Edgar Allan Poe

Amateur Psychologist

by Brett Zimmerman (Author)
©2019 Monographs 288 Pages


Edgar Allan Poe: Amateur Psychologist is the "first and foremost" major source of information dedicated to the theme of Poe and psychopathology. Its introduction, conclusion, chapters, and appendices highlight and employ the best insights from earlier and current scholars, but this text goes beyond them in its analysis of Poe’s relation to mainstream psychology and its rival system, phrenology. His knowledge of this subject matter is far broader and deeper than Poe specialists have hitherto supposed; his method—contrary to the "Poe myth" according to which an alcoholic, drug-addicted, tormented artist wrote to exorcise his own pathologies—was to research mental illnesses for the sake of scientific precision and verisimilitude. We also come to appreciate the interrelatedness of the psychopathologies he illustrates and other "knowledge frames," characteristic themes, featured in his tales, such as the occult, symbology, chromatography, the "cult of sensibility," Neoplatonism, and Transcendentalist epistemology. While locating Poe firmly within the science and pseudoscience of his time, Edgar Allan Poe: Amateur Psychologist simultaneously looks back from the 1830s and 40s (when Poe’s literary career was at its height) to theories and possible sources of information from the late eighteenth century, as well as forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to demonstrate how Poe’s theories of mind, and his depiction of psychological illnesses, occasionally anticipate modern insights and therapies. The book will be of interest not only to Poe scholars but also to students, teachers, and any intelligent reader interested in psychology, psychotherapy, and the history of ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Appendices
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 1: Deeply in Need of Therapy: Catalepsy, Monomania, and Somnambulism in “Berenice”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 2: Poe and the Phrenologists; or, The Head Masters of “Bumpology”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 3: Method in His “Madness”: The Narrator of “Ligeia”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 4: Sensibility, Phrenology, and Allegory: “The Fall of the House of Usher”
  • Part One: Phrenology and the Cult of Sensibility
  • Part Two: Phrenological Allegory
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 5: Why Will You Say That I Am Mad?: Schizophrenia in “The Tell-Tale Heart”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 6: The Devil Made Me Do It: Religious Mania in “The Black Cat”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 7: Flooding, Phobias, and Psychosomatics: “The Premature Burial”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 8: “Impulsive Insanity”: “The Imp of the Perverse” and the High Place Phenomenon
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 9: Back to Bedlam: The Moral Treatment in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 10: Diagnosing Genius: Dupin and the Bipartite or Tripartite Theory of Mind
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Conclusion
  • Note
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix 1: Chart of Poe’s Works in Which Psychology Figures
  • Appendix 2: She Blinded Me with Pseudoscience: Poe’s Review of Phrenology, and the Moral Influence of Phrenology in the Southern Literary Messenger 2.4 (March 1836)
  • Phrenology
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix 3: The Moon as a Symbol of Madness in “Usher”
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix 4: The Double Allegory of Slave Insurrection in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix 5: “I’m Not Crazy, My Mother Had Me Tested”: “The Cask of Amontillado”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix 6: Charley Goodfellow as Psychopathic Personality in “Thou Art The Man”
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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Appendix 1. Chart of Poe’s Works in Which Psychology Figures

Appendix 2. She Blinded Me with Pseudoscience: Poe’s Review of Phrenology, and the Moral Influence of Phrenology in the Southern Literary Messenger 2.4 (March 1836)

Appendix 3. The Moon as a Symbol of Madness in “Usher”

Appendix 4. The Double Allegory of Slave Insurrection in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”

Appendix 5. “I’m Not Crazy, My Mother Had Me Tested”: “The Cask of Amontillado”

Appendix 6. Charley Goodfellow as Psychopathic Personality in “Thou Art The Man”

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Figure 2.1. Phrenological Map, Side View

Figure 2.2. Phrenological Map, Front View

Figure 2.3. “Negro Murderer”

Figure 4.1. Phrenological Architecture

Figure 4.2. The Usher Psyche, Phrenologically Explained on the Literal Level of Plot

Figure 10.1. The Tripartite Mind: Taste, Intellect, Moral Sense

Figure App 4.1. Allegorical Complexities of “Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”

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Several individuals should be acknowledged for their very kind permission to reprint some of the material that appears here. Production Manager Andrée-Anne Boisvert granted permission to reproduce two essays: “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’” appeared initially in Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal, Volume 25, issue 2 (1992): 39–48; “Phrenological Allegory in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” appeared originally in Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal, Volume 43, issue 1 (2010): 57–72. Thanks, as well, to Diana L. Pesek, Journals Manager at the Pennsylvania State University Press, for allowing the reproduction of two more essays: “Sensibility, Phrenology, and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” which appeared originally in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Volume 8, issue 1 (2007): 47–56; as well as “Poe as Amateur Psychologist: Flooding, Phobias, Psychosomatics, and ‘The Premature Burial’,” which first was printed in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Volume 10, issue 1 (2009): 7–19. I extend my gratitude also to ProQuest, Ann Arbor MI, which gave me the go-ahead to reprint Poe’s review of L. Miles’ book on phrenology, printed in the Harrison edition of Poe’s works. Thanks, also, to the Permissions Sales Team of Cambridge University Press for allowing me to draw heavily upon my chapter “Phrenology” in Edgar Allan Poe in Context (2013), edited by Kevin J. Hayes. ← xv | xvi →

