Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Poe and His Tales,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. xv-xxvi (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xv:]


Poe's tales are his chief contribution to the literature of the world. They are — like “The Raven,” which is a tale in verse — eminently translatable, and they are known in practically every major language. That Poe himself cared more for his lyric poems than for even his imaginative prose there is no doubt. His preface to The Raven and Other Poems (1845) suggests that he was disturbed because the tales were written “with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.” Yet in the preface to the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) he had written, “I cannot conscientiously claim indulgence on the score of hasty effort ... These brief compositions are ... the results of matured purpose and very careful elaboration.” How meticulously he worked over his stories is known to every reader who looks through the variants collected in James A. Harrison's Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1902) or in this edition. At the end of his career Poe seems to have regarded many of the tales as finished, and the revisions made in his last years are relatively few; but I suspect that some stories would have been further polished had time been given the author. He came to value his stories more highly, too, and in the summer of 1849 he told his young friend Susan Archer Talley that he thought he had done all he could in verse, but perhaps not yet in prose.

We first hear of Poe as a writer of prose stories in 1826, while at the University of Virginia. Little is known of them save what is given below in the discussion of “Gaffy.” We hear of no prose stories as having been written at West Point, but before the end of 1831 several short stories had been composed, and at least five were submitted in a prize contest of the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Although none received a prize, five tales were printed anonymously in the Courier, beginning in January 1832. In the summer of 1832 [page xvi:] Poe was in touch with Lambert A. Wilmer, who in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter of August 4, 1832, mentioned reading some manuscript tales by him. Wilmer gave no titles, and it is probable that Poe first conceived the scheme of his Folio Club in 1833. Eleven stories were done, he intimated, when the surviving introduction was finished. He submitted some — how many pieces must remain uncertain — to the Visiter contest, whose terminal date was October 1, 1883. One of the “Tales of the Folio Club” won the prize; the “MS. Found in a Bottle” appeared in the issue of October 19, and from that day Poe was never again to be obscure.

The opening up in 1835 of the Southern Literary Messenger as a channel of publication made it possible for him to gain a national reputation, and, as editor, to give his older stories and some specially written for the Messenger wide circulation. Although it was his criticisms rather than his tales that attracted attention and increased the sales of the magazine, he had now found his métier in the short story. He wrote for periodicals primarily; he wrote perhaps more when the editorial chairs of the Messenger, Burton's, and Graham's called for a monthly feature, but he wrote steadily for the annuals and magazines. Every year saw at least one new tale and sometimes several. As with the poems, although the style varied, the author's powers never flagged, and his finest things are distributed proportionately over the years.


Poe's early stories are marked by extravagant and magnificent over-elaboration, and by a mixture of the serious and ludicrous suggestive of Byron's Don Juan and the younger Disraeli's Vivian Grey. At first he consciously wrote “in the manners of” other writers as he had in his poems, and just as did Robert Louis Stevenson later on. In “The Folio Club” he named some of his models plainly and others by implication. Yet he was not a slavish imitator, and even at the beginning was striking out for himself. The comic and the serious came to be separated, and the style became less elaborate. The extremely ornate Arabesque manner may derive from Bulwer and De Quincey, but it is something far less discursive, and more magnificent. Irving may be felt in places; the “Man of the Crowd” [page xvii:] is Dickens. Others whose influence can be discerned include the obscure Miss Mercer and the forgotten Joseph C. Neal.

In mid-career, Poe's individuality powerfully asserted itself; witness “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia.” “William Wilson” was admittedly derived from a suggestion of Irving's, but is not too much like him. About 1841, after the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque had been collected, there appeared in Poe's stories a tendency toward simplicity, which he had belittled before* — and this tendency increased with every year. Ornament was not eschewed, but, in accordance with Corinna's advice to Pindar, it was now sown not by the sack, but by the handful. In his last years Poe wrote plain, straightforward, functional prose.


