Text: Kent Ljungquist, “A Decade of Baltimore Poe Society Lectures, 1976-1985,” Poe Studies, December 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 18:27-28


[page 27, continued:]

A Decade of Baltimore Poe Society
Lectures, 1976-1985

As Alexander G. Rose notes in his authoritative History of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (1982), the organization’s founding grew out of a commemorative meeting on January 19, 1923. It was not until 1970 that the society began to publish an annual lecture delivered before its members, an event now held every October that brings to Baltimore a practicing Poe scholar. This survey of the published lectures over the past decade discloses clearly the organization’s role in stimulating Poe scholarship of substance and quality.

In 1975, John E. Reilly spoke on The Image of Poe in American Poetry (1976) and provided an informative overview of Poe’s reputation, as reflected in a body of verse appearing from 1830 to the middle of our century. Reilly’s census of poetry devoted to Poe encompasses over three hundred items, a total that does not include the innumerable parodies that provide explicit or covert commentary on his work. Poems published in Poe’s lifetime add density to his biographical portrait; those published afterwards provide insight into the evolution of literary taste. The abundant detail in Reilly’s record legitimates his claim that poems about Poe constitute a small chapter in American literary history, a chapter significant enough to invite subsequent scholars to explore the anxiety of influence. Given the richness of the material in Reilly’s survey, it is, in fact, somewhat surprising that few individual studies of Poe’s poetic impact have ensued. Even Reilly’s own promised checklist, a comprehensive, [column 2:] annotated bibliography of fiction, drama, and poetry devoted to Poe, has yet to appear.

A more thematic orientation distinguishes the subsequent year’s lecture, James Gargano’s The Masquerade Vision in Poe’s Short Stories (1977). Commenting that the symbolic masquerade plays a significant role in several key works of the American Renaissance, Gargano turns specific attention to the examination of this motif in “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Hop-Frog.” Carrying important epistemological implications, the masquerade augurs the ultimate limitations of human perception in an unfolding, potentially horrifying cosmic drama. A common theme among the tales Gargano discusses is the assault of the strange and terrifying on the texture of commonplace reality. After detailed analysis of the three tales already mentioned, Gargano briefly explores the implications of the masquerade technique in “King Pest,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Ligeia.” A thoughtful meditation on a major theme, Gargano’s essay is as sharply written as his previous Poe studies.

With Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV’s The Very Spirit of Cordiality: The Literary Uses of Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (1978), the Baltimore lectures assumed a different character. Unlike Reilly’s and Gargano’s pamphlets, somewhat wide-ranging in their treatment of general topics, Fisher adopts a sharper focus and employs full-scale scholarly documentation and apparatus. Having the appearance and detail of a brief scholarly monograph, his printed lecture includes an appendix (a reprint of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter text to “MS. Found in a Bottle”). Fisher’s purpose is not to add to the chronicles of Poe’s alleged drinking escapades. As his title indicates, his aim is to connect Poe to a literary tradition in which alcohol plays a role in imaginative contexts, a “literature of intoxication” that includes such writers as Rabelais, Coleridge, Moore, and De Quincey. In Tales of the Folio Club, more particularly, Poe drew on a body of material that treats drunkenness as a literary fad. Fisher offers cogent remarks on Poe’s penchant for comic and serious wordplay in matters related and unrelated to drinking, a topic in Poe studies well worthy of further investigation. The central topic of the entire lecture, in fact, should repay Fisher’s more sustained attention. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, with its title character’s high-spirited escapades that exploit the motif of the drunken sailor, seems an apt text for Fisher’s kind of analysis. And Poe’s literary criticism, which so often imitates the techniques of “Christopher North” John Wilson) and William Maginn, is well suited for analyses of a spirited kind. In the words of a June 1855 reviewer in Putnam ’s Monthly Magazine, Wilson and Maginn represented a “rollicking, jovial crew” who reeked of “an old drink-shop — or of whiskey fumes and stale tobacco”; they distinguished themselves as literary showmen who exploited “drinking and eating boasts” as well as “gin-room slang.” In Poe’s works, the publishing house and the alehouse may show a close proximity, an intimacy that Fisher’s lively monograph delightfully demonstrates. [page 28:] The connection that Richard P. Benton draws in ‘Bedlam Patterns’: Love and Madness in Poe’s Fiction (1979) is that between “nervous love,” as D. H. Lawrence defined it, and psychological derangement. Drawing on the works of Erich Fromm and R. D. Laing in addition to Lawrence, Benton schematically explores a group of tales in which sexual repression leads to mental breakdown or emotional disturbance. ‘‘Ligeia” shows how passion for knowledge distorts the ability to love; “Eleonora” demonstrates how civilizing forces inhibit natural instincts; “Morella‘’ and ‘‘Usher” present textbook cases of sexual pathology. If his psychological formulations seem too pat and claims about Poe’s sexual anxieties too speculative, Benton does clearly outline the contours of a major conflict in Poe’s fiction.

