The Imp of the Underground and the Literature of Low Status

Image courtesy of Block Magazine
The one overarching theme in literature, and I mean all literature since there’s been any to speak of, is injustice. Does the girl get the guy she deserves? If so, the work is probably commercial, as opposed to literary, fiction. If not, then the reason begs pondering. Maybe she isn’t pretty enough, despite her wit and aesthetic sophistication, so we’re left lamenting the shallowness of our society’s males. Maybe she’s of a lower caste, despite her unassailable virtue, in which case we’re forced to question our complacency before morally arbitrary class distinctions. Or maybe the timing was just off—cursed fate in all her fickleness. Another literary work might be about the woman who ends up without the fulfilling career she longed for and worked hard to get, in which case we may blame society’s narrow conception of femininity, as evidenced by all those damn does-the-girl-get-the-guy stories.

            The prevailing theory of what arouses our interest in narratives focuses on the characters’ goals, which magically, by some as yet undiscovered cognitive mechanism, become our own. But plots often catch us up before any clear goals are presented to us, and our partisanship on behalf of a character easily endures shifting purposes. We as readers and viewers are not swept into stories through the transubstantiation of someone else’s striving into our own, with the protagonist serving as our avatar as we traverse the virtual setting and experience the pre-orchestrated plot. Rather, we reflexively monitor the character for signs of virtue and for a capacity to contribute something of value to his or her community, the same way we, in our nonvirtual existence, would monitor and assess a new coworker, classmate, or potential date. While suspense in commercial fiction hinges on high-stakes struggles between characters easily recognizable as good and those easily recognizable as bad, and comfortably condemnable as such, forward momentum in literary fiction—such as it is—depends on scenes in which the protagonist is faced with temptations, tests of virtue, moral dilemmas.

The strain and complexity of coming to some sort of resolution to these dilemmas often serves as a theme in itself, a comment on the mad world we live in, where it’s all but impossible to discern between right and wrong. Indeed, the most common emotional struggle depicted in literature is that between the informal, even intimate handling of moral evaluation—which comes natural to us owing to our evolutionary heritage as a group-living species—and the official, systematized, legal or institutional channels for determining merit and culpability that became unavoidable as societies scaled up exponentially after the advent of agriculture. These burgeoning impersonal bureaucracies are all too often ill-equipped to properly weigh messy mitigating factors, and they’re all too vulnerable to subversion by unscrupulous individuals who know how to game them. Psychopaths who ought to be in prison instead become CEOs of multinational investment firms, while sensitive and compassionate artists and humanitarians wind up taking lowly day jobs at schools or used book stores. But the feature of institutions and bureaucracies—and of complex societies more generally—that takes the biggest toll on our Pleistocene psyches, the one that strikes us as the most glaring injustice, is their stratification, their arrangement into steeply graded hierarchies.

Unlike our hierarchical ape cousins, all present-day societies still living in small groups as nomadic foragers, like those our ancestors lived in throughout the epoch that gave rise to the suite of traits we recognize as uniquely human, collectively enforce an ethos of egalitarianism. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm explains in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarianism,

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him. (105)

Since humans evolved from a species that was ancestral to both chimpanzees and gorillas, we carry in us many of the emotional and behavioral capacities that support hierarchies. But, during all those millennia of egalitarianism, we also developed an instinctive distaste for behaviors that undermine an individual’s personal sovereignty. “On their list of serious moral transgressions,” Boehm explains,

hunter-gathers regularly proscribe the enactment of behavior that is politically overbearing. They are aiming at upstarts who threaten the autonomy of other group members, and upstartism takes various forms. An upstart may act the bully simply because he is disposed to dominate others, or he may become selfishly greedy when it is time to share meat, or he may want to make off with another man’s wife by threat or by force. He (or sometimes she) may also be a respected leader who suddenly begins to issue direct orders… An upstart may simply take on airs of superiority, or may aggressively put others down and thereby violate the group’s idea of how its main political actors should be treating one another. (43)

In a band of thirty people, it’s possible to keep a vigilant eye on everyone and head off potential problems. But, as populations grow, encounters with strangers in settings where no one knows one another open the way for threats to individual autonomy and casual insults to personal dignity. And, as professional specialization and institutional complexity increase in pace with technological advancement, power structures become necessary for efficient decision-making. Economic inequality then takes hold as a corollary of professional inequality.

None of this is to suggest that the advance of civilization inevitably leads to increasing injustice. In fact, per capita murder rates are much higher in hunter-gatherer societies. Nevertheless, the impersonal nature of our dealings with others in the modern world often strikes us as overly conducive to perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. And even the most mundane signals of superior status or the most subtle expressions of power, though officially sanctioned, can be maddening. Compare this famous moment in literary history to Boehm’s account of hunter-gatherer political philosophy:

I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me. (49)

The billiard player's failure to acknowledge his autonomy outrages the narrator, who then considers attacking the man who has treated him with such disrespect. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He explains,

I turned coward not from cowardice, but from the most boundless vanity. I was afraid, not of six-foot-tallness, nor of being badly beaten and chucked out the window; I really would have had physical courage enough; what I lacked was sufficient moral courage. I was afraid that none of those present—from the insolent marker to the last putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard who was hanging about there—would understand, and that they would all deride me if I started protesting and talking to them in literary language. Because among us to this day it is impossible to speak of a point of honor—that is, not honor, but a point of honor (point d’honneur) otherwise than in literary language. (50)

The languages of law and practicality are the only ones whose legitimacy is recognized in modern societies. The language of morality used to describe sentiments like honor has been consigned to literature. This man wants to exact his revenge for the slight he suffered, but that would require his revenge to be understood by witnesses as such. The derision he can count on from all the bystanders would just compound the slight. In place of a close-knit moral community, there is only a loose assortment of strangers. And so he has no recourse.

