An intellectual history that fills this crucial gap by restoring Poe to his turbulent historical context, this book recovers the philosophical and esoteric complexity of a riddler, a satirist and a biting social critic in his struggle to make sense of the cardinal malaises and dominant ideas of a revolutionary age, confronted with a new and shattering conception of man, nature and the universe. It reconsiders the way we read, study and present Poe to future generations, decoding with exceptional clarity the enigmas of a monumental writer – a cult figure – who is inseparable from the historical consciousness of the modern world.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Note on the Text
- Chapter 1: The Poe Case
- Critical Divergences
- Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry
- T. S. Eliot and the Myth of the ‘French Poe’
- Chapter 2: Towards a Metaphysics of Reintegration
- Romanticism: A Quest for Unity in Babel?
- Occultism, Pseudo-sciences, Quasi-religions
- From Blake to Tennyson
- Blake and Eden
- Wordsworth: Departure and Return
- Coleridge: The Sacred Union
- Byron: Indomitable Sensuality
- Shelley: Of Love and Enigma
- Keats: The Disintegration of the Ego
- Tennyson: Before and After
- Chapter 3: A Fissure in The Great Chain of Being
- Chapter 4: The Intellectual Trauma of an Era
- Chapter 5: An Aspect of Ill in the Heavens
- ‘Tamerlane’, ‘Al Aaraaf’ and Other Poems
- Chapter 6: The Twofold Face of the Absolute
- Beauty: A Common Heritage of Earth and Heaven?
- The Schelling Factor
- Poe and Boston Transcendentalism
- The Plagiarisms of Coleridge
- ‘Mesmeric Revelation’
- Chapter 7: Examples of Incorrigible Bad Taste: The Grotesque and the Arabesque
- The Tales of the Folio Club
- Defying Education
- ‘The Man that was Used Up’
- His Satanic Majesty in ‘The Bargain Lost’
- ‘King Pest’
- ‘Loss of Breath’
- Irony, Analogy and Allegory: ‘Metzengerstein’
- Chapter 8: The Triple Goddess: Divine Genealogy of the Romantic Heroine
- Muses, Goddesses and Virgins
- The Whore of Babylon or the Marian Cult
- Celtic Metamorphosis
- The Muse of the Troubadours
- Chapter 9: Death and the Maiden
- The Ballad that Captivated Europe and America
- Reconfigurations in Irving, Hawthorne and Poe
- ‘The Raven’
- Chapter 10: Daughters of Heaven and Earth; Apocalypse according Poe
- ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’
- Chapter 11: The Lost Word in Poe’s Life and Work
- Masonic and Anti-Masonic Fever in Poe’s America
- Poe: An Author for Initiates Only
- Poe’s Links with Fraternalism and Secrecy
- Satires and Esoteric Morals
- ‘The Man of the Crowd’
- ‘The Devil in the Belfry’
- ‘The Sphinx’
- ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’
- ‘The Masque of the Red Death’
- ‘The Cask of Amontillado’
- ‘Shadow – A Parable’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’
- Poe’s Death in Baltimore: Revenge Foretold
This work was originally written in Spanish and published in Latin America, where it has been most encouragingly welcomed by readers of such diversity as could only be expected from a classic as universal as Poe. Young students, editors, public intellectuals, journalists and scholars there have welcomed the book for a variety of reasons, stressing, however, its basic, underlying purpose: to recover the aesthetic and philosophical complexity of Poe within the framework of an intellectual history, through the genre of the literary essay. That the book should be considered worthy of publication for English readers is an encouraging surprise for the author who, most gratefully, deems it necessary to devote a few words here to its character, original design, and perhaps contribution for this different audience.
It must be stated emphatically that this book is not written for the privilege of a few readers nor for the exclusive benefit of the Poe scholar. It is the author’s intention both to introduce the novice reader into the extremely complex intellectual and historical context comprised in Poe’s works, while simultaneously offering the devoted Poe reader a reinterpretation of some key stories and poems from the philosophical, esoteric and historical perspective of Poe’s own mentalité. In so doing this book aspires to approach two seldom connected spheres of knowledge: that of scholars within the humanities (some well acquainted with Poe) and that of more general readers seeking a holistic understanding of Poe and his place on the map of world literature. Whether a graduate or undergraduate student engaged in American literature, cultural studies, philosophy or history of art, whether a poet, a story writer, a journalist, or even a Poe scholar, the careful, devoted and good-willed reader is welcomed to find in this volume a comprehensive view of Poe. But comprehensive should not be taken for completeness, much less for exhaustiveness, as much as it conveys the more simple sense of understanding. It is the author’s conviction that a book about Poe, written today, cannot possibly cope with Poe’s indisputable universality if his intellectual world remains in the shadows ← ix | x → cast by historical distance, and by our collective ignorance of the esoteric knowledge so central to his work.
