Text: Richard P. Benton, “An Introduction to Poe,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 19:25


[page 25, column 1:]


An Introduction to Poe

Bettina L. Knapp, Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984. 226 pp. Cloth 113.95.

Professor Knapp’s little volume belongs to Ungar’s “Literature and Life Series”; it is designed as an introduction to Poe and his work for beginning readers who wish to know more about his life and his literary achievements. The volume consists of an introduction and three main chapters: the first a biographical sketch, the second a discussion of the poems, and the last an analysis of the tales. A conclusion, a selected bibliography, and an index complete the work.

Knapp is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She prefers to approach literature from the perspective of Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic theory of archetypes while at the same time making comparative-literature analogies with works of authors whose language differs from that employed by her subject but who have worked in a similar vein. In applying this approach to Poe’s fiction, for instance, she partitions the tales into categories dealing with such archetypal images as the “Descent,” the “Anima,” the “Shadow,” and the “Mystical Quest.” At the same time, in dealing with Poe’s works generally she maintains a rather consistent comparative-literature orientation which is both analogical and historical.

Knapp’s combined approach is in the main sound enough, and the reader follows her analyses with interest and profit. She provides the reader with some understanding of the psychological bent of Poe’s texts as well as furnishing him or her with analogies and historical information which clarify her discussion and lend support to her argument. Few of her insights, however, are not already known to Poe scholarship. Her Jungian methodology is so formulaic that none of her analyses catches the reader by surprise or impresses one with the force of its originality. Although a good standard introduction to Jungian criticism and the comparative method as applied to Poe, Knapp’s criticism leaves out too much that needs to be said about Poe’s aesthetics in any general introduction. For instance, she neglects altogether to discuss that important dimension of his art involving his predilection for irony, satire, and parody; his consistent tendency to be half-serious and half-funny at one and the same time; and his penchant for the exercise of wit and humor. Further, she has made little use of the valuable insights produced by the large amount of imaginative Poe scholarship that has appeared over the past fifteen or twenty years. For instance, although she refers to G. R. Thompson’s Poe’s Fiction (1973) in her notes, its thesis seems to have totally escaped her. And while [column 2:] she mentions the title of Poe’s important novel Pym, her failure to discuss a work which has currently excited the interest of a host of Poe scholars is a serious deficiency.

Surprising in a professor of French is Knapp’s failure even to mention the startling French criticism of recent years or to include any such criticism in her bibliography, although much of it — by such critics as Bachelard, Poulet, Forclaz, Claude Richard, Barthes, Ricardou, Derrida, or Lacan — has been translated into English. While also neglecting Valery, she does, however, provide remarks by the nineteenth-century Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Huymans to support some of her discussion. Finally, when she prepared her “Selected Bibliography,” Knapp was apparently unaware of the succeeding volumes in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe which followed Mabbott’s Poems of 1969: Tales and Sketches 1831-1842 and Tales and Sketches l 843-1849, both published in 1978. She similarly ignores Pollin’s The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe: Vol I: The Imaginary Voyages, published in 1981. Knapp’s “Secondary Sources” also display important lacunae: how could Arthur Hobson Quinn’s scholarly biography of Poe have been omitted in favor of Bittner’s informal Poe: A Biography (1962)? Or how could Patrick Quinn’s The French Face of Edgar Poe (1957), a key critical study, have been passed over? But enough is enough!

Apart from the above caveats, Professor Knapp’s volume is sound and interesting enough to serve a useful purpose in introducing Poe to beginning readers who might be inclined to entertain a Jungian-comparative approach to the subject. I would prefer, however, that apart from reading Poe himself, new students of Poe first run through Buranelli’s 1977 edition of Edgar Allan Poe (Twayne) or Geoffrey Rans’ little volume by the same title (1965). Then they might tackle Knapp and go on to more sophisticated discussions.

Richard P. Benton, Trinity College, emeritus


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]