Transatlantic Poe

Eliot, Williams and Huxley, Readers of the French Poe

by Maria Filippakopoulou (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 273 Pages


Was Edgar Allan Poe's work vulgar or a «new specimen of beauty»? Did he represent a critical puzzle for his influential readers or a basis for redefining American literature? This book offers a new understanding of Poe's literary significance by considering the transatlantic reception of the author in French translation.
The translation of Poe into French by Charles Baudelaire ennobled Poe aesthetically and catalysed a wave of critical responses to his work across the Atlantic in the early twentieth century. Readings by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Aldous Huxley here become the focus of transatlantic analysis.
Contrastive close readings of key essays in which these Anglophone writers engaged with the French Poe set out to achieve two things: first, they shed new light on the constitution of Poe's commanding critical reputation; secondly, they test comparative methodology as the primary tool of transatlantic enquiry. Situated within an expanding body of Poe scholarship but atypical in design, this book promises to bring about unexpected insights by systematically relating and comparing French and Anglophone discourses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Baudelaire’s project: A refracted Poe
  • Chapter 1: Hardwiring Poe in global memory
  • Chapter 2: Poe, Baudelaire’s spectral original
  • Chapter 3: Papery Poe
  • Part II The French Poe
  • Chapter 4: Williams’s defence of Poe
  • Chapter 5: Eliot’s fantasy of Poe
  • Chapter 6: Huxley on Poe: Defining vulgarity, prescribing disruption
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


The final chapter of this volume, ‘Huxley on Poe’, was previously published as ‘Intimacy and Recoil: Huxley reads Poe in French’, Symbiosis. A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations 8/1 (April 2004), 77–89. Thank you to the editors for their kind permission to reproduce the article here. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


… les choses existent, nous n’avons pas à les créer;
nous n’avons qu’à en saisir les rapports

[things exist, we don’t have to create them;
we only have to grasp their relations]

Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who lived for a length of time in the American Midwest and who wrote about American literature, in 1889 dismissed it in the following words:

American literature, by and large, is not the expression of American life that the newspapers are. It makes no impression; it is too little of this world; it prates too much and feels too little; it contains too much fiction and too little reality; it does not portray, it praises; it speaks with eyes turned heavenward; it fiddles with virtue and Boston morality; … if a hurricane were to come along, a gust of modernity through this poetic wretchedness, it would help. … American literature does not show any trace of influence from our present-day literature. No thirst for development burns in these poets … What do they care that there are men in the great civilized lands who have thought of writing about life, that there are others who have begun to depict the mimosa-like stirrings of the human psyche? … Thus Americans are cut off from reading modern literature in the original. ← 1 | 2 →2

Against this background of insular complacency Hamsun added ‘I exclude a little of Poe’.3 Even at such early days Edgar Allan Poe’s exceptional status was commonplace in intercultural discussions of literature. However, his specificity, unlike other American writers of global renown, is that he has turned out to be the American author who tested the capacity of American critics to read national literature in the original. Poe’s work translated back from the French4 brings to sharp focus the challenges facing Anglo-American criticism in its various attempts at self-definition. It may seem sensational to say that there was a single moment when Anglo-American criticism became more Anglocentric than ever as it tried to acknowledge the deviant critical teachings of the French: this was in the early part of the twentieth century when Edgar Allan Poe’s transatlantic meaning was probed by William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley. The catalyst for these probings was Charles Baudelaire’s project of translation by which Poe was re-invented and appropriated in mid-nineteenth-century French letters first and then world literature.5 The present work identifies these three critical instances as distinct responses to Baudelaire’s project of ennoblement, to which they refer explicitly, and builds a system of relations out of them that spans nearly a century. ← 2 | 3 →

