Text: Ruth Clemens, “On a Merry-Go-Round Named Denial: Critics, ‘Hop-Frog,’ and Poe,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 145-154 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 145, unnumbered:]


Ruth Clements

Many critics conclude that Poe was not an alcoholic, and I wish to address this subject. We know enough of the disease of alcoholism today to realize that denial is one of its chief manifestations, not only the denial of the alcoholic himself, but of his family, a dysfunction known as “Affected Family Member Syndrome.” In short, the whole family conspires to pretend that there is not an elephant in the living room. There are Poe scholars who suffer from this syndrome. Their adamant defense of Poe seems to me a case of protesting too much. For there IS an elephant in the living room. And it behooves us to study it, as I have undertaken to do in a longer work in progress. Our understanding of alcoholism furthers our understanding of Poe’s psychology, which, in turn, provides us with a more powerful and penetrating vision into his works and, I believe, with a quickened appreciation of his talent.

Now I want to declare at the outset that I do not maintain that Poe or his work can be reduced to or be entirely explained by his alcoholism. However, as Freud insisted in his preface to Marie Bonaparte’s psychoanalytic interpretation of Poe, “Investigations such as this do not claim to explain creative genius, but they do reveal the factors which awake it and the sort of subject matter it is destined to choose.” Benjamin Fisher and Burton Pollin have suggested additional possibilities for Poe’s references to alcohol, and these interpretations must be taken into account.(1) I consider my approach as an aid, an excavator’s tool, to deepen our understanding of Poe’s life and work. Poe’s genius cannot be explained by his alcoholism; but his alcoholism is inextricably linked to his life, to his fiction, and to his critical theories.

Critics who deny Poe’s alcoholism may be inadvertently harking back to the bad old days when alcoholism was considered, not as a disease like diabetes or any other, but as some kind of moral failing or character flaw. In the 1990 edition of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, William Goldhurst writes that “It is a temptation to think of him as a lunatic, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and if not an actual murderer, a morose and morbid individual who spent much time contemplating violent deeds against the unsuspecting.”(2) To link the term “alcoholic” in a series with “lunatic” and “murderer,” is, [page 146:] intentionally or not, to do terrible mischief. We have come a long way in our study of this disease, but — as Goldhurst’s passage makes painfully evident — a stubborn prejudice still exists.

Even so able a critic as Edward Davidson, in a 1956 introduction to a Poe anthology, writes: “One would like, for all time, to destroy the fiction that Poe was a drunkard (he could not drink: owing to a curious but well-known nervous sensibility, one drink of wine or whiskey made him virtually senseless).” But this comment describes the nature of Poe’s alcoholism. Poe had the same severe allergy to alcohol that F. Scott Fitzgerald did: a single glass could completely alter their behavior. Yet this never stopped either one of them from having that single glass time and time again.) ) Alcoholics are not so much defined by how much or how often they drink, as by their reaction to the allergen. Davidson also writes that “If sometimes there should be a connection between ‘life’ and ‘literature,’ it is virtually nonexistent in the case of Edgar Poe. Perhaps one might lay down the truism that Poe wrote what he did because it was as remote as possible from his own experience.”(3) Davidson, it seems to me, is mistaken. Indeed, the connection between Poe’s life and literature is intense and intimate, and alcoholism is a major link in the connecting chain.

Although Poe could not stop drinking, he did have that detached view of himself that allowed him to observe, with clinical scrutiny, his own degeneration. While it is true that Poe made the detailed observation of sensations (also called “bizarreries” or “intensities”) the object of parody in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” it is also legitimate to suggest that he himself had a morbid fascination with, and a scientific curiosity over, the progression of his disease, and that he used this doubled-self-observation to great effect in his fiction. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that it is this doubled quality which keeps us so fascinated by Poe: We ourselves are drawn into a kind of acknowledgement of our own perversity as we watch, spellbound, Poe watch himself fall apart. Similarly we watch a scientist watch himself fall literally to pieces in Cronenberg’s psychologically stunning and darkly funny re-make of The Fly. In both cases, we are thrust into the disquieting role of witnesses to the spectacle of a rationality keenly observing — and minutely recording, detailing! — its losing battle to irrationality. O hail the conquering worm (or fly)! This jarring blend of pseudo-science and slapstick horror at once makes us cringe and laugh — and play witness to our own doubled nature. I call this the Shlock of Recognition. The dramatic pull of the morbidly fascinating [page 147:] together with his rational delight at being able to record “scientifically,” in precise detail, the onslaught of chaos and destruction, is one of the major dynamics of his life and work — the fall of the house of Poe.

