On Edgar Allan Poe

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Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore
Edgar Allan Poe; portrait by Gabriel Harrison, 1896

Edgar Allan Poe was and is a turbulence, an anomaly among the major American writers of his period, an anomaly to this day. He both amazed and antagonized his contemporaries, who could not dismiss him from the first rank of writers, though many felt his work to be morally questionable and in dubious taste, and though he scourged them in print regularly in the course of producing a body of criticism that is sometimes flatly vindictive and often brilliant.

It seems to have been true of Poe that no one could look at him without seeing more than they would wish or he could tolerate. His clothing was always neat and genteel and very shabby. His manner was gracious and refined and notoriously pathetic or outrageous if he happened to have been drinking. He was always too desperate for money to be tactful in his solicitations of acquaintances, being the sole support of a beloved and tubercular wife, a cousin he had married when she was not quite fourteen. He was a popular writer and a very successful editor, and always meagerly paid. The gentility that was his entrée and his armor was of a Southern kind, not much appreciated by the New Englanders who dominated literary life. And the Virginia family among whom he had acquired the manners and tastes of refinement had disowned him without a dime.

The writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson said Poe had “the look of over-sensitiveness which when uncontrolled may prove more debasing than coarseness.” And he does seem to have been overwhelmed by himself, intolerably sensitive and proud and intolerably brilliant, his drinking and bitterness abetting his discomfitures and humiliations. That said, his strange little household of aunt/mother and cousin/wife, through it all and while it lasted, was always reported to be warm and sweet. He was a strong, athletic man who, through the whole of his career, bore up under his weaknesses and afflictions well enough to be very productive, most notably in the unique inventiveness, the odd purity, of his fiction.

Poe published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in 1838, relatively early in his career. It is his only novel. Its importance is suggested by the fact that his major work comes after it. That is, in writing Pym he seems to have come to a realization of the strongest impulses of his imagination. The book shows evidence of haste, or of a certain waning of interest in the earlier, more conventional part of it. Pym’s flaws are sometimes ascribed to the fact that it was written for money, as it surely was, and as virtually everything else Poe wrote was also. This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were disreputable. Everything about him, however neutral in itself, seems to be subsumed into his singular reputation and to reinforce it. Be that as it may, the Narrative makes its way to a climax as strange and powerful as anything to be found in his greatest tales.

The word that recurs most crucially in Poe’s fictions is horror. His stories are often shaped to bring the narrator and the reader to a place where the use of the word is justified, where the word and the experience it evokes are explored or by implication defined. So crypts and entombments and physical morbidity figure in Poe’s writing with a prominence that is not characteristic of major literature in general. Clearly Poe was fascinated by popular obsessions, with crime, with premature burial. Popular obsessions are interesting and important, of course. Collectively we remember our nightmares, though sanity and good manners encourage us as individuals to forget them. Perhaps it is because Poe’s tales test the limits of sanity and good manners that he is both popular and stigmatized. His influence and his imitators have eclipsed his originality and distracted many readers from attending to his work beyond the more obvious of its effects.

Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.

This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.

All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has the grand scale of the nineteenth-century voyage of discovery, and a different and larger scale in the suggestions that emerge as the voyage proceeds, suggestions of more and other meanings in these explorations than were conventionally ascribed to them. Pym is frequently compared with Moby-Dick, which was published thirteen years later, after Poe’s death. As Melville would do, Poe uses whiteness as a highly ambiguous symbol, by no means to be interpreted as purity or holiness or by association with any other positive value. There is blackness, too, in Pym, specifically associated with the populations that inhabit the regions nearest the South Pole. The native people in Tasmania, the island south of Australia then called Van Diemen’s Land, were said by explorers and settlers to be black, and were in any case, with the word “black,” swept into the large category of those vulnerable to displacement, exploitation, and worse. Since Poe was a Southerner and very sensitive about it, especially with regard to the scorn he felt on the part of Northern Abolitionists, it might be assumed that his prejudices would align themselves in a fairly conventional way along the axis of white and black. Yet they do not.

It is seldom mentioned that Poe came of age in a slave society, in a household where slaves were present. Poe does nothing to draw attention to the fact. An account of the business interests of Poe’s foster father, John Allan, quoted by the biographer Jeffrey Meyers, notes that he and his partner “as a side issue were not above trading in horses, Kentucky swine from the settlements, and old slaves whom they hired out at the coal pits till they died.” This last item suggests that Poe might not have been particularly sheltered from an awareness of the ugliness of the system. Charles Baudelaire has encouraged the notion that Poe was an aristocrat manqué. But John Allan was a successful immigrant merchant—by no means the type of gentleman planter who stood in the place of aristocrat in the self-conception of antebellum Virginia. Poe’s aristocrats are surrounded by mists and parapets, never by a society or an economy, and they are always the decadent last flowering of an endless lineage, not offspring of the parvenus of colonial settlement. With the single exception of “The Gold-Bug,” Poe did not write about the South, at least explicitly. But in Pym he does address the matter of race, an issue of great currency at the time.

His contemporary, the prolific and prospering novelist William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina, a defender of his region and its institutions, wrote this:

The savage had disappeared from [Kentucky’s] green forests for ever, and no longer profaned with slaughter, and his unholy whoop of death, its broad and beautiful abodes. A newer race had succeeded; and the wilderness, fulfilling the better destinies of earth, had begun to blossom like the rose…. High and becoming purposes of social life and thoughtful enterprise superseded that eating and painful decay, which has terminated in the annihilation of the red man.