As it is precisely the purpose of an intellectual history to recall responses giving shape to a set of ideas, a particular story or a pervasive conception, much of the scholarship upon which this book draws had to be considered in direct proportion to its own canonicity across time and space. This naturally excludes some recent commentaries that, being new, have not had the time and scarcely the space to develop their own canonicity and to achieve recognition abroad, on their own two feet. Often, too, the boundaries between scholarship of more or less canonicity tend to be drawn too gradually to expect immediate recognition and inclusion among non-English critics. As the reader will see, recent English sources have been privileged along the path of the inquiry, and used in all instances where connections have been found not merely relevant but imperative. The object of the book is not to perform an X-ray on the exceedingly large body of recent scholarship but rather to encourage the reader to juxtapose Poe’s historicity with the interests pertinent to his or her field, while welcoming the Poe scholar to engage in fruitful new dialogue regarding some of Poe’s key stories and poems.
From the beginning of the book until Chapter 4 each section is devoted to summarizing and developing critical responses and historical connections considered not merely relevant but essential to any intellectual history of Poe, to the perspective proposed and to the discussions undertaken. Direct connections to Poe or his works will be correspondingly few, especially from Chapter 2 to Chapter 4, where such an endeavour is accomplished more or less thoroughly. This retracing of the intellectual history not just of Poe, but of Poe’s critics, is necessary to understand how Poe himself came to be appreciated, despised or misunderstood. To juxtapose Poe’s critics with Poe’s own intellectual world is to see that Poe not only has been obscurely perceived (perhaps a little more than we are willing to accept or recall) but that his work, at times cryptic to the point of bafflement, simply cannot be detached from the memory of a millennial past nor from the dominant intellectual tendencies of his own traumatic age.
As mentioned above, this work as a whole has been developed in the mode of the literary essay, in contradistinction to the scholarly essay. The ← x | xi → tone, structure and length of each chapter are devised in accordance to the statement being made and to the necessity of brevity or length required by such a statement, the complexity of the matter conveyed, and the intrinsic interest aroused throughout. Naturally, the flexibility of the genre is no excuse for unsupported assertions, idle speculations, poor research or the other impressionistic brush-strokes at times forgiven in writers of indisputable recognition, all of which the author has endeavoured to avoid.
Ultimately, Poe: The Trauma of an Era hopes to renew the reader’s understanding of the superlatively complex intellectual world behind Edgar Allan Poe’s works, and the fundamental, contextual factors involved in literary reception and creation. In so doing it aspires to offer as a solid foundation for apprehending his meaning and often bewildering status within the canon, while prompting further specialized inquiries or future discussions of Poe’s predilection for the satirical, the cryptic, the burlesque, the grotesque and the arabesque.
Óscar Xavier Altamirano
Mexico City, 11 July 2017
I am most grateful to the editors, colleagues, friends and organizations that contributed to publishing this work on behalf of English readers: to Alessandra Anzani, who first submitted it for consideration at Peter Lang Publishing, shortly after her visit as Commissioning Editor to the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair; to Emma Clarke, Assistant Editor, whose expertise and good judgement made an excellent job of bringing the project to fruition, devising, most kindly, the right means to preserve its intended character and original form; to Jasmin Allousch and Ben Goodwin for taking care of this edition and designing a most suitable cover; to Paul Gillingham, life-long friend and eminent historian, who contributed to the translation, painstaking revisions and previous editing. My indebtedness to him is simply beyond repayment, and most luckily remains within the realm of friendship and intellectual matters. Whatever blemishes remain in the text are due to my reluctance and did not escape his careful scrutiny.
Dealing with Poe for so many years extends my gratitude back to the book’s early beginnings abroad. The eminent Professor Kenneth Silverman, a Poe biographer himself, had an unshakeable faith in the project. He devoted helpful, valuable time to my foray into the subject and his support gave me vital encouragement along the way. Mauricio Tenorio Trillo facilitated my access to crucial documents during his professorship at the University of Texas in Austin. Antonio Ochoa rescued for me copies of old publications housed at the University of Edinburgh, and Diane Long Hoeveler graciously allowed me to read the manuscript of one of her books about the gothic ballads before it was published. Christopher Geissler, Director of the John Hay Library and Special Collections at Brown University, and Jeffery A. Savoy, Secretary and Treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, provided valuable help in obtaining the high-resolution image of Poe used in this book. I also wish to thank the librarians of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. ← xiii | xiv →
During my pilgrimage abroad I was nearly adopted by the Gillingham households: Paul, Snjezana and Alastair, Pat and Brendan, Sarah and Mathew. Their help and affection goes well beyond my deepest gratitude.