Modelling transatlantic inquiry: Poe without Poe

Before elaborating on the nature of the relational system in focus, a point should be made about the eclectic choice of texts, Baudelaire’s critical pieces and those of the Anglophone critics. The shortcut ‘Baudelaire’s project’ I will be consistently using in this volume wishes to suggest that Baudelaire handled the original author of the tales he translated in an assertive, holistic, culturally meaningful way that was to prove highly influential for Poe’s afterlife. Baudelaire’s project contains both translation and criticism, the latter a comprehensive term for as diverse a writing as essays, translator’s notes and prefaces, philological exegesis, cultural commentary, biographical relating – to name its most important elements. As the layout of the study makes evident, I have prioritised the critical aspect of his project for three reasons. The first is that the evidence in existing Poe scholarship suggests that Poe’s reception in France and beyond has acquired compelling critical mass thanks to the critical pieces Baudelaire wrote to accompany the translations of the tales. This does in no way underplay the actual effect of his translations which have indeed made waves in Europe and globally. In actual fact, Baudelaire’s translations overwhelmed the publishing industry to such an extent that, in Jany Berretti’s words, ‘la traduction de Baudelaire pour certains contes de Poe a réussi à confisquer entièrement l’attention des lecteurs français, à représenter pour eux l’œuvre entière de l’écrivain américain.’6 [Baudelaire’s translation has succeeded for some of the tales to entirely attract the attention of French readers, to represent for them the entire work of the American writer]. The pride of place I have assigned to Baudelaire’s diverse criticism rather suggests that the commercial and critical success of his translations was anticipated, orchestrated and regulated to a great extent by the actual way in which Baudelaire commented upon the translations and manipulated their overall purpose. For indeed, Baudelaire’s magnetic discourse on Poe ← 3 | 4 → weighed upon the early stages of Poe scholarship and especially the comparative, transatlantic discussion of their relation.7 The radiance of Baudelaire’s project, covering the entire gamut from the evangelical to the misguided, is beyond doubt and has radically conditioned my methodology and focus.

The second interconnected reason is that his metatexts8 are crucial as a type of annotation that envelops the translations, clarifies and enhances their purpose and thus facilitates and shapes the introduction of the figure of Poe to the French literary setting. Berretti spoke of the project as a ‘traduction partielle’ [partial translation] to suggest that Baudelaire omitted to translate certain of Poe’s stories without in the least affecting their reception by the French, who, to this day, believe that ‘cette traduction … représente à elle seule toute la production de l’écrivain américain’ [this translation represents on its own all the production of the American writer];9 and a few lines further down the comparatist concludes that the text resulting from these ‘partial’ translations ‘doit apparemment sa victoire aux préfaces qui ← 4 | 5 → l’accompagnèrent’ [owes its apparent triumph to the accompanying prefaces]. The final reason for prioritising the criticism is that the elite audience that the present work has identified as remote readers of the Baudelairean project – Williams, Eliot and Huxley – appear to have developed a compelling response to the critical terms of Poe’s rehabilitation in France.10 In a way, the shift of focus away from the translations serves my primary concern with the manner in which Baudelaire’s critical texts made his fascination with Poe more striking and stressed it unwaveringly for his readers. It is in this sense that his critical writing comes to fortify the invocation of readership mobilised in the translations and organise his strategy of ‘littérarisation’ in relation to Poe’s teaching. The notion was coined by Pascale Casanova to suggest that translation is not simply an interlinguistic operation but a form of recognition by a prestigious literary system, and, as such, is of particular relevance for reception studies.11 In a manner consonant with the norms prevalent in his day, Baudelaire re-contextualised the original work for his audiences, assigned experiential value to it and thus made it intelligible in its new discursive context.

Which is why the relation between critical assortment and translation was the first to be examined within the framework of the present study: Baudelaire’s critical writing represented his attempt to anticipate a reception of the translations that nineteenth-century mass market logistics made intermittent and fragmentary – indeed to preclude these fragmentation effects. Simply put, Baudelaire had to foreground his individual intention amidst other agents of signification in order to promote his own ← 5 | 6 → reading of Poe’s work for the new audience. The textual analysis of Part I will show how Poe’s aesthetic worth is lifted as the object of disputing claims as Baudelaire’s narrating voice and vision confidently negotiates with other competing agents: positive ones as the fabricated icon of Maria Clemm or inimical to his purpose such as the cultural demotion of art projected onto the American society. In relation to these instances of negotiation, I will attempt to show that one cannot decide on the basis of grammatical articulation alone whether one is to be read to the exclusion of the other; and that, as a matter of fact, it would be more accurate to say that such clashes are dramatic opportunities exploited thoroughly in Baudelaire’s virtuoso orchestration, thus proving how accurately scholarship described his acculturation project when it referred to it as ‘haute vulgarisation’ [high popularisation].