In the tales “the evident and most prominent aim of Mr. Poe is originality, either of idea, or the combination of ideas.” “I prefer commencing,” he said, “with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view ... This, I believe, was consciously his first principle. The originality of Poe's tales can hardly be overestimated. The “individuality and strangeness of his stories give them an enigmatic quality that is not readily analyzed ... his work cannot be reduced to the materials he started from and the hints he used.” His stories involve “situations like those in the derivative Gothic fiction ... popular in Blackwood's and other magazines in the 1830's ... Precise borrowings exist ... but Poe chose to borrow some things and not others, and his stories have had lasting success, whereas his presumed models have not. These are the very considerations that lend point to source-research.”§ [page xviii:]

The second principle was variety: he wrote to T. W. White, in his letter of April 30, 1835, “I propose to furnish you every month with a Tale ... no two of these Tales will have the slightest resemblance one to the other in matter or manner.” In a letter to Charles Anthon, written probably in late October 1844, he said, “Variety has been one of my chief aims.” Devotion to these principles remained constant throughout his career. He did, of course, use some ideas more than once, but the combinations are always novel for him. Observe how varied are the five stories that involve ratiocination: Dupin investigates a strange crime, a real murder, and the theft of a letter, which involves only a misdemeanor; in “Thou Art the Man” a villain is caught who aimed to avoid suspicion; in “The Gold-Bug” a puzzle is solved. Of course, Poe is most usually thought of as one who treats of dangerous adventures, and probes the darkest corners of the human soul,* yet “Three Sundays in a Week” is a simple story of young love; “Eleonora” tells of devotion, forgiveness, and happy marriage; and from “The Domain of Arnheim” all strong emotion is excluded. But he does not forego originality even in these. All have singular settings.

A third principle, that of unity, “became a cardinal doctrine of [Poe's] critical theory,” said A. H. Quinn, remarking on Poe's mention, as early as 1836, of “what is rightly termed by Schlegel, ‘the unity or totality of interest’.” Some six months later§ Poe declared that “unity of effect ... is indispensable in the ‘brief article’ ”; and six years later* he set forth what has been called his definition of the short story, formulated in the course of his own practice:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing [page xix:] this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-establisbed design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at last painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.

My friend Floyd Stovall, commenting on Poe's “major contribution to the development of the short story as a literary type,” summarized much in one sentence: “His own special creation was the story having but one main character and one main incident and producing in the mind of the reader a single impression or effect.”


As he grew older, Poe formed a definite theory about imagination, fancy, fantasy, and humor. His essay on N. P. Willis in the Broadway Journal, January 18, 1845, should be read, but a brief synopsis may be given here. Poe rejects the notion of Coleridge that “Fancy combines — Imagination creates.” Nothing at all creates, he says, save the thoughts of God. We may imagine a griffin, hilt “it is no more than a collation of known limbs — features — qualities.” He further declares that:

Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination and Novelty. The Imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms ... it selects only such as are harmonious: — the result, of course, is beauty ... [but] when in addition to the element of novelty, there is introduced ... unexpectedness... the result then appertains to the Fancy ... Carrying its errors into excess ... Fancy is at length found impinging upon the province of Fantasy. The votaries of this latter delight... in the avoidance of proportion.

With this statement few will quarrel, but Poe goes on:

When ... Fantasy seeks ... incongruous or antagonistical elements ... we laugh outright in recognizing Humor ... but when either Fancy or Humor is expressed to gain an end ... it becomes, also, pure Wit or Sarcasm, just as the purpose is well-intended or malevolent. [page xx:]

Poe's ideas concerning imagination, fancy, and fantasy are accepted by many critics; with his notions of humor few will agree. C. F. Briggs wrote that he had “an inconceivably extravagant idea of his capacities as a humorist.”§ He thought combination of elements that do not belong together produced a comic effect, and so aimed at low comedy, farce, and burlesque. Brander Matthews said that “Poe had humor but not good humor”; there is little or no high comedy. In satire Poe does sometimes excel, but the makers of textbooks have tended to select only “Lionizing” from that department. To my mind the best comic piece is “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.,” but it requires for appreciation a considerable knowledge of the world of magazine publishing in the 1830's and 1840's — something few readers of our day can be expected to acquire.


Poe said many times that the writer of stories should invent or select incidents to combine for a preconceived desired effect.* Although this procedure may not have been thought out philosophically before he observed his own practice, it describes that practice in his later years. He selected far more than he invented, but it is in the mastery of combination that his genius is most strikingly exemplified.

