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Saturday, July 29, 2006

EDGAR ALLAN POE: AN AMERICAN ENTERTAINER

“The great problem is accomplished. We have crossed the Atlantic- fairly and easily crossed it in a balloon! God be praised! Who shall say that anything is impossible here after?” wrote Poe by the end of The Balloon-Hoax (Complete Tales and Poems, 80), a story which can also be seen as the metaphor of the new American times, which required an equivalent inaugural cultural journey.
By birth and education, Edgar Allan Poe was half British, half American and living in the first decades of America as an independent country, he faced the double challenge of creating a new American literature worth its name and of redefining the role of writer in the new democratic society. In 1833, his foster father, John Allan, wrote this comment about him on the back of a letter Poe had sent him: “His talents are of an order that can never prove a comfort to their possessor,” summarizing thus the opinion of a society not yet in tune with artists as professionals. If Poe tried first to get adapted to his foster family of rich tobacco merchants and the aristocratic Virginia society, being a soldier or a lawyer, after failing in both careers he finally found the true place which was his, by right of birth.
As the son of two actors and through his articles, stories and poems, he addressed the public as an entertainer, founding a new aesthetic and proposing to his contemporaries a new American vision of the world. As an American entertainer, Poe redefined good and evil for the new masses, no longer European, not yet fully American, in quest of truth, which had to be painted with the colors of an artistic continent yet to be discovered.

By fate, Poe was in a privileged position to compare Europe and America. Born in Boston, raised both in Virginia and London, he soon realized that “We have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself.” (Complete Tales and Poems, Philosophy of Furniture, 462). In that wealthy rather than aristocratic society, which was also becoming little by little a democratic society of masses, Poe had many problems to solve. Not only to find his own place in society as the disowned son of a rich tobacco merchant, but, once decided to make his living as a writer, he had also to evolve from the literary European tradition to the new American literature, which had its center in Boston and where the European trends were imitated or recreated.
Heirs of the Enlightenment philosophers or followers of the Romantic movement, his Bostonian peers irritated Poe, who was from start a rebel to any aesthetic authority, claiming in his very American way, freedom to create. Little by little, Poe became the author of an original literary philosophical system expressed in his stories, poems and critic essays. He criticized both the Enlightenment and Romantic sequels in America because he didn’t believe neither in the absolute power of reason or the sole command of emotions. He promoted a method of art where intuition would be served by a rigorous artistic construction, paraphrasing his most deep spiritual beliefs, where God and Truth couldn’t be but an intuition, and a certainty only through the Beauty and perfection of the Universe, which the artist had to imitate. Poe made a whole American blend of metaphysic intuition and scientific knowledge, including the mechanics of writing, to build a literary universe, mirroring as a double the Universe, where reason exists only to serve the Truth through the scientific demonstration of the invisible phenomena. As Hoffman observes, “Poe takes certain aspects of the Romantic Movement to their limits –his tales of terror and poems of being haunted by lost loves probe and dramatize these states of feeling….At the same time, Poe inherits the Enlightenment rage for order, for systematization.” The mix of elements of the Romantic Movement with elements of the XVIIIth century philosophers turned into an original American style. Poe’s Gothic is no more a British Gothic and if in some of his stories, like “William Wilson”, “The Masque of the Read Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”, we still see the need of the civilized and refined European settings, themes and characters, in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, for instance, we perceive the new American setting and the wondrous blend of the British nostalgia and the decaying colonial society, where the theme of incest, endogamy and the salvation of a family from sin and decay only by exogamy, evokes the independence and the partition of the European homeland.
Poe also sees that in America, some of the ancient European codes pre-French Revolution can be preserved: ” “With our modern and altogether rational ideas of the absurdity and impiety of warfare, we are not precisely in that frame of mind best adapted to sympathize with the sentiments, and thus to appreciate the real excellence of the poem. To do this fully we must identify ourselves in fancy with the soul of the old cavalier….Our business is like men to fight/ And hero-like to die!”(Complete Tales and Poems, The Poetic Principle, 906-907). As a new born American, he rejects with strength a society where individualism would be of no worth and one of his characters ironically states: “I rejoice, my dear friend, that we live in an age so enlightened that no such a thing as an individual is supposed to exist. It is the mass for which the true Humanity cares.” (Complete Tales and Poems, Mellonta Tauta, 387). Poe’s ideal social system was hierarchical and he was convinced that if the old days of European aristocratic society were gone, it was not an unformed society of masses which would substitute it: “ It is related, however, that the first circumstance which disturbed, very particularly, the self-complacency of the philosophers who constructed this "Republic," was the startling discovery that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate–in a word, that a republican government could never be any thing but a rascally one.” (Complete Tales and Poems, Mellonta Tauta, 390).
Something new had to come, and Poe proposed to his contemporaries an alternative thought to the current trends, which, even local, as the Trascendentalist movement, didn’t seem deep enough to apprehend the nature of the changing society. Poe, as a writer on the stage of newspapers and magazines, was a mirror of these changes, not always perceived by an audience which took a long time to understand what Poe’s performance was about. Wooing the public with a perfect craft, to convey his vision Poe trusted his art more than any philosophical tirade: “By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought.” (Complete Tales and Poems, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, 153)