Another new form of critical denial — swathed in medical garb — is the recent assertions that Poe was not an alcoholic, but that he had an undiagnosed and ultimately fatal sugar irregularity. That Poe might have had some trouble metabolizing sugar is possible; but this “twinkie defense” does not explain his compulsion to drink. Poe’s own letters and letters from concerned friends bear ample witness to his alcoholism. For example, in 1835 Thomas W. White, publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote to Poe: “That you are sincere in all your promises, I firmly believe. But, Edgar, when you once again tread these streets, I have my fears that your resolves would fall through, — and that you would again sip the juice, even till it stole away your senses. . ..Separate yourself from the bottle, and bottle-companions, for ever!. . .No man is safe who drinks before breakfast! No man can do so, and attend to business properly. . ..”(4)

Poe was an alcoholic, and the better we understand the nature of the disease, the better we understand Poe. His seeming “defenders” are defending nothing but a completely wrong-headed and out-dated view of alcoholism. When I speak of Poe’s being an alcoholic, it is a description, not an indictment. Poe was not uniquely or unusually weak or flawed or immoral. He was capable of handling the very real problems and sufferings in his private life as well as those associated with being a “poet-aristocrat” in a Jacksonian democracy. Poe could handle these problems; he was both creative and courageous. It was alcohol — and alcohol alone — that Poe could not handle. And that undid him.

Space does not allow me to detail the many ways in which Poe’s alcoholism is inextricably linked to his life, to his fiction, and to his critical theories. In a longer work, I take advantage of the immense recent outpouring of medical/psychological literature devoted to the disease of alcoholism, including the publications of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as of pioneering historical and literary studies, in order to examine Poe’s life and a number of his works in light of this modern research.(5) Here I focus on one story only, his last — “Hop-Frog.” Written eight months before Poe’s death, tells the tale of a crippled dwarf, a court jester, who is in love with Trippetta, a pretty girl dwarf. They amuse the fat king, a petty tyrant, who lives solely to [page 148:] be entertained. For a masquerade ball, the king demands that Hop-Frog produce an idea for how he and his ministers should dress. The king, knowing that Hop-Frog is afraid of wine, commands the dwarf-jester to drink. Trippetta comes to Hop-Frog’s aid, thus enraging the king, and he throws wine in her face. Outraged, Hop-Frog then plots revenge. When the story ends, the king and his ministers, dressed as orangutans, and chained to one another, are hoisted by a chandelier and burnt to a crisp. Hop-Frog and Trippetta are avenged, and they escape together through the skylight.

Now, interpretations of this story range from the political to the psychoanalytical to the allegorical to the socio-historical. Baudelaire, as was his wont, pictured “Poe living in a vast cage of mediocrity, a Hop-Frog who amused his sovereign, the mob, while taking vengeance upon it.”) Marie Bonaparte viewed “Hop-Frog” as a typical tale of Oedipal revenge. Others have seen it as a grotesque and cruel tale of non-Oedipal revenge. Still others have interpreted it as a powerful allegory: the king representing Reality, the eternal antagonist of the creative mind, and the jester representing Imagination, the creative artist who is maimed and imprisoned by the unthinking majority. A new and most original interpretation is Ronald Gottesman’s view that “Hop-Frog” is a working out of Poe’s ambivalent responses to slavery.(5) As always with Poe, the story is capable of interpretation on different levels. What interests me here, however, is the alcohol angle.

The autobiographical connection is clear: Poe’s severe allergic reaction to even a single glass of wine is made manifest in the dwarf Hop-Frog. Wine, Poe tells us, “excites the poor cripple almost to madness; and madness,” he informs us dryly, “is no comfortable feeling.” After one glass, Hop-Frog is described in these terms (M 3:1348): “Poor fellow, his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half-insane stare.”

