Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “ ‘New Approaches’ in Poe Criticism,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:48-50


[page 48, column 1:]

“New Approaches” in Poe Criticism

Richard P. Benton, ed., New Approaches to Poe, A Symposium. Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1970. 91 pp. $10.00. Illustrated. 

The October 1968 Poe Newsletter carried Richard P. Benton’s invitation to submit papers for a “Symposium on Edgar Allan Poe” in the December 1969 American Transcendental Quarterly. Benton suggested several topics by means of which Poe could be related to the modern temper. The “Symposium” appeared in ESQ ( No. 60, Supplement, pp. 1-91) and has been republished under the title New Approaches to Poe, A Symposium, each consisting of fourteen articles and a prefatory note by the editor.

The book is in the former ESQ form, that is, reproduction of single-spaced typescript on one side of the paper. It is well presented, though the format lulls one into accepting difficulties which would be considered objectionable in normal printing: scanning problems in moving from one long line to the next and some awkwardness in footnote form. I noted a half-dozen “typing” errors, and one footnote is missing. Yet I am happy to have the essays as presently offered if other book publication is not feasible. The portraits of Poe at the beginning and end are a welcome bonus.

New Approaches is valuable for the studies it contains and for what it represents. The title is slightly ambiguous (perhaps intentionally so) in referring either [column 2:] to recent trends or to predictions of directions to come, and the reader may well keep both senses in mind. In either case the collection has appeared appropriately at the turn of the decade. It includes a considerable cross section of contemporary interests, thereby suggesting something of the future. The introduction provides a succinct review of modern “approaches” to Poe: the historical (in defining influences and allusions), the psychological, and the critical or artistic. “What will the ‘70’s reveal?” Benton asks. “I hope a fuller understanding of Poe’s art and greatness, which, though defying complete assessment, still can challenge perceptive readers....”

The fourteen essays are printed without classification —wisely, I believe, although I shall group them for convenience. Several contributors give basic attention to the facts of Poe’s writing: identifying sources and allusions (either lost in time or obscured through Poe’s cryptographic tendencies), and elucidating personal and publishing detail. Such investigation demands wisdom in judging relevance as well as skill of search. Burton R. Pollin represents the genre in its purest form with “Poe’s’some Words with a Mummy’ Reconsidered.” Pollin establishes the widespread interest in Egyptology in Poe’s day, examines previous source-studies, describes the careers of George Gliddon and Silk Buckingham, documents Poe’s probable acquaintance with the one-act farce The Mummy; or The Liquor of Life!, and investigates the accuracy of certain scientific details. The writer mentions the commentary on progress and democracy for which the mummy-apparatus serves as framework, but his main concern is not with Poe’s ideas. Pollin presents his findings with the thoroughness and clarity which his readers have come to expect, and the article will be necessary reading for students of the tale.

Other contributors employ Pollin’s approach to support a specific thesis. Harriet R. Holman’s brief “Longfellow in ‘The Rue Morgue’” offers the interesting theory that Dupin’s display of associative powers in the early portion of the tale cloaks a personal satire on Longfellow (continuing Poe’s known “battle” with the poet). Harriet Holman begins with the denigrating contrast between “Longfellow” and Dupin’s “little fellow” and continues through the cobbler as “mender of soles” (souls), Chantilly (chant-toil), and possible connections with Longfellow’s Hyperion and unsuccessful play The Spanish Student. The relationships are ingenious, and I am glad to have them pointed out but remain uncertain whether to be convinced. One can take solace in doubting that Longfellow ever solved the cryptogram.

In similar vein H. Allen Greer’s “Poe’s ‘Hans Pfaall’ and the Political Scene” assembles textual and circumstantial evidence to support a thesis that “Hans Pfaall” is a parody of Jackson and the Jacksonian era. In other words, Poe wrote the story upon three levels: one for the credulous who would accept the “moon journey,” a second for the astute who would delight in penetrating the hoax, and a third for the “very astute” who might perceive the “burlesque of Jackson.” The most compelling of many parallels cited is that between the “balloon manufactured solely of dirty newspapers” and estimates of the Jacksonian press. Greer builds a strong case, but this type of article constrains the writer to push his evidence to the limit and hence arouses controversy. [page 49:] Once one accepts the premise of a burlesque underlying a hoax, the reader’s ingenuity assists Poe’s in constructing parallels, whether direct, “inverted,” or oblique (extreme though minor examples being “east” defined as an “inversion” of “south” and “notable” an “inversion” of “notorious” in referring to Jackson’s wife). Greer’s exposition highlights a facet of Poe’s art less examined than some and provides a foundation for further assessment of his social attitudes.

Gerald E. Gerber observes a more tentative relationship between Psyche Zenobia and Coleridge’s theories in “The Coleridgean Context of Poe’s Blackwood Satires.” Historical details and similar passages support a probable connection and, equally important, suggest a new significance to the Blackwood satires as comments upon art and on Hartley’s principles of association. Studies such as the above demonstrate anew that the myth of Poe’s remoteness from his time and place—if not already obliterated—should be laid finally to rest.