Several kind people were involved in helping me secure funding for this project. Janet Friskney, Research Officer for LA&PS, guided me through the process and I would like to thank her and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada, for the financial support it provided to this work. I’m pleased to extend my gratitude, as well, to Deznah Ellis, the Research Administrator at the Office of the Dean, as well as to Helen Papacharalambous, who shepherded me through the paperwork involved in getting a cheque issued to Peter Lang Publishing.

The capable people at Peter Lang held my hand and walked me through the time-consuming and complex process of turning several hundred pages of loose manuscript into an attractive hard-cover book. Several individuals provided everything from the abstract to the concrete: timely advice, encouragement, submissions guidelines, invoices, information sheets, and, of course, a contract. Thanks particularly to Meagan Simpson, the Acquisitions Editor, and Jennifer Beszley, the Production Editor.

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to Darlene Munro, a graphics designer who applied her considerable talents in digitally tracing the phrenology illustrations—taken from nineteenth-century journals and books—in order to improve their quality and make them “camera-ready” for publication. Ms. Munro also replaced the (sometimes barely legible) words and numbers on those diagrams with modern fonts to improve readability.

According to the traditional African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a kind of village, comprised of dedicated and talented people, to produce a book. The author merely initiates the process, and I have been fortunate to enjoy the services and goodwill of my own village—not just the individuals mentioned above but also the scholars who agreed to endorse the book as it was being prepared for publication as well as the referees who provided encouragement and the motivation, when necessary, to up my game and improve upon earlier drafts of this project.

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If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul—that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results. (1: 151)1

He was an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul. (D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature 87–88)

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—/ One need not be a House—/ The Brain has Corridors—surpassing/ Material Place—. (Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest #670)

* * *

Among Poe scholars, students, and general readers it is a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a phrase from Jane Austen) that Poe portrays many characters desperately in need of psychotherapy and medication—or, according to early nineteenth-century therapeutic theory, opium, camphor, electricity, cold baths, warm baths, blood-letting, digitalis, mercury, purgatives, emetics, and a spin on the rotary couch. That he was knowledgeable about late ← 1 | 2 → eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century nosology (the classification of diseases) and treatments has been demonstrated admirably by several scholars on whose studies I build throughout the present work. I shall touch briefly upon their insightful essays and books here in the Introduction, which serves several functions. Part One discusses the central concept of this study, “insanity,” and defines the term as Poe and his contemporary psychologists would have. Part Two argues that Poe was an avid researcher when it came to the science of mind (and the pseudoscience of phrenology). I do not make a detailed case for that thesis in the Introduction because the book as a whole presents the argument. Part Three says something about the methodologies adopted for this book then discusses briefly those not adopted. Part Four is an overview of Poe’s utilization of phrenological and what I call “mainstream” theories of psychology and psychotherapy; it also comprises a justification for the organizational scheme I have settled on for Edgar Allan Poe: Amateur Psychologist. Part Five says something about the chapters that have already been published in journals and provides a justification for my decision to bring them together in book form. It also explains how I have lengthened and strengthened them for this project, and identifies the substantial amount of new material here.

* * *

Before we proceed further, we should define our central term—or, rather, allow Poe’s coeval psychologists to define it for us. One of the earliest British scientists, John Haslam, who worked at the notorious Bethlem Hospital in London (“Bedlam”), is surprisingly unhelpful. In a book published in the year of Poe’s birth, Haslam seems to throw up his hands in despair when suggesting only a few pages into Observations on Madness and Melancholy that it is impossible to find “an infallible definition of madness” (5). He does suggest that insanity is currently divided into two forms, Mania and Melancholy, then discusses certain symptoms of madness: hallucinations and incoherent speech; this latter modern specialists call “cognitive slippage,” “word salad,” or “derailing.” Thus, he describes symptoms but refuses to define: “I have not abstained from giving a definition of madness without some reason,” he concludes (37).