With J. Lasley Dameron’s Popular Literature: Poe’s Not-so-Soon Forgotten Lore (1980), the Baltimore lecture returned to traditional source study. His debts to Margaret Alterton, Robert D. Jacobs, and Ruth Hudson duly acknowledged, Dameron turns to American and British periodicals that served Poe as storehouses of information and inspiration. Dameron’s claim that Poe’s taste was decidedly neo-classical is obscured when specific magazine pieces are examined. Examples of “popular literature” to which Poe may have turned include “The Balloon Expedition” in the 1836 London Athenaeum (probable source of‘‘The Balloon Hoax”), Robert Macnish’s ‘‘Who Can It Be?” in the 1827 Blackwood’s (possible source of ‘‘The Man of the Crowd‘’), and articles on science that may have influenced “Usher.” Dameron’s methodology seems a bit loose, and he acknowledges that these magazine pieces may not be direct sources. He makes his strongest case for the Athenaeum article.

If source study is a well-worn path in Poe studies, traditional approaches can offer fresh insights into Poe artistry, as is evident from Helen Ensley’s Poe’s Rhymes (1981). Demonstrating an impressive mastery of the technical effects in verse, Ensley provides an authoritative survey of Poe’s varied uses of rhyme. Through ample reference to specific texts, helpfully highlighted by stress marks, she concludes that many strictures against Poe’s excessive musicality have been unfounded. By no means uncritical about Poe’s occasional extravagance in sound effects or banality in diction, Ensley dubs Poe a prime nineteenth-century experimenter in versification, a precursor of modern poets in his careful use of approximate or light rhymes. The success of Ensley’s monograph suggests that the time is ripe for further investigation of Poe’s rhythmical and metrical techniques in the light of up-to-date theories of prosody, an approach that also might explore the treatment of his verbal texts in musical composition.

Ensley devotes brief space to Poe’s comic tonalities, the central topic of Donald Barlow Stauffer’s The Merry Mood: Poe’s Uses of Humor (1982). Poe’s playful wit, in Stauffer’s view, has been undervalued, despite its prevalence, especially in his magazine reviews. Poe showed almost an obsessive delight in wordplay, a technique used in both satiric and serious tales. The underrated series “Autography,” for example, a sendup of the contemporary literati, demonstrates Poe’s unique talent for parody. His satiric tales of the publishing [column 2:] world also disclose self-referential literary techniques that presage similar developments in contemporary experimental fiction. Stauffer, on the whole, provides a well-documented, highly appreciative perspective on Poe’s humorous tendencies, a talent noticed long ago by William Carlos Williams in In the American Grain.

The last three Baltimore lectures (1982-S5) share common traits in dealing with the nexus Poe establishes between his aesthetic principles and his artistic practices. My essay, The Grand and the Fair: Poe in the American Landscape (1983), looks at the short shrift given to Poe by students of American scenery, investigates The Journal of Julius Rodman as an imperfect attempt to integrate the scenic values of beauty and grandeur, and analyzes ‘‘Ligeia” as a more successful reconciliation of these aesthetic categories G,. Richard Thompson transfers the Baltimore focus from landscape to dreamscape in Circumscribed Eden of Dreams: Dreamvision and Nightmare in Poe’s Early Poetry (1984). The longest and most ambitious of the Baltimore lectures, Thompson’s study approaches the length of a substantial monograph. He explores the apocalyptic dreamscape outlined in “Dream-land” and suggests that the gentler settings in Poe’s early poems ultimately become transformed into nightmare landscapes. In a revisionist interpretation of the Tamerlane volume, Thompson observes “consistent development of tension between visionary experience and circumscription of that experience” (p. 8). Less polemical about Poe’s ironic and hoaxical tendencies in this essay than in his previous studies, Thompson does note framing devices and the tone of amused Byronic distance in “Tamerlane.” The title poem introduces the unifying theme of the volume: visionary dreams that are overwhelmed by the ill demon of imagination. A highlight of Thompson’s penetrating survey of the early poems is his appreciative reading of “The Lake — To —,” a poem that locates both terror and delight in the rite of artistic passage.

In the most recent lecture, Poe and Passion (1985) Glen A. Omans deftly handles some slippery terms in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics to clarify what Poe means in his scattered comments on passion and its role in poetry. Downplaying Poe’s reliance on Common Sense philosophy, Omans aligns Poe’s emphasis on the degrading effects of passion with German aesthetic theory. His controversial thesis, which directly counters that of Robert Jacobs in Poe: Journalist and Critic, will probably not win many adherents. The connection Omans draws between Poe’s comments and those in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, nevertheless, merits our careful scrutiny.

In sum, this handsomely printed series published by the Baltimore Poe Society presents a wide range of approaches unified only by the goal of presenting good scholarship on topics of broad interest. The speakers’ program of the Society represents a uniquely successful melding of the efforts of scholars from around the country with the commitment of a local organization seeking to commemorate Poe’s distinctive artistic achievements.

Kent Ljungquist, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]