Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe’s Other Audience,” Poe Studies, June 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 18:13-14


[page 13:]

Poe’s Other Audience

David Galloway, cd. The Other Poe: Comedies and Satires. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1983. 256 pp. Paper $3.95.

Dennis W. Eddings, ed. The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing. Port Washington, New York: Associated Faculty Press, 1983. 175 pp. Cloth $18.00.

In introducing his first Poe anthology, the Penguin Selected Writings, David Galloway spoke several times of Poe’s “best work,” of the “the best of Poe’s creative work”; and clearly it was work of this quality — in fiction, poetry and criticism — that Galloway was interested in. Now, seventeen years later, he wants Poe to be seen in a fuller perspective. Remarking in his new introductory essay on the fact that more than half of Poe’s tales consist of comedies, satires, and hoaxes, Galloway warns that to ignore this material is to settle for “a distorted view of Poe’s achievements” and also to miss out on “important insights into some of his most ‘classic’ tales.”

It may be doubted whether the word “achievements,” or, as also appears, “accomplishments,” is the right way to describe Poe’s ventures into various kinds of comedy. Who, having had the patience to read i1Z toto “Why the Little Frenchman . . .” or even the shorter “Diddling,” would want to read them again? Had Poe not been their author, would such items have any interest now? Galloway does not take up such questions. He speaks appreciatively of the “sheer exuberance of language and bizarre inventiveness” he finds in the comic tales, but none is given a critical analysis, nor is an effort made to get at the distinctively Poesque element in them. What Galloway mainly does in his prefatory essay is to call attention to the “cousinage” of certain of the serious and non-serious tales. He mentions that the premature burial motif is not used with apparently serious intent in “Usher” and is later spoofed in “The Premature Burial.” Another instance: the “Predicament” situation, set up for comic purposes in the tale of that name, is dealt with in quite a different key in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Galloway’s major point, then, is that Poe, having acquainted himself with the formulas used in popular periodicals, would usually take one of them — a preexistent pattern, such as the “predicament” situation — do a spoof of it, emphasizing superficial elements, but later put it to use again, this time emphasizing “interior, psychological implications.” Although these and similar suggestions are plausibly made, they sound rather perfunctory and dutiful, a shade old hat. Galloway’s memorable discussion of Poe remains the one in Selected Writings. To see in fuller detail what might be involved in the phrase “the other Poe,” one must turn to The Naiad Voice.

This is an anthology of fourteen essays that were published originally between 1954 and 1977, topped off with a retrospective integrating statement by the book’s compiler. It assembles in chronological order some of the work done in recent years to bring out what one of the contributors calls “the American face of Poe,” by which is meant his bent towards [column 2:] hoax and satire. Included are three important — indeed indispensable — papers: Clark Griffith’s on “Ligeia,” Robert Regan’s on Poe’s “duplicity,” and G. R. Thompson’s on Poe’s irony. It is convenient to have also on hand in this one volume the interesting but more general and less incisive pieces by Terence Martin and James M. Cox, plus a number of short explicative workouts on individual tales, Claude Richard’s, for one, on “The Angel of the Odd.”

A useful addition to the secondary source shelf, The Naiad Voice was cleverly conceived and, up to a point, ably edited. I do have three reservations. Surely more could have been included: specifically James Southall Wilson’s essay (1931), the similarly relevant pages from Constance Rourke’s American Humor (also 1931), and Robert Kiely’s article on Poe’s comic masks (in Unamesimo, 1967). There should certainly have been more concern at some editorial level about typographical accuracy. Misprints such as “poured” for “pored” (p. 13), “father” for “farther” (p. 75), and “Read Death” for“Red Death” (p. 76) are disconcerting. I am put off, too, by the title that was chosen for this book. The word naiad, as I understand Poe’s use of it (as in the first “To Helen”), has nothing associatively to do with the undercurrent of meaning which most of the book’s contributors want to bring up to the surface, for that meaning involves a “satiric underside” (Griffith) or, in lithic terms, “a bedrock . . . conglomerate of hoax and banter and satire” (Regan). No naiad overtones are audible here. The one right title for the Eddings anthology is the phrase Galloway hit on for his new Penguin edition. With both books in mind we may go on to inquire in what does Poe’s “otherness” consist.

It used to be said that when he began writing fiction, in 1832, Poe had decided what the contemporary magazine-reading public wanted — what was being “sought after with avidity,” as he then put it — and he made it his business to turn out a marketable product. The consensus is now different. It has been established that Poe’s early tales were not written as imitations of the kinds of fiction that were then popular but were rather intended to burlesque and parody them. He wanted not to get on the bandwagon but to slow it down, not to cater to mass audience taste but to mock it, as a start on improving it. This intention, most in evidence during his Folio Club phase, was, it seems never wholly set aside. In a sense, then, he never “developed.” Late, as well as early, he exercised his talents as a comic writer specializing in satire, irony, and hoaxes. This track may have become for him a kind of rut. For even when he attempted to take Paulding’s shrewd advice — in effect: do something different in remunerative two-volume format — the result was Pym. And that look, in the opinion of its authoritative editor, Burton R. Pollin, continues in the vein of satire, parody, and burlesque which had been Poe’s forte from the outset. It is also his opinion that in writing this book Poe was less interested in entertaining a mass audience than in “bantering” an elite coterie of mature, educated readers. Pollin’s back-up citation for this last point is what he rightly calls the “influential” study of Michael Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1967).