            The character in this scene could be anyone. Males may be more keyed into the physical dimension of domination and more prone to react with physical violence, but females likewise suffer from slights and belittlements, and react aggressively, often by attacking their tormenter's reputation through gossip. Treating a person of either gender as an insensate obstacle is easier when that person is a stranger you’re unlikely ever to encounter again. But another dynamic is at play in the scene which makes it still easier—almost inevitable. After being unceremoniously moved aside, the narrator becomes obsessed with the man who treated him so dismissively. Desperate to even the score, he ends up stalking the man, stewing resentfully, trying to come up with a plan. He writes,

And suddenly… suddenly I got my revenge in the simplest, the most brilliant way! The brightest idea suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes on holidays I would go to Nevsky Prospect between three and four, and stroll along the sunny side. That is, I by no means went strolling there, but experienced countless torments, humiliations and risings of bile: that must have been just what I needed. I darted like an eel among the passers-by, in a most uncomely fashion, ceaselessly giving way now to generals, now to cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies; in those moments I felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure. This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly—more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else—that went without saying—but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone. (52)

So the indignity, it seems, was not borne of being moved aside like a piece of furniture so much as it was of being afforded absolutely no status. That’s why being beaten would have been preferable; a beating implies a modicum of worthiness in that it demands recognition, effort, even risk, no matter how slight.

            The idea that occurs to the narrator for the perfect revenge requires that he first remedy the outward signals of his lower social status, “the measliness of my attire and the measliness… of my darting little figure,” as he calls them. The catch is that to don the proper attire for leveling a challenge, he has to borrow money from a man he works with—which only adds to his daily feelings of humiliation. Psychologists Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky have conducted experiments demonstrating that people display a disturbing readiness to compensate for feelings of powerlessness and low status by making pricy purchases, even though in the long run such expenditures only serve to perpetuate their lowly economic and social straits. The irony is heightened in the story when the actual revenge itself, the trappings for which were so dearly purchased, turns out to be so bathetic.

Suddenly, within three steps of my enemy, I unexpectedly decided, closed my eyes, and—we bumped solidly shoulder against shoulder! I did not yield an inch and passed by on perfectly equal footing! He did not even look back and pretended not to notice: but he only pretended, I’m sure of that. To this day I’m sure of it! Of course, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my purpose, preserved my dignity, yielded not a step, and placed myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home perfectly avenged for everything. (55)

But this perfect vengeance has cost him not only the price of a new coat and hat; it has cost him a full two years of obsession, anguish, and insomnia as well. The implication is that being of lowly status is a constant psychological burden, one that makes people so crazy they become incapable of making rational decisions.

            Literature buffs will have recognized these scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (as translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhnosky), which satirizes the idea of a society based on the principle of “rational egotism” as symbolized by N.G. Chernyshevsky’s image of a “crystal palace” (25), a well-ordered utopia in which every citizen pursues his or her own rational self-interests. Dostoevsky’s underground man hates the idea because regardless of how effectively such a society may satisfy people’s individual needs the rigid conformity it would demand would be intolerable. The supposed utopia, then, could never satisfy people’s true interests. He argues,

That’s just the thing, gentlemen, that there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as not to violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit (precisely the omitted one, the one we were just talking about), which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in short, against all these beautiful and useful things—only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (22)

The underground man cites examples of people behaving against their own best interests in this section, which serves as a preface to the story of his revenge against the billiard player who so blithely moves him aside. The way he explains this “very best profit” which makes people like himself behave in counterproductive, even self-destructive ways is to suggest that nothing else matters unless everyone’s freedom to choose how to behave is held inviolate. He writes,

One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil… Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (25-6)
Arthur Rackham's Imp of Perverse Illustration

Notes from Underground was originally published in 1864. But the underground man echoes, wittingly or not, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story from almost twenty years earlier, "The Imp of the Perverse," who posits an innate drive to perversity, explaining,

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object. Or if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say that through its promptings we act for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but in reality there is none so strong. With certain minds, under certain circumstances, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy of an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us, to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution to ulterior elements. (403)

This narrator’s suggestion of the irreducibility of the impulse notwithstanding, it’s noteworthy how often the circumstances that induce its expression include the presence of an individual of higher status.
Dov Cohen

