The hardest thing about teaching Edgar Allan Poe is what people already “know” about him. That he was brooding and melancholy, probably psychotic, and certainly obsessed with death and the dark side of the human soul.
People are certain of it, but it’s absolute piffle.
“What about ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” they demand. “‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Black Cat’? All that decay and madness and death.’”
My response: First, these are but a tiny minority of Poe’s tales. The overwhelming majority are either flat-out comical or subtle goofs. “Usher” and “Black Cat” you say? But what about “The Duc de L’Omelette,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.,” or “Why the Little Frenchman Wears his Hand in a Sling”? If a man writes 60-plus tales, and the only ones people read are a handful of “dark” ones, does that tell us what kind of writer he was, or what kind of readers we are?
As for those “melancholy” tales, they are not at all what they appear. To make short work of it, they are goofs. Fakes. Send-ups. Tales meant—in Poe’s terminology—to “diddle” us.
What? “The Fall of the House of Usher” a goof? Um, yup. Affirmative. Righto. Yes indeedy.
In “Usher” Poe crafts a “tale of sensation,” in the older meaning of the word: a story that emphasizes the sensations—in this case of horror—of the characters. But beneath that tale he buries a burlesque (and also, I believe, a murder mystery). Most readers, caught up in the narrator’s terror, fail to notice the sly understory, but it’s there.
If this is hard to believe, before you go back to the tale itself, check out Poe’s “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”This will tell you more about where he was coming from than ten readings of “Usher.”
Blackwood’s Magazine was the English-speaking world’s most successful literary magazine, and Poe, who earned his living (such as it was) as a magazine editor, studied it closely. “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” skewers Blackwood’s formula for “tales full of taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition.” The story features the Signora Psyche Zenobia, aka Suky Snobbs, corresponding secretary for a Philadelphia literary society, who travels to Scotland to consult with Blackwood himself, with an eye to raising the caliber of the society’s output.
Read the advice Blackwood offers his visitor, and then revisit your favorite dark Poe tale, and see if Poe isn’t doing exactly what he lampoons Blackwood for.
“Get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before.”
“Hint everything—assert nothing.”
“Above all things it is necessary that your article have an air of erudition.” “If you know any big words . . . use them. Talk of the Ionic and Eleatic schools—of Archytas, Gorgias and Alcmoaeon.”
“Put in something about the Supernal Oneness.”
Poe published his lampoon in November of 1838. “Usher” appeared the following September. Can anyone believe that he employed in perfect seriousness precisely the formula he had just finished deriding?
No, “Usher” is a send-up of Blackwood’s, and of the ghosts-from-the-grave Gothic, a genre that for years had been the subject of parody. Poe’s tale is no mere send-up, but send-up it is, for sure.
And if “Usher” isn’t serious, then we need to rethink what Poe was about.
Image via benleto.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.