This is the scholarly work cited most often by contributors [page 14:] to The Naiad Voice — by Robert Regan, G. R. Thompson, Bruce Wiener, J. Gerald Kennedy, and Benjamin F. Fisher IV — all of whom, like Pollin, make much of Allen’s “two-audience” theory. Briefly, it comes to this: Poe had in mind as readers two kinds of audience — one, large, which would be captivated by its superficial attractions; and another, much smaller, which would catch on to the concealed intention and admire the workmanship of the ironic author. Allen instances “The Balloon Hoax,” in which Poe succeeded in capturing a popular style while exhibiting at the same time his own “sharp mental quality,” thereby appealing to the intelligent reader who would enjoy the deception and the skillful way the hoax was managed. As for an apparently very different kind of tale, for example “Ligeia,” G. R. Thompson, following Allen’s lead, applies the “two-audience” theory in this way: “The rationale of the tale is psychological” (hence its interest for the sophisticated); “but its primary impact is spooky and weird” (wherein its attraction for the mass audience). One gathers, then, that the effect of “Ligeia” must be double — or even triple, if its anti-Transcendentalist innuendo, as discerned by Clark Griffith, comes through.

One might wonder about the likelihood of Poe’s having intended such plural effects, given the way he emphasized “unity or totality of interest” and the “certain or single effect.” But let that go. A larger question takes precedence: what is the basis for and the usefulness of the “two-audience” theory?

Of course Poe knew that some readers, inevitably few, would respond to his work more intelligently and sympathetically than would others. Presumably most writers assume that this is the way things turn out; and hence their delight, no less, when the right reader comes along. Thus Melville, after hearing from Hawthorne about Moby-Dick: “A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment, on account of your having understood the book. . . . You understood the pervading thought that impelled the book. . . . You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body and embrace the soul.” Compare Poe’s reaction to a friend’s comments on “Ligeia”: “There is no delight greater than of feeling one’s self appreciated . . . by those in whose judgment one has faith. You read my inmost spirit ‘like a book’ . . . your ideas are the very echo of my own. . . . Your word that it is ‘intelligible’ suffices. As for the mob — let them talk on. I should be grieved if they comprehended me here” (Letters, II, 687). Writing in this way to Philip Pendleton Cooke, Poe appears to have all but personally certified the hypothesis that he envisioned two kinds of audience. The “mob” of the general reading public is dismissed; the rare, perceptive reader, like Cooke presumably, is welcomed into the inner circle.

But the matter is not so simple. According to Griffith — who also finds “Ligeia” intelligible, though for reasons Cooke was unaware of — Cooke should not be numbered among the happy few but placed somewhere among the undiscerning mob. Griffith argues (too sketchily, I would say) that Poe in his letter was only pretending to agree with Cooke, and that he was secretly gleeful his friend, having failed to notice the tale’s satiric underside, missed its basic meaning. So the “other” Poe, it seems, is essentially a sly trickster, as he was described by J. S. Wilson fifty [column 2:] years ago; and, we are told, he uses his particular bag of tricks to test his readers. Poe “delighted in taking tests,” Regan remarks, pushing this point about as far as it can go, “but even more in giving them. . . .” As a specialist in what Regan terms duplicity, Poe wanted “to baffle as many readers as possible.”

Regan puts the case in extreme terms, but only in his rhetoric is he out of line. As with the other exponents of the “two-audience” theory, he believes that there were, that there must have been, some people in Poe’s day who did “catch on” to what he was writing. (If not, Poe’s testing of his readership was wholly narcissistic.) But no such readers are identified. And Allen, too, although he seems to prefer Cooke’s vague notions about “Ligeia” to the precise decipherment made by Griffith, stops short of naming Cooke as a qualified coterie reader. Nor does he name anyone else. Similarly, in his persuasive reading of “The Assignation,” Richard P. Benton avers that the vast majority of Poe’s contemporary readers missed the boat, and that the story was properly understood only by a minority, Poe’s “more esoteric fans.” But none is identified. Pollin’s main contention about Pym, one remembers, is that most of the many blunders in it were purposefully planted there to test and amuse the cognoscenti. Like Regan and Benton, however, he cannot name names.

It may therefore be in order to suggest on the basis of the evidence so far available that the “two-audience” theory amounts to a “must-have-been” proposition. It calls for an act of faith in the existence a century or so ago of a cadre of mature, educated, subtle, and perceptive readers — an elite, in short — who could pass Poe’s “tests” about as successfully as have, in our day, Griffith, Regan, Benton, et al. Perhaps in time and with luck some evidence will turn up to show that Poe did indeed have such readers.

It might be of interest, meanwhile, to try turning the question around. Instead of inferring from the puzzling character of Poe’s fiction that there existed a set of especially perceptive readers for whom such fiction was presumably intended, why not find a mid-nineteenth century reader with elitist credentials and test the coterie audience hypothesis through his response to Poe? I have such an individual in mind, a man described by Allen Nevins as “one of the most cultivated, sincere, intelligent, highminded and delightful gentlemen that New York ever produced.” How excellent his credentials are is evident in his diary comments on a Blackwood article (May 1871) which he admired for its “cleverness” and its “touches worthy of Swift. One believes the story as one believes Gulliver. To be sure it is without inherent probability. . . . It might have been written by Defoe.” But he did not respond to Poe in this way. In his Diary, the entry for 19 March 1871 reads in part, “One of E. A. Poe’s hideous stories I‘ve just read, ‘Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym.’ There are ‘artists in hair,’ vice newspaper advertisements, and artists in dexterity and muscular strength, vide Gottschalk’s concerts. So I suppose Poe may be called an artist in putrefaction (both moral and material), in charnel house effluvia” (The Diary of George Templeton Strong, ed. Nevins and Thomas, New York, 1952, II, 260).

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]