            The famous shoulder bump in Notes from Underground has an uncanny parallel in experimental psychology. In 1996, Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, and their colleagues published the research article, “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’,” in which they report the results of a comparison between the cognitive and physiological responses of southern males to being bumped in a hallway and casually called an asshole to those of northern males. The study showed that whereas men from northern regions were usually amused by the run-in, southern males were much more likely to see it as an insult and a threat to their manhood, and they were much more likely to respond violently. The cortisol and testosterone levels of southern males spiked—the clever experimental setup allowed meaures before and after—and these men reported believing physical confrontation was the appropriate way to redress the insult. The way Cohen and Nisbett explain the difference is that the “culture of honor” that emerges in southern regions originally developed as a safeguard for men who lived as herders. Cultures that arise in farming regions place less emphasis on manly honor because farmland is difficult to steal. But if word gets out that a herder is soft then his livelihood is at risk. Cohen and Nisbett write,
Richard Nisbett

Such concerns might appear outdated for southern participants now that the South is no longer a lawless frontier based on a herding economy. However, we believe these experiments may also hint at how the culture of honor has sustained itself in the South. It is possible that the culture-of-honor stance has become “functionally autonomous” from the material circumstances that created it. Culture of honor norms are now socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood. (958)

            More recently, in a 2009 article titled “Low-Status Compensation: A Theory for Understanding the Role of Status in Cultures of Honor,” psychologist P.J. Henry takes another look at Cohen and Nisbett’s findings and offers another interpretation based on his own further experimentation. Henry’s key insight is that herding peoples are often considered to be of lower status than people with other professions and lifestyles. After establishing that the southern communities with a culture of honor are often stigmatized with negative stereotypes—drawling accents signaling low intelligence, high incidence of incest and drug use, etc.—both in the minds of outsiders and those of the people themselves, Henry suggests that a readiness to resort to violence probably isn’t now and may not ever have been adaptive in terms of material benefits.
P.J. Henry

An important perspective of low-status compensation theory is that low status is a stigma that brings with it lower psychological worth and value. While it is true that stigma also often accompanies lower economic worth and, as in the studies presented here, is sometimes defined by it (i.e., those who have lower incomes in a society have more of a social stigma compared with those who have higher incomes), low-status compensation theory assumes that it is psychological worth that is being protected, not economic or financial worth. In other words, the compensation strategies used by members of low-status groups are used in the service of psychological self-protection, not as a means of gaining higher status, higher income, more resources, etc. (453)

And this conception of honor brings us closer to the observations of the underground man and Poe’s boastful murderer. If psychological worth is what’s being defended, then economic considerations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, since our financial standing tends to be so closely tied to our social standing, our efforts to protect our sense of psychological worth have a nasty tendency to backfire in the long run.

            Henry found evidence for the importance of psychological reactance, as opposed to cultural norms, in causing violence when he divided participants of his study into either high or low status categories and then had them respond to questions about how likely they would be to respond to insults with physical aggression. But before being asked about the propriety of violent reprisals half of the members of each group were asked to recall as vividly as they could a time in their lives when they felt valued by their community. Henry describes the findings thus:

When lower status participants were given the opportunity to validate their worth, they were less likely to endorse lashing out aggressively when insulted or disrespected. Higher status participants were unaffected by the manipulation. (463)

The implication is that people who feel less valuable than others, a condition that tends to be associated with low socioeconomic status, are quicker to retaliate because they are almost constantly on-edge, preoccupied at almost every moment with assessments of their standing in relation to others. Aside from a readiness to engage in violence, this type of obsessive vigilance for possible slights, and the feeling of powerlessness that attends it, can be counted on to keep people in a constant state of stress. The massive longitudinal study of British Civil Service employees called the Whitehall Study, which tracks the health outcomes of people at the various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, has found that the stress associated with low status also has profound effects on our physical well-being.  
When Americans are asked to imagine an ideal distribution of
wealth, the results show far less stratification than actually

            Though it may seem that violence-prone poor people occupying lowly positions on societal and professional totem poles are responsible for aggravating and prolonging their own misery because they tend to spend extravagantly and lash out at their perceived overlords with nary a concern for the consequences, the regularity with which low status leads to self-defeating behavior suggests the impulses are much more deeply rooted than some lazily executed weighing of pros and cons. If the type of wealth or status inequality the underground man finds himself on the short end of would have begun to take root in societies like the ones Christopher Boehm describes, a high-risk attempt at leveling the playing field would not only have been understandable—it would have been morally imperative. In a group of nomadic foragers, though, a man endeavoring to knock a would-be alpha down a few pegs would be able to count on the endorsement of most of the other group members. And the success rate for re-establishing and maintaining egalitarianism would have been heartening. Today, we are forced to live with inequality, even though beyond a certain point most people (regardless of political affiliation) see it as an injustice. 

            Some of the functions of literature, then, are to help us imagine just how intolerable life on the bottom can be, sympathize with those who get trapped in downward spirals of self-defeat, and begin to imagine what a more just and equitable society might look like. The catch is that we will be put off by characters who mistreat others or simply show a dearth of redeeming qualities.

