Text: Richard P. Benton, “A Guide to Poe,” Poe Studies, June 1982, Vol. XV, No. 1, 15:26-28


[page 26, column 2:]

A Guide to Poe

J. R. Hammond, An Edgar Allan Poe Companion: A Guide to the Short Stories, Romances and Essays. Torowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1981. xii + 205 pp. $27.50.

A “companion” is a “breadfellow” or “messmate,” a person trustworthy enough to dine at one’s table, hence by extention, a “close associate,” an “intimate,” perhaps a “comrade and friend.” One may also hope for a companion who is dependable — worth having around for wise counsel, for accurate and wide knowledge as well as for loyalty, assistance, and good company. If we measure J. R. Hammond’s Poe Companion against this personification of its title, we find it to be useful but seriously flawed, a guide that falls somewhat short of the ideal breadfellow for the casual reader of Poe.

The book is divided into seven parts. Part I covers Poe’s life and literary reputation. Part II is a dictionary of all his stories, essays, and poems published in book form. At the end is a list of Poe’s book reviews. Each title is followed by a synopsis of the work’s contents, as well as by the date of original publication if a book; if the work originally appeared as part of a larger publication, the title of the relevant gift-book, journal, or newspaper is also given, together with the date of issue. Part III consists of critical discussions of the more important short stories under the three divisions of “Tales of Terror,” “Tales of Ratiocination,” and “Tales of Satire.” Part IV critically discusses what Hammond considers “The Romances“ — namely, “Hans Pfaal,” Poe’s novel Pym, and “The Balloon Hoax.” Part V treats of Poe’s essays and criticisms together with some remarks concerning his aesthetics. This section particularly deals with “The Domain of Arnheim,” Eureka, “The Philosophy of Composition,” and “The Poetic Principle.” Part VI discusses Poe’s poetry. And Part VII is a dictionary of the characters and settings of Poe’s fiction. The body of the book is followed by an appendix which lists “the principal films based on or inspired by Poe and his Bales.” Then comes the documentation of references in the text and a “Select Bibliography” with the principal items annotated. An “Index” concludes the book. The volume also contains some ten plates and a map of Stoke Newington, London (circa 1820), where Poe attended the Manor House School from 1817 to 1820 and where his famous doppelganger story, “William Wilson,” begins.

Although Hammond’s book would seem to serve casual readers well enough, it actually has some serious shortcomings for an uninitiated audience: it contains some errors of fact; it is misleading by way of its emphases; it is sometimes critically blind; and, above all, it omits mentioning altogether some important critical perspectives which modern critics have shown to be essential to an adequate understanding of Poe’s art. Indeed, the book is a scholarly paradox, containing much useful information and many sound judgments and doing Poe justice as a great artist, while at the same time indulging heavily in errors of omission that many potential readers will be ill-equipped to recognize.

Apart from emphasizing Poe’s signal contribution to detective and science fiction, his grotesque sense of satire, his skill as an essayist, and his technical brilliance as a poet, Hammond thinks his importance lies in his explorations into the depths of the human psyche. Indeed, Poe was a great psychologist, as critics from D. H. Lawrence to Allen Tate and Richard Wilbur have emphasized in combatting the old simplistic portrait of Poe as merely the nervous gothicist obsessed with the morbid and the horrible. Today, however, a host of critics have recognized the complexity of Poe the artist as romantic ironist, satirical hoaxer, skillful parodist, and esoteric metaphysician with a well-thought-out and definite ontology and cosmology. Edward H. Davidson, W. H. Auden, Geoffrey Rans, John F. Lynen, Joseph J. Moldenhauer, and Eric Carlson, among others, have seen the importance of Poe’s metaphysics in the structuring of his most important fiction. Hammond never touches on these dimensions of Poe’s art.

In the dictionary section where Hammond summarizes the contents of Poe’s works, many of the synopses are unsatisfactory; the aim of the works and their main points are often presented unevenly or totally ignored, even though such information is presumably what most readers turn to such a guide to obtain. On the one hand, the reader is adequately informed that “The Duc de L‘Omelette” is “a satirical account of a mortal engaged in battle with the devil,” the Duc being “a caricature of N. P. Willis, one of the leading editors of the day.” On the other hand, the entry on Eureka merely informs the reader that this work is “a philosophical treatise” which Poe viewed as “the culmination of his life’s work” and wished to be regarded “as a Poem only,” without ever explaining to the reader what the “philosophical treatise” is about, why Poe attached such importance to it, or why he chose to regard it as a “prose poem” rather than as a philosophical essay. Some entries contain false notions that subvert the main point of the work. The summary of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, misses a central irony: the murderer does not “distinctly hear the muffled heartbeat of the old man” whose corpse he has concealed beneath the floorboards, as Hammond maintains, but only imagines he hears it while actually responding to his own heartbeat. Again, in the entry on “The Assignation” Hammond is surely mistaken in thinking that the Italian noblewoman and her English lover are murdered — that is, poisoned — by her revengeful husband. The lovers’ “assignation” consists rather of their meeting in the world of the spirit after nearly simultaneous suicides to which they had mutually agreed. Further, Hammond gives no hint that the story is a parody of the Lord Byron-Countess Guiccioli romance so Poe could take a satiric thrust at Byronism to which he himself had been previously committed. Needless to say, such criticisms could be leveled at other defective synopses.

