Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:23-24


[page 23:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

Native Son and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: An Addendum

In a recent issue of Poe Studies [5 (1972), 52-53], Linda Prior argues, on the basis of internal evidence, that Wright used Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Native Son for the purpose of ironic inversion: “Poe’s murderer, then, an ape, is assumed by the authorities to be a man; Wright’s murderer, a man, is assumed to be an ape.” Mrs. Prior points out, convincingly, I think, the similarities between the murders in the two works. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” one woman is choked to death and shoved up a chimney and another is decapitated by a razor. In Native Son Wright, in an apparent telescoping of the double murder, has Bigger suffocate Mary Dalton, cut off her head with a hatchet, and then shove her body into a furnace. The killer in “Murders,” an orangutan, finds its counterpart in Native Son in the dehumanizing eyes of white society as exemplified in a Chicago newspaper account of the Dalton murderer which likens him to an ape.

It might be argued, however, that Bigger-as-ape need not have had its source in Poe’s tale. Southern anthropologists of the nineteenth century fantastically argued that the Negro was not the lowest form of man but the highest form of ape, and the twentieth century, in all parts of the country, took over that “finding” as a convenient metaphor for categorizing the black man, especially when he was accused of rape. There is, however, external evidence which supports the contention that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” directly influenced the way Wright has Bigger kill Mary.

In his account of the writing of Native Son, How “Bigger” Was Born, Wright tells us that when he was at work on the first draft of his novel “a case paralleling Bigger’s flared forth in the newspapers of Chicago. (Many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and rewrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune)” [New York: Harper & Row, 1940, pp. 30-31]. It is interesting to note, however, that although much of the Nixon case finds its way into the novel, the manner in which the historical murder was perpetrated does not; it is quite unlike Bigger’s killing of Mary. Nixon, together with another young Negro, beat a white woman to death with a brick (which, incidently, is the method Bigger uses to kill his black girlfriend, Bessie). A possible clue to what stimulated Wright to deviate from the historical case is to be found in one of the newspaper items which Wright rewrote, “Brick Slayer is Likened to Jungle Beast” [Chicago Sunday Tribune, June 5, 1938, sec. i, p. 6]. This article is of particular interest not only because it furnishes us with the historical validation of the newspaper account in the novel [first pointed out by Kenneth Kinnamon in Phylon, 30 (1969), 69], but also because it furnishes us with a direct link between Poe’s story and the author of Native Son during the composition of his novel. After describing at some length Nixon’s animal-like ferocity and vicious amorality, his “hunched shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle almost to his knees,” suggesting “an earlier link in the species,” the writer of the article caps a paragraph with this remark: “These killings were accomplished with a ferocity suggestive of Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ — the work of a giant ape.”

Seymour Gross, University of Detroit [column 2:]


Nicholas Nickleby in “The Devil in the Belfry”

In the Philadelphia Saturday Chronicle of May 18, 1839, Poe published his tale “The Devil in the Belfry,” to be reprinted November 1839 and November 1845. William Whipple reasonably deems it a satire on President Martin Van Buren and his corrupt political machine in New York, which was disturbing the immemorial order of the “Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittis” [“Poe’s Political Satire,” University of Texas Studies in English, 35 (1956), 81-95]. The many “Irvingesque [p. 881 touches are usually mentioned in the brief commentaries on the tale; for the disruptive bell, Killis Campbell suggests a source in Mudford’s “The Man in the Bell” [The Mind of Poe (Harvard Univ. Press, 1933), p. 162]. No other provenance has been given, I believe. To Poe’s frolicsome sense of language it is customary to attribute the Germanic or punning names, all of which I included as Poe’s coinage in Poe, Creator of Words [Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1974, pp. 71-80, List III]. Subsequently, a reprinted short story in the September 8, 1838, issue of Mrs. Anne Royale’s Washington weekly The Huntress indicated a definite source in one of the interpolated tales of Nicholas Nickleby entitled “The Baron of Grogzwig” and told by the “merry-faced gentleman,” in Chapter 6. This was part of the second monthly number (May 1838), and, like all the others, was speedily pirated by American magazine and book publishers for the delight of Dickens’ many admirers, including Poe, who always favored the novel [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Crowell, 1902), X, 144; XI, 92]. It is generally assumed that Poe wrote “The Devil” only a few months before its publication so that this section of Nicholas Nickleby could have furnished him with the drollery of the Germanic names and locale and possibly a little of the plot. Dickens’ ten-page story concerns the “Baron Von Koeldwethout, of Grogzwig in Germany,” who is constantly surrounded by twenty-four stout, bibulous, pipe-smoking retainers, until he varies his routine by marrying the daughter of the Baron of Swillenhausen. The Baroness banishes his retainers and further destroys his peace with her twelve ill-behaved offspring until the distraught Baron loses almost all zest for living. A hideous “Genius of Despair and Suicide” with a stake through its body tries to persuade him to self-murder, but in vain; philosophic resignation comes to Grogzwig at the end.