Nearly thirty years later, another London psychologist, William Charles Ellis, tried to do better in his Treatise on the Nature, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Insanity, with Practical Observations on Lunatic Asylums (1838). He does admit that many contradictory opinions have existed on the subject, given the “total ignorance of the nature of the mind” (12). For a while, he ← 2 | 3 → says, madness was considered purely a mental disease requiring only “moral” remedies (psychiatric assistance free of any medical regimen). He tells his readers, however, that lately the doctrine of insanity being a bodily disease “seems again to prevail” (13)—that is, a sign of a diseased brain (or some other part of the anatomy). A few pages later, he attempts to define insanity by defining its opposite:

David Brion Davis, in Homicide in Fiction, 1798–1860: A Study in Social Values, reinforces this definition with a quotation from Isaac Ray’s Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity.2 The unstated assumption, it would seem, is that there exists a standard of normalcy for the conduct of “man”—or, at least, that every healthy individual displays a standard of normal behavior. These are problematic premises in themselves. Davis writes about the search, therefore, for “an ‘Ideal Standard Man,’ for some point of reference by which the law could measure guilt” (79). At any rate, Ellis concludes that “insanity” consists of an alteration of, a departure from, an individual’s normal patterns of thought and behavior: “insanity is a disease of the brain, causing, or at least co-existing with, an injurious alteration in the intellectual manifestations, or in the conduct, or in both” (30). Here we have a foundational distinction between the intellectual and the moral faculties, a distinction important to our understanding of “moral insanity.” Ellis then admits that there are many degrees of insanity not all of which present a public danger or require the victim to be incarcerated. He makes the (to some, surprising) assertion that a man exhibiting delusional thinking or suffering from hallucinations need not be considered a danger to himself or to society; but “if the diseased perceptions be of such a kind as to render him incapable of the management of his affairs, or to make his conduct injurious either to himself or to others, confinement ought immediately to be resorted to” (34).

If any departure from normal domestic, social, and vocational behavior and expectations meant “insanity,” we can guess how often people were diagnosed as “lunatics.” In other words, we see from Ellis’ discussion that early psychologists entertained broad notions of “insanity”—that is, they had a loose definition that included much more than hallucinations, psychotic delusions, and incomprehensible ravings, all of which symptoms probably constitute the ← 3 | 4 → popular notion of “madness” in our own day. Many of the cases discussed in the literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries illustrate numerous symptoms of what we might consider mental illness, such as anxiety or clinical depression, but they applied the term insanity (and its variants such as lunacy), as we have seen, to any deviations from normal mental health and functioning. A look at the supposed physiological and “moral” causes of insanity in the textbooks and the American Journal of Insanity would convince us of how often cases of situational or clinical depression, for example, led people to the asylums; in our time we would not label them as insane, though. In light of this information, we can perhaps better understand what Poe meant when he wrote about Virginia Poe’s illness to George W. Eveleth: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” (Ostrom et al 641). Even sleepwalking (somnambulism) was considered a sign of lunacy by Ellis’ definition; inebriation was thought to signal temporary insanity.

Finally, the American psychologist James Cowles Prichard offers a more precise definition in A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind (1837):

Prichard shares with Ellis the notion, probably standard among their colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, that “insanity” consists of a deviation “from the healthy and natural state of the mind”—again, begging the question of what a healthy state of mind is. (The phrenologists, by the way, would agree with this definition, citing hypertrophied or atrophied cranial faculties as the explanation for the deviation from the individual’s normalcy.) And again, Prichard shares with Ellis the concept of madness subdividing into two forms: “moral” and intellectual. I shall say more about “moral insanity” in Chapter Five; what Prichard calls “intellectual derangement” is further divided into subtypes: monomania (to which we shall return very often in our discussion of Poe’s obsessed narrators), mania (“raving madness”), and incoherence (in which “the connections of associations of ideas” are confused or destroyed). ← 4 | 5 →

Where do Poe’s “insane” narrators fit into this scheme? Certainly Poe cannot portray protagonists suffering from “raving madness” or “incoherence” because then we would not be able to follow the narratives in terms of the grammar, syntax, and logic (see Chapter Five, note 9). Monomania certainly seems to be Poe’s favorite sign of mental derangement, judging from the number of narrators suffering from morbid obsessions (see, for instance, “Berenice,” “The Premature Burial,” and “Ligeia”). Monomania, as we see from the discussion above, is a sign of intellectual derangement; but some argue for Poe’s depiction of moral insanity in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” We may have difficulty placing some of the symptoms exhibited by Poe’s “lunatics” into the scheme Prichard has provided. The delusions of the inmates in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” would seem to fall under the category of intellectual derangement, as would the phobia of the tormented narrator in “The Premature Burial.” Would we consider the “salvational melancholy” of the “Black Cat” narrator as a sign of intellectual derangement as well? What about the somnambulism of Egæus in “Berenice”? Perhaps we need not concern ourselves too much with pigeonholing into Prichard’s nosological scheme the various mental illnesses of Poe’s characters; perhaps it is enough to say that their behavior unquestionably departs from healthy normal functioning. (Poe’s contemporaries would have instantly recognized the insanity of the narrator in “The Black Cat” when he admits,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVI, 288 pp. 7 b/w ills.

Biographical notes

Brett Zimmerman (Author)

Brett Zimmerman received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA and PhD from York University. He is Associate Professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. He has published Herman Melville: Stargazer (1998) and Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style (2005).


Title: Edgar Allan Poe