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

and Can't Win for Losing: Why there are So Many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change

Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 4 0f 4

Read from the beginning

            Absent from any of the critical attempts to uncover what the cat might symbolize is what ought to have been the most obvious starting point—the cat’s name. In a footnote to the Norton Critical Edition of Poe’s work, G.R. Thompson explains that Pluto is the “name in some myths of the ruler of Hell (or Hades, which is another name for its ruler)” (349). Though Thompson is elsewhere in the same edition savvy in sifting out Poe’s satirical side, he fails here to look further into the name Pluto, probably for the same reason so many other critics fail to look further into it—because it meshes well the preconception of Poe as the writer of Gothic Horror stories. That is precisely the reason why the name is such a perfect trap for those readers unable to view his work with anything but a single, film-covered eye. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “Pluto is the Latin form (used in English) of the Greek name Plutō n, meaning ‘wealth-giver’, because wealth is seen as coming from the earth” (6 April 2009). The word persists with this meaning today, usually in the form of a suffix. As the Oxford English Dictionary Online attests, “pluto-, comb. form,” is used in “forming nouns and adjectives relating to wealth and the wealthy” (6 April 2009), as in the term plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. (The equation of money and the underworld has a long history, dating from much earlier than “Death and Taxes.” The name Dis, another Roman name for Hades, comes from the word dives, “rich.” Dante places Plutus, actually a separate Roman god but whose name in Italian is still Pluto, in the fourth circle of The Inferno, overseeing the Avaricious and the Prodigal, along with the Lady Fortune [59].)

            Poe seems to have made the safe assumption that his use of the name Pluto would be seen with the cyclopean eye of his readers as a casual reference to the resting place of the dead, and some of the bragging of his narrators’ just may be an expression of his own pride in so well concealing, while at the same time expressing, his true feelings toward his wealth-giver, the reading public. When the narrator of “Tell-Tale” says, “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, [I] placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim” (320), only the befuddled psychoanalyst can keep at bay the suspicion aroused by what is commonly read as an instantaneous transition from pride into a state of overwhelming guilt. The beating of the heart that prompts the confession is really a continuation of the terror excited by the old man’s one-eyed glare; no matter what Poe does with his writing, only the fear-inducing aspects are ever appreciated. Since the old man is an earlier version of Pluto, the tale itself represents the author’s confession of his true ambivalence toward his readers. And why did he make such a confession? “Anything was more tolerable than this derision!” he says. “I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!” (320) But the confession went unheard, drowned out by the terrified beating of readers’ hearts. It is even possible that “Black Cat,” “Imp,” and “Amontillado” represent continued, escalated flirtations with being found out. The victim of “Imp” is nothing but a reader with money. And the murderer of Fortunato—note the name—though confessing in the tale, ends by bragging about escaping detection for “half of a century” (421); three years after he began playing this game, Poe was probably less and less worried that anyone would catch him at it. But it is in “Black Cat” that the allegory—or coded message—is the most developed.

            Before looking more closely at this story, an important distinction must be made between irony and duplicity. When the author clues readers into knowledge the protagonist is not privy to, as Gargano gives Poe credit for doing in “Black Cat,” that is irony. In this sense, Poe and the narrator of the story need to be distinguished from each other. But that doesn’t mean Poe can’t be seen in the story at a different level. As Regan explains:

"The intention of the writer who employs irony is that the reader shall, perhaps after momentary difficulties, decipher his code; the intention of the writer who employs duplicity is that his code baffle as many readers as possible." (294)

One level is what Griffith calls the “Gothic overplot,” another level is the ironic one identified by Gargano, and yet another level, a duplicitous or coded one—the “satiric underside”—seems to be signaled by recurring elements between this and other tales, like a focus on eyes, and perversity, as well as by the dual meanings of the cat’s name.

            This multi-dimensionality is keeping with Poe’s ideas of the Arabesque, a term which appeared in the title of an earlier collection of his tales. As Thompson explains, “Islamic tradition discourages the artistic reproduction of any natural forms that may be said to possess a soul,” and to avoid such forms artists in this tradition rely on “almost purely geometrical forms” such as the elaborate designs seen in Arabesque architecture and textiles. One of the primary characteristics of these designs is that each patterned is inlaid and interweaved with several others so that the overall image is intricate and multidimensional. Thompson also points out that Poe, following the influence of German theorist Friedrich von Schlegel, applied the same principle to his conception of Romantic Irony, “which is neither just parodic or serious but both simultaneously, as in Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the plays of Shakespeare” (79). It appears, however, that Poe added yet another layer to this design. And this is how he solved the dilemma historian Jill Lepore describes thus: “he needed to turn his pen to profit, but he also wanted to signal…that he was lowering himself” (68).

            The first paragraph of “Black Cat” features a few odd statements that have been the source of much commentary. The narrator calls the story the “most wild, yet most homely narrative” (348) in the first sentence. In this seeming contradiction lies an invitation to a dual reading. In the middle of the paragraph, he characterizes the story as consisting of “a series of mere household events” (349) before explaining how horrible and devastating their consequences have been, another seeming contradiction. But the final sentence of the paragraph is the most telling:

"Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." (349)

This statement could of course be read as another application of the Gothic trope of having the unreliably hysterical narrator reference the possibility of his own madness in order to make his ravings more credible. “I neither expect nor solicit belief,” (348) he says in the first sentence—because he would have to be crazy to, the implication runs. But, with Gargano’s evidence in mind of Poe’s deliberate use of the double voice, one the author’s and one the narrator’s, along with Griffith’s discovery of a “satiric underside” concealed by the “Gothic overplot” elsewhere in Poe’s work, and especially in light of the dual meanings of the cat’s name, another reading suggests itself: Poe is taunting his readers to catch him disparaging them.