What exactly was Dickens’ influence on “The Devil in the Belfry”? Poe changes the spelling of “Grogzwig” (from “z” to “s” with a double “g”) and applies the name to a putative philologist who is called upon to supply the origin of the punny name of the village of “Vondervotteimittiss”: “Perhaps the idea of Grogswigg, nearly coincident with that of Kroutaplenttey, is m be cautiously preferred” (III, 248). The Baron’s family name of “don Koeldwethout” and also his wife’s former name of “Swillenhausen” are suggestive of Germanic onomastic puns in Poe’s tale, such as “Dundergutz,” “Stuffundguff” and “Gruntundguzzell.” The Baron’s constant companions before his wife’s interdiction are the “Lincoln greens” who smoke their pipes and drink their wine, like their master. In “The Devil” the valley is thick with the smoke from the pipes of all the “old gentlemen” and of their uniform set of three boys per family. The many temporal numbers may give a cue to Poe: The Baron has twelve children, twenty-four retainers, and faces suicide at the age of forty-eight. In Poe’s borough each house has exactly twenty-four cabbages planted in front of each of the sixty houses (for the minutes) grouped around a steeple with seven clock faces (for the days of the week). The Baroness swoons when her husband objects that disbanding his troupe will “please the devil” and later a devil enters to argue suicide; Poe’s chief character is the devil himself. In short, while the political satire may have been directed against Van Buren of the village of Kinderhook and his political machine in New York City, some of the concepts and atmospheric touches came from Dickens’ Germanic taleC a slight influence which is further evidence of Poe’s growing respect for the great English novelist.

Burton R. Pollin, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus [page 24:]


Poe’s “Dream-Land” and
The Imagery of Opium Dreams

Little attention has been given to the close similarity between the imagery of Poe’s “Dream-Land” (1844) and that of various opium-dream accounts or opium-inspired poetry which, as an avid reader of magazines and contemporary poetry, Poe very easily might have encountered. Alethea Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1970], though demonstrating that opium-dream imagery occurs frequently in other Poe works, makes only a passing reference to the poem. But the landscape of “Dream-Land” — “a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime, / Out of SPACE — out of TIME” — has enough in common with recurring images in opium-inspired writings to link it closely with the genre. The “bottomless vales,” the “boundless floods,” the “chasms, and caves,” the “shrouded forms” of the dead, and other elements of Poe’s poem have their counterparts in George Crabbe’s narrative poem “Sir Eustace Grey” (1807), Thomas De Quincey’s The Confessions of an English Opsum-Eater (1821-22), and Walter Colton’s “Turkish Sketches: Effects of Opium” in the Knickerbocker Magazine for April 1836 (VII, 421-423). Though all of these accounts describe the pleasures as well as the pains of opium, only the latter have particular relevance here.

Enormous distortions of the sense of time and space, which “Dream-Land” effectively conveys, are characteristic of the opium dream [Hayter, p. 48]. De Quincey’s description is especially memorable:

The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night, nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience. [Edward Sackville-West, ed., Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, together with Selections from the Autobiography of Thomas De Quincey, (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1950), p. 328.]

As in Poe’s poem, the landscape of the opium-inspired accounts is an eerie twilight world characterized by bodies of water, frequently in violent motion, and vast vertical distances. De Quincey, in his dreams, “seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths” [p. 327]. In a sudden transition common to such dreams, placid lakes, “shining like mirrors,” became surging oceans [pp. 331-332]. Colton, in his vision, was hurled from a thundercloud “upon the plunging verge of a cataract, that carried me down, frantic with horror, into the lowest depth of its howling gulf.” From a great height, he looked down upon the “surging plain” of the sea and “beheld far down in the twilight and lurid gloom of an immeasurable gulf, the wrecks of worn-out worlds” [p. 422]. Crabbe’s landscape in “Sir Eustace Grey” includes a burning mountain, a “shaking fen,” and a steep cliff from which the narrator “plunged below the billowy deep.” [Poems by George Crabbe, ed. Adolphus W. Ward, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1905-07), III, 246.] In all of these accounts there is a confrontation with the spirits of the dead. Colton envisioned the Resurrection, when the “sheeted dead” arose and the “shrouded myriads . . . left their couches of clay” [pp. 422-423]. Furthermore, in “Dream-Land” Poe, like Colton, Crabbe, and De Quincey, creates an aura of almost painful anxiety and gloom, conveyed primarily through imagery but reinforced by occasional explicit statements.

It is appropriate to note also that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816), another work indebted to an opium dream, provides parallels to Poe’s imagery in its references to a “deep romantic chasm,” “caverns measureless to man,” and a “lifeless ocean” which contrasts suddenly with tumultuous waters. The consistent pattern of imagery in “Dream-Land” suggests that Poe made conscious use of images characteristic of the opium vision in producing the disturbing, oppressive atmosphere of his poem.

James B. Reece, Old Dominion University





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