An “approach” to Poe well represented in Benton’s collection is the interpretation of a single poem or tale through close reading and intensive psychological or symbolic analysis. In this respect the Symposium as a whole is on the sober side in comparison with Poe criticism of recent years, but individual studies are strong and rewarding.

To be specific, Alice Moser Claudel combines close reading with Byzantine allusions to develop a theme of Christian as well as classical symbolism in “To Helen.” L. Lynn Hogue demonstrates an erotic strain in “To Annie,” whether or not one accepts his entire reading of the poem. Concerning the much discussed “Ligeia,” Joseph M. Garrison, Jr., argues effectively that style and narrative detail show the “fundamental issue of the story” to reside in conflict between a rationalistic epistemology and a more imaginative “conception of knowledge.” Similarly David M. La Guardia sees Pym as “one of many Poe initiates who move from a world of syllogistic precision to one of imagination and illusion.” Pym has progressed as far as “the most perceptive reader” can follow and “Poe chooses not to put the dream world of Pym into words.” James W. Gargano continues his excellent studies of Poe’s art, this time as revealed in “William Wilson,” tracing the ironies of the divided self echoed in the structure of the tale and in metaphoric uses of “house imagery” and the masquerade. Respect for the art of Poe marks all these studies and lies at the heart of Gargano’s analysis.

A comparative essay by J. Lasley Dameron entitled “Symbolism in the Poetry of Poe and Stephen Crane” develops extensive analogies (for example, in Crane’s “On the Desert” and Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”) . Divergent in such matters as rhyme and structure, various poems are shown to be similar in atmosphere and technique, utilizing “images that symbolize rather than picture reality” and express “disconsolate reactions to the real world.”

The remaining articles consider Poe in a broader context or trace themes through several of his works. David M. Rein in “The Appeal of Poe Today” associates that “appeal” with the major “horror” stories and explicates it as a therapy in which the reader substitutes the terrors of a Poe tale for his own dreads and, whatever the outcome of the plot, to some degree exorcises his fears in [column 2:] the reading. Rein defends Poe’s “relevance” and art by contrast with the low quality of sub-literary “horror” paperbacks found at any contemporary newsstand. (Is Poe truly in need of such defense—in essence, an apologia for including his tales in any anthology of literature?)

Alice Chandler’s “‘The Visionary Race’: Poe’s Attitude Toward His Dreamers” follows Poe’s “dreamers” through selected tales. Her thesis is a chronological one: namely, that early tales such as “MS Found in a Bottle” express “distrust of the visionary” as well as the rational temperament, a trend reaching its climax in “rejection of the dreamers” represented by Usher and William Wilson; that thereafter by a radical change (”the destructive dreamer does not figure importantly in Poe’s work published after 1840”) associated with Poe’s theory of the unparticled matter which healed the breach between spirit and matter, the dreamer is able to restore the world “to order and beauty,” as witnessed by Dupin, by the more effective struggles of victims in the pit and maelstrom, and particularly by Ellison, whose salvation lies in supreme creation of “purely physical loveliness.” Alice Chandler’s thesis is effectively presented, though conditioned by her selection, by a rather narrow reading of the tales (a corollary, to be sure, of her examining at least ten stories for their contribution to her theme), and especially by her acceptance of “The Domain of Arnheim” (a tale worthy of the attention it has received of late, but still one that strikes me as less conclusive than usually recognized) as the culmination of the evolution of Po¢’s dreamers, rather than, for example, Eureka or “For Annie.”

Not but that Alice Chandler has a significant point. For the crux of the matter is surely, as she says, that Poe’s dreamers fuse the rational and the visionary with varying success. Several of the present studies, if one groups them by theme, stress the rational and satiric elements in Poe. The longest essay of the Symposium, G. R. Thompson’s “Poe’s ‘Flawed’ Gothic: Absurdist Techniques in ‘Metzengerstein’ and the Courier Satires,” continues that author’s investigations into Poe’s irony and satire. Thompson’s thoroughness is beyond reproach. He provides a highly useful summary of Poe’s “Folio Club” plans and extended studies of the five Courier tales, ending with by far the most detailed analysis of “Metzengerstein” available.

Thompson’s thesis is almost deceptively simple: that the “flaws” in “Metzengerstein,” which apparently make it an early “crude” attempt at the Gothic, actually are deliberate and are clues to an intent to satirize the Gothic mode, thus joining the tale with Poe’s obviously satiric and comic stories. But since the clues themselves are so subtle, the satire becomes also, in effect, a hoax: “The devoted readers of Gothic tales are here hoaxed into believing a carefully flawed tale to be a genuine Gothic performance.” Something of this has been suggested before, by Davidson (as Thompson carefully notes). But in Thompson’s hands the implication goes further. For “Metzengerstein” has often been classified with Poe’s tales of terror, and if it is now seized for the satiric and comic group, how much farther will the expropriation go? Thompson ends with something like a prediction: “Poe began his career as a satirist, and he remained a satirist to the end of his career. The only real shift was his increased philosophical and artistic irony....” I cannot [page 50:] quote the entire paragraph to do Thompson justice, but my attempt here is to identify a trend.

