Text: Alan Gribben, “ ‘That Pair of Spiritual Derelicts’: The Poe-Twain Relationship,” Poe Studies, December 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 18:17-20


[page 17:]

“That Pair of Spiritual Derelicts”:
The Poe-Twain Relationship

University of Texas at Austin

Four and a half decades ago, V. S. Pritchett astutely proclaimed that “everything really American, really non-English, comes out of that pair of spiritual derelicts, those two scarecrow figures with their half-lynched minds,” Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain.(1) Since then a small procession of scholars and critics has tried to link these seminal authors more firmly, pointing out similarities in their works and suggesting Twain’s indebtedness to Poe’s writings. Perhaps ten books and half-a-dozen scholarly articles speculate, at least tangentially, about Poe’s place among Twain’s literary models. My purpose here is to examine Twain’s knowledge and recorded opinions of Poe, to survey briefly the studies on the relationship of these two writers and to note some parallels of my own, and to suggest some yet unexplored lines of inquiry for future critical work, especially with reference to Twain and Poe’s dark or comic/satiric modes, doubles, and detective stories.


Conjectures about Poe’s influence on Twain have taken place in defiance of an injunction laid down by Bernard DeVoto, long-time literary editor of the Mark Twain Papers and occupant of “The Editor’s Chair” in Harper’s Magazine, who sternly relegated source-studies to “the main basement” of academic criticism.2 But it has not been the excoriations of DeVoto that have kept the Twain-Poe comparisons from multiplying as much as one might expect; rather, few people venture intertextual studies on this subject because the record of Twain’s contact with Poe’s writings is one of the odd vacuums in our detailed knowledge about Twain’s private library and reading tastes.

Partly, one supposes, the problem is that Poe died in 1849 when Samuel Clemens was in his mid-teens, two years before he would attempt his first paragraph in his brother’s Missouri newspaper and three years prior to his first national publication in the Boston [column 2:] Carpet-Bag. Virtually none of the titles in Clemens’ personal library at this time has survived. But in view of the fact that he owned more than two thousand volumes after 1874, it seems singularly strange that not a single Poe volume can be definitely ascribed to Clemens’ ownership. (A few other authors and titles obviously crucial to his literary heritage and artistic development — Malory’s Morte D‘Arthur, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, LeSage’s Gil Blas, for example — are likewise missing from surviving collections of his library books.) At least we can locate his copy of John A. Joyce’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1901, in which Twain made sarcastic notes about Joyce’s grammar and opinions. “It is a shame that this sentimental hyena should be allowed to disinter Poe’s remains & paw them over,” Twain wrote on page x; on the overleaf he called the biography “an impertinence — an affront,” with “old tenth-rate thoughts, triumphs of commonplace — hashed up & warmed over” (p. xi). “If he had an idea he couldn‘t word it,” Twain noted of Joyce, the “most remarkable animal that ever cavorted around a poet’s grave” (p. 1).(3)

Of course Twain did allude explicitly to Poe a number of times. He observed in 1896, “What a curious thing a ‘detective’ story is. And was there ever one that the author needn‘t be ashamed of, except ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue‘?“(4) But another remark, this one in 1909, shows Twain’s ambivalence; Twain compared Poe’s prose to that of his detested symbol of genteel English fiction, Jane Austen, alleging that “to me his [Poe’s] prose is unreadable.“(5) Given the currency of this pronouncement in modern critical studies and the lack of controverting evidence, Twain’s statement needs some explaining. The context is especially significant; he is writing privately to William Dean Howells, rebelling, as he often did, against the “classic” writers whom Howells commended — Austen, Eliot, Meredith, James — because their literary style was too “high” for his own critical standards. Twain’s basic critical tenet for every evaluation was “phrasing,” and he increasingly tested this feature in his last years by reading literature aloud to someone. “Phrasing is everything, almost,” he declared. “Oh, yes, phrasing is a kind of photography: out of focus, a blurred picture; in focus, a sharp one.“(6) Applying this principle in 1909, the author who had helped shape the movement known as American Realism clearly found Poe’s richly suggestive, often ironic diction and teasing syntax to be unsatisfactory. But in rejecting the prose style that linked Poe to an earlier age, Twain was [page 18:] not necessarily denying the writer’s literary stature.