If the cultural shift from Europe to America worried Poe as an artist, the more permanent theme of the battle Good and Evil, also understood as the opposition of Life and Death, captured his soul, and in most of his writings we can see the traces of this concern. As a very sensitive and accurate instrument, he echoed the religious fears and beliefs of the new Americans, who were creating not only a new culture but also a new Christian religion, with its own character. Poe had a rich personal life, made out of a deep contrast between education and misery, richness and disease, public position and lack of recognition. His spiritual quest comes from the experience of his difficult life, always with his keen eye looking within himself, in the search of the source of Evil as well as the source of Beauty and Good.
As Peter Thoms points, Poe relied on “The potential comforts of narrative: the apparent provision of order, of meaning, of a metaphoric map in time (with beginning, middle and end) that seems to tell us where we are.”(The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, 133) to convey his vision of the world. Stories like “The Imp of the Perverse”, “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”, among many others, propose a reflection on mankind and evil in the frame of an entertaining mystery story.
Poe found his own redemption as a man through his art and he shared with the public the metaphorized chapters of his inner struggle, so that the public could also reflect on these themes. He felt like one of them, as new as them, as innocent and as guilty, as responsible in the need of finding new images and new meanings to old themes in a brand new society. As the intuitive artist he was, Poe discovered soon that literature could be a great teacher for the new masses, not in the didactic way other writers like Hawthorne understood it, by rational allegories, but through the sudden epiphany of art: “All true knowledge …makes its advances by intuitive bonds” (Complete Tales and Poems, Mellonta Tauta, 387).
Poe the actor had his own technique to understand his fellow contemporaries: “When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression”(Complete Tales and Poems, The Purloined Letter, 216). His deep knowledge of humanity was in service of what was his main task as a writer: to create a truthful world where his creatures would inspire a reflection on the Universe and his creator: “The Universe as a plot of God” (Poe, Eureka) Initiated in the ancient mysteries of knowledge, the former soldier, the failed law student, Poe the writer performed his metaphysical play in front of Virginian bourgeois, a not too spiritual audiences, with one basic certainty, inherited of the most purest pioneer religious American spirit: “Does it not seem singular how they should have failed to deduce from the works of God the vital fact that a perfect consistency must be an absolute truth!” (Complete Tales and Poems, Mellonta Tauta, 389) Poe’s originality would take some time to be fully apprehended. In 1848, he was still misunderstood by his fellow Americans, not fully grown yet to their potential and unable to see Poe as their true double: “There comes Poe…Who has written some things quite the best of their kind/ But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind” (James Russell Lowell).

