Text: Kent Ljungquist, “Poe and the American Scene,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:14-15


[page 14, column 2, continued:]

Poe and the American Scene

Elizabeth Phillips. Edgar Allan Poe: An American Imagination — Three EsJays. Port Washington, New York: Kennikae Press, 1979. 151 pp. X12.50.

The problematical relationship of Poe to his native American milieu has received considerable attention, ranging from T. S. Eliot’s characterization of Poe as “a displaced European” to William Carlos Williams’ more just, if idiosyncratic appraisal of him as “the astounding, inconceivable growth of his locality.” The question of Poe’s place in American culture has exercised academic critics as well, Ernest Marchand’s “Poe as a Social Critic” (1934) still serving as a helpful corrective to those who would isolate Poe from his social context. Edmund Wilson, in his essay “Poe at Home and Abroad,” exposed the cant in much academic writing on this subject by turning the tables on those who make Poe a homeless wanderer on the world scene; Wilson claimed that a disinclination to admit Poe to the American pantheon was due more to native provincialism than to Poe’s alleged freakishness. Any reader who expects Elizabeth Phillips’ traverse to render plain and straight all turns and detours on this “main-travelled road” of Poe criticism will be disappointed. She acknowledges that hers is no comprehensive attempt to break the formulae divorcing Poe from the American scene. Rather, she isolates three threads of interest — his troubled response to a democratic society, his handling of vast landscape, and his interest in widely held theories of mania — in order to show Poe’s immersion in native materials and themes.

In tracing affinities with contemporaneous political thinkers, artists, and scientists, Phillips offers some striking comparisons; she falls short, however, of adding to a list of Poe’s sources that one can accept unequivocally. The problem, I would suggest, lies not in her thesis but in her methodology. Study of literary genesis, which requires [page 15:] precisely adducing verbal parallels as well as establishing an author’s exposure to specific sources, may not accord with cultural criticism, which harmonizes commonly held assumptions and examines their significance in the realms of art, letters, and scholarship. In Phillips’ imperfectly integrated trio of essays, genetic criticism and cultural criticism are in a somewhat strained partnership.

This defect is apparent in her second essay, “The Imagination of a Great Landscape.” Phillips asserts that Poe’s sensitivity to vast, wild, and open scenery demonstrates his kinship with American writers and painters like William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole. Her method aligns, for comparative purposes, poems by Poe with those by Byron, Moore, and other European authors in order to show that Poe’s admitredly visionary “landscapes” diverge from their European counterparts. In Poe’s poems, the primal New World garden demonstrates its uniqueness in its scenic attributes. Her analysis downplays the categories of the sublime, the picmresque, and the beautiful and minimizes the subtle American colorations that were woven from the fabric of neoclassical and Romantic aesthetic theories.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing ro witness Phillips’ critical intelligence grappling with such daunting texts as “Al Aaraaf,” “Dream-Land,” “The Lake,” and “The Valley of Unrest.” Sustained comparison of these poems with nonAmerican analogues, Phillips contends, demonstrates the discontinuity between American and European scenery and shows Poe’s predilection for locales that never totally transcend the confines of space and time; Poe’s “landscapes” are, broadly speaking, American rather rhan totally visionary or symbolic.

One can question, though, whether Phillips’ critical aperçus reside on as firm ground as that which is claimed for Poe’s “landscapes.” Her comparison of “The Coliseum” with apposite sections of Byron’s Manfred bears her out, but she neglects further comparison with Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a paean to ruins that excites overwhelming power and gloomy grandeur, precisely the attributes she ascribes to the American Poe and Cole. The allegedly American contrast between remembered history and primeval prehistory is, depending on selection of text, equally stark in Byron as in his American successors. Selectivity also hampers Phillips’ comparison of “Dream-Land” and Baudelaire’s “Parisian Dream.” No abject imitation of a single Poe poem, Baudelaire’s poem does not necessarily display a cultural difference from Poe’s original. Like Robert Frost’s juvenile exercise, also entirled “Dream-Land,” “Parisian Dream” differs from its source in that it is a pastiche, deriving from an array of visionary poems, including “The City in the Sea,” “FairyLand,” and “The Valley of Unrest.” Phillips’ carefully developed contrasts between Poe’s poems and French rexts by Baudelaire and Rousseau do not necessarily demonstrare a culmral difference. Nor do similarities between Poe’s and Cole’s rreatments of ruins reveal their full American kinship. It should be recalled that Cole was, at times, a notso-reluctant celebrant of “The Course of Empire“; his paintings, as well as his “Essay on American Scenery,” gave impetus to the cause of culmral narionalism. Poe’s reluctance to join the nearly unanimous chorus supporring a nationality of letters has been abundantly documented, but his fiction reveals an even more discomfiting treatment of the theme of imperial declension. Arthur Gordon Pym, for example, suggests a civilization in ruins in the landscape of Tsalal, and his later satires “Mellonta Tauta” and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” debunk America’s new “course of empire” of the 1840’s, the ascension of “mobocracy,” and the feverish sweep across the American continent in search of gold.

In Essay I, “The Air of Democracy and the Imagination of Man,” Phillips stops short of advancing Toqueville’s Democracy in America as a direct influence on Poe. Acknowledging that it may be impossible m prove that Poe read Toqueville, she outlines important agreements and disagreements between the two authors on the relative virtues and defects of a democratic society. By juxtaposing passages from Poe’s essays and from Democracy in America, she shows similar responses to the following conditions: the repression of the poetic impulse in America, the difficulty of achieving artistic expression, and the tension between democratic and aristocratic sentiments. While providing a comprehensive survey of Poe’s comments on the uncertain conditions facing a man of poeric temperament in America, she neglects his antidemocratic satires. The very real tension between the cause of artistic excellence and the demands of the literary marketplace was faced by virtually all of Poe’s contemporaries, including Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. Democracy in America being a classic statement of this dilemma Phillips convincingly reveals Poe’s attimdes to be less idiosyncratic than some might think. But one could argue rhat Poe’s practical career as an editor provided a fuller education in the exigencies of the lirerary markerplace rhan did his unproven reading of systematic social thinkers like Toqueville. Perhaps more intensely than other writers of the Jacksonian period, Poe, in his day-to-day editorial practices, felt the challenges to artistic excellence rhat were posed by a burgeoning mass marketplace.

Phillips’ third essay, ” ‘Mere Household Events‘: The Metaphysics of Mania,” presents an array of medical sources which suggest that Poe’s allegedly blood-curdling tales of ‘‘moral insaniry” had a scientific legitimacy. Phillips places comments on Poe’s drinking in the context of the writings of Benjamin Rush and Isaac Ray, the former being the first scientist to suggesr that alcoholism was attributable to insanity. Poe’s exploitarion of scientific sources anchors his horror tales in a “respectable” collecrion of data, which makes his explorations of madness seem far less esoteric. In this regard, Phillips reaps fruitful insights from analyses of “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In these tales, Phillips finds “legitimate sources of terror” in the medical theories of Poe’s time.

In sum, Phillips does not add substantially, except perhaps in her third essay, to a list of Poe’s sources. By demonstraring thar Poe and his cultural contemporaries followed common paths, she does show that his ideas on democracy, landscape, and mania are, rather than freakish, clearly “in the American grain.” However inexact some of her speculative analogies may be, she succeeds in finding a reasonably firm position for Poe on native grounds.

Kent Ljungquist, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


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