Back home, El Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes [The National Fund for Culture and Arts] in Mexico City granted funds for much of the research. Editorial staff, eminent colleagues, students and friends brought onboard their enthusiasm and support. They know who they are and how grateful I am.
Finally, and most fortunately, there is family, where it all begins – bringing love forth at all times. Chusais nourished it with her passion for the humanities and her joy for simple things. With Luis, Diego and Tomás fun grew into relentless companionship and mutual support. Pamela made sure that love never left me. Without her quick mind and tender heart not only this book but the drive to keep going would long have been gone. She patiently listens to every page I write and handles my ravings most wisely. Capi had the soul of a poet and the sagacity of a sailor. With him, art and literature was never a matter for cold speculation. He went around the world and saved my life in the Sea of Cortés, when I was but a kid fooling around with the rigging. His last year of health was spent fuelling my vessel and hoisting the sails to get it across to the distant final shore. Herta, always at the cockpit, brought her relentless love and navigation even onto land. With them there is always a destination, as there is for my son Cristóbal, whose diaphanous soul and tenacity have always given me the best of reasons to stay on course. To them I devote this book.
Here and there in the volume the reader will find a number of short excerpts in italic characters. These excerpts are indeed excerpts and not proper citations. They have the function of adding a voice to the page at hand, to complete an idea, provide a curious fact or suggest something, which in the shape of a formal citation would be tedious, or simply awkward. I borrow the idea from Jacques Barzun, and I ask the reader to consider it merely as incidental or an accessory, similar to what editors commonly call a ‘text box’. Also, I have followed in all cases the spelling and punctuation of the original sources.
Such is the fame and popularity of Poe that to talk about fame or popularity is rather inaccurate. His name and history are legendary. Even for those who have not read him, Poe is the genius of mystery and terror, of suspense and the macabre. Year after year, readers of all kinds venture into Poe’s works. Scholars and students write about him constantly. Most people have read him since childhood. Many can easily recall his gruesome tales, others know by heart his most famous verses, and some are even acquainted with details of his life. His influence on modern art and literature has few parallels. Filmmakers, musicians, painters, playwrights and cartoonists of the most diverse nature have been inspired by his work in equally diverse forms. The best-stocked libraries are home to all kinds of books about Poe: biographies, monographs, anthologies, guides and commemorative editions. Undoubtedly he is the most famous author in the history of nineteenth-century American literature, yet paradoxically he is at the same time one of the most complex and least understood.
Books about Poe have been written for all sorts of reasons, but mine is an uncommonly simple one: since I read him for the first time in my youth I didn’t even realize that I did not understand him. At a first glance it seemed I could read Poe’s works with relative ease. When dealing with his tales I could follow the plot and be duly amazed by the denouement. His poems, especially the most famous ones, would thrill or enthrall me. After years of quite basic readings, I came to the point where it became daunting to understand the meaning of his work. The questions multiplied, and the answers I found among some of the most distinguished specialists did not quite convince me. I soon realized that for countless readers Poe remained as dark as I now found him to be, and that for more than a century and a half the implicit riddles of his work had been challenging and often defeating not just general readers but also many of the most eminent scholars. To make things even worse, Poe’s work not only is a challenge in itself: it has a long record of polarized, contradicting and mutually exclusive interpretations. ← 1 | 2 → How is it possible that an author of such importance has come to be the object of the most sophisticated analysis while his very essence seems to be largely overlooked, misunderstood or disputed?
Archetype of the great enfant terrible of the modern era, creator of a poetic and narrative art that defies critics and scholars, a key figure in symbolism, modernism, surrealism and the avant-garde, inventor of that most successful of genre fictions, the detective story; in short, a key element in the cultural history of our times, Poe raises a great deal of provocative questions, posing difficulties in such absolutely fundamental issues that we should pause to reflect to what extent this is due to our asking the wrong ones.
In this sense, his work raises an extremely complex set of problems, in which cognitive pitfalls and underground trails challenge our way of thinking about it, writing about it, reading it, translating it and handing it over to future generations. While Poe’s stories and poems were not incomprehensible or even all that obscure for some of his contemporaries, they were indeed so for a great deal of readers unfamiliar with the esoteric sources on which he based many of his compositions. To this we also need to add the imperatives of a culture whose goals, resources and prerogatives were widely and deeply known. In other words, Poe’s is an intellectual universe shaped by both esoteric doctrines and once widely disseminated ideas that we cannot ignore without the risk of reading further out of context. A deracinated or ahistorical Poe is a thoroughly incomprehensible Poe.
