Text: Donald Barlow Stauffer, “Style as Hoax,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:48-50


[page 48, column 2, continued:]


Style as Hoax

Richard M. Fletcher. The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe. The Hague: Mouton, 1973. 192 pp. 34 Dutch guilders.

In the view of Richard M. Fletcher, Edgar Poe was neither a symbolist nor an allegorist; he was a “synonymist,” that is, a word painter or manipulator of vocabulary, who employed a rag-bag of generally shabby techniques to write [page 49:] his tales and poems, some of which affirm his stature as a writer of genius. This is the contradictory and ambivalent attitude to Poe in The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe, a book which suggests once again that Poe is often too much for his critics.

Surely no reader has ever been totally enchanted with Poe’s style; even such an admirer of Poe as Allen Tate has tempered his enthusiasm with a recognition of the “glutinous prose” in which some of his tales are encased. Yet the tales and the poems live on, and people continue to read them — some of them — in ignorance of solemn attempts to put Poe in his place as a hack journalist or, in the present instance, as a writer working out of a kind of self-hypnosis, or auto-mesmerism.

At the heart of Fletcher’s monograph is a developmental view of Poe’s poetic and prose style. In his opinion, Poe’s early poems are flawed because he had not learned the techniques of his craft, but when he abandoned the vagueness of his vocabulary and imagery for the “more direct, visualizable or audible term,” he succeeded in creating a mood or atmosphere which became self-sustaining within the work. In “The Bells,” for example, the repetition of such words as [oells, night, and stars arouses responses in the reader which are vague and not easily defined. The same effect results, Fletcher says, from clustering certain words and their synonyms in the tales. In the opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, windows, sedges, trees, and the key word, tarr ‘, reappear in the paragraph and at other points in the tale, thereby giving Poe a group of evocative words to propel him through the story.

The idea that Poe used a relatively limited vocabulary to create Gothic atmosphere is not new, but Fletcher goes further in attempting to show that Poe acmally uses three different vocabularies which worked singly or together to sustain him in the momentum of creation. The first of these he calls an “inspired” vocabulary, which gave Poe certain key words that provided a creative impetus into the tale (as in “The Fall of the House of Usher”); the second is a related, mechanical vocabulary (the stock, Gothic, “Poesque” diction), which kept him going when inspiration failed; and the third is a vocabulary full of allusions, epigrams, foreign phrases, and Biblical echoes. All three of these — his vocabulary of momentary inspiration, his mechanically stereotyped vocabulary, and his vocabulary based on allusion and analogy — worked to put Poe into the proper frame of mind to “set his thoughts into story form.” And, Fletcher says, when they worked in harmony, as he claims they did in the opening paragraph of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe was writing at his best.

There is a certain validity in approaching Poe’s style in this way, and Fletcher is particularly good in showing how the evocative style works in various passages, even though he offers these analyses in a tone of grudging admiration for an artist whom he suspects of having tried to con his readers into accepting a false, “Madison-Avenue” image of him. It is my suspicion that this monograph had its origins in the analysis of the role of evocative and “synonymic” language in Poe’s writing. The examples the author provides, in which he shows himself [column 2:] alert and responsive to certain recurring elements of Poe’s diction, are the best part of this flawed book; they give us a way of thinking about the role of word choice in the creative process. But outside of this narrow area, Fletcher’s casual scholarship and loose thinking lead him to make some unsupportable or highly questionable generalizations about larger elements in Poe’s work.

First of all, in categorizing the prose style, Fletcher has severely limited himself by writing primarily about the Gothic tales. He makes a slight nod toward the perspicuity of style to be found in Poe’s critical writing, but he never acknowledges that this same style is the mainstay of many of his imaginative works, as widely different in tone and content as “Diddling,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “William Wilson.” And certainly Poe’s macaronic style, full of foreign phrases and allusions, is worth noting; yet to lump this style in the same category with his lucid passages of criticism and analysis and to say, as Fletcher does, that the primary influence is the Bible, is to lose a sense of discrimination. Poe had five, perhaps even six, distinct styles, but one must read all his works to find them. Even one of Fletcher’s own astute observations — that the rhythms of the dialogues in “The Purloined Letter” have “almost” the ring of idiomatic English — is thrown away as an aberration, rather than perceived as a recurring quality to be found in other tales, such as “The Gold Bug” and “‘Thou Art the Man.’” Fletcher largely dismisses the early humorous and satiric tales, even though they raise important questions of style, including parody, self-parody, and irony. And what about Poe’s practice of interlarding his own prose with long passages from his sources, as in Pym or “A Descent into the Maelstrom”? These are just a few of the many issues raised by Poe’s style which go beyond the narrow categories Fletcher offers.

In his two chapters on the poetry, the author sees Poe mainly as a tinkerer and manipulator (and even as a hoaxer, who put one over on the public with “Dream-Land,” then again with “The Raven,” and finally, encouraged by success, with “Eulalie — A Song”) . In the poetry before “The Haunted Palace” (1839) there is, he argues, “a virtually fixed preoccupation with mechanics rather than meaning, structure instead of sense.” Poe knew what he wanted in his early poetry, but he was not always able to achieve his aims, partly because he had not learned some of the techniques of his craft and partly because he did not write enough poetry to keep in practice, but had to “re-establish his poetic impulse and inspiration afresh — as though he were continually commencing his poetic development from the beginning.”