Primarily Poe used things he found in print. Most common, probably, were accounts of incidents and events he believed to be factual. Secondly, he used obviously fictional stories. A good example of a combination of materials may be found in “The Oblong Box,” where a recent crime is combined with a dramatic scene in a Byronic poem by Rufus Dawes. Occasionally Poe took up a challenge and wrote an answer to a story by somebody else, as in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” or worked out completely a narrative left in some way unfinished by another, as in “A Descent into the Maelström.” On a few occasions the inspiration came from pictures; “Morning on the Wissahiccon” was written to accompany an illustration; a painting by a friend was the inspiration for “The Oval Portrait.” [page xxi:]

A few tales are founded on personal experiences, as is “Landor's Cottage.” Poe said he based “Ligeia” on a dream, although that story has literary sources too. It is said that he also talked about writing up a delirious vision he had in his last summer, but inspiration from drugs is not supported by any evidence at all. Of the storytellers that he may have heard, little is known. In the Old South, children frequented the kitchen and listened to stories told by the servants; there, one assumes, the poet heard talk of premature burials. Yet little even probably comes from a Negro source, unless the eyeless devil of “Bon-Bon” be related to a voodoo divinity. Poe had at least one friend who may have been a source of ideas. This was a minor magazinist and newspaper editor named Jesse E. Dow. On a letter from Poe to F. W. Thomas, May 4, 1845, Thomas wrote: “It was delightful to hear the two talk togeather [[sic?]], and to see how Poe would start at some of Dow's STRANGE, notions as Poe called them.”

Something may be added on Poe's choice of material, and methods of handling the sensational as well as the impossible. The letter he wrote T. W. White on April 30, 1835 contains a better expression of his purpose when he wrote his early tales than we have anywhere else. White had complained that “Berenice” was too horrible. Poe (who later eliminated several repulsive paragraphs) agreed, but he went on:

The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in natureto Berenice ... in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical ... But whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity. They are, if you will take notice, the articles which find their way into other periodicals, and into the papers, and in this manner, taking hold upon the public mind they augment the reputation of the source where they originated ... To be sure originality is an essential in these things — great attention must be paid to style, and much labour spent in their composition, or they will degenerate into the tu[r]gid or the absurd.

Many of Poe's stories relate events that we do not believe could happen. He discussed treatment of “deviations from nature” in his [page xxii:] review (SLM, September 1836) of Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird's anonymous novel, Sheppard Lee. One method pointed out “is the treating of the whole narrative in a jocular manner throughout ... or the solution of the various absurdities by means of a dream, or something similar.” But, he said, he preferred a “second general method.” It consists, said he:

in a variety of points — principally in avoiding ... directness of expression ... and thus leaving much to the imagination — in writing as if the author were firmly impressed with the truth, yet astonished at the immensity of the wonders he relates, and for which, professedly, he neither claims nor anticipates credence — in minuteness of detail, especially upon points which have no immediate bearing upon the general story... in short, by making use of the infinity of arts which give verisimilitude to a narration — and by leaving the result as a wonder not to be accounted for ... The reader ... perceives and falls in with the writer's humor, and suffers himself to be borne on thereby. On the other hand what difficulty, or inconvenience, or danger can there be in leaving us uninformed of the important facts that a certain hero did not actually discover the elixir vitae, could not really make himself invisible, and was not either a ghost in good earnest, or a bonâ fide Wandering Jew?

He used two and perhaps all three of the themes just mentioned in his favorite tale of “Ligeia.” Important as the passage quoted obviously is, critics have given it scant attention. It certainly tells us what Poe's early ideal was for a kind of story of which his mastery is acknowledged.

Verisimilitude — semblance of accuracy — Poe sought with the zeal of a Daniel Defoe. He was factual about places, dates, costumes, and scenery. (This is not true of “The Bargain Lost,” which is very early, but the “nonsense” disappeared when it was rewritten as “Bon-Bon.”) From about 1835, Poe often made slight concessions to extremely matter-of-fact readers — in suggesting that hallucination resulting from delirium, true insanity, or the use of opium§ might account for the wonders. After 1843, he practically abandoned what could not be credible to his readers. The two stories about Mesmeric wonders are not real exceptions — Poe's readers were ready to believe them, and many did. [page xxiii:]

Like Molière, Poe “took his own where he found it.” He adopted plots with Shakespearean nonchalance. He was skillful at the misapplication of quotations.* Something absurd may be made to serve a serious purpose — witness the end of “The Oblong Box.” And a pregnant expression of Bacon's can be made to create beauty in “Ligeia” and grotesquerie in “The Man that was Used Up.” One should read “How to Write a Blackwood Article” for Poe's satirical account of his own method; he laughed rarely, but he could laugh at himself. What is remarkable is the freedom with which he treated his materials, skillfully combining discrete and various elements to obtain the result desired. As Floyd Stovall said in a clear-headed little paper, he was at all times a conscious artist. He has too carelessly been called a hoaxer in some tales when he was using selected materials with an artist's design for effect.


