonian attitude toward foolish consistency is clear in our essays.(9) Each author presents material according to individual preference, being restricted only by the requirement of textual history or Poe’s compositional habits. Divergent attitudes or approaches are evident in matters of our author’s themes and theories, his comic and serious potential, and his craftsmanship. Not all of us see every bit of the canon as a gem of purest ray, and when we perceive something less than gemlike we say so. Poe’s own unflinching spirit lies behind our practices.

Our essays come together appropriately here, for over them hovers the spirit of Arthur Hobson Quinn, who first instituted courses devoted solely to Poe. Quinn’s monumental and still authoritative chronicle of our author’s life and career first stimulated my own interest in the changing tales — the products of such interest evident in the following pages. Now, years later, facilities at the University of Pennsylvania Library, particularly its rare books and periodicals collections, fostered under Quinn’s aegis, have sped along the work of many contributors. An inescapable influence, too, is that [page 10:] of the late Thomas Ollive Mabbott, authority on Poe’s texts, demon proofreader, and contributor to innumerable projects besides Quinn’s biography, to which he afforded substantial aid.

In addition to those mentioned in the notes to individual essays, we acknowledge the assistance of these persons: Joseph J. Moldenhauer, University of Texas, Austin; Kenneth W. Cameron, Trinity College; Helen and the late William Burns, Yonkers, New York; Alexander Rose, Richard H. Hart, and James Foster, all of Baltimore. Knowing not the specifics of this volume, Richard P. Benton and Maureen Cobb Mabbott offered generous, sound advice. The third person to whom this volume is dedicated, another Renaissance scholar (not, however, one of the American Renaissance, merits special thanks. Dr. William E. Miller, Editor of the University of Pennsylvania Library Chronicle, wherein most of these essays appeared in somewhat different form, offered pages and assistance to the continuing interest in and study of Edgar Allan Poe.


1.  Hutcherson’s and Broderick’s essays appear respectively in AL, 5 (1933), 36-48, and 35 (1964), 504-510. The first, alas, is riddled with inaccuracies. Woodberry’s work is in vol. 2 of his 1909 biography, pp. 399, 415; Mabbott’s in N&Q,183 (1942),163-164; Wyllie s in University of Virginia Humanistic Studies, 1 (1941), 322-338; Walter Evans on the Hawthorne texts, PBSA, 66 (1972), 407-419.

2.  Hudson, “Poe Recognizes ‘Ligeia’ as His Masterpiece,” English Essays in Honor of James Southall Wilson, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, 1951), pp. 35-44 Q:214. The manuscript is held by the Henry E. Huntington Library, and it is to appear entire in HLQ. Kevin McCarthy calls attention to “‘Sameness’ versus ‘Saneness’ in Poe’s ‘Morella’,” AN&Q, 11(1973 ),149-150. He does not consider some of the more available texts, however, such as those edited by Harrison, Davidson, Auden, Carlson, Allen, and Thompson — surely more likely for use by Poe scholars and students than some he cites. “Ligeia” is emended by June and Jack Davis in “An Error in Some Recent Printings of ‘Ligeia’,” PoeS, 3 (1970), 21. In unintended irony in the text of “The Assignation,” Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, G. R. Thompson (New York, 1970) prints “a forehead of unusual breath,” rather than breadth, for the Byronic stranger (p.143 ). A manuscript text of “Epimanes,” included by Poe in a letter (1833 ) to the editors of the New-England Magazine, now owned by H. Bradley Martin, is partially reproduced in Q:200.

3.  For example, Richard P. Benton, “Is Poe’s ‘The Assignation a Hoax?” NCF, [page 11:] 18 (1963), 193-197, seems to use the 1834 version of the tale, but cites a later text. The original is used by Roy P. Basler, “Byronism in Poe’s ‘To One in Paradise’,” AL, 9 (1937), 232-236, which study, interestingly, Benton documents. An elusiveness characterizes the Godey’s text (entitled “The Visionary”) in studies past and present, although the original is now conveniently reprinted in LC, 39 (1973), 85-109. See also LC, 40 (1976), 221-251.

4.  “A Reconstruction of Poe’s 1833 Tales of the Folio Club: Preliminary Notes,” PoeS, 5 (1972), 25-32, condenses and revises Hammond’s theories in his unpublished dissertation. See also Ernest Boll, “The Manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Poe’s Revisions,” MP, 40 (1943), 302-315. Descriptive bibliography is primary here, and so Asarch’s study in our collection supplements Boll’s work and employs later critical studies. Pollin’s essays appear respectively in MissQ, 25 (1972),111-130, and Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Ohio, 1972), pp. 92-103. Some attention goes to the changes in “Eleonora” in Floyd Stovall’s Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays Old and New (Charlottesville, t968), pp. 251-254; and in Stuart Levine’s Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (De Land, Fla., 1972), p. 120, other revisions are noticed. See also my “Poe in the Seventies: The Poet among the Critics,” MDAC, 2 (1973), 354-364.

5.  Richard W. Dowell, “The Ironic History of Poe s ‘Life in Death’: A Literary Skeleton in the Closet,” AL, 42 (1971), 478-486. The previous critiques are by Seymour L. Gross, MLN, 74 (1959),16-20; G. R. Thompson, ELN, 6 (1969), 107-114. Thompson argues that the revisions intensify Poe’s mode of romantic irony, a subject of much debate just now. He provides similar aperçus in Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis., 1973), pp. 133-136, 229.

6.  G. R. Thompson, “Poe’s ‘Flawed’ Gothic: Absurdist Techniques in’Metzengerstein and the Courier Satires,” ESQ, 60 (1970), 38-58; repr. as New Approaches to Poe, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1970). The irregular appearance of the old ESQ prevented my knowing about Thompson’s work before I published “Poe’s ‘Metzengerstein: Not a Hoax,” AL, 42 (1971), 487-494, in which I demonstrate how the tale is sober, apprentice Gothicism: chacun à son goût.

7.  The varied opinions are summarized in my LC essays, mentioned above. Thompson’s introduction to Great Short Works is worth quoting here: “The tale is both a Romantic tale of dark passion and a burlesque (p. 33).” This statement, combined with Eric W. Carlson’s fine studies in Veler’s Papers on Poe (pp. i ff.) and Poe on the Soul of Man (Baltimore, 1973), influenced my ideas about “The Assignation.” In “Poe’s Revisions in ‘Berenice’: Beyond the Gothic,” ATQ, 24 (1974), 19-23, David E. E. Sloane and I indicate Poe’s muting the early sensational features in that tale, making situation and character more credible.

8.  “A Poe Manuscript,” BNYPL, 28 (1924),103-105.

9.  The diversity encountered in these pages maintains the spirit of recent Poe criticism, although a preponderance of glances toward the more serious Poe is [page 12:] apparent. Two excellent studies that illuminate Poe’s practices, and that give evidence of the continuing variations in critical approaches, are Bruce I. Weiner, “Poe’s Subversion of Verisimilitude” and J. Gerald Kennedy’s “The Magazine Tales of the 1830’s,” both in the ATQ collection mentioned in n. 7. I have tried to synthesize some current divergences, using Poe’s revisions as my bases, in “How to Write a Blackwood Article: Revise, Revise, Revise,” an address to the Poe Studies Association on December 28, 1973.






[S:0 - PAW:STS, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (Poe and the Art of the Well Wrought Tale)