In terms of modern-day translation criticism, Baudelaire’s effort can be qualified as a performative,12 a bravura gesture of cultural re-production that exploits the discrepancy between the subject of proposition and the subject of enunciation, a semiotic distinction which was succinctly explained by Homi Bhabha:

The linguistic difference that informs any cultural performance is dramatized in the common semiotic account of the disjuncture between the subject of proposition (enoncé) and the subject of enunciation, which is not represented in the statement but which is the acknowledgment of its discursive embeddedness and address, its cultural positionality, its reference to a present time and a specific space. The act of interpretation is never simply an act of communication between the I and the You designated in the statement. ← 6 | 7 →13

The present study eclipses the role of translation proper so as to bring out more fully the transatlantic impact of a reading that was thickly encapsulated in Baudelaire’s critical pieces. That being the case, the shorthand ‘Baudelaire’s project’ has a double semiotic value. The series of close readings that constitute Part I form a comprehensive category encompassing its successful reception within the French and European geo-space. It is with such a loaded, combined weight that Baudelaire’s project will come into discordant contact with the early twentieth-century Anglophone discourses of Williams, Eliot and Huxley, in what appears to be Poe’s second cultural activation in critical time. Theirs are mediated responses to Baudelaire’s project, the decisive turning point in Poe’s reception in recent Anglophone criticism and focus of Part II.

The second point about the texts selected concerns the reasons that made the Anglophone critical metatexts of Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams an obvious choice, besides their explicit reference to the refracted Poe installed by Baudelaire via his overall impact in modernist aesthetics. In short, their personal involvement in post-Great War modernist agendas, predominant in Western Europe, their transatlantic trajectories14 and domiciles, primed them ideally to take in Baudelaire’s act of co-optation. In a sense, these writers of poetry and prose were not free to dislike Poe, nor were they free to insulate themselves from Baudelaire’s bravura move by simply falling back on the handed down marginalisation of Poe in American letters. It was imperative for them to acknowledge the opening up of his work’s social meaning that Baudelaire brought about. Especially in the cases of Eliot and Huxley, their somewhat vexed recognition of the French appraisal can be fruitfully described as a symptom of ‘auteur theory’ – an intellectual attitude valorising a representation of the world ‘as it is seen under the pressure of a personal vision’.15 By initiating a ← 7 | 8 → dialogue with the auteur Baudelaire had become in self-conscious modernist communities by the time these writers articulated their aesthetic positions, they kick-started a debate that concerned the public meaning of a literary work that used to belong, as far as its domestic canonical perception was concerned, to the domain of facile magazine literature – a ‘nativist’ debate, as Jerome McGann would have it.16 The results Baudelaire achieved single-handedly can be clearly read in their evaluative pronouncements. As the present work will fully illustrate, the historical negotiation of Poe’s public meaning was essentially grafted on Baudelaire’s private imagining of him, whose prestige bore upon these critics’ decision to initiate an equally prestigious reclamation of Poe in the name of national letters.