It has been widely stated that Poe was under the influence of German writers, and numerous scholars have found a fascinating exercise in tracking down his supposed borrowings, especially in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Yet when Poe declared in his preface to the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque that only one of his first twenty-five stories was Germanic, he was telling the truth — or something very like it. Poe's German was self-taught, a bilingual book by Sarah Austin was his primer, and there is no evidence that he progressed beyond it. He could find and copy out a passage from Humboldt's Kosmos, of which an English version was before him, and probably could have read a simple German text by the aid of a dictionary, but that he ever read three consecutive pages of German is to be doubted.§ The German analogues brought forward turn out usually to be less close than something else that can be cited. There is one exception: “Loss of Breath” owes its primary idea to [page xxiv:] Peter Schlehmiel's loss of his shadow, mentioned in all versions of Poe's tale. But Chamisso's story of Peter Schlehmiel was very popular in translations. Any borrowings from German authors must be through translations to be credited.


Poe's characters are sometimes inspired by real people, sometimes by those in books. He has a close relation to a great many of them, something almost every critic has discussed. But they are more independent of the sources than are his plots and incidents. The character who most obviously resembles Poe, William Wilson, has Poe's own birthday and school but, although we are assured in the vaguest terms of his many vices, only his unamiable custom of cheating at cards is given much attention, something which we may be sure a consistent loser like Poe had not practiced.

Even where the author puts much of himself into one of his characters, such as William Wilson, the person does not greatly resemble Poe. Vincent Buranelli well said, “Poe is not Roderick Usher, but the creator of Roderick Usher.” The acute critic N. Bryllion Fagin observed aptly in The Histrionic Mr. Poe (1949) that the poet did not live in his protagonists, but acted them, as an actor plays a role. Although we observe these people's deeds, and sometimes know their innermost hearts, we have not met them, nor shall we meet them. If we knew them as possible friends, we should suffer with them. Forbearance in this respect is part of Poe's artistic mastery.

There are some apparent exceptions. Dupin is everything Poe wished to be, and in some measure was; we think of him, especially in his alter ego, Sherlock Holmes, as a man we know and like. Ellison of “The Domain of Arnheim” has in him, as Poe assured Mrs. Whitman, “much of my soul.” To many, the Duc de L’Omelette is a sympathetic character. But these three are happy and successful.

Some of the women come vividly before us. Morella and Ligeia are prodigies of learning and of affection, able to instruct and inspire the men to whom they are devoted. Clearly they are what the poet longed to find and had not found in life. There is indeed something of Poe's wife, as he wished she might have been, in “Eleonora”; [page xxv:] but only Kate, of “Three Sundays in a Week,” is really much like Virginia Clemm. Annie (Mrs. Richmond) is mentioned in “Landor's Cottage.”


Poe constantly revised his stories, sometimes rewriting them completely. The most completely changed of all is “Bon-Bon,” which differs so much from its prototype, “The Bargain Lost,” that it is hard to say if they be one story or two. “Loss of Breath” was originally short, then much lengthened, and finally shortened. “The Landscape Garden” is so greatly expanded into “The Domain of Arrnheim” that Griswold (and Harrison) presented it as two stories — as do I. Fairly extensive additions were made to “Mesmeric Revelation” and “Diddling.” Much shortened are “Berenice” and “The Oval Portrait.” In some cases, notably “The Spectacles” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” there are versions written at almost the same time which differ so much in phraseology that one suspects the author rewrote them from memory. In most cases, however, a printed text was sent with manuscript changes to the printer of the next appearance, then sometimes corrected a little further in proof.