Although we cannot be certain that Twain read Rufus W. Griswold’s damaging allegations in the Works (1850-56), in 1866 Twain revealed apparent knowledge of Griswold’s version of Poe when he jokingly defined “geniuses” as “people who dash off weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, & then go get booming drunk & sleep in the gutter.” In the same document, Mark Twain’s Notebook 7, he added another possible allusion to Poe: a man who “wears out the affection & the patience of his friends & then complains in sickly rhymes of his hard lot, & finally . . . persists in going up some back alley & dying in rags & dirt, he is beyond all question a genius.“(7) Most of the contextual evidence, then, either frustrates the effort to establish a single definition of Twain’s view of Poe or leaves open the question of the extent of his knowledge of and regard for Poe’s writings. However, a similar pattern of early admiration, later professed scorn, missing library books, but indisputable literary parallels has long been accepted concerning Twain’s knowledge of Charles Dickens. And even though Twain’s final library lacked most volumes of Austen, Scott, and Cooper, irrefutable proof exists that he once owned and read their books.

In assessing Twain’s view of Poe, it is especially germane to observe that many comic passages in Twain’s travel narratives and novels poke fun at potentially harmful “illusions” encouraged by the “romances” that boys once imbibed. With a degree of seriousness, Twain went so far as to blame Walter Scott for stifling progress in the American South, and he held James Fenimore Cooper responsible for the nineteenth century’s overly sentimental view of the Native American Indian. Because Clemens associated Poe with his own early reading in romances — the residents of Keokok, lowa, recalled that Clemens carried around “the tales of Edgar Allan Poe” in 1856 or 1857(8) — he conceivably reacted against Poe, along with other romantic authors, as representing a stage of indebtedness he consciously wished to outgrow. “Those were pleasant days,” he once recalled of his Hannibal years. “None since have been so pleasant, none so well worth living over again. For the romance of life is the only part of it that is overwhelmingly valuable, & romance dies with youth.“(9) As the antics of Tom Sawyer make clear, the books of boyhood, untruthful and often misconstrued, are a component of this “romance of life” that must be left behind with one’s lamented, foolish immaturity. While it seems incredible that a major writer should be so naive — or disingenuous — as to resent his earliest reading experiences, this may be the most likely explanation for those otherwise-inexplicable gaps in Twain’s private library and recollections of reading that obviously influenced his own art.


The specific source studies linking Twain and Poe can be quickly summarized. Several scholars assert that the digging for Murrell’s buried treasure in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is related to “The Gold-Bug”; others [column 2:] note that the dual personalities in “William Wilson” parallel Twain’s struggle with his conscience in “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” and that Twain parodied “A Descent into the Maelstrom” in “The Invalid’s Story.“(10) Though other studies that advance arguments about Twain’s borrowing from Poe will be noted in the following discussion, in a sense it does not truly matter whether we can lay specific documents side by side to “prove” that Twain was in Poe’s debt. There are overriding congruences of theme, symbol, and pattern that exist above the level of even the most meticulous source studies.

One foundation for these congruences may be the striking correspondences in the biographies of these two artists. Both men were Southerners by breeding, deprived of father figures, and fond of idealizing women. Both were fascinated by such public enthusiasms as mesmerism, phrenology, and the occult (palmistry, in Twain’s case, reincarnation and demonology in Poe’s). Both were active in the literary quarrels and political debates of their day. And both admired Robinson Crusoe and relished literary parodies and burlesques, detective tales of ratiocination, and accounts of nightmares and premature burials.