In addition, Poe’s identification with “Hop-Frog” — the ultimate “outsider” — is indicative of Poe’s own sense of himself as an alienated being, an intense existential observer of himself and others. This sense of unbelonging, of not being able to fit in, is a dominant trait of alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous tells us: “Even before our drinking got bad and people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered the feeling that we didn’t quite belong.” Poe had always felt that way. As he wrote in an early poem: “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were — I have not seen / [page 149:] As others saw — I could not bring / My passions from a common spring.”(6) The Byronic pose here is obvious. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that the Byronic pose and alcoholism make a perfect co-dependent couple. Witness Byron himself, or London, or Hemingway.

Significantly, Poe tells us that the “king loved his practical jokes, and took pleasure in forcing Hop-Frog to drink.” Now, this is an interesting turnabout. In Poe’s other tales, such as “The Black Cat,” the narrator readily admits that he chooses to keep drinking, thus bringing upon himself the devastating consequences. “For what disease is like Alcohol!,” cries the narrator of “The Black Cat,” who, after butchering his cat and sleeping off “the fumes of the night’s debauch,” then, even when reason is restored, again drowns himself in wine. No one is forcing him to drink; he is driven by an inner craving or compulsion — that is, by the disease itself, of which he is aware, to which he admits, and which he calls by name.

Not so in “Hop-Frog.” And I believe that this passage reveals the tragic truth that Poe, at the very last, assumed no responsibility. Poe was forever riding on what recovery specialists call “the merry-go-round named denial.” Although Poe, the alcoholic, could never admit that it was drink that led to the insanity, his fictional characters (before Hop-Frog) readily admit and reveal the truth. It is the nature of truth that it “will out”: magna est veritas, et praevalet. As a person, Poe’s intense denial kept a lid on the truth; as an artist, though, he wove that truth into the very fabric of his art.

Poe’s deceiving and self-deceiving fantasies included the self-pitying and grandiose delusion that it was always others who were to blame, who forced him to drink against his will. When a doctor warned Poe that another binge would be fatal, the reply was that “if people would not tempt him, he would not fall” (A.H. Quinn 624). As A.A. ‘s put it, “Our present anxieties and troubles, we cry, are caused by the behavior of other people.. . .We firmly believe that if only they’d treat us better, we’d be all right. Therefore we think our indignation is justified and reasonable — that our resentments are the ‘right kind.’ We aren’t the guilty ones. They are” (45-46)! Poe’s penchant for deceiving others and himself into believing that he was not to blame for his drinking is transferred to the story wherein the tyrant forces the subject (“poor fellow”) to drink. Thus we have Poe’s sense of himself as a powerless, passive victim of others — their buffoon. [page 150:]

But let us take a closer look at how the king “forces” his subject to drink. He does not shove it down his throat. “‘Come here, Hop-Frog,’ said he, as the jester and his friend entered the room: ‘swallow this bumper to the health of your absent friends (here Hop-Frog sighed,) and then let us have the benefit of your invention. . .. Come, drink! the wine will brighten your wits.’ (M 3: 1347-48)

“Hop-Frog endeavored, as usual, to get up a jest in reply to these advances from the king; but the effort was too much. It happened to be the poor dwarf’s birthday, and the command to drink to his ‘absent friends’ forced the tears to his eyes. Many large, bitter drops fell into the goblet as he took it, humbly, from the hand of the tyrant.” (M 3: 1347-48)

This is psychologically intriguing and complicated — alcoholic thinking at its “best”: cunning, baffling, powerful! Hop-Frog takes the drink, knowing full well what it will do to him, because he feels helpless, impotent, in the face of his own powerful emotions; he takes the goblet “humbly.” The memory of absent friends is enough to make him cry and seek solace in wine; he “reluctantly drained the beaker,” a most curious and telling phrase. Here we can clearly discern the biggest excuse that Poe used for his own drinking — the painful memory of a lost loved one. Indeed, in numerous letters, Poe attributes his drinking to the death of his wife, Virginia. And many critics, unfamiliar with the characteristics of alcoholics, accept this justification at face-value. For example, even one of Poe’s best biographers, Arthur Hobson Quinn, writes, “If ever drinking were excusable, it was certainly in this desperate effort to forget” (A.H. Quinn 347-348).) ) This comment is seductive, but it won’t do. The sober truth is that Poe drank not because of the death of a beautiful woman (whether wife, mother, or ideal), but because he was an alcoholic. Listen to Alcoholics Anonymous: “The majority of A. A. members have suffered severely from self-justification during their drinking days. For most of us, self-justification was the maker of excuses; excuses, of course, for drinking, and for all kinds of crazy and damaging conduct. We had made the invention of alibis a fine art” (46-47). When Mrs. Clemm would scold Poe for coming home drunk, he “excused himself by saying that he had met with some friends, who had persuaded him to take dinner with them at a tavern” (Log, 125). Well, whether it was friends who persuaded him, or a king, the truth is that it is never difficult to pull a rubber arm. We must keep that in mind when we read Quinn’s analysis of “Hop-Frog.” He writes, “Perhaps Poe’s own reaction to those who urged him, [page 151:] against his will, to drink the one glass that took away his self-control, was the model for the behavior of the dwarf” (A.H. Quinn 595). The phrase “against his will” is the tip-off. Recovering alcoholics laughingly acknowledge their past reliance on “the-devil-made-me-do-it” excuse. They either blame the other, or blame nothing at all: It wasn’t my idea to drink, they’ll say; or, it just happened — an accident; or (my favorite), “I was struck drunk.”

