On January 19th, we celebrate the 205th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s been dead for one hundred and sixty five years, and for most of those years he’s been misunderstood.
Evidence is everywhere that the idea we have of Poe and his work is a complete fiction.
That usual picture of Poe as a pathologically brooding, tormented soul was concocted by a literary rival, and is now thoroughly discredited. The true picture is of a hardworking writer, an astute magazine editor, the keenest critic of his generation, and a sought-after guest at the New York salons. Poe had demons, all right, but real-life ones: alcohol, poverty, and thwarted ambition.
As for his fiction, on any accounting, it is dominated by humor, not terror. A dozen supposed tales of terror he wrote: These, we call typical—and keep re-publishing in edition after edition. But wait a second: if an author writes 69 stories and 12 of them are about death and madness, and these are the only ones that get read, who’s pre-occuppied with death and madness: the author, or the readers?
Poe was pre-occupied, but not with madness and death. With hoaxing. This was by far the most consistent theme in his work. He expatiated on the subject. Wrote tale after tale about hoaxers. And perpetrated on readers more hoaxes than anyone yet realizes.
He wrote a disquisition on “Diddling,” a 19th century synonym for scam. In it he plumbed the niceties of swindles and described clever examples.
Most readers just ignore Poe’s excesses. Poe scholars have developed a number of theories to account for it—as a deliberate choice Poe made to serve a certain artistic design.
Actually, Poe left us two pieces that show us exactly what he was up to. One is “Mystification.” This word meant more to Poe than merely puzzling someone; it meant duping him.
The story tells of a student at Gottingen University, Baron Ritzner Von Jung: brilliant, highly esteemed, but completely misunderstood.
Anyone who is looking to find Poe the person in his fictional characters, forget about the tales of terror. This is the one.
The hoax in this tale turns on a treatise that is not simply opaque but actually a fraud. It is an amphigory: a species of language “ingeniously framed so as to present to the ear all the outward signs of intelligibility, and even of profundity, while in fact not a shadow of meaning existed.”
In this particular amphigory there is a key: If the reader omits words according to a specified pattern, Von Jung explains, an intelligible story appears: in this case a tale of a duel between two baboons.
The description of the fake treatise strikingly fits Poe’s supposed tales of terror. For in these works we find all manner of nonsense, in a fundamentally ludicrous tale, all of it veiling another tale: a completely intelligible, rationally solvable murder mystery, hiding, like the purloined letter, in plain sight, but utterly unperceived even by expert readers.
The other guide to Poe’s method is “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” an article that sends up what was then the most successful literary magazine in the English-speaking world. The story features one Suky Snobbs, corresponding secretary for a Philadelphia literary society, who is anxious to elevate the society’s writing. She travels to Scotland to seek advice from Blackwood, who enthusiastically shares his recipe for constructing tales “full of taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition.” Sound like Poe?
This article is laugh-out-loud funny—today—because of how perfectly Blackwood’s precepts match Poe’s own style in the tales of terror.
The editor tells Suky,“Pay minute attention to the sensations. Hint everything—assert nothing. Have an air of erudition. Put in something about the Supernal Oneness.”
What’s fascinating is to see how Poe deployed these stratagems specifically to conceal his hidden murder mysteries—and reveal them. The sensationalism, the things suggested but not stated, the supernatural mumbo-jumbo—these draw our attention away from the mundane matters of fact.
But: cast a cold eye on them and these evasions turn into clues: marking the fault lines in the tale the narrator would like you to believe.
The contradictions. The hedges. The belabored, dubious explanations, and the weasel wording. The “I thinks” and “I don’t remember’s” and “it must have been” and even “you’re not going to believe this, but…”
Follow up these clues, and the hidden story emerges with breathtaking clarity. The process is delightful and astonishing. We’ve read clever mysteries before. But nothing, nothing like Poe’s.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.