Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Introduction,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. xiii-xvi (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xiii, unnumbered:]


The essays assembled here have considerations of Poe in his milieu as their unifying theme, although the phrase “Poe and his times” may be deceptive if it suggests any severe chronological limitations. Poe, we know, might have lived well through, and beyond, the nineteenth century, and so some of the essays encompass literary movements or themes that are not bounded by the midpoint of the nineteenth century, the time of his death at an early age. In terms of the span of his own literary career, Poe stands as a transition figure who imparted renewed life to many cultural phenomena that had preceded him. Therefore in the following pages we will see him, for example, drawing into his own times the thought of Scottish Commonsense doctrines, as well as much that prefigures it, and turning them into new channels of thought. His like refashioning of Gothic tradition is so well known as to require no lengthy expatiation here. What will be found in the pages to come is, so to speak, “Poe’s plenty”: visionary poetics, the nineteenth-century critical climate, literary periodicals (with Blackwood’s notable among them, to be sure), Gothic thrillers (replete with perishing frail beauties, eccentric male hero-villains, and backdrops well suited to such character-types), science and detective fiction, magic, metempsychosis, Transcendentalism, Romantic irony, humor of other types, premature burial, brutal versus laudatory (sometimes downright hagiographic) biographers, Poe and the visual arts, Poe and his revisions — and much more. Although the essays speak for themselves, we might pause over some clear-cut significances to be found among them.

A companion volume entitled Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities (1986) revealed the great impact that Poe’s short fiction, in particular, has had in our own century. This bonding should not be astonishing; as stated in the “Introduction” to the tales and sketches in Mabbott’s edition of the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (M2: xv), “Poe’s tales are his chief contribution to the literature of the world.” A follow-up reminds us, however, that Poe himself showed greater partiality toward the poems, not surprisingly since he came of literary age during a period that was dominated by the great Romantic movement in poetry and was affected by the advent of Tennyson. The present book offers more on Poe as poet, from material encountered in the opening essay, by G. A. Omans, to additional comments on Poe’s verse interspersed throughout, and, most emphatically, in three essays that take as their central subject “The Raven,” fittingly, no doubt, since it is probably better known the world over than many of Poe’s other poems. These critiques of “The Raven” may well serve as correctives to presentations of that poem in Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms (1987) and in Donald E. Pease’s [page xiv:] Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (1987). Eddings’s study addresses ironies pervading “The Raven,” appropriately (in several senses), given that Mabbott’s opinion of its being “a tale in verse” may express a great determining factor in its widespread appeal. Just so, Hirsch’s essay gives Poe’s poem context among other important Romantic poems, most particularly Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Hirsch’s bracketing of Keats with Poe, moreover, invites further exploration of that subject. Stewart’s examination of how “The Raven” devolves from “The Bracelets,” a Blackwood’s tale by Samuel Warren (whose fiction sustained great popularity in his era, though it has long since fallen into neglect), maintains another parallel of Poe with the British Romantics and reveals the spaciousness of his memory as he drew on a commonplace short story to create great literary art. Albeit brief, Stewart’s essay stands as a companion piece to Weiner’s, which turns new wine into old bottles (without disastrous consequences), of the Blackwood’s-Poe links. Weiner’s views of Poe and the sensational tale compliment those of David S. Reynolds in Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988). Along with Weiner’s, the essays by Weissberg and Dayan provide analytical coverage of Poe’s philosophical groundings, which, as they demonstrate, reach back into time and across the cultural sea.

Politian, Pym, and Eureka also come in for merited attention within these pages. Any effort on behalf of the first named work is refreshing because this dramatic fragment has usually drawn cursory, if any, attention from the majority of Poe’s critics. David Jackson’s essay bears the stamp of his better than half-a-century’s unflagging meticulousness in ferreting out little-known, but illuminating, information that enriches the study of Poe. Sharp and Kopley also shed interesting light on Pym, the former by highlighting Poe’s sources (for Pym and other pieces) in Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, and the latter by juxtaposing the novel to “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” Eureka, with its longer-standing recognition as a signal Poe text, continues to furnish solidity in the foundations of many critiques about its creator, and thus it receives additional warranted attention here. Many of the comments about Eureka, as well as those by Hirsch on Keats and Poe and my own on Tennyson and Poe, might profitably be read in tandem with views offered by Leon Chai in Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (1987).

