Text: James W. Gargano, “The Protean Mr. Poe: Some Versions of His Changing Shapes
Source: Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, December 1987, Vol. XX, No. 2, 20:46-50


[page 46:]


The Protean Mr. Poe: Some Versions of His Changing Shapes

Burton R. Pollin, Insights and Outlooks: Essays on Great Writers, New York: Gordian Press, 1986. vii-x+ 239 pp.

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore, Maryland: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986. i-iii+ 156 pp.

Of the fourteen essays on “great writers” contained in Burton Pollin’s Insights and Outlooks, the seven devoted to Poe are distinguished by an unfailing enthusiasm for literary values and an encyclopedic but rarely ponderous scholarship. Consequently, although six of the seven essays have been previously published, their verve and meticulous documentation keep them fresh and relevant. Moreover, Pollin’s zestful scholarship often has the added interest of investigating less traveled roads crowded with oddities and curiosities. For example, “The Temperance Movement and its Friends Look at Poe” may seem to promise only research into the recherche, but it also gives a vivid sense of how the power of the temperance press promoted the image of Poe as a debauched genius. Pollin establishes that with 5,000,000 members in 10,000 societies in 1846, the temperance movement had newspapers in “almost every hamlet and city” and did not scruple about printing “edifying” and uncharitable attacks on such a notorious sinner as Edgar Poe. The evidence Pollin has amassed makes it clear that Rufus Griswold’s later and much discussed condemnation, far from being singular, was of a piece with the diatribes that appeared in such crusading newspapers as the Crystal Fount and Rechabite Recorder of New York and the New England Washingtonian.

Another excursion into a relatively unexplored field, “Poe and the Dance,” testifies once again to Pollin’s learning, tireless research, and relish for his subject. He moves with enviable authority from a catalogue of dance motifs in Poe’s tales and poems to informed commentary on the notable [column 2:] dancers Poe might have known about or actually seen in performance. In addition, he enhances his essay with a well-nigh exhaustive history of ballets and operas with dance movements inspired, in whole or in part, by Poe’s works. Finally, Pollin’s unstudied ease in his use of balletic terms and lore gives the impression that he writes as much from an enthusiasm for ballet as from an interest in clarifying and enriching “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Devil in the Belfry,” “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” and “Hop Frog.” Perhaps the one critical demur that readers will consistently advance about “Poe and the Dance” as well as some other essays in Insight and Outlooks is that Pollin’s urge toward completeness and definitiveness leads him to compose inventories of titles and authors as formidable as the catalogues of ships and warriors in epic poems.

If in all of his essays Pollin more or less plays detective, he is at his investigative best in “The Hoax in Poe’s ‘Island of the Fay’ Illustration” and “Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’: The Web Unravelled.” The former persuasively traces the illustration that Poe used for “The Island of the Fay” when it appeared in Graham’s Magazine to John Sartain’s adaptation of an etching by the able English artist John Martin. The route that Pollin travels takes him to the British Museum where he “discovers” Martin’s elaborate plan for “Supplying With Pure Water the Cities of London and Westminster.” Next, he studies Martin’s prints and detects the similarity between one of them and Sartain’s illustration, presumably executed at Poe’s behest. A less observant critic might well have needed a Dupin to point out the connection between Martin and Sartain’s works, but the reproductions of both works and Pollin’s accompanying explanation give plausibility to his contention that Poe’s poetic sketch owes part of its inspiration to Martin’s artistry.

In his discussion of “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” Pollin upstages the polymath Dupin by reducing his omniscience to sham. First of all, Pollin sets out to prove that the much-admired logic of Poe’s ratiocinative tale succeeds only because Poe’s narrative artifices keep his readers from detecting the patchwork he has created. Dupin, then, can display his awesome intelligence because Poe has suspended the probabilities of the real world for his benefit. Assuming that Poe did not blunder into his method (something not every reader will be willing to grant), Pollin tries to unravel Poe’s web by detailing the many occurrences in the story that strain credibility. Pollin’s essay suggests the nature of his own diligent researches: [page 47:] in addition to digging into literary sources, including Cuvier’s Regne animal (crucially quoted by Poe in his story), he consulted the curator of mammals of the Bronx Zoo about orang-outangs, and he walked the streets of Paris observing houses, looking for lightning rods, and inspecting the kinds of courtyards that figure in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Using maps and a sketch to support his case, Pollin finally indulges in a sort of overkill that is not free of the conscious caprice he attributes to Poe. After reading Pollin’s witty exercise, one may well approach “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with a wariness not practiced by admirers of the great detective who, as Pollin believes, have been duped by Dupin.