Though this kind of thinking was not unusual then, any more than were the policies it rationalized, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym differs strikingly from these conventions in its treatment of race and European expansion. Poe may not have intended this departure when he began to write the book. Perhaps his aesthetic sense intervened to change the course of the narrative, to make it radical, original, and true.

Something very like the appropriation of Kentucky by white settlers lies behind the events that bring Pym to the visionary conclusion of his narrative. In the early years of the nineteenth century the British began what became the extermination of the native people of Tasmania, who had tried to resist white encroachment on their island. Such appropriations were, of course, a major business of Europeans, or whites, virtually everywhere in the world at the time Poe wrote. They were boasted of as progress, in language like Simms’s. It would have required unusual sensibility in Poe to have taken a different, very dark view of the phenomenon. But he was an unusual man. And the horror that fascinated him and gave such dreadful unity to his tales is often the inescapable confrontation of the self by a perfect justice, the exposure of a guilty act in a form that makes its revelation a recoil of the mind against itself. This is true of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “William Wilson,” major tales written after Pym. It is not true of the tales that preceded it.

Poe’s great tales turn on guilt concealed or denied, then abruptly and shockingly exposed. He has always been reviled or celebrated for the absence of moral content in his work, despite the fact that these tales are all straightforward moral parables. For a writer so intrigued by the operations of the mind as Poe was, an interest in conscience leads to an interest in concealment and self-deception, things that are secretive and highly individual and at the same time so universal that they shape civilizations. In Pym and after it Poe explores the thought that reality is of a kind to break through the enthralling dream of innocence or of effective concealment and confront us—horrify us—with truth.

Early in the Narrative there is a long episode of concealment that becomes entrapment as the ship on which the young Pym has stowed away is taken over by mutineers. The leader of one group of mutineers is identified as “a negro,” and is described as “in all respects…a perfect demon,” though there seems little in his malevolence to distinguish him from the rest. A figure called Dirk Peters intervenes to rescue Pym and his friend, the son of the ship’s captain, from the violence intended for them. Peters is the son of a white fur trader and “an Indian squaw” from the Black Hills. Pym says he “was one of the most ferocious-looking men I ever beheld.”

The description that follows is bizarre, and interesting because it also seems to be forgotten as the fiction develops, though Peters’s association with blackness is finally and surprisingly important. This mutineer, who decides to save the young men out of mere kindness, becomes in the course of the narrative the resourceful, protective, insightful companion of Pym’s harrowing travels. Pym refers to him several times as “the hybrid,” but all the grotesquerie falls away forgotten as the tale moves closer to its own vortex, the acceleration of fictional energy that moves it toward parable until, as in Poe’s moral tales, horror breaks through deception and delusion.

Young Pym is simply telling a story of a kind popular at the time, a nautical adventure lived out beyond the farthest reaches of exploration. The story is disrupted by its own deeper tendencies, the rising through this surface of the kind of recognition that must find expression in another genre. As his ship approaches the region of the South Pole, Pym notes the mildness of the climate, coolly inventorying the resources of the islands, which were assumed by such voyagers to be there for the taking.

Suggestions emerge, however, that the natives of the island of Tsalal, where they land, have yet another narrative about these explorations. Pym says, “It was quite evident that they had never before seen any of the white race—from whose complexion, indeed, they appeared to recoil.” But he quickly begins to suspect that their ignorance is feigned, and also their friendliness. They are shrewd in their dealings with the whites in a way that implies a fearful knowledge of them. He notes their interest in the ship’s armaments, and how careful they are always to outnumber their visitors. On their part, the whites, who, Pym says, “entertained not the slightest suspicion” of bad faith, keep the ship’s cannons trained on the island and go ashore “armed to the teeth” with muskets, pistols, cutlasses, and knives. In the event, their weapons are of no use. All of them are killed except Pym and Peters. The blacks burn their ship, a catastrophic error, since it contains a store of gunpowder.

If Pym were a conventional story, the immense roar and the towering flames might attract the notice of a passing sail—and there would be no need for a note explaining its lacking an ending. But the force of the narrative carries it beyond the fate of individuals, toward an engagement with a reality beyond any transient human drama. White and black might seem to have battled to a draw if rescue had brought the tale to a close. Instead, the region into which Pym’s ship has penetrated increasingly gives evidence that much more is at issue than he is prepared to understand. The natives are appalled at the sight of anything white. Marks on a wall suggest hieroglyphics to Peters but not to Pym. The native language and even the cries of birds echo the biblical “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”—you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The king of the black islands they have violated has a name that sounds like Solomon. The world becomes more alien and repellent as it becomes continuously whiter. Peters falls silent. And then a vast shrouded form rises out of the veil of mist, its whiteness suggesting figures of biblical apocalyptic judgment.

In his prose poem Eureka, Poe concludes that God and the human soul are pervasively present in the universe itself. Truth is intrinsic to reality, as it is to consciousness. The pedantic voice of the postscript knows and does not know the meaning of the ciphers found at Tsalal, “I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock.” Poe has brought the tale to a region that, in his place and time, was far beyond the common understanding, and perhaps beyond his own as well, except in its deepest reaches, where he knew that God is just.