Text: Louis A. Renza, “Poe and the Marginalia of American Criticism: A Review Essay,” Poe Studies, June 1984, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 17:24-27


[page p, column c:]


Poe and the Marginalia of American
Criticism: A Review Essay

John Carlos Rowe. Through the Custom-House: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Modern Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 218 pages. $18.50.

What was formerly accepted by American Literary critics as a self-evident landmark period in nineteenth-century American literature, F. O. Matthiessen’s “the American Renaissance,” has become to many recent American critics like John Irwin and Joseph Riddel the site of a problematic, merely provisional beginning of American literary history. The honorific word “Renaissance,” of course, already throws this notion of genuine American literary beginnings into question. Rebirth in terms of what model origin? That posed by the European literary tradition? Or perhaps the ideological myth of America as an original political experiment? In either case, the literature written by Matthiessen’s canonical figures remains haunted by historical precedents it would reject or emulate. Recent American critics would perhaps claim that Matthiessen’s critical attribution of mid-nineteenth-century American literary independence also represses the re-visionist — “re-naissance“ — historical and literary-historical situations both of the literature he canonizes and his own contemporary act of criticism.

John Carlos Rowe contributes to this recent revisionist tendency in Through the Custom-House. But Rowe does not seek to challenge the ideology of canon-formation itself or even Matthiessen’s select list of canonical writers within this “flowering” period of American literature; nor does he attempt to recuperate minority writers for this list, the Sedgwicks, Warners, and Stowes, although apparently agreeing wiuh academic consensus since Matthiessen’s work, he does include Poe and Mark Twain as canonical American Renaissance figures. (Poe, Matthiessen had written, not only belonged to an earlier period but wrote stories that “seem relatively factitious when contrasted with the moral depth of Hawthorne or Melville.”) Instead, Rowe questions the ideological assumptions that ascribe “major” status to certain works of these writers: Thoreau’s Walden, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.

For Rowe, the careers of these writers were complicated by their having written what he terms “marginal” texts whose “mixed forms” express “these authors’ efforts to rethink the entire question of literary language.” In the process, each text “performs an extended critique of the author’s own literary intentions in his earlier work.” (Already we can glimpse the problem Poe poses for any such critical revisionism. What “major” work did Poe [column 2:] write against which another of his texts could be defined as marginal?) Moreover, showing how intertextuality or a kind of nascent Derridean “writing” haunts these writers’ more central works — works motivated by formal and thematic “American” demands for originality — the marginal text also reveals prophetic affinities with “the divided structure” of modernist texts. Just as Derrida uses a text’s graphic and rhetorical contingencies, its “margins,” to deconstruct its otherwise logocentric ambitions, so Rowe would use these marginal texts to deconstruct the apparent logocentric themes and rhetorical strategies as well as literary reputations of works which heretofore have identified “the main traditions of nineteenth-century American thought and literature.”

And just as these marginal works become “anomalous” texts by wandering from conventional and specialized “literary” modes of expression, so Rowe’s own critical method “attempts to break down the habitual disciplinary boundaries that tend to isolate common problems of interpretation confronting philosophers, literary critics, linguists, psychoanalysts, and historians.” Thus, he would “violate deliberately those critical conventions that tend to dominate much of the practical inrerpretation of American literary works.” Specifically, Rowe juxtaposes texts from other disciplines and the modernist period with the nineteenth-century works he deems marginal: Heidegger with Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Sartre (and Husserl) with Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance; Freud with Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym; Derrida with Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”; Nietzsche with Twain’s Pudd‘nhead Wilson; and Saussure and Benveniste with Henry James’ The Sacred Fount. Such combinations might seem arbitrary, but that, precisely, is Rowe’s point. In seeming arbitrary, that is, themselves marginal, these non-literary perspectives allow criticism to double the disruptive linguistic spirit with which Rowe claims these nineteenth-century works were written: “We ought neither to imitate nor translate the writings of our poets and philosophers; we ought to use those texts in the very interpretative spirit in which they were written to discover in a new sense the intelligibility of our own times.”

Through the Custom-House thus itself possesses a “divided structure.” On the one hand, it strives to perceive these marginal works as pregnant with Derridean esprit or the breakdown of American ideological mythoi; on the other, it strives to liberate criticism from its conservative canonical impulses as well as from a sense of belatedness with idolized literary texts and the “coherent” interpretations they have fostered. These twin goals often generate provocative critical and, by analogy, “social” interpretations of the works themselves and of Rowe’s own critical scene of writing.