The remaining three essays in Insights and Outlooks, more conventional but not less learned than those already mentioned, assess Poe’s influence on Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Mann. Originally published in 1973, the essay on James remains provocative despite more recent and more thoroughgoing efforts, conspicuously by Adeline Tintner, to link James to Poe. Essentially, Pollin traces the fluctuations in James’ attitude toward Poe’s works from a youthful excitement over “The Raven” and other poems, to a later deprecation of Poe as the darling of immature minds, and to a still later affirmation of his predecessor’s genius. Pollin shrewdly perceives affinities between the critical values of the two writers in their antipathy to allegory and their insistence on the primacy in literature of aesthetic over moral considerations. Pollin finds James’ greatest debt to Poe, however, in the introspective tortuosities of The Sacred Fount and in such masterpieces as The Golden Bowl and “The Jolly Corner.” Admittedly, James’ growing number of references and allusions to Poe, in addition to outright borrowings from the poems and tales, proves that James entertained a new respect for Poe as he grew older. His adaptation of lines from “The Raven” in The Sacred Fount, his significant mention of Pym in the Preface to volume 17 of the New York Edition, his brilliant use of the same narrative in The Golden Bowl, and his praise of Poe in his autobiography testify that James’ imagination was profoundly stirred by Poe’s inventiveness. Still, despite the solidity of Pollin’s scholarship and the value of his critical insights, I remain convinced that James never overcame his strongly rooted and erroneous view of Poe as a flashy genius more concerned with lurid effects than with a serious depiction of life; as he appropriated Poe, James felt he improved upon his sources.

“Poe and Kipling: A Heavy Debt Acknowledged” [column 2:] presents a “roughly chronological survey” of major and minor poems, tales, and novels by Kipling influenced by major and minor works by Poe. Pollin runs through the Kipling corpus with a mastery of details and an ear nicely attuned to verbal and rhythmic echoes of Poe. In the earlier part of his survey, Pollin demonstrates beyond cavil that “A Tale of Two Cities” borrows from “The City in the Sea” and that two of Kipling’s parodic poems, “The Man Who Could Write” and UAs the Bell Clinks,” owe much to “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” He goes on to discover images, themes, and incidents linking the two authors in such Kipling favorites as “The Phantom Rickshaw,” “The Strange Ride of Marrowbie Jukes,” “The Man Who Would be King,” “A Matter of Fact,” Stalky and Co., and The Light that Failed Lesser known works like “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.,” “Bertran and Bimi,” and “A Death in the Camp” are related to “Mellonta Tauta,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” It appears from Pollin’s detective vigilance that Kipling knew and made use of such potboilers as Poe’s “Tale of Jerusalem” and “Three Sundays in A Week” as well as “William Wilson,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Ligeia,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and other masterpieces. One can only regret that Pollin’s brief essay, crammed as it is with facts and suggestive tidbits, does not explore more fully what Poe’s influence reveals about the darker side of Kipling’s genius.

“Thomas Mann and Poe: Two Houses Linked,” the only essay in Insights and Outlooks not previously published, concludes Pollin’s impressive volume with a searching study of Poe’s “presence” in Buddenbrooks, “Tristran,” “Tonio Kroger,” and Death in Venice. Pollin not only discusses such obvious similarities between Mann and Poe as their characteristic juxtaposition of beauty and art with disease and death, but he calls attention to specific passages in Buddenbrooks in which Poe is praised. Furthermore, he quotes from a letter in which Mann ranks Poe among the “great poets” and an essay in which “William Wilson” is said to be “more profound” than Dostoievsky’s “The Gambler”; he also cites Mann’s diary entry confessing that “Hanno Buddenbrook imitates [Usher]” and that a character in “Tristan” and Madeline Usher are the “same” person. In short, Pollin generally shies away from guesswork, preferring to corroborate his insights and outlooks with extensive and probing scholarship. When he ventures into more speculative criticism, as he does in drawing analogies between Death in Venice and [page 48:] “The Masque of the Red Death,” there appears to be such substantial foundation for his views that opinion takes on the authority of fact.