In surveying the similarities in these writers’ works, certainly the importance to Twain of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) merits additional exploration. The Poesque metaphor of drifting, stormbattered sea vessels would become an obsessive image in Twain’s letters and notebooks after his financial disasters in 1894, and these becalmed derelicts, so reminiscent of the helpless vessels hauntingly described in “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and at key points throughout Pym, apparently had an early and lasting hold on Twain’s imagination. His late manuscripts, for example, are filled with sea voyages, mutinies, murders, death-wishes, and dream existences that recall Poe’s long narrative. More particularly, the Coleridgean ghost brig that passes Pym’s hulk in chapter ten — its passengers scattered about in the “most loathsome state of putrefaction” while Pym and his desperate companions stand “shouting to the dead for help“ — has counterparts in the graveyard of ships that Twain named “the Everlasting Sunday“(11) and in the corpse-carrying balloons the narrator floats among in a manuscript version of Life on the Mississippi (an episode eventually discarded because of its ghoulishness).(12)

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Huck’s claustrophobic experience “up in the upper berth, cornered” in a stateroom on the doomed steamboat Walter Scott — he listens breathlessly as two desperadoes plot to kill their confederate — has parallels with Pym’s fearful wait below deck in the Grampus while Dirk Peters and the crew seize control of the ship. Judith L. Sutherland’s shrewd analysis of Poe’s longest story, though not explicitly comparing it to Twain’s novel, nevertheless evokes resemblances, especially in her examination of the Pym-Augustus relationship, whose terms suggest [page 19:] aspects of the Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer friendship.(13) Finally, Kenneth S. Lynn(14) and James C. Wilson(15) have investigated the many correspondences between Arthur Gordon Pym and Twain’s uncompleted tale, “The Great Dark,” written in 1898. Wilson concludes that Twain’s “Henry Edwards, like Pym and Ahab, finds himself on a derelict ship, adrift in the Great Dark” (p. 241). Twain’s working notes suggest that, had he continued “The Great Dark,” Edwards, whitehaired from terror, ultimately would have found a Great White Glare and mummified corpses — as Wilson writes, “the utter absence of meaning: nihilism” (p. 241)

Poe’s comic/satiric stories often feature devices with analogues in Twain’s humorous work. One can hardly read Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845) without thinking of such Twain sketches as “The Petrified Man” (1870), “A Curious Dream” (1870), and “A Ghost Story ” (1870). The absurd interrogations of Poe’s reanimated Egyptian corpse also bring to mind the non sequiturs in Twain’s ‘‘Encounter with an Interviewer” (1875); the Mummy’s revelations about the unreliability of ‘‘un-re-written” history books make the point that Twain would reiterate with Hank Morgan’s “authentic” account of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and ‘‘Bishop” Mark Twain’s version of events in ‘‘The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire” (1972); and the narrator’s faux pas (and rebukes by other members of the examining group) suggest the effrontery that Mark Twain’s fictional companion ‘‘Mr. Brown” would brashly achieve (and the embarrassment he would cause) in their wide travels during the 1860’s. Twain’s half-finished stories such as “A Medieval Romance” (1870) and “A Story Without an End” (Following the Equator, 1897) have their equivalents in Poe’s “The Premature Burial” (1844), ‘‘The Sphinx” (1846), and other hoaxes that lead the reader into unforeseen explanations and entrapping jokes. In “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” (1841), Toby Dammit thumbs his nose just as Twain’s mummy does in “The Petrified Man.” Moreover, Poe’s story opens with an admonition against seeking “a moral” (that is, interpreting hidden intentions) in every fictional work, just as Twain warns against moral-hunting at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn.

Finally, Twain’s stories often display the kind of dark irony for which Poe is well known. Chapter thirty-one of Life on the Mississippi (1883) competes with “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) in the matter of savoring the torture of one’s enemy: Karl Ritter gloatingly watches his wife’s murderer suffer in a Bavarian mortuary, observing, “yes, he had a long, hard death of it.” The shroud-wrapped Ritter, assumed to be dead, had rung one of the bell-wires attached to the hands of each corpse (Poe’s narrator in “The Premature Burial” [1844] wishes to have this same precaution taken at his death), then waited for succor, “suffering unimaginable terrors.” And ‘‘The Californian’s Tale” (1893) and “Which Was the Dream?‘’ (1966) portray insane delusions that recall Poe’s examinations of a diseased human mind. Twain was similarly interested in practical jokes that go awry with [column 2:] tragic consequences, as in the insanity that afflicts Conrad von Geisberg in A Tramp Abroad (1880) after Catherina and his friends fool him with disguises and a fabricated story. And in a “strange and tragic” anecdote in Life on the Mississippi that recalls “The Black Cat” (1843), a man attempts to save his wife from a sinking steamboat but inadvertently slays her with a stroke of the axe he uses to break through her cabin ceiling. The character’s name, “Captain Poe,” may not be coincidental.


