(That’s Poe to the seventh power in case you’re counting.)
I came to Poe relatively late.
Oh, I read “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” in fifth grade in a collection. “The Casque of Amontillado”, for some reason, bored me senseless at that age, and that was the end of my Poe reading except brushes with it in high school literature classes. (It’s now my favorite Poe story, and I’d recommend Vincent Price’s gloating rendition of the tale in An Evening with Poe.)
As an English major, I again came across Poe in my Early American Literature class. It was a largely worthless class taught in a desultory way. But I did do an extensive paper on Poe’s influence on science fiction.
There’s a fairly strong case to be made for regarding Poe as “the father of science fiction”, and Sam Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite seems to have been the first to do that. I don’t believe you can push science fiction as a genre back to anything before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Poe influenced Jules Verne, and, when Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories, the first science fiction pulp magazine, he said he wanted to publish stories in the spirit of Poe among others. But we’re not here to talk about that. You can get some idea of Poe’s influence on and use of science fiction ideas with his entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.
While I listened to all three versions of The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a concept album, centered on Poe, it was twenty years before I really dived into Poe.
In preparation for a trip to Richmond, Virginia and its Edgar Allan Poe Museum, I dived into Stephen Peithman’s excellent The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
I read all his poetry. I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I read his fragmentary novel, The Journal of Julius Rodman. I read “Politian”, an unfinished verse drama. And, yes, I read the strange Eureka, the loyalty test for Poe fandom.
I’ve read most of Poe’s non-fiction. I’ve even read Poe on interior decorating, “The Philosophy of Furniture”, and “Street-Paving”. I’ve read several biographies of Poe.
But there is a huge amount of critical material on Poe that I am ignorant of, and Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe is my first look at that.
Review: Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe by Daniel Hoffman, 1990.
The short of it is that Hoffman’s book does all you could want for a critical book about an author you love. (I would not recommend it for those who have not read the bulk of Poe’s prose and poetry.) In mostly clear prose, Hoffman points out reoccurring motifs and plot elements in Poe’s work, makes you want to go back and re-read certain stories to find things you missed. For instance, what exactly is the relation of the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” to his murderer?
He finds, appropriately enough for a writer so famously concerned with unity of effect in his work, that there is a common theme and philosophy in Poe’s works.
As I understand his argument, and greatly simplifying a 335 page book, Hoffman contends Poe was most obsessed with Beauty as symbolized most often by the death of a beautiful woman, “the most poetical topic in the world” according to Poe. That Beauty, which to Poe was the same as Truth, passes into another realm, a realm that we can access upon death when we are re-unified with the universe. There our powers of “ratiocination”, Poe’s phrase applied to the powers of Auguste Dupin, the ur-private detective of world literature, can be used unhindered by the tribulations of our flesh in this world.
This great metaphysical idea, argues Hoffman, is there in Poe’s earliest poems. (Hoffman, as a poet, in not very impressed by Poe’s poetry.) He thinks the idea was much better worked out in his stories and in what Hoffman claims is Poe’s masterpiece: Eureka: A Prose Poem.
Hoffman has done a good job explaining what’s really going on in Poe’s odd — and rather boring — Eureka. He has convinced me it is not a piece of crank science, but, as Poe said, an “Art-Product”. A literary work that tries to explain the natural world, but is not science itself, is not without precedence. Most famous is Lucretius De Rerum Naturia, which examined the idea of an atomistic universe. But there were others, less known: The Enneads by Plotinos, Sir John Davies’ Orchestra, and W. B. Yeats’ later A Vision. (None of which I’m familiar with.)
Reunifying with the universe is what’s at the end of “Ms. Found in a Bottle” and Pym as their heroes hurtle toward mysterious dooms that also promise revelation of the universe’s mysteries. It’s what the revelation from beyond death’s veil is at the end of “The Colloquy of Monos and Una”. The book is, in the end, a look at Poe’s metaphysics and just how obsessive Poe was about expressing them in many poems and stories, but there are enlightening side trips as Hoffman breaks down his examination of Poe’s stories into groups.
There are the “disentanglements”, Poe’s stories of detection and ratiocination. Hoffman credits Poe with the brilliant innovation of creating a sidekick for Dupin, a character that both allows the detective to explain his deduction and whose relative stupidity we can relate to.
Somebody going somewhere and reporting back is, as Hoffman points out, a typical Poe device, and he looks at Poe’s “Voyages”. In the “Dull Realities” section, we look at Poe’s not always successful satires and hoaxes and japes of American life and the often underlying seriousness and disenchantment with his lot as an impoverished man barely making a living while trying to better American letters. Stories with doppelgangers, madness, murder, and Poe’s famous “imp of the perverse” get their own section as do stories of peculiar marriages.
Hoffman seems a devotee of W. H. Auden’s New Criticism school, so he often feels the need to find some sort of allegory in Poe’s stories. I’m somewhat skeptical. Sometimes stories are just stories, but he also does point out that Poe didn’t swear off allegory, just bad allegory that didn’t work in the context of a story.
While he frequently resorts to Freudian analysis, he’s not prepared to go as far as Marie Bonaparte’s The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytical Interpretation, and he mocks her at points. However, he goes off the rails with an unconvincing analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
Hoffman’s prose is sometimes idiosyncratic. We get references to “Idgar Poe” and “Hoaxiepoe”. The book is also something of a dual biography: Hoffman’s lifelong study of Poe and the writer’s life.
The book concludes with a nice chapter on why Poe the man has so many legends of madness and intoxication about him. I agree with Hoffman that, because Poe so frequently wrote about our dark desires to harm ourselves, his “imp of the perverse”, Freud’s “death wish”, we can not accept that, in the end, he was a gentleman who contended with poverty and, perhaps, alcoholism.
Some Brief (and Lazily Vague) Thoughts About Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith
Lovecraft said Poe was his god, and several of his earlier works can be seen as reworkings of Poe stories. He even specifically references Poe in his “The Shunned House”. But it seems to me that Lovecraft inverted Poe’s motif of heroes seeking out destruction. It’s expressed in Poe’s “Ms. Found in a Bottle”. At its end, the narrator says his “curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death.” Death, then, is a prelude to a hoped for revelation in Poe, an exultant possibility.
Lovecraft starts many a story with a narrator already having his revelation about the state of the universe, an unwelcome revelation gained before death. Clark Ashton Smith, whose beautiful “The Uncharted Isle” is a reworking of Poe’s “Ms. Found in a Bottle”, had several stories where characters operate under some compulsion of self-destruction, most notably “The City of the Singing Flame”. But, while this is a Poe-like “imp of the perverse”, there is little talk of a hoped for revelation at the end of that psychic dissolution.
Some of My Other Poe Related Reviews
Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman
Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn
Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories by Harry Lee Poe
Lurid Dreams by Charles Harness. While I object to Freudian interpretations of Poe, I did like this science fiction novel which uses them in its depiction of Poe.
Poe ed. Ellen Datlow
And you can find virtually all of Poe’s writing at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.