With a few exceptions, the notes and articles in Professor Fisher’s useful anthology focus upon Poe’s influence and reputation in what may, with some latitude, be called “our times.” Perhaps Edith Wharton, whose “The Duchess at Prayer” Eleanor Dwight relates to “The Cask of Amontillado,” already seems to belong to a decorous and distant past, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “twenties” have begun to recede into history if not mythology. “Our times” is clearly a flexible category, what Fisher calls a “defining term of fair magnitude,” that permits discussion of Paul Valery, whose early work appeared in the late nineteenth century, and William Styron and Ishmael Reed, authors of recent and highly topical novels.

Poe and Our Times, then, documents the appeal of Poe’s work and personality to the modern consciousness — to writers as eminent as Baudelaire, Valery, and Borges and as popular as John Dickson Carr and Stephen King. Most of the fourteen essays address subjects of limited scope and some even seem preoccupied with minutiae, but a number of them, notably those by Maurice Bennett, Bruce Weiner, and Craig Werner, examine their subjects with thoroughness and acuity. All of the essays have merit, however, and collectively they offer substantial proof that, despite his patent defects, Poe belongs to a small group of seminal American writers. Whether by Fisher’s choice or by accident, the studies in Poe and Our Times largely concentrate on the influence of Poe’s short stories and only incidentally upon the impact of his poetry on the modern sensibility. Still, Fisher’s volume, which disclaims any pretension to comprehensiveness, makes clear that Poe remains a vital force in the mainstream of world literature, a master whose diversity and complexity have elicited so many different responses that he appears, in the many works influenced by him, to assume new and unpredictable personae. The value of Fisher’s collection, as a brief review of its essays will confirm, lies in the accounts of how Poe flourishes — reinvented, transformed, and even parodied — in the creations of his literary heirs.

The first two essays in Poe and Our Times deal with the image of Poe fashioned and promulgated by Valery and Baudelaire. Lois Vines’ lucid but far from exhaustive introductory essay maintains that Valery’s early criticism is in many respects a anaive paraphrasing” of “The Philosophy [column 2:]

of Composition.” More importantly, she suggests that Valery’s influential study of the “method” of Leonardo da Vinci owes its inspiration to Poe’s critical writing and that the Investigation of the mind in La Soire‘e de Monsieur Teste has its origins in Dupin’s ratiocination in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Valery’s Poe, obviously, is essentially a poised rationalist rather than a febrile enthusiast, the imaginative philosopher-scientist of Eureka rather than the romanticist who compared science to a “Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.”

Roger Forclaz’s “Edgar Poe and France: The End of a Myth?” (translated by James Kelly Morris) argues that the stereotype of Poe that Baudelaire created for the French public from a limited acquaintance with his subject’s oeuvre has been modified by a wave of new translations. Although he declared that Baudelaire “was not mistaken in making of the author of ‘The Raven’ the archetype of the cursed poet,” Forclaz has more sympathy with Valery’s cerebral Poe than with Baudelaire’s portrait of a genius who was an alien in his own country and could not write without the aid of stimulants. In his survey of French work by and about Poe, Forclaz praises Claude Richard for “undertaking [the] demythification” of Poe; still, although he welcomes evidence of Poe’s rationalism, painstaking craftsmanship, industry, and relatively uneventful life, he fears that Richard’s new emphases threaten to reduce Poe to a commonplace writer who is more journalist than genius.