Poe, like Hop-Frog, viewed himself as a victim. But also like Hop-Frog, Poe had creative cunning — his only power tool. Hop-Frog wields this weapon to destroy the monster who “forced” him to drink. He is aided by Trippetta (girlfriend, “mother,” ideal double), and together they rise, literally, above the tyrant (the king of the story, but also the tyrant Alcohol to whom Hop-Frog, like Poe, is really enslaved) and escape his (its) clutches. Through cunning and love, then, Hop-Frog can escape his addiction. He torches the alcohol; it will burn him no more. Thus Hop-Frog (and Poe) has his revenge against the slings and arrows of life and against those who “forced” him to drink.

Poe was familiar with the images of perversity and terror used by temperance reformers in their speeches and pamphlets.(7) The vivid and compelling picture of a “slave” caught in the clutches of the “tyrant” Alcohol was a common one.(8) “Hop-Frog” is a dark-temperance tale and, at the same time, an anti-temperance tale; for I believe that Poe was furiously (although unconsciously) undermining the moral purpose of temperance literature: the individual’s acceptance of his alcoholism and the responsibilities that come with it. In “Hop-Frog,” just as in Poe’s letters, blame is placed upon circumstance and upon the other, never upon the self: If people would not tempt me, I would not fall. If Virginia hadn’t died, I would not drink. If the king were dead, I would be free. And so on. A.A.’s call this the “if, then” myth which is, of course, a mainstay of the deadly denial game. Blaming the other person (or circumstance) while seeing oneself as the victim, is a typical characteristic of alcoholics; and this trait was a constant with Poe. In “Hop-Frog” there is no sense of responsibility; there is, instead, intense denial and a burning desire to escape responsibility sense, he never matured. A problem common to alcoholics is an emotional inability to grow up, to remain a virtual prisoner of childhood.. It is therefore not surprising that shortly after this story was written, Poe broke his temperance pledge and went on another — and this time, final — binge. Poe never matured to full self-realization about his alcoholism, and [page 152:] thus, in a sense, he never matured. A problem common to alcoholics is an emotional inability to grow up, to remain a virtual prisoner of childhood.

“Hop-Frog” is an alcoholic’s wet dream, an adolescent’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the hero-victim, by virtue of his cleverness and by the love and loyalty of a sainted maiden, triumphs over adversity. Alcoholics are forever thinking that their cunning will get them out of their mess, which is why recovering alcoholics call it “stinking-thinking.” They use their creative intelligence to rationalize their drinking and to escape reality. Alcoholics are also especially prone to the delusion that they can be “saved” by a partner who really understands them and loves them. In reality, the partners they attract are most likely to be alcoholics themselves or emotionally under-developed co-dependents. There is an intriguing correspondence between Trippetta, Virginia (Poe’s wife), and Rosalie (Poe’s sister) — none of whom were grown-ups.

Many alcoholics, having missed out on a normal childhood due to their dysfunctional families, continue to yearn, well into their adult years, for a “real” family that can provide them with the love and security they missed. They wear a big heart-shaped button on their sleeves: Adopt Me. Alcoholics’ quest for emotional security consistently throws them into unworkable relations with others. Acting like infants, they demand that people protect and take care of them. When their desperate needs are not met (and how can they be, except in fiction?), alcoholics feel betrayed, abandoned. Poe, the quintessential orphan, turned Woman into Protective Mother; he did the same with the universe, as his cosmology in Eureka indicates. He wanted to be protected, loved, and, further, to be sucked back into the good night. There he would achieve a oneness that he craved. Hop-Frog and Trippetta achieve this oneness, not through sexual consummation (for the dwarf is probably impotent: he suffers from a “deficiency in the lower limbs” and “had it not in his power to render Trippetta many services”), but through an ideal consummation: “Together, they effected their escape to their own country: for neither was seen again” (M 3: 238, 239, 246). This country is, of course, “Fairy-Land” or that “distant Aidenn” in “The Raven.”

