Text: Joel Kenneth Asarch, “A Telling Tale: Poe’s Revisions in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (1978), pp. 83-90 (This material is protected by copyright)


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A Telling Tale: Poe’s Revisions in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”


THE composition of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was a long and painstaking labor for Edgar Allan Poe. He assiduously revised each successive text, producing a final tale more credible, though more grotesque, than the earlier versions. I intend to show how the revisions of “Murders” affect overt meaning, structure, and underlying implications of the tale.

Four variant texts exist from Poe’s lifetime: one manuscript in his handwriting, and three printings: Graham’s (April 1841), The Prose Romances (1843), and, finally, the Tales (1845). The first version exemplifies his constant attention toward betterment.(1) In the margins, he adds lengthy new sections, such as the testimony of Albert Montani, deletes others, revises punctuation and grammar, and amends terminology. For instance, Poe initially entitled the tale “The Murders in the Rue Trianon-Bas.” He often crossed out “Trianon” and inserted “Morgue,” but not until the Graham’s publication did these inconsistencies change entirely to “Morgue.” This printing adheres closely, although not completely, to the manuscript. However, to aid the reader further, Poe corrected the punctuation and included approximately twenty-five additional commas. In a change designed to aid credibility, he narrowed the distance between the house and the shutter to a gap which could be jumped by an agile human being. Still the text displeased the author.

In 1843, Poe’s finances were at an ebb (rather like Dupin’s), and, attempting to procure funds, he contracted with Graham to publish his works in pamphlets costing only 12 1/2 cents apiece. If the first volume, consisting of “Murders” and “The Man that was Used Up,” were successful, an entire series of Prose Romances would come out. Again Poe modified the tale. Punctuation differs markedly from the earlier versions; semicolons replace dashes, and commas strengthen the grammar. Although the text noticeably improved, the financial venture failed; yet, in 1845 Poe once more modified “Murders,” for the final time,(2) in his Tales. Trying to tighten the structure, he eliminated [page 84:] the previous opening paragraph and all redundancies (approximately 359 words). Most editors include in their printings of Poe’s works this last published version which he painstakingly reworked in his effort to create a “perfect” text.

The corrections and revisions are primarily what a meticulous editor would attempt. Poe, an editor himself, knew what to look for in a text. He “concerned himself as a critic of his own writing with even the slightest detail of form: matters of spelling; punctuation and grammar. . . . A difference can be accepted as the result of Poe’s editing.”(3) The textual variations appear to have been carefully considered, and not haphazardly included by someone indifferent to meaning and structure.

Although many of the corrections do little to vary these two characteristics, many do alter the reader’s interpretation or understanding of the story, and Poe wrote always with the reader in mind. The most common variants are in punctuation, properly placing every point. “The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstoodthis, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance.”(4) Beginning with the sparsely punctuated manuscript (those marks it does contain are further emphasized by the general dearth), each edition is more fully punctuated than the last. To aid the reader in separating and comprehending the complex sentence structure, Poe employed extensive commas in the 1843 and 1845 editions. “For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.”(5) Modifying phrases (“The windows[], both of the back and front rooms [],” [page 162, line 20]) and clauses (“If I am in error[], he will merely suppose . . .” [184,20f]) are separated by punctuation from the rest of the sentence. In 1843 and 1845, transitional phrases are separated from dependent clauses, making these remarks appear almost as asides inserted to clarify the text. (“Attempt[], now[], to place . . .” [182,2f] or “and[], above all[], I . . .” [150,33])

Words that Poe wished to stress are italicized. As he changed the meaning of the text, these words were changed. In the Prose Romances and Tales, versions intended for the average American, scientific words (nebula, retina) that were possibly unknown to the common reader were differentiated from the text by italics. [page 85:]

Poe frequently substituted words within the text. One result of substitution is the clarification of muddled points. “[H]e asked me my opinion respecting [it]>the murders” (165,23f). Originally, this sentence might have meant that Dupin asked the narrator his opinion out of respect for the opinion, or the “it” might have referred to the imprisonment of Le Bon. By substituting “the murders,” all doubts about meaning disappear. Poe recognized that redundant or superfluous constructions added only bulk, not meaning. For example: “[I do not propose to follow the man in the circumstantial narrative which he now detailed.] What he stated was, in substance, this . . .” (188,4). The first sentence is summed up by the words, “in substance,” and Poe only repeats himself by employing both. By eliminating a sentence containing too obvious a clue, such as, “Here again we have evidence of that vastness of strength upon which I would fix your attention” (180,16), Poe places a larger burden of recognizing clues upon the reader. An exactness is also practiced in many revisions. In manuscript, “found” becomes “caught” (183,29) when referring to the wild ape. Also, once the “beast” (188,21) gains control of the razor, Poe can no longer refer to the animal as the sailor’s “prisoner.” In the later editions, a greater value is accorded precision and emphasis, thus allowing Poe’s points to emerge clearly.