The abstract system into which these instances are arranged is interlinguistic and transatlantic in that it traces a trajectory that moves outward from Baudelaire’s original (in the diverse sense of the source text, the figure of Poe and Baudelaire’s refashioned image of the writer) to his target (French) literature and culture. But it also takes another route across time, towards Poe’s asynchronous native context: the post-Baudelairean, Anglo-American criticism assessing Poe’s importance in the light of the French poet’s figuration of him. The focus of the study, therefore, becomes the two isolated moments in Poe’s reception, one translational the other nativist, which are taken to be interlinked and are accordingly pitted against one another. These meta-readings of Poe’s work are not assessed with relation to their original, as they might have been in a more conventional setting, but as reflecting one another. By connecting the two disparate moments of reception, the present work seeks to puzzle out the effects a successful acculturation project like Baudelaire’s had on a context other than the one he targeted. My overriding assumption was that the notion of Poe ← 8 | 9 → that Eliot, Williams and Huxley had in mind was fused with the original of Baudelaire’s work (a French, as it were, Poe) and that the Baudelairean project was the first stage of Poe’s symbolic repatriation, half a century later. I have taken it to be the condition or motor for the pronouncements of these three critics, genetic reason as well as principle of their articulation. The textual evidence to follow picks up what Poe scholarship only alluded to, namely that it was a ‘corrupted’, refracted Poe that acquired increased cultural currency in the first half of the twentieth century and, as such, attracted considerable attention in Americanist critical discourse. The French Poe became a critical lodestar for transatlantic understanding in terms of ‘enigma’, ‘scandal’ or simply – but powerfully – as an invitation to delve into and subvert notions of mono-national literary criticism.

Therefore, although the starting point is Baudelaire’s attempt to compose for his French audiences an all-encompassing ‘book’ of Poe involving the translation of the majority of his tales and a number of bio-critical accompaniments, the current setting has had to exceed the purely translational framework. This excess has a double sense, evident not only with respect to Baudelaire’s original but also with respect to his own cultural context; the frame of reference that the present work establishes, in other words, is neither Poe17 nor the receiving community of Baudelaire’s translations. In this respect, the case study has a design atypical of translation studies, even though it draws on its state of the art. A major implication of the default outlook of translation studies (a discipline which has grown since the 1970s by tilting the balance away from the primacy of the original) is that translations can only affect the target literature – a point famously made by Walter Benjamin.18 Disciplinary reluctance to embrace a scope that exceeds mono-cultural frames of investigation was, accordingly, the single factor that decided against a more mainstream translation design. ← 9 | 10 → Conventionally, the rationale would dictate that, in order to describe the translated work systematically,19 in terms of its material embeddedness, we are eventually compelled to resurrect the opposition between source and target text and be content with the functional integration of translation in its receiving context.20 The constraining frame of this type of reasoning emerges in the writings of the second generation of theorists who were trained in ‘polysystem operations’;21 for instance:

Yet no translator or institutional initiator of a translation can hope to control or even be aware of every condition of its production. And no agent of a translation can hope to anticipate its every consequence, the uses to which it is put, the interests served, the values it comes to convey. Nonetheless, it is these conditions and consequences ← 10 | 11 → that offer the most compelling reasons for discriminating among the stakes involved in translating and reading translations.22

The limitations implied in attempts to give a systematic description of translated literature became obvious in the initial stages of the present research project, whose entry point was Baudelaire’s framing of his translations: the monocultural framework had to give way to a cross-cultural landscape. Equally important was the need to procure a discursive environment that would make justice to the publishing complexities of which Baudelaire and Poe himself were only too acutely aware; that environment would be mindful of the ‘salient deficiency in both author-centred and text-centred approaches to literary works and literary history’, in the words of Jerome McGann.23 In the passage quoted above, Venuti foregrounds the multiple uses that a translation project may have, its scattering effects that exceed the attempts of its initiators to control its signification and dissemination. He, thus, refers to a ‘compelling’ path of investigation should the conditions of a translation’s varied uses and readings become the main object of study. In the present case, Poe’s successful Europeanisation is the problematic long-term result of a series of intertwined appropriations and counter-reactions, initiated locally by Baudelaire. It is crucial to emphasise here that his appropriation of Poe was not as much an outgrowth of his attempt at homogenisation, as the majority of critics suggest;24 it was rather an effect of dissemination and proliferation. Thanks mainly to his unique ← 11 | 12 → rhetorical style, Baudelaire released a series of inherently rich, overlapping and often competing ‘emplotments’,25 which opened up an ambivalent, fraught space actively (due to controversy) encouraging further readings. Moreover, as Baudelaire’s cultural authority was gradually established in the modernist discourses of central and Western Europe, his project ended up being propelled into a novel realm of signification causing a further wave of counter-reactions: the improbable transculturation26 occurred when the Anglocentric criticism of the early 1930s eventually reacted to the French gesture of co-optation – an instance that further scattered Poe’s cultural value.