For example, the character Bartleby’s passive, anomalous stance as a scrivener in the Wall Street office constitutes “not simply a refusal to complete an appointed task, but an interruption of habitual [and ideologically self-certain] circuits of communication. Bartelby is the figure of frustrated destinations that stands between sender and receiver, an author and his reader.” As an “undecidable figure,” Bartleby thus “subverts the narrator’s presumed mastery [page 25:] of social law” or ability to interpret or encode others according to this law. Ar the same time, “Bartleby,” the story itself, subverts the critical reader’s complicity with a culture that sanctions only those texts which conform to the culture’s criteria of knowledge. In other words, this view of the text subverts the assumptions of the critic who would subject “writing . . . to correction according to the properties of the truth, which in the Western tradition have always limited free play and constrained the sign within logical or rational bounds“ — for the critic, the bounds of formalist, psychoanalytic, or even existentialist notions of textual coherence and/or representational self-presence. Rowe’s own critical act, then, would do to its critical audience what Bartleby does to the capitalist narrator: through an act of seemingly non-active or Derridean intellectual violence, make the critic perceive his or her own desire for “mastery or original authority” regarding eccentric, enigmatic texts.

In different ways but to the same effecr, Rowe also provocatively discusses Twain’s Nietzschean-like deconstruction “of individual identity and noble autonomy” in Pudd‘n Head Wilson (at times playing on irs splir form of romance and aphorisms) and James’ proto-poststructuralist “exploration . . . of artistic self-identity” in The Sacred Fount. These works evince an unmasterable language which precludes the claims or desires of characters (and critical readers) for such aristocratic autonomy, which Rowe exposes as paradoxically enslaved to logocentric social codes, and for a free self-identity actually in “bondage to a language that is never their own.” In the same way, Emerson’s self-pronounced “self-reliant” essays turn out to have repressed “the very element of the Emersonian self that internally threatens the possibility of originality and self-creation.” Or in A Week, Rowe finds Thoreau struggling, “nor,” as in Walden, “to transcend the temporal but to enter it more authentically. . . . The experience of nature . . . is always on the way to language, to the poetic saying that constitutes it as human history. Much of this seems lacking in Walden.”

Rowe’s procedure — deconstruction resists depictions as a “method“ — in his examination of these works is essentially Derridean, his recourse to other modernist thinkers notwithstanding. In each chapter he begins by citing the coherence-obsessed critiques of the writer’s works in question. He then proceeds to show how American criticism has rejected these works outright as abortive literary efforts or else has futilely tried to accommodate them to familiar critical codes, especially those pertaining to the marginal work he intends to discuss. Lastly, he illustrates how this marginal work in effect reads and deconstructs these critiques ahead of time.

As we might expect, then, Rowe (pp. 91-110) sides with and attempts to elaborate on recenr Francophile views of Poe’s works. Poe, after all, was never one not to make the writing of his tales a shady double of their otherwise “readerly” appearance. Indeed, the Poe chapter stands as an exception in Rowe’s work since many and perhaps most of Poe’s fictional tales seem “marginal” in the aforementioned sense. Though Rowe does not cite it, the very title of one of Poe’s earliest tales, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” refers to the arbitrariness of the signifier. In the tale itself, [column 2:] we come across images of writing and strange or, like Derridean “writing,” estranged speech; and what we do find in this “bottle” of a story is the aporia of a narrator ultimately unable to communicate “some never-to-be-imparted secret“ — a logocentric vision “whose attainment is destruction.”

Pym, then, is less marginal within Poe’s canon than the author himself has become within “the American Renaissance.” Rowe’s choice to discuss this novel — a genre critics usually privilege over the short tale when making canonical judgments — thus has the effect of informing us he will not go as far as even Poe’s “MS.” narrator in exploring the abyssal implications of the “marginal text.” Still, Poe’s one notable novelistic narrarive clearly accords with Rowe’s deconsrructive concerns. Why all those thematic inscriptions of writing in Pym? Why the virtual parody or at least explicit exploitation of genres there? Why the confusion about authorship marked in the introductory and final notes: the admission by Pym of “Mr. Poe” as the early author of a text which he, Pym, takes over and which readers ought to but of course never will recognize (“it will be unnecessary to point out where his portion ends and my own commences”); and the displacement of both Pym and “Mr. Poe” by the puratively anonymous editor who deciphers the “writing” for us found on Tsalal?