With no unnecessary verbiage, the story becomes more flowing and unified. In a detective or horror story, the resolution of plot is most important; the narrator’s discoursing on the faculties of the brain is not. “Murders” is a tale of ratiocination, not an expose, and the quicker the reader reaches a solution, the happier he will be. By eliminating the opening paragraph, Poe goes directly to proving the existence of, rather than discussing, such an organ of analysis. Furthermore, by removing the opening paragraph, a passive didactic beginning is transformed into an active, more energetic and forceful opening. Some of the emendations of the 1845 edition result from the deletion of the opening paragraph. For instance, the “faculty in question” had to be renamed the “faculty of re-solution” (146,16). Poe had to become more specific once he eliminated the paragraph on phrenology.

Most interesting are changes which affect the atmosphere and meaning. “Murders” is, after all, a grotesque work, the unnatural pervading the tale. Through his emendations, Poe made the story [page 86:] more macabre. Originally, the season was the autumn and winter of 18, but in the manuscript, the text was corrected to read, “during the spring and part of the summer of 18“ (150,10f ). A contrast is thereby created between the bright green spring time and the dark night walks, the “time-eaten and grotesque mansion,” and the cold butchery of the Rue Morgue.(6) The change of names, from Trianon to Morgue, has “the primary effect of a macabre figure of speech and profoundly deepens the emotional suggestiveness of the original title with the chill of horrible anticipation.”(7) In the 1843 and 1845 publications, “bizarre” is italicized to make it stand out from the textan effort to make the situation more foreboding. There is a dehumanization of the villain, the orangutan. Referred to initially as “he,” the ape becomes depersonalizedan almost “unnatural” creature, less human and more repulsive and dangerous. A vicious brute now holds the razor, not a “he.” For additional shock value and greater drama, Poe further emphasizes the horror of the scene by eliminating a modifying clause: “[U]pon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off [, and rolled to some distance]” (158,9f). Without further explanation, the reader must confront the shock of visualizing the severed head. In the Tales, a further movement toward the grotesque occurs: “I felt a creeping of the flesh” (181,6) replaces “I shuddered.” Within the former expression occur sinister connotations and feelings of horror and sensuality. In this manner, Poe consciously attempted to create a tale more grotesque, and less everyday.

Poe also attempted in many ways to make the text more credible to the reader, despite the weirdness just mentioned. In 1845 all paragraphs of the newspaper account begin with quotation marks. These pointings remind us that the narrator himself is obtaining his information from the newspaper, and not from first-hand experience. Poe later realized the improbability of Dupin’s being able to open the window without first releasing the catch. “Pressing the spring,[.] I gently raised the sash” (175,29). The author adopts, whenever possible, realistic terminology and descriptions. For instance, the length of the broken nail embedded in the window frame increases from an eighth to a quarter of an inch. Perhaps in reaction to Graham’s criticism, Poe realized that an eighth-inch nail would never have withstood the ape’s slamming of the window upon his retreat. The number of hairs removed from Madame Espanaye’s head also changes; [page 87:] pulling out a million hairs might be too far-fetched, so the number is cut in half. The distance between the house and the shutter narrows in the 1841 text, “to within [four] two feet [and a half] of the lightning-rod” (177,1f). Finally, Poe alters the orangutan’s coloration from yellow to tawny, the actual shade of the beast’s fur, thus providing for the audience greater realism.

Tenses in “Murders” constantly change. What originally was a story far removed from the reader because of the past tense becomes temporally closer through present tense. “Then we sallied forth . . . seeking . . . that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation [could]>[would]>can afford” (152,1f.). This action is now open, not only to the characters, but for bringing the reader into the story. Even Dupin’s soliloquy is cast into the present tense in 1843. “[T]he deductions [were]>are the sole proper ones” (172,10). By changing tenses, Poe becomes less literary, less preaching, and more storytelling. The phrase “if method there [be]>is” (153,28) is remarkably similar, in its original form, to Polonius’ “Though this be madness. . . . . .

No word was safe from Poe’s improving tendencies. If he saw improvement in changing word ordering or by substituting a word, he emended the text and thus attempted to make it more logical and realistic. For instance, in “from the time elapsing from the [screams] > ingress of the beast and the [ingress of the beast] >screams” (190, 1of.), the progression of the events is more logical. It is highly unlikely that if one screams out in the middle of the night, an ape will enter the room. Upon seeing such a creature, however, one is very likely to cry out.

In the later editions, Poe distinguished more sharply between Dupin, the essence of ratiocination, and the narrator, the recipient of Dupin’s analysis. Lines from Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial are placed directly below the title as an epigraph for the tale: “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture” (146). Implying that certain individuals far surpass others in analytical ability, the epigraph, inserted in the Prose Romances, sets the tone for Dupin’s “guesses.” The answers to apparently unsolvable mysteries may be found by means of the imagination, a synonym for conjecture as advanced by Dupin. More than human, [page 88:] but less than godlike, Dupin is contrasted to both narrator and reader. “The Dupin kind of mentality assumes a godlike omniscience; the narrator ‘I’ and the reader, the role of dull-witted dupes.”(8) During the exercise of his ratiocinative powers, Dupin is purposely isolated from the narrator: “It was his humor, now, to decline all conversation on the subject of the murder, until [after we had taken a bottle of wine together] about noon the next day” (168,10ff). A chasm exists between the “creeping flesh” of the narrator and the cold rationale of Dupin. Yet, even the master detective is not immune to Poe’s refashioning hand. In later editions he appears more forceful. For example, when surveying the scene of the crime, Dupin exclaims, “But [we will not revert to]>dismiss the idle opinion of this print” (168,21f). What do newspapers matter when compared with this man’s analytical mind? His powers of analysis and perception are paraded when he alone, not the police nor the narrator, realizes that the nail securing the window, whose “fissure was invisible” (175, 28), must be defective. Dupin’s genius intensifies his imaginative stature in the reader’s eye.