The study of a life devoted to literature teaches us that the work of a great writer is not simply a reflex of his existence floating adrift in time. His work is not a mere ‘product’ of the time: it is a response to a whole culture to which his mind bears witness. A mind devoted to the art of writing stories, poems, essays, reviews and daring theories. A mind that articulates and condenses, both belonging to and influencing the art and cultural development of his time. Thus the figure of a significant writer is encoded in his work, which is nothing without the recipient. The intellectual universe that nourishes him it is not only his own but that of others as well. Not only is the author’s thought displayed in his work, but also that of others, either inspiring it (as happens with precursors), assessing it (as happens with his critics), or despising it (as happens with his enemies). In other words, it is a matter of becoming acquainted not only with the ← 2 | 3 → materials that deal exclusively with Poe, but with the ideas that were considered sacred or self-evident in his time, and which are crucial to the understanding of his work within the historical framework in which he was both witness and protagonist.
Throughout this book, therefore, we will venture in the quest for Poe and his intellectual world by reading him not with new eyes, but rather with old ones, placing ourselves as much as possible in his historical context with its pre-eminent authors and ideas. Some of these ideas have already been studied by historians of the calibre of Arthur Lovejoy, Isaiah Berlin or Meyer Howard Abrams; others are derived from some remarkable studies on Poe; others seem to throb incessantly in the magazines, papers and pamphlets of his age, or to go way back in time, establishing a vital historical link between Poe and his contemporaries, as well as between his predecessors and successors. There are also other ideas ascribed to the field of esoteric knowledge with which many readers are not even remotely familiar, and yet whose incidence is decisive.
We shall begin, then, by deriving a common denominator from some of the most contradictory opinions that Poe has aroused among minds of indisputable eminence. We will venture into the discrepancies and affinities of the Romantic period, and become acquainted with the metaphysical imperatives of the time through the most influential theories, theodicies and doctrines, either pseudo-scientific or quasi-religious. Observing how the leading authors dealt with the cardinal malaises of the age will allow us to reflect on the collapse of an intellectual scheme that purveyed cohesion and sanity to Western thought, for over 2,000 years. As will become evident, the trauma of the era emerges from the historical struggle between spirit and matter, and Poe’s work, from youth to maturity, is inevitably subject to the transactions between one and another. We will ask ourselves how far the god of Poe and his contemporaries was from being a unified god, and if the philosophical attempt to unify him ended up in even greater fragmentation. Poe’s burlesque compositions will be read alongside some of the most widely spread ideas in the medical, pedagogical and journalistic literature of his milieu, prompting our acquaintance with the theoretical and rhetorical resources that Poe drew upon to blow up the presuppositions of rationalism and pragmatism. An intellectual archaeology of the ← 3 | 4 → romantic heroine will allow us to trace her from a divine origin in the Sumerian past, through her subsequent conversion to Christianity and her influential role in the medieval and Renaissance courts of Europe, down to her decline and enslavement during the neoclassical period. We shall see her die in the works of prominent authors of Europe and America, to be reborn in a series of famous avatars in Poe’s tales and poems. Finally, a subject crucial and yet curiously underestimated in our understanding of Poe’s life and work will be discussed: his relationship with the occult. Based on verifiable sources, we will see to what extent the Masonic doctrines embedded in the pervasive fraternalism of the age constitute a key factor in the intellectual climate of the times and in the life and work of Poe, in which it is linked to warnings and fears of political, moral, metaphysical and psychological character. The result of all this is a perspective that will allow us, first, to give a comprehensive treatment to Poe’s time and works; second, to propose a convincing hypothesis explaining its literary, philosophical and esoteric cultural roots; and third, to observe the convictions of Poe, as well as the meaning of his work, on the map of world literature.
This book is the fruit of several years of research, and aims to provide a comprehensive view, not an exhaustive one. If some of Poe’s famous compositions are absent, as well as some issues often associated with his work, it is because the path chosen has been organic not encyclopaedic. On the other hand, today’s readers barely have time to read, and I hope they will be satisfied with the fact that many of his major works, from youth to maturity, are addressed in this volume.