Several other parallels link the psychological patterns of Poe and Twain even more closely. As Patrick F. Quinn pointed out thirty years ago, “the phenomenon of the Doppelganger is perhaps the most characteristic and persistent of Poe’s obsessive fantasies,” so much so that, “in a real sense, Poe’s heroes are all doubles, one of another.“(16) Unquestionably Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “Ligeia” (1845), and several other tales with double motifs would have appealed to Twain, a tireless chronicler of twins, disguises, exchanged roles, and contrasting personalities. The mistakenly switched Edward Tudor and Tom Canty in The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn, Hank Morgan and the King (sold as slaves) in A Connecticut Yankee, and Thomas a Beckett Driscoll and Valet de Chambre in Pudd‘nhead Wilson (1894) represent only the best known of Twain’s many explorations of alter ego variations. Twain’s modern biographers, like Poe’s, have discovered a divided, tormented personality — in Twain’s case, partly suggested by his adoption of a nom de plume and his affection for pseudonyms (in 1882, for instance, returning to the Mississippi River to gather literary material, he registered at hotels as “Mr. C. L. Samuels”). Mysterious subterfuges involving names and identities had tremendous allure for the imaginations of both writers.

Another affinity meriting further investigation is apparent in their stories of crime detection and puzzle solving. If Twain never matched the complexity of detail or level of suspense in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), “The Gold-Bug” (1843), “The Oblong Box” (1844), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), he nonetheless followed Poe’s lead in many respects. Unfortunately for Twain, the requirements of the evolving detective-story genre seldom seemed in accord with his preferred settings of small towns and rural farms. Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896) suggests Twain’s resoluteness about essaying this type of narrative, illustrates the sporadic, incongruous humor he introduces, and also epitomizes the cumbersome plot that ultimately defeats the story as a reading experience. Similar shortcomings beset “Simon Wheeler, Detective” (written 1877-98) and “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy” (written 1897- 1900). Twain did successfully spoof the infallible sagacity of detectives in “The [page 20:] Stolen White Elephant” (1882), presumably having in mind Allan Pinkerton’s exploits, but sadly botched a Sherlock Holmes parody, “A Double-Barrelled Detective Story” (1902). The clues and sleuthing techniques in Twain’s most notable murder mystery, Pudd‘nhead Wilson, bear the greatest resemblance to elements in Poe’s tales. Indeed, the melodramatic denouement of Twain’s novel, staged in a crowded courtroom and eliciting a prompt confession, appears to be directly connected with the ingenious narrator’s feat in “Thou Art the Man” (1844). Twain’s novel depends upon the new science of fingerprinting to expose the true character of principal figures in Dawson’s Landing; Poe’s storyteller employs a box labeled Chateau Margaux wine, delivered to ‘‘a very large and highly respectable company at Mr. Goodfellow’s house,” to frighten a confession from a villain whom the citizens of Rattleborough had respected.

In all of these instances, it is less essential to know whether Twain was imitating a particular Poe work — though I am convinced he often was — than it is to grasp the more significant fact that two American authors with vastly divergent literary reputations and public images actually have many curious intersections of situation, mood, theme, symbol, and phrase. In recent years, Twain’s fiction has been seen as more somber, brooding, even “Gothic,” than it was formerly understood to be. A commentator on Huckleberry Finn, for instance, writes almost casually that “death or its threat is the climax of virtually every major or minor sequence in the novel,” and that the book “is a comedy that totters on the edge of tragedy.” Other scholars note that “horror is very real in Tom Sawyer,” that St. Petersburg in this novel is “a phantom town inhabited largely by ghostly presences,” and that “an ominous air of violence hangs over the entire tale.“‘8 G. R. Thompson, meanwhile, has raised the problem of interpreting “a Gothic humorist” like Poe, calling for “a new way of reading Poe — a way just as informed as the new readings of Mark Twain and Herman Melville which have in the last few decades saved their works from consignment to the adolescent’s bookshelf.” In order to appreciate the comic and satiric sides of Poe, Thompson declares, we must relinquish “the traditional Gothicist view of Poe” as either “mad genius of the macabre tale” or “dreamy poet of the ‘ideal’ world of supernal Beauty.“‘9 Proceeding with studies of the manifold resemblances in Poe’s and Twain’s fiction will ultimately help to correct prevailing biases about these two comic ironists who animated their national literature.