For Rowe, such textual inconsistencies in Pym suggest Poe’s self-conscious design to disrupt the ideology of textual — and by extension, social — coherence. Previous American critics have tried to justify (or dismiss) this work according to ideals of generic consistency or Poe’s own romantic poetic ideal, that is, the idealistically motivated epistemological rupture of empirical experience to arrive at a transcendental moment of cosmic unity (the “white” ending of Pym, for example) which Poe later explicitly articulates in Eureka. Unlike recent French critics like Jean Ricardou, few American critics have seen this novel as an allegory of its own inscription — hence of its reception as well as production — in terms of “the differential process of writing.” (Even G. R. Thompson’s thesis about Poe’s romantic ironic relation to his avowed transcendentalist ambitions leaves us with narrators and texts in the throes of a mad bur explicable quest for autonomy.) If Poe desires to use language “to destroy the facility of human experience and present that ‘other world,‘” his very writing of Pym sabotages this desire “by producing a self-perpetuating system of signification.” Not just the novel’s framing notes and Tsalal’s suspiciously hieroglyphic formations but everything in this novel, from sailors, ships, and oceans, “are mere figures for the writing itself,” each of them signifying “the perpetual wandering of the text.”

Consider the case of Pym’s dog, Tiger, for example. Rowe notes how its fortuitous appearance in the hold is conspicuously continuous with Pym’s dream and with the more he receives from Augustus. According to Rowe, Pym’s dreams are already confused with reading and writing, specifically with Augustus’ adventure stories and a volume of Lewis and Clark’s voyages. The anxieties Pym experiences in these dreams “represent Poe’s own double fear: the self-annihilation that is the ultimate entropy of any writing thar strains toward the undifferentiated unity of [page 26:] spiritual absence“ — the very end at which Pym arrives. Moreover, the note Pym cannot completely read and for which Tiger serves as the physical vehicle (both note and dog thus function as figures of “writing”) is inscribed in blood, signifying the “materialization of the text,” and appears on the discarded duplicate of Augustus’ forged letter to Mr. Ross, that is, a “palimpsest” text which signifies “the palimpsest of language itself.” Tiger, then, exemplifies Rowe’s thesis about writing; the dog here represents not a metaphorical or self-present figure of writing but a metonymical or “marginal” figure of it. Indeed, he might have taken Tiger one step further into this abyss of writing’s contingent self-references. In soap-opera fashion, Tiger’s appearance melodramatically saves Pym; the doe, in other words, functions as a deus ex machina. Is not “dog” a well-known and also radically arbitrary anagram for “god“ — deus — which belies even the melodramatic seriousness of this written scene?

In the same way, Pym’s very name and his perverse desire to fall from the ledge when trying to escape from the island constitutes not only the anagramatatic pun, “pym“/“imp” (James M. Cox), but also that of “pimp,” panderer (O.E.D.). Quite literally, then, Pym is the pimp of a perversely disguised or literarily defamiliarized narrative commodity. Or as Rowe argues in another context, Pym’s narrative, like his dream before encountering Tiger, reflects a movement from language as “a system of abstract referential signs [Pym’s proper name] to the material facts of a poetic landscape (Pym’s figurative name].” Pym himself, according to Rowe one of Poe’s “least perceptive characters,” fails to recognize the metaphysical (under erasure) implications of his voyage; he also fails to recognize the arbitrariness of discourse. But at least we can see how Poe stages at once Pym’s skid between conscious and unconscious experience and the novel’s undecidable skid between conscious and unconscious writing — for example, the significance or insignificance of the formations on Tsalal. In this sense, Poe’s novel must elude final interpretation. Even the vague, white human figure appearing at the end of the narrative suggests an ordinary undecidable, and equal difference between a present and absent term like the Freudian notion of conscious and unconscious psychic experience. Agreeing in spirit with Marie Bonaparte’s destination of this human form as a mother figure for Poe, Rowe points out that as the ultimately desired center, this mother figure must also remind us of the absent father. Hence even in the Freudian vocabulary that itself defers the recognition of difference as generated by language, Pym ends at the point of an unresolvable difference.