Finally, the evolving texts place additional burdens upon our faculties. As Poe wrote to Cooke: “In the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”(9) Poe actively attempts to hoax the reader into picking up false clues,(10) or into using his own imagination. By deleting certain sentences and fragments, he allows the reader to think for himself: “[t]he fugitive’s attention was arrested by a light [(the only one apparent except those of the town-lamps)] gleaming from the open window . . .” (189, 10f.). Removing this phrase leaves doubt in the reader’s mind. Why did the orangutan choose this window? Were there lights elsewhere? The reader must interpret. When the enclosed phrase is withdrawn, in, “all the sources [(whatever be their character)] whence legitimate advantage may be derived” (148,14f ), the reader must decide if this means only those sources of legitimate or of illegitimate charactera crucial decision because Poe later has Dupin withhold evidence, the tawny hair.

By isolating an article between dashes, Poe prods us into believing [page 89:] that this is a clue. “A heavy club of wood, or a broad bar of iron[, ]a chair[,]any large, heavy, and obtuse weapon . . .” (164,25ff). The reader is tricked into believing that a chair will be important in solving the mystery. At certain points in the 1845 edition, commas become so numerous as to task our concentration by having so many interruptions: “As soon as they forced an entrance, they reclosed the door[], to keep out the crowd, which collected very fast, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour” (160, 21ff). The additional comma, inserted in the Prose Romances and Tales, roughens the rhythm of the sentence, forcing the reader, in order to comprehend its meaning, to make active mental associations. He must consciously observe, and not have everything pointed out to him. “Yet there was something to be observed” (170,30f). The powers of the intellect should be “tasked,”(11) made to work actively, rather than “taxed,” or depleted.

Although most of the variations of “Murders” can be explained, many questions remain unanswered: why did “Good God” become, in 1845, “Dupin” (181,20)? Was this because during the course of revision Poe began to equate his hero with a detectiveGod? Why did “for God’s sake” become “for Heaven’s sake” (153,27)? Perhaps Poe’s own Victorian sense of delicacy compelled him to remove from the Tales the name of God,(12) or perhaps this was the idea of an editor of Wiley and Putnam, Poe’s publishers. Why did Poe shift from a British method of spelling in the manuscript and Prose Romances to an American mode in 1841 and 1845? These questions and others remain for investigation.

The revisions of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” do bear directly upon the interpretation of the tale. In each change Poe had a specific purpose, whether it was to correct grammar or further to hoax the reader. An overall result was to change the emphasis from a theoretical study of analysis to a practical demonstration of the imagination. Each new feature in “Murders” brought it closer to Poe’s ideal of the “perfect” text.


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1.  A comparison of the manuscript, in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: Facsimile of the Manuscript in the Drexel Institute (Philadelphia: George Barrie and Son, [1895]) reveals several significant errors in the latter. All references unless specifically noted are to Harrison. My form for indicating the differences between Harrison and others is: [ ]> Harrison (Harrison, page, line).

2.  In the Lorimer Graham copy of Tales, Poe again emended the text slightly. The Tales (New York, 1845) version is placed first and the Lorimer Graham second. 1) Upon>On (124,36). This now conforms to Poe’s two previous prepositional constructions. 2) Lower> upper (139,13). By altering the position of the latticework, Poe makes climbing into the window less difficult, thereby casting suspicion of the deed upon a human being. 3) Convey> suggest (140, 23f). The burden of finding the clue is placed upon the reader. I thank the Humanities Research Center, of the University of Texas at Austin, for giving me permission to quote from the Lorimer Graham text.

3.  Ernest Boll, “The Manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Poe’s Revisions,” MP, 40 (May 1943) 303.

4.  H.XVI:130.

5.  Op. Cit.

6.  Benjamin Franklin Fisher iv, “Blackwood Articles a la Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” RLV, 39 (1973), 424ff Professor Fisher also sees Poe consciously attempting to create a grotesque and Gothic environment.

7.  Boll, p. 306.

8.  G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis., 1973), p. 174

9.  Poe’s letter to Philip Cooke, August 9, 1846, in L.II:328.

10.  Fisher, pp. 426ff. Professor Fisher views “Murders” as a combination of Gothic tradition and Poe’s love of hoaxing.

11.  [“taxed”] >”tasked” (147,9).

12.  In “Poe’s Revisions of ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ — a Hoax?” (in this volume), Richard Fusco suggests a transformation of the literary personality of Poe between 1842 and 1845.






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