If the French have had to react against Baudelaire’s recreation of Poe in his own image, Americans have been preoccupied with rescuing him from the egregious Rufus Griswold, whose postmortem vilifications of Poe were accepted as truth well into the twentieth century. In a delightful and instructive review of several dramatic versions of Poe from 1895 to the present, John E. Reilly describes some of the transformations that Poe underwent after Griswold: in an 1895 play, he emerges as “something between Prince Hal and Romeo”; a 1925 Broadway drama turned him into aa child of the ‘Roaring Twenties‘”; another New York production in 1936 provoked Brooks Atkinson’s deserved comment that Poe’s life, when dramatized, runs the risk of degenerating into “minor” versions of Hamlet; and in 1942, Poe became the lurid center of a Hollywood film in ‘which Virginia Clemm and Elmira Royster struggle against each other to win his love. In lucid and engaging prose, Reilly surveys the more recent and sophisticated attempts in ballet, opera, and drama to go beyond the events of Poe’s life into investigations of [page 49:] his psychological history. In doing so, he contends that the essentially quiet domesticity and the literary industry that characterized Poe’s life furnish material more appropriate for documentary treatment than for melodrama or psychobiography. In warning that Poe’s poems and tales should not be read as personal revelations, Reilly encourages an image of him as an aextremely private as well as a very elusive person” about whose psyche “we know precious little.” Many critics, I am afraid, will find it difficult to emulate Reilly’s exemplary restraint and will reject this sharp separation between Poe’s life and his creative work.

Two of America’s most influential modern poets, who spoke for opposed poetic traditions, were almost bound to come up with new and contradictory versions of Poe. Laura Jehn Menides demonstrates that while T.S. Eliot, undoubtedly echoing Henry James, denigrated Poe as an eternal adolescent without exposure to rich and settled traditions, William Carlos Williams praised him as an original American genius. In his own search for models for his highly American writing, the author of Paterson could find in Poe’s prose rather than his poetry a passion for the alocal” and an intense psychological response to the conditions of his American environment. Eliot, on the other hand, saw Poe as the victim of a culturally impoverished country he could neither reconcile himself to nor leave. Conjecturing that each writer constructed an image of Poe that satisfied personal needs, Ms. Menides concludes that Williams adopted Poe as a great progenitor and that Eliot belittled him as the unfulfilled provincial he himself might have been had he remained in the United States.

Some of the essays in Poe and Our Times focus less directly on images of Poe than on the uses twentieth-century short story writers and novelists have made of his works. Uncovering unmistakable parallels between Edith Wharton’s “The Duchess at Prayer” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” Eleanor Dwight points out Wharton’s reliance on Poe’s use of ironic dialogue and setting in working out her plot. Herself an expert literary craftsman, Wharton was obviously impressed by the eerie ending of Poe’s tale and by his technique in dramatizing Montresor’s manipulation of the vulnerable Fortunato. Ms. Dwight is more tentative in suggesting that Wharton’s “The Eyes” and “Kerfol” may be indebted to “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” but she confidently and justifiably concludes that Wharton knew her Poe. [column 2:]

So, too, as Kent Ljungquist makes clear, did Scott Fitzgerald, whose main characters in This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night have interesting affinities with Poe himself as well as with his fictional creations. In his remarks on This Side of Paradise, Ljungquist associates Eleanor Savage with Poe’s Eleonora and Amory Blaine with Poe in his role as “the famous figure of romantic” dissipation. Ljungquist contends that though Poe is rather crudely exploited in Fitzgerald’s early novel, his influence subtly pervades the more sophisticated Tender is the Night. Ljungquist interprets Nicole Diver as a “modern analogue to Poe’s Helen”; he relates Fitzgerald’s punning on “Nicole, Nice, Nicean, and nice” to Poe’s “Nicean barks of yore,” but most significantly, he argues that Fitzgerald’s view of women as both destructive and beautiful may have much in common with the attitude reflected in Poe’s portraits of his Ligeias and Madelines.

Two of the solidest essays in Poe and Our Times, Maurice J. Bennett’s investigation of Poe’s impact on a short story by Borges and Craig Werner’s examination of Poe’s presence in the novels of Ishmael Reed, land Poe squarely in our times. Bennett not only discovers startling similarities between “William Wilson” and “Deutsches Requiem” but ventures the opinion that Borges attempted to complete Poe’s tale by making explicit “the covert metaphysical implications of the Poe original.n Bennett’s illuminating comparison, which adds depth and dimension to both stories, maintains that whereas Wilson desires to achieve brotherhood with mankind before his execution for murder, gorges’ narrator grants his crimes as a Nazi officer to be abominations but obstinately concludes that they promote a transcendent cause awaiting future vindication. Otto, thus, triumphs over his conscience more completely than Wilson does, and Borges intensifies Poe’s irony by transforming Poe’s emphasis on his protagonist’s inner conflict into Otto’s transcendence of personal considerations in his struggle for a new social order.