The tragedy of alcoholism is the tragedy of “Hop-Frog”; one cannot escape the disease (the tyrant) by killing it or by physically removing oneself from it (“doing a geographic” as A.A.’s call it). The truth is, Hop-Frog takes his disease with him when he exits through the [page 153:] skylight, just as Poe took his along when he was doing all his geographics. Hop-Frog has not risen above anything, has escaped nothing. There is no escape. As recovering alcoholics say, “the only way out is through,” meaning that one has to face the disease squarely and deal with it honestly.

“Hop-Frog” is a demonstration of Poe’s alcoholic “stinking-thinking”: his blaming others for his addiction, and his unwillingness to admit that he was on that futile and fatal “merry-go-round named denial.” “Hop-Frog” is a fantastical tale that bears witness to Poe’s life-long craving to escape what he perceived as the horror of reality. “Hop-Frog” is every alcoholic’s fairy tale.



1.  Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation (New York, 1971). See Fisher, The Very Spirit of Cordiality: The Literary Uses of Alcohol and Acoholism in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore, 1978); Burton R. Pollin, “The Temperance Movement and Its Friends Look at Poe,” Costerus 2 (1972) 119-144.

2.  The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2 vols. (Lexington, Mass., 1990) 1:1322.

3.  Edward H. Davidson, ed., Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, 1956), viii, vii.See Tom Dardis, The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the Amercan Writer (New York, 1989). Donald W. Goodwin, in Alcohol and the Writer (New York, 1988) argues, however, that “Poe, in his desperate effort to keep jobs, no doubt minimized his drinking, as do most alcoholics, and likely encouraged the myth that he was supersensitive to small amounts of alcohol” (26). The truth is, the point at which alcoholics “cross the invisible line” (as A.A.’s put it) is not fixed, but variable, depending upon the body’s chemistry and the drinking pattern. Sometimes they get drunk on one glass, and sometimes it takes a bottle.

4.  Sugar irregularity may play a chemical role in alcoholism, but this needs further study. Possibly Poe, through his father David, was genetically predisposed to the disease and that his brother Henry and his sister Rosalie were also affected. Poe may have suffered from other organic diseases, or may have had a brain lesion, but this does not negate his alcoholism. White’s comment is quoted in Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 (Boston, 1987) 172. [page 154:]

5.  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York, 1941) p. 684. See also Ronald Gottesman, “Poe’s ‘Hop-Frog’ and the American Nightmare,” the preceding article in this volume.

6.  Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York, 1996) p. 57. Poe’s “Alone” was written in 1828-29.

7.  See David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, Mass., 1989) pp. 66-73.

8.  Some pamphlets argued that the Revolution’s success in ending British rule would be a hollow victory indeed if Americans became enslaved to alcohol; America was no place for the bondage of men either to other men or to liquor. “Here for the first time we see liberty viewed in a new light, not as a man’s freedom to drink unlimited quantities of alcohol but as a man’s freedom to be his own master, with the attendant responsibility to exercise self-control, moderation, and reason” (Rorabaugh, 37). See also Abraham Lincoln’s Address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois, 22 February 1842 for slavery imagery: “But when one, who has long been known as a victim of intemperance, bursts the fetters that have bound him.. . .” and “Turn now, to the temperance revolution. In it, we shall find a stronger bondage broken; a viler slavery, manumitted; a greater tyrant deposed.” [from “The Sorrow Quenching Draughts of Liberty,” Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, eds. Lincoln on Democracy (New York, 1990) pp. 28-30]. The tyrant-slave image is still with us today. A.A. describes alcoholism as “a tyrant wielding a double-edged sword: an allergy of the body coupled with an obsession of the mind” (Alcoholics Anonymous 22).






[S:0 - MMM, 2006] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (On a Merry-Go-Round Named Denial: Critics, Hop-Frog, and Poe)