Perhaps more than the other works Rowe examines, Pym seems ripe for deconstructive analysis and, as such analysis implicitly suggests, for the recuperation of Poe into a revised “American Renaissance.” At the same time, Rowe, as we noted, would have this analysis interrogate the socio-critical codes which privilege certain texts and/or social groups over others in the interests of a socially as well as literarily oppressive logocentric idealism. In this last sense, it seetns clear that he would distinguuish his brand of deconstructionistn from that of other deconstructionist critics in America whose criticism, as Michael Ryan has [column 2:] argued, appears intent on “rejuvenating a jaded elitist canon of great, male Western books.”

Yet like the breakdown of individual identity Rowe finds with the twins in Twain’s Pudd‘nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, Rowe’s twin critical goals seem rife with difference rather than the harmr7ny he rhetorically maintains through his assumptive use of this critical-analogical trope. For example, in front-packing his discussion of Poe’s narrative with prior logocentric critiques — the better to deconstruct them — Rowe conspicuously omits reference to Sidney Kaplan’s thesis about Pym’s possibly racist subtext. Once one regards the natives on Tsalal not only in the context but also as figures of writing, the motif of writing inevitably takes center stage and relegates this latent, socio-representational thematic to a critically secondary (and here virtually repressed) pretext.

Conversely, in construing his allegorization of Pym as an act of critical “violence,” Rowe himself seems to fall into the ever-lurking snares of clearing a self-present mode of critical signification. And here, Poe’s text indeed becomes exemplary. For example, if we take Rowe at his word (but who can take a deconstructionist at his word?) and regard all the representational references in Poe’s narrative as figures of writing, we could say that the black natives on Tsalal unconsciously represent the black graphic marks on a white page, namely writing as it would remain unconscious of itself as writing. Rowe notes that the natives cannot register their reflections in mirrors or as “icons”; we are in a world, that is, “in which word and thing are no longer distinguishable, frustrating the illusion of self-presence that operates explicitly in iconic representations. . . .” But does this union of word and thing, alias mirror-reflection and native, frustrate or in fact engender the illusion of self-presence, of a writing that represses the difference associated even with iconic representations and especially with the alienated (and not just alien) epistemology represented by the white voyagers?

On the other hand, Pym’s “white mythology” prevents him from recognizing such writing. Dirk Peters, his very name signifying knife and rock or, let us say, someone as if writing indelibly on a rock, is the one who thinks the formations might be a kind of writing. But Peters, after all, represents a hybrid figure of both a primitive culture like that of the natives and a sophisticated culture like Pym’s; neither one nor the other, he “cannot be met with at present,” as the final note explains, to corroborate “the entire truth of the latter portions of the narration.” He stands as the absent synthesis in the unresolved opposition between writing as a pre-civilized, original expression of self-presence and writing as a modernist, hyperself-conscious obsession with self-presence. Thus, Pym’s quest for absolute self-presence or origins occurs in the context of (white) civilization’s deluded self-conscious wish to transcend its own sense of writing as alienated, here unconsciously and egregiously associated with the natives. If the novel’s frame at the end reminds us of writing’s impossible quest for self-presence, then, it also reminds us that all modes of writing are “shady” affairs, that is, self-interested projects, which provoke violence [page 27:] such as we see the whites and blacks exhibiting toward each other, or Poe exhibiting toward the readers of this text when, like Pym in the ghostly guise of Hartman Rogers, he seems to appear as the huge, white human figure at the end.

Poe’s Pym thus appears marginal even as regards the other “marginal” texts Rowe examines in Through the Custom-House in terms of his avowed socio-deconstructive perspective. Logocentrism everywhere, at every turn of thought, and more important, desired — that is what Pym stages when it provokes both its readers and surrogate writer (Pym himself) to desire to discover something new in the world including the “South Poe”: the writer becoming progressively unknown to his dominant Northern readership through the narrative dissemination of his writing; and yet the author also insisting on his ghostly self-presence beyond and through this act of writing. This desire for logocentric experience, a desire that mitigates the cognitive, logocentric self-certainty which, in the history of Western thought, so frequently ensues from this desire, is what Rowe’s criticism, given Derrida’s precedent, knows or ought to be alert to. But from a cursory glance, at least, his critical praxis tends to forget this desire as when it seems to brush aside the attraction of “major” works on the grounds of their unwitting complicity with logocentric phantasms. Such criticism thus itself seems equally to participate in a modernist violence toward “native” texts, texts we call “literature”; in its opening gesture, this criticism projects on these texts a faith in representational self-presence which it proceeds to deny by means of reaction-formation deconstructive analyses. This denial doubtless allows contemporary critics to displace their own desire for what has become an alienated, impossible sense of self-presence in modernist writing on to some aggregate series of endlessly deferred authors (including those of the text being deconstructed), best but not solely evidenced in “marginal” texts like Pym which expose their linguistic operations.