            It is noteworthy that the narrator himself is responsible for the half-blindness of the cat, since this was not the case with the old man in “Tell-Tale.” Before getting to the disoculation, though, the narrator describes a childhood surrounded by pets, even to the exclusion of human companions. “There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute,” he writes, “which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (349). The man Poe, ever frustrated by those on whom he depended for anything, must have taken great pleasure in the complete dependence and obedience of animals. But then cats are much less obedient than dogs. In terms of his career, this early period represents his naïve and romantic youth, before maturity complicated his ideas and feelings toward his art. All that was to change when, with his own pen, he made himself into something more complex than a writer of romantic poetry. His writing was to take on a satiric edge, not that his readers ever really caught on to the difference. Really at this point in the story, though, there is more Gothic plot than coded satire, and the equation of the narrator’s love of animals with Poe’s early romantic writing is no less tenuous than countless other allegorical readings. But when the narrator, in the grip of perversity, goes beyond the initial injury and kills Pluto, things get more interesting.

            The Imp of the Perverse compelled the narrator of that tale not to murder his victim but to confess it, but in “Black Cat” perversity is responsible for the eponymous cat’s demise. “Imp,” published two years later, may have been referring to the symbolic violence done to the reader of the earlier tale. Since the perpetrator had gone undetected for so long, the Imp, a self-destructive force, had proven itself not to have been in play. Poe suffered no consequences for loosing “Black Cat” on his audiences. But he did suffer from his strained relationships with those who served as an intermediary between him and his readers, editors like White and Graham. In another apparent contradiction, the narrator of “Black Cat” claims, “It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute” (350). Whom is he hurting when he hurts the cat? The answer comes in the next paragraph: “On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire… The whole house was blazing” (351). Having given in to his frustration with his wealth-giver, the narrator subsequently, immediately, loses his home. For those who missed this not-so-subtle point, he adds a few lines later, “My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up” (351).

            Just as White failed to detect the parody in “Berenice,” Poe could always count on at least a preponderance of his readers at large to miss any satire he concealed in his work. And so, despite the violence done to it, the black cat returns—Poe continues to make money by writing scary stories. But because he was in more dire economic straits at this time in his life, owing largely to his falling out with Graham, the cat returns sporting an ominous sign: “the GALLOWS!”(353) delineated by a tuft of white fur. The narrator brings this second cat home, where it “became immediately a great favorite with my wife” (352). But he says, “I soon found a dislike to it arising with me…its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed” (352). Oddly, it is not until the paragraph following this admission of his dislike, that he mentions what would seem to be its most remarkable feature: “like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes” (352). Of course, Poe continued to hate the admiration of his half-blind readers, even though it was helping him support his wife.

            The narrator admits that he “longed to destroy” (352) Pluto, but was dissuaded from doing so “by absolute dread of the beast” (353), which he attributes to the image in the cat’s fur. Forced to coexist with this object of dread, he wrestles with the irony of how he “a man, fashioned in the image of High God,” was being made “wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity” by “a brute beast—whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed” (353), a line which clearly equates perversity with contempt. The uneasy cohabitation persists until his wife, “the most patient of sufferers,” accompanies him, “upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit” (353). The cat rushes in to trip him, causing him to forget his dread and take up an ax, which when his wife tries to stop him from using, ends up in her brain. His rage for the cat gets turned on his wife. Since the cat is the “wealth-giver,” the image springs direfully to mind of Virginia shivering in her unheated room with nothing but a coat and a cat to keep her warm.

            At this point, the story becomes, like the others in the nexus, a case of self-destructive boasting. After walling up his wife, he says “I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself—‘Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain’” (354). When police arrive to investigate her disappearance, he shows them to the cellar and the basement—“Secure… in the inscrutability of my place of concealment” (355). Once they have had a look around and are making to leave, the narrator calls them back. “The glee at my heart” he says, “was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness” (355). He starts boasting about how his is “an excellently well constructed house,” and “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355), he raps with his cane on the wall concealing his wife’s body. Just as in “Tell-Tale” and “Imp,” the narrator is responsible for the discovery of his own crime. Pluto, inadvertently walled up with his wife, aroused by the tapping, sounds a cry “half of horror and half of triumph,” so that the wall is torn down and it is revealed, perched atop his dead wife’s head, looking out with its “solitary eye of fire” (355).