Poe among his contemporaries furnishes the staple for many of the following essays. In his responses to Transcendentalism, Poe continues to attract attention, as has been attested recently by Eric W. Carlson in Critical Essays on Poe (1987). Carlson’s placement of Poe within Transcendental camps should be read, however, alongside of [page xv:] contrary views expressed by such critics as Michael J. S. Williams in A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1988) and Joan Dayan, whose analysis of “Eleonora” as anti-Transcendental tale (indeed as embodying a decided materialistic outlook) concludes Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987). The essays by Selley and Kagel also speak significantly about such matters. As exemplifications of her ideas, Selley incorporates several of Poe’s works that often go begging, and thus she implicitly pushes closer the borders of what might be designated “major” and “minor” Poe (attempted distinctions that grow more treacherous as time’s passage occasions revaluation of much in Poe’s corpus). Kagel also gives us new perspective on burial themes in Poe’s works. Poeas-ironist often surfaces in these contexts, however, as shown by Garner (on the Dupin tales) and Herndon (who also indicates Poe’s keen reactions to Washington Irving’s writings). Their essays supplement Clark Griffith’s long-acclaimed study of comedy at the expense of Transcendentalism in “Ligeia.” Fruitful comparisons to these conceptions of Poe’s reactions to Transcendentalist doctrines may be found in Beverly Voloshin’s recent treatment of “Ligeia” and “Usher” (MLS [1988]), Terry Heller’s The Delights of Terror, S. L. Varnado’s The Haunted Presence (both 1987), and Douglas Robinson’s American Apocalypses (1986) — all featuring a Poe of skeptical mind toward Transcendentalism. We will, no doubt, encounter further controversies in this line of explications.

David Sloane takes as his topic Poe and medicine, an area in which he has demonstrated thorough knowledge, to make what initially seem to be weird and fantastic features in “Usher” ultimately betray firm bases in the actualities of medical lore current in Poe’s times. Sloane’s study dovetails nicely with work done by David Butler (AL [1976]) and George R. Uba (SAQ [1986]). Uba found much groundwork for Poe’s tale in a review by E. F. Dubois, which treated of hypochondria and hysteria, in the Foreign Quarterly Review for 1832. Sloane argues just as persuasively that Poe drew extensively on a well-known home medical book, The Family Physician (1834). My own piece on “Eleonora” is an attempt to present revelations about Poe’s conscious art and craftsmanship as they bear upon contemporaneous theories about madness and as they touch upon his manipulations of Gothic conventions. My considerations of Poe’s tale should be read in conjunction with those by Richard Wilbur and Joan Dayan, as cited in my essay, and G. A. Omans (whose Poe and Passion: The Development of a Critical Term [1986] deals with analogous matters). Parallels with Tennyson are inescapable in such delineations of passion and psychic imbalances, although the definitive study of Poe and madness awaits its taker. Similarly, in discussing “Hans Pfaall,” [page xvi:] Maurice Bennett shows how that tale, often held up as a pioneer endeavor into science fiction, may be interpreted plausibly as exemplifying loftier Romantic thought and vision.

Ramifications of Poe and the Poesque also receive deserved attention from several contributors. The ever-compelling Poe-Baudelaire relationship is highlighted in Gary Wayne Harrier’s assessment of Baudelaire as translator. Ideas on “The Tell-Tale Heart” set forth there should stimulate additional approaches to other translations by the Frenchman. In a different vein, that of evaluating Poe’s standing with female authors in his times, Kent Ljungquist and Cameron Nickels broaden our knowledge of Poe’s reputation in the hands of one of America’s then-prominent literary ladies, Elizabeth Oakes Smith. She was not of the Griswold camp of defamers, as her vigorous championing of Poe indicates. Similar defense of Poe against early detractors is the keynote in J. Gerald Kennedy’s equally valuable study of Henry Clay Preuss, now a largely-forgotten poet, whose combats with established American authorship operated along lines much like Poe’s own literary battles. The essays by Gargano and Scholnick take us into the closing years of the nineteenth century and on into the beginnings of our own. Drawing on materials from later nineteenth-century literary periodicals to establish James’s overriding low esteem for Poe’s work, Gargano supplements Adeline Tintner and Burton Pollin on the Poe-Henry James relationship. Scholnick also gives us a meaty chapter in the history of Poe’s reputation and image as it extended into the 1890s. Poe and His Times thereby comes full circle; as the Omans essay opens this book by connecting Poe the visionary writer with one of the foremost visionary painters in the early nineteenth century, Washington Allston, Scholnick’s concluding essay leads us to Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for the Stedman-Woodberry edition of Poe published by Stone and Kimball in 1894-95. Beardsley’s death-invested graphics are but one among numerous testimonials of Poe’s appeal to visual artists. In fact, as is borne out in Scholnick’s and the remainder of the essays here gathered, the overriding and intertwining principle in Poe and His Times, whether it be in terms of Poe’s looking outward or of the many eyes that often turned in his direction (and often beheld strange sights, contingent upon whatever was in the beholder’s eye), is visionary. The many-sided figure emerging from this book is in reality a Poe of all times, whose literary art manifests inexhaustible riches that engender unceasing fascination.

B. F. F.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Introduction (Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, 1990)