But what could be more dramatic, that is, a self-disguised trope of self-presence, especially in our contemporary context of assembly-line-like academic criticism, than such postponement and its concomitant deconstruction of the literary and social institutions perceived as responsible for this “bad faith” critical situation? In the end, Rowe’s so-called marginal texts become pretexts for an American deconstructive criticism still beholden to the desire for originality at the foundation of the American dream. Thus, Rowe indeed uses these texts to violate over-criticized canonical American texts; in other words, he murders to resurrect the possibility of “new” critical discussion of these latter texts. Similarly, his ostensible violation of these marginal texts actually constitutes a motivated attempt to conserve their writers’ membership in “the American Renaissance.”

More important, in juxtaposing, for example, Thoreau’s A Week to Heidegger’s essay on Holderlin or Poe’s Pym to the Derridean muse (despite Rowe’s prefatory intention to discuss Poe in the context of Freud), Rowe willy-nilly engages the desire to experience an original relation both to these works and the “major” works they putatively revise, even as he effectively accommodates these older works to what has become, in spite of its self-conscious [column 2:] efforts to avoid becoming, the privileged criteria of contemporary deconstructive criticism. But we could also use his own deconstructionist procedure to argue that Rowe’s juxtaposition of modern and nineteenth-century works masks a desire for metaphorically transcending this critically “divided structure” within his rhetorically announced metonymical critical strategy. Like the man in the machine Poe discloses at the end of his proto-deconstruction of Maelzel’s mechanical chess-player, Rowe’s work testifies to the way American deconstruction seems unable to give up the vision of an albeit scarred, word-disseminated subject or self (Poe’s midget in Maelzel’s machine?) in the process of desiring rather than foreknowing a constantly attractive logocentric “secret.”

I consider this “American” slippage, this unconscious and further than intended marginalization of Poe’s text, a positive aspect of Rowe’s work as it pertains to the American practice of deconstructive criticism as well as to Poe’s perennial problematic status in “the American Renaissance.” Read one way, even according to Rowe’s stated desire to de-nationalize American literature by extending and exposing it — “through the custom-house“ — to European and modernist cultural contexts, this work could seem a methodical thematization of French deconstructive imports. Indeed, Poe’s own literary and critical productions ran this same risk, what with their derogations of a privileged American intellectual culture such as advocated by Emerson, and their seemingly mechanical applications of European romantic ideology. Deconstruction in Rowe’s scene of writing, like romanticism in Poe’s, has become an all-too-familiar, established anti-establishment procedure. Intentionally, Rowe would socialize and/or politicize this procedure in order to avoid the conservative implications of much American deconstructive criticism — a politicization which French critics enacted early and which some recent American critics, when they do not regard deconstruction as irreconcilably conservative, have struggled to articulate.

But unintentionally, Rowe’s work practices deconstruction pragmatically, that is, translates it into an anomalous critical and political means to an end which remains undefined and, like the ending of Pym, for that very reason returns us to the sensibility of beginnings or the possibility of writing and thinking originally. He “uses” deconstruction itself as a historical-performative critical activity. Deconstruction, that is, occurs within a specific social, institutional configuration in the history of American critical writing. And for American critics, at least, the appeal of deconstructive criticism may lie as much in accommodating the rediscovery of the stubbornly desired frontier between a “jaded” ideology and “some never-to-be-imparted secret” concerning the text at hand, as in repressing the relation between literature (or literary criticism) and society through a deluded logocentric idealism. Such ideological abuse or mistranslation of Francophile deconstruction also, I believe, finds its precursor in Poe’s perverse, periphrastic, non-Emersonian insistence on the letter and literature of the American dream: to inscribe if not realize at all costs or in the very terms of an ideology arguing against its possibility — an original relation to the universe.

Louis A. Renza, Dartmouth College


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]