1 - V. S. Pritchett, ‘‘Books in General,” New Statesman and Nation (London), 22 (August 3, 1941), 113 as quoted recently by Hamlin Hill in “Huck Finn’s Humor Today,” One Hundred Years of ‘‘Huckleberry Finn”: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1985), p. 304.

2 - Bernard DeVoto, “Mark Twain and the Limits of Criticism,‘’ collected in Forays and Rebuttals (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1936), p. 377.

3 - Alan Gribben, Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction, 2 vols. (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980), 1, 361.

4 - Notebook 38, TS p. 32, Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

5 - Mark Twain-Howells Letters, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1960), 11, 841.

6 - “Three Thousand Years among the Microbes,‘’ in Mark Twain’s Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years, ed. John S. Tuckey (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), p 460.

7 - Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson et al. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975),1, 250-251. In 1864 or 1865, Twain, like many humorists before and after him, wrote a bad parody of Poe’s “The Raven” (1845), “The Mysterious Chinaman” (reprinted in Arthur L. Scott’s On the Poetry of Mark Twain, with Selections from His Verse [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1966], p. 53).

8 - Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), p. 106.

9 - Mark Twain’s Letters to Will Bowen, ed. Theodore Hornberger (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1941), p. 27.

10 - See, for instance, Minnie M. Brashear, Mark Twain: Son of Missouri (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1934), p. 213, n. 39; Walter Blair, Mark Twain & Huck Finn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960), pp. 61, 319-320; Hannibal, Huck & Tom, ed. Walter Blair (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 159, n. 15; Pascal Covici, Jr., Mark Twain’s Humor The Images of the World (Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 148-156;Jack Scherting, “Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Source for Twain’s ‘The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,’ ’ Mark Twain Journal, 16 (Summer 1972), 18- 19; J. R. Hammond, An Edgar Allan Poe Companion (London: Macmillan Press, 1981), p. 194, n. 16; Steven E. Kemper, “Poe, Twain, and Limberger Cheese, ” Mark Twain Journal, 21 (Winter 1981-82), 13-14; and Millicent Bell, ‘‘Huckleberry Finn and the Sleights of the Imagination,” in One Hundred Years of ‘‘Huckleberry Finn‘’ (1985), p. 129.

11 - In “The Enchanted Sea-Wildemess” (written in 1896), Mark Twain’s Which Was the Dream?, pp. 77-86.

12 - I have described these and related images of the painful, the ghastly, and the grotesque in “Those Other Thematic Patterns in Mark Twain’s Writings,” Studies in American Fiction, 13 (Autumn 1985), 185-200.

13 - Judith L. Sutherland, The Problematic Fictions of Poe, James, and Hawthorne (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1984), p. 33.

14 - Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor(Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), pp. 274-276, discussing “Poe-like” parallels in the “weird symbolism and psychological atmosphere” of Twain’s projected novel, “The Great Dark,’ the fragmentary manuscript of which is published in Mark Twain’s Which Was the Dream.?, pp. 99-150. [page 21:]

15 - James C. Wilson, ” ‘The Great Dark’: Invisible Spheres, Formed in Fright,” Midwest Quarterly, 23 (Winter 1982), 229-243.

16 - Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 197, 226.

17 - Michael Egan, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn‘’: Race, Class and Society. Text and Context Series (Sussex: Sussex Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 128, 133.

18 - Tom H. Towers, ” ‘I Never Thought We Might Want to Come Back’: Strategies of Transcendence in Tom Sawyer,” Modern Fiction Studies, 21 (Winter 1975-76), 510; Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood,” Massachusetts Review, 21 (Winter 1980), 638, 644.

19 - G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 8.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]