            What is most impressive about Poe’s coded attacks on his readers is that the stories concealing them are so good that even critics with a sophisticated awareness of his multileveled satires have found no reason to see them as anything but superbly crafted Gothic tales. This excellence, which he achieved despite his contempt for those who appreciated the genre, is itself yet another form of defiance. Poe must have determined that if he had to write overwrought, hysterical tales of murder and madness to be read, he would just have to show everyone how it was done. He would take it to the next level—and do so in the same stories into which he was weaving his codes. Harold Bloom, straining to find something positive to say about Poe, writes that he “authentically frightens children, and the fright can be a kind of trauma,” and his own reading of the author as a child “induced nasty and repetitious nightmares that linger even now” (3). Bloom is just the kind of authority Poe would have detested, and he would have been delighted to hear to that he managed to give the critic, who hasn’t even caught on to the topmost layer of his layers-deep satire, nightmares into adulthood. Still, his laugh would have to be tempered by the tragedy that he never did get his chance to write what he wanted to write without the specter of poverty looming over him.

Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 3 of 4

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            To contextualize the writing of “Black Cat” biographically, two events are of interest. In January of 1842, Poe’s wife, Virginia, damaged a blood vessel while singing, and this was but the beginning of her decline in health brought about by tuberculosis. Her condition was quite likely exacerbated by their poverty; one of Poe’s letters from the time describes how all Virginia had to guard her from the winter cold was his greatcoat used as a blanket, atop of which perched a tortoiseshell cat to keep her chest warm. Despite his money troubles, though, Poe resigned his editorship of Graham’s Magazine after a power struggle with George Graham. Subsequently, he was forced to cast about desperately for editors and publishers for his work (Thompson xxxiii-iv). Tellingly, though, before the falling out, Poe seems to have discovered a fondness for cryptograms. He even tried to get hired by the government to write them. About a year before leaving Graham’s, he published an essay on “secret writing,” which he described as writing “in such a manner as to elude general comprehension” (Lepore 69).

            “The Black Cat” is, on the surface, an especially haunting tale, and it has spurred a great deal of commentary. Oates, ever ambivalent about Poe, features it in the anthology American Gothic Tales. Though she demurs from giving it pride of place, tucking it between “Tartarus of Maids” and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as the fifth story in the table of contents, she nevertheless writes that the story

"demonstrates Poe at his most brilliant, presenting a madman’s voice with such mounting plausibility that the reader almost—almost—identifies with his unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts of insane violence against the affectionate black cat, Pluto, and eventually his own wife." (4)

            The story introduces “the spirit of PERVERSNESS,” which Poe revisited in a later tale, to account for these “unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts.” But there is no other reference to any philosophical school or literary tradition. And there are no physical descriptions of the characters. The only character who is really represented in any detail is the narrator, leaving readers to wonder who he is, if they should take him at his word when he recounts his tale, and what they should make of this invoking of perversity as a clue to his motive.

            A long tradition continues of critical attempts to determine what the eponymous cat symbolizes in the hope that doing so will shed some light on what the narrator’s motive—though he claimed he had none—was in killing first the cat and then his wife. Ed Piacentino provides page-long footnotes to his interpretation of the story which summarize, thesis by thesis, this critical history. His own perspective, heavily influenced by all the others, is that
The narrator’s motive for murdering his wife seems to be subconscious and, therefore, the crime

"is not consciously premeditated. Nor is the narrator able to understand rationally or to persuade convincingly why he has done this terrible deed, though he repeatedly offers explanations—actually untenable rationalizations—for his former actions." (153)

Citing Piacentino as an example of misguided psychologizing, Joseph Stark works to place the story in its historical context and suggests that such “analyses…may indicate in their very strivings to provide answers that no sufficiently clear cause for the narrator’s murder of his wife and the cat may be found in the text” (255). Of course, the story states this much explicitly, but what Stark argues would have been disturbing about this taking the narrator at his word is that it “posed significant challenges to increasingly influential scientific thought as well as to shifting evangelical theology” (255). These critics’ points may be valid, but they apply only insofar as the story is taken at face value.

            Originally published in August of 1843, “The Black Cat” forms a nexus with three other tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart” published seven months earlier, “The Imp of the Perverse” from July 1845, and “The Cask of Amontillado” from November 1846. Since the plot of “Black Cat” bears strong similarities to both “Tell-Tale” and “Amontillado,” centering on the murder and immuring of victims and narrated by men at the mercy of confessional compulsions, it may be helpful in uncovering any deliberately concealed satire to pursue a strategy similar to Griffith’s intertextual approach to “Ligeia.” The first notable detail arising from this comparison is the emphasis on the eyes of the victims in both “Tell-Tale” and “Black Cat,” as well as the narrator’s denial of ill-feeling toward them. “I loved the old man,” he says of the victim in “Tell-Tale,” but he was nonetheless driven to murder by one of the old man’s eyes. “He had the eye of a vulture,” the narrator says, “a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (317). The victim in “Amontillado” is also described at one point as looking into the narrator’s eyes “with two filmy orbs” (417), but in this case the eyes are not integral to the plot, whereas in “Tell-Tale” the narrator ends up postponing the violence until the eighth night because in attempting to kill the old man in his sleep he keeps finding him with the offending eye closed.