‘But, if this is the case, how’, it will be asked, ‘can so much misunderstanding have arisen? Is it conceivable that a thousand profound scholars, investigating so very simple a matter for centuries, have not been able to place it in the fullest light, at least, of which it is susceptible?’ These queries, I confess, are not easily answered: – at all events a satisfactory reply to them might cost more trouble than would, if properly considered, the whole vexata quæstio to which they have reference. Nevertheless, there is little difficulty or danger in suggesting that the ‘thousand profound scholars’ may have failed, first because they were scholars, secondly because they were profound, and thirdly because they were a thousand – the impotency of the scholarship and profundity having been thus multiplied a thousand fold.
— POE, ‘The Rationale of Verse’, Southern Literary Messenger (1848)
Naturally, a book about Poe would have to begin with Poe and his meaning, but in this case it would be a mistake so I will ask the reader for a little patience. Almost every time someone sets out to talk about Poe they end up talking about themselves. In other words, it is difficult to characterize him without running the risk of being characterized by him.
In the most basic and elemental sense, the Poe that emerges in the minds of readers in general is the one of mass media, of encyclopaedias or widespread articles. For this reader, Poe is the master of horror, mystery and the macabre; a sort of ‘haunted house’ in an amusement park or a character in a comic strip, suitable for children of all ages who also recognize him as the founder of the detective story; the author of ‘The ← 5 | 6 → Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Gold Bug’, ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and a dozen ‘extraordinary stories’ as famous as some of his poems, among which ‘The Raven’ invariably stands out. A reader with a little more curiosity adds ‘Ulalume’ to the list and is quick to say that Poe is the ‘inventor’ of the modern short story, where he displayed a great capacity of analysis and reasoning, putting into practice his ‘effect theory’. For them, Poe is also the author of the long prose poem Eureka, of some other poems standing out for their rhythm and musicality, such as ‘The Bells’, ‘To Helen’, ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘The City in the Sea’, as well as three key pieces in which formulated his critical theory: ‘The Poetic Principle’, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and ‘The Rationale of Verse’. An even more curious reader would also discover that Poe has been the target of psychological analyses, phenomenological studies, and of all kinds of sophisticated theoretical approaches. On the one hand, they sense the ‘great influence’ of Poe, though they can’t quite put a finger on what exactly it is. On the other, they are aware of the revulsion made manifest by well-known Anglo-American critics. Like many of them, however, they will have to accept the great importance of Poe in France as a precursor of symbolism, notably influencing Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. In other words, they will find out that this discrepancy is often called ‘the myth of the French Poe’, ‘the mystery of the French Poe’ or ‘the French Poe myth’. If their curiosity is even greater they may find out that some Poe enthusiasts, toiling in the hunt for influences, have been engaged in tracking affinities in among as many traceable talents as possible, from the Symbolists, the Pre-Raphaelites and modernists, to our days. It is likely that the rationale for this influence will not be wholly apprehended, nor clearly determined how important it is really to know if Baudelaire’s devotion is or not justifiable. Knowing to what extent Poe’s works are a response to the conventions of the gothic, a challenge to classicist values or a by-product of what we confusingly call ‘romantic’ or ‘enlightened’ may also prove difficult. It shouldn’t be a surprise if the actual inventiveness of Poe and, most importantly, his undeniable historical significance, is to remain buried in the pantheon of illustrious men. The writer is reduced to an icon, a vignette, one more name for the encyclopaedia or a piece in the museum. ← 6 | 7 →
The story of a work is also the story of how it has been read. And if this is true for all works, in this case it is even more so. What Edgar Allan Poe has suggested and, above all, the confusion he has caused among eminent artists, poets and critics from different countries, over more than a century and a half, invites us to consider seriously this case in which it is difficult to find two people who agree on either his work or its reception, particularly in France.
The most influential Anglo-American critics have had serious difficulties with Poe. The eminent F. O. Matthiessen erased him from the canon; Harold Bloom accepted his place reluctantly, and T. S. Eliot, unable to understand the devotion of the best French poets of the time, developed a theory to explain it. Given the difficulty of successfully understanding the French devotion, many scholars have ruminated on ‘the myth of French Poe’ as if it were an inexplicable mystery. For Poe’s detractors the devotion of the French is exaggerated and difficult to understand; for his followers, however, the Anglo-American aversion seems merely the denial of a society that does not want to see itself, and is unable to accept within the land a genius rather incompatible with the American Dream. For supporters of Eliot and Bloom, the French Poe is in large part a by-product of Baudelaire’s masterful translation (which rebuilt Poe as narrator), of Mallarmé’s translation of his verse (which reworked him substantially as a poet); and Paul Valéry’s disquisitions (which exalted him as a theoretician).
- XVI, 396
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2017 (November)
- Poe Modernity Intellectual History
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XVI, 396 pp.