Hammond’s division of Poe’s short stories into tales of terror, ratiocination, and satire ignores their complexity and their subtlety. Is “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” a work of terror, of ratiocination, or of satire — or is it possibly all three rolled into one? Is “‘Thou Art the Man‘” a tale of ratiocination or a satire — or is it possibly both? Is it not a parody of Poe’s own Dupin stories — hence a self-parody? Further, is not political satire an important dimension of [column 2:] the Dupin stories themselves, with the aristocratic scholar-poet-mathematician, the elite intellectual, pitted against the bourgeois, unimaginative, pedestrian government bureaucrat?

It is curious that Hammond decided to term “Hans Pfaal,” the novel Pym, and “The Balloon Hoax” “romances.”

Neither his term nor Benet’s definition of it is very enlightening or useful. He might better have entitled Part IV “Science-Fiction” and defined that term, for he clearly treats these stories as such. At any rate, his criticism of them is not entirely satisfactory. He gives no hint that “Hans Pfaal” is not only a science-fiction but also a piece of political satire aimed at Andrew Jackson. Although his discussion of Pyn’ is one of his best, he fails to deal with its hoaxical character as a parody of the travel literature of Poe’s time or with its cosmic irony and its connection with Poe’s metaphysics. He does comment, however, on the more obvious hoaxical nature of “Hans Pfaal” and “The Balloon Hoax” and pays tribute to Poe as “in a real sense . . . ‘the father of science fiction‘” who widened the frontiers of the short story “to embrace a new kind of fictional narrative, the tale of scientific anticipation” and who inspired Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and later masters of this genre.

In Part V Hammond calls attention to Poe’s unusual skill as an essayist and presents very intelligent discussions, particularly of “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Domain of Arnheim,” and Eureka. In respect to the last, however, it is to be regretted that he does not see fit to give this extraordinary piece a more elaborate treatment’ and point out its relationship to such stories as “MS. Found in a Bottle,” Pym, and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Hammond’s discussion of Poe’s poetry in Part VI, although useful so far as it goes, is perhaps the weakest section of the book. The emphasis is mainly on Poe’s technical brilliance and virtuosity as a poet and on the uniqueness of his poetic style. These points are well taken, but one wishes that he had used more pains to analyze the thought content of such important poems as “The Raven” and “Ulalume.” These two poems in particular do not receive the close reading and analysis they deserve. In his discussion of “The Raven” Hammond misses its serio-comic nature, ignoring the humor as well as much of the serious meaning of the poem. Likewise in “Ulalume” he fails to address the difficult but important issue of the psychological conflict that is raging within the narrator. On the other hand, Hammond provides an excellent discussion of “Eldorado.” Acknowledging that the poem was apparently inspired by the California gold rush of 1849, he points out that it is really not about that event at all, nor a commeneary on the chimerical search for wealth that accompanied it, but actually a commentary on Poe’s own “lifelong search for emotional and intellectual fulfillment.”

Finally, the dictionary of the characters and settings in Poe’s fiction — Part VII — contains the same kinds of faults characteristic of the dictionary in Part II. And a last caveat: the “Select Bibliography” suffers from serious defects. In the biography section, Julian Symons’ The Tell-Tale Heart is not worth including as a key book, being nothing but hack work. In the criticism section, Daniel Hoffman’s Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, despite a few brilliant insights, is hardly worth including as a major [page 28:] critical study, being so defective in scholarship (which Hammond acknowledges) as to be misleading in the extreme. These inclusions are especially disturbing in light of Hammond’s omission of two of the most important modern critical studies on Poe, namely, Edward H. Davidson’s Poe, A Critical Study (1957) and G. R. Thompson’s Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (1973). Neither Hammond’s “Select Bibliography” nor his guide as a whole can be counted on to lead the Poe reader through a clear channel without hazards.

Richard P. Benton, Trinity College


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]