            In “Black Cat,” eyes come into play in the first incident the narrator describes. Returning home drunk, he suspects the hitherto affectionate cat is avoiding him. So, he chases it down, and then he says, “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!” (350) Since only one of the old man’s eyes in “Tell-Tale” is ever mentioned, it seems the violence in these stories has something to do with the victims being one-eyed. Poe does something interesting, too, in the line following the narrator’s description of the abuse of his pet: the narrator says, “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (350). It is as if Poe were drawing readers’ attention to the violent implement’s similarity to a pen. The now one-eyed cat goes on to foment the narrator’s rage, much the way the old man’s eye in “Tell-Tale” does, only in the case of “Black Cat” that rage gets turned onto the narrator’s wife.

            The victim in “Amontillado” keeps both his eyes unto death, but the narrator’s motive for killing him is never in question because he states it in the opening lines. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato,” he says, “I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (415). The nature of the insult remains a mystery throughout the tale, but Fortunato is presented as a proud, pretentious buffoon. “You are rich,” the narrator says to him to coax him into the trap, “respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was” (417). This exploitation of Fortunato’s pride, along with the vague reference to the narrator’s fallen status, persists until the end. The victim in “Amontillado” closely resembles many of the high-status targets of Poe’s satires. But what is important about him in the context of “Black Cat” and the two other tales linked to it is that Poe gives him a name. Neither the old man in “Tell-Tale” nor the wife in “Black Cat” nor the victim in “The Imp of the Perverse” has a name. In fact, the only details given about this last character are that he had a “habit of reading in bed” (405) and that he had an estate large enough to tempt the narrator to murder so that he might inherit it. But there is another victim in these stories whom Poe did deign to give a name, and that is the black cat himself, Pluto.

            There remains, however, another major intertextual element to examine before considering the possible significance of the cat’s name, and that is “the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (350), as it is referred to in “Black Cat,” and The Imp of the Perverse, which gives the later story its title. “Imp” begins with a lengthy philosophical discussion on what the narrator calls the “overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake” (403). The narrator in “Black Cat” defines it as the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only” (350). Early in “Imp,” the narrator is at pains to distinguish between perverseness and “the Combativeness of Phrenology,” by asserting that while “Combativeness has for its essence the necessity of self-defense,” when perversity is in play “the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment prevails” (403). However, later in the story, the same narrator concedes that perversity is “occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good” (405). A plethora of examples from Poe’s own biography suggests themselves as illustrations of an impulse akin to combativeness but with an element of self-destructiveness. There is much of pride in Poe’s perversity, but more of defiance. “Imp” is not about a conflict with a superior, though, but rather a well planned and executed murder the culprit would have escaped all suspicion for had he not been overtaken by the mysterious impulse to confess. It’s important to note that perversity does not push the narrator to murder; it compels him to tell everyone he did it. And he states explicitly that the confession is prompted by perversity, not any attack of conscience. Is he really confessing, or is he taking credit, demanding recognition, boasting about his perfect crime?

            A rich drunkard named Fortunato, an old man with one staring eye, a man who likes to read in bed, and an affectionate cat named Pluto, all end up—along with one woman as collateral damage—murdered by unnamed narrators and, except for the reader, walled up with bricks or floorboards, but perversity is invoked to account for only one of these violent acts, that against the one-eyed cat. The “longing of the soul to vex itself,” however, clearly overtakes the narrator again at the end of “Black Cat” when “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355) he raps his cane against the wall concealing his wife’s body, boasting to the police investigating her disappearance about how solidly built it is. As in “Imp,” the narrator is betrayed, not by a guilty conscience, but by an inability to restrain from bragging about his deeds, either how well they were planned and executed or how well they were concealed. The pride of the murderer is prominent in “Tell-Tale” as well. Poe not only adheres to the convention in supernatural storytelling of addressing the readers’ supposition of the narrator’s madness but takes it to the next level; not only are the murderers not crazy, they are exceptionally competent and intelligent. “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust [my head] in” to the old man’s room (317), the narrator of “Tell-Tale” boasts. Later, on the night of the murder, he says

"Never before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled." (318)

The murder complete, he goes on to boast some more about “the wise precautions” he takes in hiding the body. “I… replaced the boards so cleverly,” he says, “so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong” (319-20). In fact, except for “Black Cat,” all the stories in this nexus are really extended boasts. But what was it about that old man’s eye that provoked the narrator to kill him? Could it be the same thing that drove the narrator in the later tale to kill his cat?

Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 2 of 4

Read from the beginning
            This chafing under authority manifested itself in Poe’s reviews of the more successful of contemporary writers as well. He once wrote, “The most ‘popular,’ the most ‘successful’ writers among us (for a brief period at least) are, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery—in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks” (quoted in Lepore 68). This formulation is the crux of Poe’s dilemma, as he was forced to balance his need to sell his work with his urge to demonstrate his genius. One of the ways he tried to do so was to criticize the dominant literary tradition of the day. In this endeavor too, he went to excess. His attacks on what were known as the New England Brahmins, Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, were legendary, especially those against William Wadsworth Longfellow, which he referred to as his “Little Longfellow War.” His reviews showed such a pronounced tendency toward vitriol that was nicknamed “tomahawk man” by his fellow reviewers (Thompson xxviii). At the same time, he routinely quarreled with the editors of the magazines who employed him and published these reviews because he insisted on “total authority” and “complete editorial control” (Thompson xxxii). His ultimate goal, which was never realized, was to publish his own magazine.