Werner’s essay shows how Reed borrows motifs and parodies famous passages from Poe’s prose and poetry to establish his own thematic concern with the plight of an America caught in cultural stasis. The Poe caricatured in grade B movies reappears in Reed’s novels as an archetype of white racism in the South, and the United States is depicted as an insane asylum much like that in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” in which the inmates mismanage the institution into chaos. With affinities to Poe the hoaxer, Reed skillfully plays with such motifs as the double, the [page 50:] Red Death, the raven, the ape, and Poe’s “incestuous” and necrophiliac fixations. Werner traces Reed’s ingenuities with an ingenuity of his own and with a lively sense of how Poe and his works have been assimilated into recent black fiction.

Three essays, by Fisher, Carol Marshall Peirce, and Linda McDaniel, attest to Poe’s vitality as an influence in contemporary mystery and fantasy writing. After a fine analysis Of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Fisher contrasts the quite different uses of that masterpiece made by Stephen King and John Dickson Carr. Fisher pronounces King’s The Shining “all too blatantly a stepchild, if not an abortive outgrowth of Poe’s aims and achievements” because it springs from an image of Poe as a tawdry sensationalist obsessed with trauma, eerie setting, and violence. Carr’s Corpse in the Waxworks, on the other hand, is credited with revealing a sound understanding of Poe’s artistry and a “conception of instability within the human self.” Ms. Peirce, without offering any strenuous claim for Poe’s influence on Tolkein, devotes her whole essay to an impressive number of passages from The Lord of the Rings that breathe the same spirit of romance pervading “To Helen,” “El Dorado,” “The Valley of Unrest,” “Fairy-land,” “Eleanora,” and “The Island of the Fay.” In a six-page note, Linda McDaniel uncovers structural and thematic similarities between William Styron’s Set This House on Fire and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Ms. McDaniel finds in Styron’s novel a narrator who corresponds to Poe’s, a character whose function is not unlike Madeline Usher’s, and a sexually deranged protagonist, Mason Flagg, who is perhaps the most corrupt transformation in twentieth-century literature of pitiable and decadent Roderick Usher.

In an excellent analysis that seems to stray from Poe and Our Times’s preoccupation with images and influences, Bruce I. Weiner argues that Poe wrote two kinds of detective or mystery stories, those with intellectual challenges that can be met by logical reasoners like Dupin. and those that pose enigmas incapable of solution. Weiner classifies stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which Poe patronized on occasion, as belonging to a “lower” order of detective fiction. In contrast, “Ligeia,” “The Man of the Crowd,” and “William Wilson” eschew cunning ratiocination and cleverness and more profoundly picture fallen humanity in its confrontation with an inscrutable universe.

Few students of Poe will begrudge the loss of thematic unity that Fisher’s anthology suffers by [column 2:] including tributes to Killis Campbell and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, two renowned scholars whose patient and discriminating research has guided and informed untold numbers of readers and critics of Poe. D. M. McKeithan’s memorial to Campbell illuminates a life of rare dedication to his university, his students, and literature. A man of almost intimidating scholarly attainments who wrote books on Davenant’s The Siege of Troy and The Seven Sages of Rome as well as The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (1933), Campbell helped to give respectability to Poe at a time when Poe and indeed American literature were in need of champions. Henry W. Wells’ very brief reminiscence of Thomas Ollive Mabbott says little about the formidable learning that has given prestige and authority to the Harvard editions of Poe’s poems and tales; it dwells, instead, on those personal qualities that might attract and impress a friend who appreciatively confesses that aft would take a Balzac to do [Mabbott ] justice.”

Fisher’s book, it is evident, does not break new ground or launch bold reinterpretations, but it does provide the educated, general reader a rich insight into Poe’s enduring legacy to literature.

James W. Gargano, Washington and Jefferson College, Emeritus


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