In the lead essay entitled “Poe as Probabilist in Forgues’ Critic of the Tales,” which sets the tone for much that follows, Sidney P. Moss describes the background of Forgues’ review of Poe as rationalist and student of probabilities (a remarkable aspect of which is its date of 1846), provides a useful translation of about a third of Forgues’ critique, and comments on perceptive but partial views of Poe. In “Ligeia,” for example, Moss sees two halves to the story: one concerned with Ligeia and metempsychosis, the other with the narrator and his possible hallucinations. A reader in depth may “truncate” the story and focus on either half, or join them and face “the effect of indeterminacy.” Adding the point of view of narrator, persona, or an intellectual stance results in the “intellectual playfulness” which Moss sees, with exceptions, “as the hallmark of his [Poe’s] fiction.” It is precisely such complications, of course, which open the way to irony, satire, and various shades of rational manipulation.

In considering a volume entitled New Approaches to Poe one feels some compulsion to apply the word “new” in a literal sense. Those conversant with Poe scholarship are unlikely to find unfamiliar ground here. Though several “approaches” are represented, the most pervasive theme is the comic, satiric, and rational quality in Poe. This with a counter-tendency in some essays, such as those by Garrison and Rein, provides the closest approach to a Symposium in the sense of opposing ideas on a common topic.

Certainly there is nothing “new” in the theory of a Poesque literature divided between themes of terror (madness, etc.) and rationality (satire, cryptography, etc.) More recent is the tendency to make the second category devour the first. “Only within the last fifteen to twenty years,” declares Thompson, “has the comic side of Poe come to seem in any way important for an adequate reading of the Gothic works.” He then defines the apparent objective of this “approach” to Poe:

And only grudgingly (or so it seems) have critics begun to acknowledge the importance of the narrator as character in Poe’s tales and to suspect that even his most famous Gothic works, like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia,” have ironic double and triple perspectives playing upon them: supernatural from one point of view, psychological from another point of view, and possibly burlesque from yet a third. It is time, however, for the traditional conception of Poe as Romantic sentimentalist and Gothicist to give way to a more firmly grounded and balanced conception of Poe as an existentialist, absurdist, and ironic writer. (p. 38)

One would not “only grudgingly” support any fresh insight into the strange essence of Poe. Reading the present essays leaves me not with objections to this “new” trend but with reflections upon issues it well may come to grips with or answer in the ‘70’s: (1) The “burlesque” approach in the present volume only nibbles at the edges of Poe’s Gothic canon; from the foundation established, the next challenge is to define the contributions of the burlesque to “even his most famous Gothic works.” Thompson suggests that the potential here goes beyond burlesque of a literary mode. (2) Poe’s recognized comic productions have usually been regarded as the weaker part of his [column 2:] work. (3) An author who habitually makes the literate public the “butt” of his literary hoaxes is in danger of making himself the ultimate “butt,” through willingness to pass off as sound work what he himself considers private “burlesque.” (4) Similarities between Poe’s “serious” and comic tales have always posed vexing problems, which the new approach gives promise of resolving, in part at least, on thematic rather than purely biographical grounds. (5) The unity of effect upon the reader that Poe espoused (unless his criticism is also a hoax!) may be undermined in keeping an eye cocked for a hidden cryptogram upon a rival’s name or a punning slur on a political opponent’s wife. There is something distractive, even furtive, in such a literary experience — which may be what Paulding and Kennedy were warning Poe about, in their way, as early as 1836 (p. 41). Poe’s oft-quoted restriction, in the 1847 Hawthorne review, that “the suggested meaning” allows “unity of effect” only when it “runs through the obvious one in a very profound under-current so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition, so as never to show itself unless called to the surface,” carries the limitation of making the art of such narratives, in terms of Poe’s theory, greater for mediocre readers (or, in Greer’s terms, for the “astute” but not “very astute”), whereas one feels instinctively that high literature should reward greater insight with a finer sense of art.

These are normal critical problems, no more hazardous to Poe’s reputation than the study of his genius has always been. A broader question is the ever-renewing assessment of his “art and greatness.” Sidney Moss offers one such judgment, summarized but carefully qualified, in the conclusion of his lead essay in New Approaches to Poe: “In literature . . . . performance begins with maturity (for one’s vision of the world and of humanity is at stake) and ends with the f elt rendering of experience.” It is this, he suggests, rather than the “high premium” that certain “formalist critics” put on “technical cleverness” by which Poe must ultimately be judged.

E. Arthur Robinson, University of Rhode Island


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]