            Regan provides a fascinating look into how Poe treated an author he actually admired, and it provides a useful lesson into the type of games he liked to play with his readers. In his famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Poe claims that in the story “Howe’s Masquerade,” “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought” (649). He then compares an excerpt from the story to one from his own “William Wilson,” and the supposed similarities are so tenuous as to leave readers suspecting that Poe is merely flattering himself. But that he is up to something more devious is evidenced by Poe’s contradicting statement that “Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points” (648, note the italics). If there remains any doubt of what Regan calls Poe’s duplicity, he points out that “Hawthorne wrote his tale at least a year before Poe wrote his” (284). The plagiary, it turns out—really more a case of inspiration than a copying of lines verbatim—was committed by Poe. In the May, 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine which featured the review, one of Poe’s stories, “The Mask of the Red Death. A Fantasy,” also appeared. Regan induces that Poe was leading attentive readers along a trail of clues. He writes:

"And so the idea of a fatal red pestilence and the setting, a masquerade in a princely house in which a ruler and his aristocratic followers have elected a self-defensive claustration—these two most salient elements of Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death”—can both be found in a work of Hawthorne’s which we can say with certainty Poe had read very shortly before writing his 'Fantasy'."(286)

So it appears that Poe’s idea of acknowledging a literary debt entailed publicly accusing his inspiration of plagiarism—but leaving clues in the accusation that would lead careful investigators to the truth. The creator of the detective genre certainly enjoyed leaving this kind of trail.

            Poe did at times go after those in positions of power in straightforward and self-contained satirical stories. Indeed, Stephen Mooney, a critic who specializes in Poe’s comedy, points out defiance plays as a much of role in what Poe found funny in his stories as it did elsewhere in his life. Mooney writes that Poe’s humor “is directed toward the exposure of a society in which heroes and rulers are shown to be deluded or irresponsible and their subjects a dehumanized, sycophantic mass” (433). Mr. Blackwood and Signora Psyche Zenobia are a case in point, but there are also the admirer’s of “The Man That Was Used Up,” the revelers and the court in “Hop Frog,” and the asylum staff and its inmates in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” All of these stories operate on the humor inherent in overturning an unjust or absurd hierarchy. Poe subtly poked fun at real political leaders of his day too, for instance, by giving the devil the features of Martin Van Buren in “The Devil in the Belfry” (Whipple 88).

            Most interesting, though, are the humorous attacks Poe concealed by weaving them as threads into otherwise serious tales. Clark Griffith, for example, finds in “Ligeia,” “an allegory of terror almost perfectly co-ordinated with the subtlest of allegorized jests” (17). One of the authorities Poe defies in the story is obviously death itself. Death and time are challenged in similar ways in many of his tales—including, farcically, in “A Predicament.” But Griffith suggests that the Lady Ligeia “symbolizes…the very incarnation of German idealism, German Transcendentalism provided with an allegorical form” (21). The other lady of the story, Rowena Trevanion, symbolizes English Romanticism “‘unspiritualized’ by German cant” (24). Here too Poe is making fun of the dominant literary traditions of his day. But, as Regan points out, Griffith discovered the nature of this “Gothic overplot with [a] satiric underside” (17) only when he used keys found in other stories published around the same time, “Siope” (or “Silence” as it was later renamed) and “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” with its overt references to Romanticism and Transcendentalism. But what Regan believes is most impressive about the subtle satire in “Ligeia” is that the “‘underside’ is of a remarkably deceptive kind, since failing to take account of it in no way damages the self-consistent ‘Gothic overplot’” (294). Poe does such an excellent job manipulating the genre beloved by the reading masses that the symbolic violence his tales perpetrate is seldom noticed. Such is the case with “The Black Cat,” in which that violence is directed at those reading masses themselves.

            Critic James W. Gargano sees in this story evidence that Poe, instead of betraying his own neuroses in his writing, very deliberately clues in readers to the unreliability of his narrators, insisting that a “close analysis of ‘The Black Cat’ must certainly exonerate Poe of the charge of merely sensational writing” (829). Gargano goes on to defend Poe against criticism like Bloom’s and Oates’s that his style was overwrought, which is “based, ultimately, on the untenable and often unanalyzed assumption that Poe and his narrator’s are identical literary twins and that he must be held responsible for all their wild or perfervid utterances” (824). Though Gargano is right that Poe is up to something deliberate with his bouts of breathless hysteria, he overlooks the many instances in which Poe encourages readers to look for him in his stories. For instance, William Wilson’s birthday is given as January 19th, Poe’s own birthday. The captain of the ship in “Ms. Found in a Bottle” is precisely the same height as the author and has the same eye color. And the protagonist of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” has a name similar enough to Edgar Allan Poe’s to have caused some confusion regarding the fictional status of the tale when it was first published (Wilbur 808).
Part 3

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