Poe began his career as a writer when the print as an industry started to grow in America, creating new legions of readers. Not yet the mass media society, but the beginning of it, Poe was aware of the new market rules. He knew he was part of a chain in need of writers to fill pages with an attractive content for readers who would pay for it –whether in the form of newspapers, magazines or books- and, therefore, for his own writer’s wages. Poe knew also that he needed readers to make a living and that his first professional duty was to attract them. He was not always lucky in this success: his best seller and the only book which was reprinted in the time of his life was “The Conchologist’s First Book” (Gould), a coauthored manual on shellfish. Richards mentions that “Whalen [in his book Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses] identifies Poe’s central challenge as addressing an audience newly divided among an elite group of readers interested in ‘true literary merit’, a mass of readers who seek to be entertained and the ‘Capital reader’ who assesses the marketability of a text. Poe confronted this challenge not by writing different kinds of works for different audiences, but by creating a theory and practice of the ‘divided text’ that addresses simultaneously readers with different evaluative criteria.” Poe’s literary efforts brought to the American public craving always for new things, combative articles destroying well established literary reputations, like Longfellow’s, sensationalist pieces like “The Balloon-Hoax”, tales that inaugurated an American taste for horror like “The Cask of Amontillado” and new genres like the mystery stories of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” or like the science fiction stories “Mesmeric Revelation” or “Maelzel’s Chess- Player.” Poe’s body of work, including his most famous poems like “The Raven”, stands as the first Southern literary wall opposed to the Northern, by its connection to the muddy nature of man, far away from the cleanness of Bostonian reason, far away from the pale blue cold colors and anchored in the pure red of blood, from lust, murder or the plain spit of consumption.
Many of Poe characters write or are directly writers proposing to the public an amusing reflection on the writer’s role in the new game of American entertainment. He satirized aspiring writers in some of his humorous stories as “The Literary Life of Thingum Bo, Esq.” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” ”Castigat ridendo mores”, the maxim of Jean de Santeuil applies to these stories where writers also need to receive a lesson on what are the ethical rules in a profession still to be defined. He described also the role of writers as newspapermen in the new market society, being the mirror of daily events, with even a cynic quota of sensationalism required to sell more than competitors, in a market where printed magazines and papers were soaring. As Richards observes: “Poe’s work is fundamentally shaped by “the political economy of literature,” followed by Grammer interesting reflection on the same issue: “Poe, like us, lived during an information revolution, one in which the speed and cheapness of printing, and resulting literary overproduction, threatened to render any individual work of literature nearly valueless. He was not the only writer to lament these conditions, but few others understood so profoundly their full implication. Strongly influenced, in this one respect, by his despised foster-father, the merchant John Allan, Poe habitually viewed literature through the lens of commerce. For him, publishing was always a product, either useful (like the financial news on which Allan depended) or merely beautiful (like poems and stories).”
Sometimes an actor, sometimes also a Southern charlatan, Poe played his solo, his one act play, stand up comedian on the paper stage, creating what Baudelaire defined as an “objet de luxe” to be consumed by the new bourgeosie in ascension, what would become later the massive American middle class, earlier fond of moral entertainment. Poe hated the moral preaching of the Trascendentalist writers, but he believed in art as the supreme conveyor of truth: “Convinced myself, I seek not to convince” (Complete Tales and Poems, Berenice).
As a classical artist, Poe undertook the task of showing the world as it was with a subtle hint about the world as it should be. He portrayed horror and evil, but in total Beauty, witnessing in his art what he perceived as the infinite power and mercy of God. An entertainer because he needed to make a living, and an artist because that was what he was meant to be, Poe explains with his own words how the stage kitchen works: “Most writers-- poets in especial--prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy--an ecstatic intuition--and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought--at the true purposes seized only at the last moment--at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view--at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable--at the cautious selections and rejections--at the painful erasures and interpolations--in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.” (Poe, Philosophy of Composition)


“It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films”, said Alfred Hitchcock, in an interview published in 1960, recognizing Poe as the basement of all contemporary suspense fiction in literature and films. Other writers, film makers and artists would also claim Poe as predecessor in the art of entertaining the American public. Two of Poe’s more important characteristics: his full American-ness made of a wise and inspired recreation of old British and European cultures and his spiritual quest where religion and esoteric traditions blended in a unique combination, created a whole aesthetic American brand that can be perceived from Welles to George Lucas and from Bradbury to Stephen King. The great entertainer clearly foresaw the new chances Americans had, as part of a new society, to go a step further in the quest of human perfection and thus also, a step further in Art: “It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”(Complete Tales and Poems, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, 143).
Poe’s work inaugurated a tradition, a pure American artistic pattern made of lively intuition and spiritual reasoning embedded in always powerful human characters taken to their extreme. As part of a long lineage of writers and poets who followed his path, William Carlos William paid his homage to Poe: “In him American literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground” (“Edgar Allan Poe”, In the American Grain, 1925)





Works Cited
Dameron, J.Lasley. "Poe, "Simplicity" and Blackwood's Magazine." The Mississipi Quarterly
Spring 1998.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "Poe's greatest Hits." Natural History July 1993.
Grammer, John. "Poe, literature and the marketplace." Southern Literary Journal Fall 2002.
Hayes, Kevin J.. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hoffman, Daniel. "Edgar Allan Poe: the Artist of the Beautiful." The American Poetry
Review November 1995.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "Bits and Pieces." 15 Jul 2006 .
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1975
Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka. 16 Jul 2006 .
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Quotations Page." 15 Jul 2006 .
Richards, Eliza. "Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in
Antebellum America." Studies in Romanticism Spring 2002.

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