Poe's skill and taste in revision have been much discussed; a dissenting correspondent wittily writes that greater taste might have been shown in suppressing some of the poorest things — “King Pest,” for example, deserves no such meticulous care as it received from its fond parent. Yet “Ligeia” was much revised and improved; and “The Masque of the Red Death” and others were pruned with a masterly hand, The purposes of revision vary. Errors are corrected, mottoes added — a nonexistent title is removed from Usher's library. Cadences are improved. More pertinent allusions replace less happy references, and witty phrasing supplants occasional flatness. In a very few cases plot is clarified.


It remains to speak of Poe's attitude to and use of allegory in his tales. This is a fertile and provocative field for psychological and interpretative criticism, but only to be touched on briefly in this [page xxxvi:] edition. Poe's own comments are best known from his review of Hawthorne's tales in Godey's Lady's Book for November 1847, in which he says, “In defence of allegory ... there is scarcely one respectable word to be said.” He believes “it must always interfere with that unity of effect which to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world.” However, he does allow it a place and says it is available where “the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a very profound undercurrent so as never to show itself unless called to the surface.” No one supposes that Poe's tales do not have an undercurrent of meaning, and Richard Wilbur's House of Poe brilliantly sets forth a modern poet's response to what he believes is “accessible allegorical meaning” in Poe's work.*

Finally, as Killis Campbell and others have emphasized, it is well recognized now that Poe as an artist was not “out of space, out of time.” He was a representative American of his day. The results of years of research by many scholars, collected in this edition of his Works, are evidence of Edgar Poe's supreme ability to absorb and transform the “news” of his own time, of his own place. This ability was the rock base of the originality that created his tales, no matter what strangeness they may explore.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xvii:]

*  In a letter to Thomas W. White, April 30, 1835, Poe had written: “Nobody is more aware than I am that simplicity is the cant of the day — but take my word for it no one cares any thing about simplicity in their hearts. Believe me also, in spite of what people say to the contrary, that there is nothing easier in the world than to be extremely simple.”

  The quotation is from a review of “Poe's Tales” in the Aristidean for October 1845, which must have been written by Dr. Thomas Dunn English after discussions with Poe, for it includes information that could only have come from Poe himself.

  “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham's Magazine, April 1846, p. 163.

§  Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (1957), p. 219, quoted here, and on pp. 607 and 661, by permission of Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page xviii:]

*  Edwin Fussell well said that Poe made a “restless patrol along the lines between the senses, between waking and sleep, between sanity and insanity ... between the organic and the inorganic, between life and death” (Frontier: American Literature and the American West, 1965, pp. 173-174).

  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941), p. 244.

  See Poe's review of Mrs. Sigourney's Zinzendorf and Other Poems (SLM, January 1836).

§  Reviewing Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches ... By Boz (SLM, June 1836).

*  Reviewing Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in Graham's Magazine for May 1842.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page xix:]

  See the illuminating introduction to Mr. Stovall's edition of The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1965) at p. xxxiii.

  “American Prose Writers No. 2: N. P. Willis.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xx:]

§  Briggs to Lowell, October 13, 1845, quoted by G. E. Woodberry, Life of Edgar Allan Poe (1909), II, 147.

*  For two instances, see Poe's definition of the short story, quoted above, and “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Graham's Magazine, April 1846.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xxi:]

  See John R. Thompson's lecture, The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe, privately printed from his manuscript by J. H. Whitty and J. H. Rindfleish, 1929.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page xxii:]

  The review of Sheppard Lee was reprinted by Griswold in Works (1850), III, 261, and is in every subsequent collected edition, but major commentators seem to ignore its importance as self-revelation.

§  Poe's characters use opium only when they tell a tall tale. See the comments on “Ligeia” for heroic efforts of the matter-of-fact school to explain away a ghost, invisibility, and the elixir of life — the very things Poe discussed in reviewing Dr. Bird.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page xxiii:]

*  See “Marginalia,” no. 78, Democratic Review, December 1844.

  “Poe as a Conscious Artist,” by Floyd Stovall, in College English, March 1963.

  Characteristics of Goethe: from the German of Falk von Müller [et al.], S. Austin (London 1833), 3 vols.

§  Poe's knowledge of French was greater, although he took liberties with his quotations and was frequently incorrect. He had also some knowledge of Italian, having studied that language as well as French with a German professor at the University of Virginia.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xxvi:]

*  Library of Congress Anniversary Lecture, May 4, 1959. Reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (1966), pp. 255-217.





[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Poe and His Tales)