Some of the same principles were operating in Poe’s later poetry, Fletcher says, but he suggests that by this time Poe had a clearer idea of the function of vowel and consonant sounds, and he therefore placed more emphasis on tonal values. Poe was at his best, he writes, whenever he allowed his inclination to experiment with sound values to take precedence over ordinarily accepted rhyming conventions. He was therefore a poet “who is inspired only on infrequent occasions to write poetry and who endeavors to cover up his various poetic deficiencies by using the same bag of super-numerary and ineffectual tricks from one poem to the next.” The poems of Poe’s [page 50:] maturity, then, are seen to be the result of a “disciplined expectation of a sustained inspiratory thrust extensive enough for its momentum to carry him through successive lines.”

With the exception of the last statement, this general line of argument is a familiar one. Poe certainly learned some things about the craft of writing from his editorial experiences and as a writer of short stories, and, as his critical writing shows, he placed a heavy emphasis on the value of sound for creating his desired effects. What is unconvincing about this discussion is the choice of examples and the ambiguous attitude toward the question of style itself. After two chapters dealing with the style of Poe’s poetry, Fletcher concludes that Poe was not an intellectual or a systematic thinker, but a stylist and methodologist. But in the context of his discussion the word stylist is ambiguous, since the reader cannot be certain whether or not this is to be seen as a virtue. One gets the idea that Poe is merely a tinkerer — a mechanic who is interested only in effects.

I am bothered most, in fact, by the ambiguity of attitude toward the subject that runs through this book. At times Fletcher expresses great admiration for Poe as a writer of genius; at others he dismisses him for the same reason he admired him: he is a technician, a stylist, a “virtuoso artist,” but little more. Poe has always presented this problem to readers, yet what we should hope for in a book about Poe’s style is some attempt to explain why we have these ambivalent reactions. Fletcher’s answer is in terms of a theory of linear development that is not supported by the facts.

For example, Fletcher asserts that Poe was never satisfied with imitation, that once he had perfected one medium he was forever moving on to new fields. But in fact Poe wrote both satire and horror tales to the end of his life, and it is difficult to say whether he ever perfected any “medium.” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is quite possibly the “perfect” tale of ratiocination, yet Poe went on to write three more. To say that Poe was forever moving on to new fields ignores too the phenomenon of recurring themes and subjects in both the fiction and the poetry.

The development theory also leads Fletcher to say that Poe’s diction in “William Wilson” (1839) has not improved markedly over that of “Ligeia” (1838) or “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Without considering the role that style plays in establishing the tone of each tale (or the fact that “Usher” and “Wilson” were published only a month apart in Barton’s), he fails to see that problems of characterization could also possibly account for differences in style; instead, he blames Poe for concealing his awkwardness of style behind the persona of narrator. This, he says, “is what saves much of Poe’s writing from seeming worse than it is.” Such a logically perplexing remark assumes that Poe cannot write good prose, which a glance at his reviews and other wriring would demonstrate is not true.

The reader of a book about style should reasonably expect it to be well-written, since the author’s own style inspires confidence in his judgment. Such is not the case in this book, which, in addition to over a dozen [column 2:] typographical errors (which reflect poor editing or proofreading), is full of mixed metaphors, dangling modifiers, “awkward” sentences, and other mainstays of readers of freshman themes. Since this quality of writing is so pervasive throughout the book, it does real damage to the author’s arguments. I therefore feel compelled to adopt Poe’s own critical method and to point out just a few solecisms. Fletcher writes of a poem occupying a “tenuous niche” in a category; he refers to “trite banalities”; he speaks of fathoming a line of reasoning; he uses the word befree for the verb to free; he says that Poe was “dickering” with spelling and punctuation; he says something is “mitigating” against mawkishness and sentimentality; he writes of a “graphic subtlety of character delineation.”

The bibliography offers some possible reasons why the book is as narrow in its approach to Poe as it is. No critical work published after 1964 is listed. Four works are not mentioned that have particular bearing on Poe’s style as a function of his writing career: Michael Allen’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969), Robert Jacobs’ Poe: Journalist and Critic (1969), Perry Miller’s The Raven and the Whale ( 1956), and Sidney Moss’ Poe’s Literary Battles (1963). Although Stovall’s edition of the poems is textually accurate, T. O. Mabbott’s edition (which was not used) is also a source of factual data about circumstances of publication which is sometimes at variance with Stovall. In his discussion of these issues, from which he concludes that “we will never know exactly when Poe wrote this or that poem,” Fletcher would have done well to consult Mabbott also.

In his concluding summary Fletcher rejects what he claims are the usual reasons for assuring Poe’s position in American literature: the invention of the detective story, and his stories about “ghoulish things.” The modern critic, he says, is too intent on justifying Poe’s continued position in the hierarchy of American letters by making him an “allegorist” or “symbolist.” To these critics he replies that Poe deserves to live on in American literature because, “although using a limited body of materials and disinterested in the American scene of American politics or American morality, he still created a fictive world in its way as interesting and viable as that of Faulkner or Hemingway. His ‘world’ may be a myth, just as imaginative in their ways as theirs. It is viable even if it is imaginative, but imaginative through the way in which Poe is forever using a set, if subtly employed, body of tools in a seemingly endless variety of ways and with a generally consummate mastery of technique and style.” Aside from the bad writing in this assessment (what is “generally consummate mastery”?), it begs a number of questions. One wonders in what sense he is using “myth” here, why he chooses Faulkner and Hemingway for comparison, why he says Poe was “disinterested” in the American scene. While praising Poe, Fletcher is at the same time patronizing, but he does not clearly tell us why mere language manipulation has made Poe a great writer. Although I should be the first to agree that style is an extremely important aspect of his work, surely there must be more to Poe than this disappointing book suggests.

Donald Barlow Stauffer, State University of New York at Albany


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[S:0 - PS, 1974]