Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 1 of 4

            Modern writers and critics are never quite sure what to make of Edgar Allan Poe. Aldous Huxley famously described Poe’s verse lines as the equivalent of “the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger,” and the popular critic Harold Bloom extends the indictment to Poe’s prose, writing “Poe's awful diction… seems to demand the decent masking of a competent French translation” (2). What accounts for the stories continuing impact, Bloom suggests, are “the psychological dynamics and mythic reverberations of his stories” (3). Joyce Carol Oates, who of all contemporary writers might be expected to show Poe some sympathy, seems to agree with Bloom, charging that Poe’s stories are “hampered by… writerly turgidity” but nonetheless work on readers’ minds through his expert use of “surreal dream-images” (91). What these critics fail to realize is that when Poe went to excess in his prose he was doing it quite deliberately. He liked to use his stories to play games with his readers, simultaneously courting them, so that he could make a living, and signaling to them—at least the brightest and most attentive of them—that his mind was too good for the genre he was writing in, his tastes too sophisticated.

            The obliviousness of critics like Bloom notwithstanding, most Poe scholars are well aware that his writing was often intended as a satire on popular works of his day that showed the same poor tastes and the same tendency toward excess which readers today mistake as his own failures of eloquence. Indeed, some scholars have detected satiric elements to what are usually taken as Poe’s most serious works in the Gothic Horror genre. Clark Griffith, for instance, sees in the story “Ligeia” evidence of a “satiric underside” to the “Gothic overplot” (17) which arrests the attention of most readers. And, as critic Robert Regan explains, “Poe…was capable of synchronizing a multi-faceted tale of terror with a literary satire,” and he was furthermore “surely… capable of making his satiric point apparent if he had chosen to” (294). To understand what it is Poe is satirizing—and to discover why his satire is often concealed—it is important to read each of his stories not just in the context of his other stories but, because he had a proclivity toward what Regan refers to as duplicity, of his life beyond his work as well. Even a cursory study of his biography reveals a pattern of self-destructive defiance reflective of an incapacity to tolerate being at the slightest disadvantage. Poe, poverty-stricken for most of his adult life, even went so far as to defy the very readers he depended on for his paltry livelihood, but he did so in a manner so clever most of them caught no hint of the sneer. In point of fact, he more than once managed to escape detection for expressions of outright contempt for his readers by encoding them within some of the very tales—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado”—they found, and continue to find, most pleasing—and most horrifying.

            That Poe often wrote what were intended to be straightforward satires or comedies is clear in any comprehensive edition of his work. The story “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” for instance, not only quotes Cervantes, but probably owes its central conceit, a dunderheaded and ambitious writer seeking out the ridiculous, but lucrative, advice of a magazine editor, to the prologue of Part I of Don Quixote, in which the author struggles with the opening of his story until a friend comes along and advises him on how to embellish it (Levine 15). And Thomas Mabbott, a major Poe critic, has found letters in which the author describes a framing scheme for his early stories similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which a group, The Folio Club—“a mere Junto of Dunderheadism,” he calls them in an introduction (595)—takes turns telling stories and then votes to award a prize to the best. Poe writes: “As soon as each tale is read—the other 16 members criticise it in turn—and their criticisms are intended as a burlesque upon criticism generally” (173). The tales themselves, Poe writes, “are of a bizarre and generally whimsical character” (173). Robert Regan takes this evidence of Poe’s comedic intentions a step further, pointing out that when readers responded to “parodies or imitations of the mannered styles of fiction of his day” by giving them “praise for virtues [they] never pretended to,” the author “seems to have decided to make the best of being misunderstood: if his audience would not laugh at his clownishness, he would laugh at theirs” (281).