The transatlantic handling of Poe offers, therefore, an ideal setting, especially in its post-translational manifestations: these make visible the overdeterminacy which inheres in Baudelaire’s translation project by providing blatant instances of literary manipulation fraught with unwarranted effects. Once the receptive context is perceived to be bicultural, it readily throws new light on the Anglo-American pronouncements as an oblique, unforeseen culmination of Baudelaire’s campaign: Poe’s literary status, a notion unheard of before Baudelaire, finally becomes the main object of debate in these influential Americanist essays. Thus, the enabling condition for the design of the present study was the identification of the three Anglophone readings as a remote, spillover effect of Baudelaire’s project. The French face that Poe was given by his translator and acculturator comes ← 12 | 13 → into focus, I will be arguing here, in the post-Great War writings of Eliot, Williams and Huxley.

If I phrase the hypothesis in this way, I set in motion a type of reverse mechanism whereby Baudelaire’s project is studied in the light of effects it could not have possibly anticipated given that they occurred in a context remote from him in space and time. This reverse interconnection has specific implications. Even though chronological order is still maintained, Baudelaire’s project is to be thematised and discussed according to the types of cultural uses that his readers – Williams, Eliot and Huxley – actually opted for. My analysis of it is not open-ended, but predetermined by those factors that have indeed polarised the discussion of Poe’s literary significance in early twentieth-century criticism. If the French Poe was what impelled Huxley, Williams and Eliot to ponder on the implications of his new-found and insistently defended glorification, then it is necessary to examine the terms in which Baudelaire formulated and propagated it in his articles. Given that this peculiar, hybrid original was the barometer of their critical bafflement, the way in which Baudelaire recounts Poe’s work, life and importance can shed some light on his distant interlocutors.

The findings of rhetorical analysis in Part I are accordingly processed in such a way as to bring to the surface ‘the naturalized, concealed frames of intelligibility that enable cultural enunciation’27 in the writing of the three critics that form the object of study in Part II. In reductive terms, the findings regarding the translational and critical representation of Poe by Baudelaire are aligned to the representations given by Huxley, Williams and Eliot. When, in the first three chapters, I discuss in detail notions of audiencehood, textuality and dramatisation as well as the spectral idea of the original to-be-translated and appropriated, I do so because these axes might plausibly account for the particular ways in which Huxley, Williams and Eliot responded to the French project. The same stands for the staple ← 13 | 14 → theme of Poe’s cultural alienation: to a large extent, his appropriation by Baudelaire is made in terms of a highly individualised literary figure, a discrete and stable self clearly opposed to a non-self, tantamount to the ‘American’ personality.28 It is common knowledge in Poe scholarship that the post-Baudelairean mythologisation of Poe is due to the facility with which the narrative turns him into a cultural orphan who is then readily embraced by an affiliated spirit, that of his translator, his ‘brother’.29 It is against such a move that the Anglo-American critics’ mounting discourse of nativity, either defensive or destructive, becomes meaningful. Their taking hold of a central position in relation to the American literary establishment, predominantly as native speakers of English, defines more or less their views of the challenging image of Poe propounded by Baudelaire. The view is essential in the hypothesis I wish to buttress here.


VIII, 273
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Edgar Allan Poe Baudelaire project literary nativity locality comparativism transatlantic paradigm
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 273 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria Filippakopoulou (Author)

Maria Filippakopoulou is Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a project on quantitative research in the humanities. She has previously taught comparative literature and theory at the Universities of Edinburgh, East Anglia and Leeds. An experienced translator from French and English, she has published widely on the theory and practice of translation and reception studies.


Title: Transatlantic Poe
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