            Poe was not opposed to writing stories and poems he knew would be appealing to a popular audience—he couldn’t afford to be. But, as in every other sphere of his life, Poe chafed under this dependence, and was eager to signal his contempt whenever he could. This is most explicitly demonstrated in his treatment of stories published in—or associated with—Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” The story features the fictional Signora Psyche Zenobia—known to her enemies as Suky Snobbs—seeking the advice of Mr. Blackwood, who at one point gives her some examples of real works in the style he’s prescribing. He first praises “The Dead Alive,” saying “You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin.” Then, of “Confessions of an Opium-eater,” he says

"fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—deep philosophy—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible. That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote that paper—but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper." (176)

            Of course, Poe himself would go on to write a story titled “The Premature Burial,” so his attitude toward this type of writing was more complicated than Juniper’s authorship would suggest. Indeed, the story Signora Psyche Zenobia writes in the manner advocated by Mr. Blackwood, “A Predicament,” or “The Scythe of Time” as it was originally titled, is not fundamentally different from the style in which Poe wrote his more serious tales. It seems, rather, to have resulted from a cranking up of the exaggeration dial until the burlesque that is elsewhere imperceptible to popular readers comes across as patently ridiculous. And this wasn’t the first time Poe lampooned the overblown prose and farfetched plots of what were called “sensation tales,” like those published in Blackwood’s; three years earlier, with “Berenice,” another tale of premature burial, he tried to mimic these same excesses, but no one, including Thomas White, the editor who published it, caught the joke.

            In his correspondence with White, Poe gives a sense of what he believed he was working with—and against—in the publishing world of the 1830’s and 40’s. White agreed to publish “Berenice,” in which the protagonist, in the throes of his obsession with a woman’s teeth, removes them from her corpse, only to discover she wasn’t really dead, even though he suspected it was in bad taste. Poe apparently agreed. “The subject is by far too horrible,” he writes, “and I confess that I hesitated in sending it you especially as a specimen of my capabilities” (597). He goes on to claim that he was prompted to write the story by a wager against his ability to compose one on such a horrible subject. Napier Wilt, a critic who considers the question of Poe’s attitude toward his tales, finds this claim “somewhat dubious” (102). But it seems such a bet would have been the very type of challenge to Poe’s genius he could not back down from. And Poe goes on: “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature—to Berenice—although, I grant you, far superior in style and execution” (597). That admission of the superiority of others’ work is more dubious by far than that the story was conceived from a bet.

            Poe then explicates to White precisely how the pieces he refers to, which are responsible for the success of the magazines that publish them, handle their topics. The way he describes them provides a lens through which to view works of his beyond just the one he is defending. The public, he writes, likes works consisting in “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical” (597). He goes on to list several examples of stories that adhere to this formula, and Wilt attests that he could have made the list much longer: “Even a casual study of the early nineteenth-century English and American magazines yields hundreds of such tales” (103). So it seems that even as Poe was contemptuous of the writers of these articles—as well as the audiences who ensured their proliferation—he determined to write his own semi-serious stories in a similar vein, only to turn around some time later and poke fun at the style much less subtly in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” He sums up his motivation later in the letter to White. “To be appreciated,” he writes, “one must be read” (597, all italics are in original).

            It cannot be concluded, though, that Poe was a sellout who slavishly pandered to the blinkered sensibilities of the reading public—because he never acted slavish to anyone. He grew up the foster son of John Allan, a well-to-do Southern merchant. In the course of his upbringing he somehow, in G.R. Thompson’s words, came to “expect the life of the son of a Virginia gentleman—or, if not quite an aristocrat, the next best to that—the son of a prosperous merchant” (xxi). But by the time Poe was attending the University of Virginia, Allan was growing weary of underwriting the profligate Poe’s excesses, such as his habit of losing enormous sums at gambling tables, and cut him off. His foster mother tried to arrange a reconciliation but Poe was too proud to grovel. He did prevail upon Allan, though, years later to help finance his education at West Point. Unfortunately, he blew this too when he wrote to a creditor explaining that his foster father had not yet sent him the money he needed to pay off the debt, further suggesting that the reason for the delay was that “Mr. A. is not very often sober” (Thompson xxiii). The letter was then enclosed along with a demand for payment sent directly to said Mr. A. Rather than face the humiliation of being dismissed from West Point for being unable to pay his expenses, Poe decided to get himself kicked out by disobeying orders. There is even a story—possibly apocryphal—of the cadet showing up in formation naked (Thompson xxxiii).
Part 2