Edgar Allan Poe's obsession with human mind

Bachelor Thesis 2006 30 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Chapter 1
2. 1 Autobiographical Elements in Poe’s Works

3 Chapter
3. 1 Poe’s Interest in Human Personality In his Writings
3. 2 Rational Poe

4 Chapter 3
4. 1 ‘‘The Black Cat” and ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart”

5 Conclusions

6 Summary

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Neither of American writers is so hard to classify as Edgar Allan Poe. There is an obvious ambiguity concerning both his works and his personality. As V. Buranelli writes: “Poe is both a dreamy fantasist and a cerebral logician. He works with melancholy and with humor.” [Buranelli 1961:19] In the opinion of F. Lyra, it is popularly believed that E.A. Poe is poles apart the majority of people. In all probability, this notion is the source of endless dispute concerning the author’s of “Eureka” life and output. Edgar A. Poe had bitter enemies as well as devoted admirers. However, Poe’s adversaries definitely outnumbered his enthusiasts.

Mythologizing of Poe proceeded in two directions - he was idolized in France and demonized in America. An influential editor, Rufus W. Griswold whom Poe appointed as his literary executor, wrote a notorious memorial article which was a fierce attack, filled with actual falsehood. As stated by Philip Van Doren Stern, Griswold hated Poe, because he possessed the genius that Griswold himself lacked. The above-mentioned article had a profound impact upon numerous literary critics and biographers even one hundred years after Poe’s demise.

However, as Griswold did has utmost to defame Poe in the eyes of New England prudish bigots, for whom poet’s life was a case in point as for God’s punishment for immoral conduct, he made Poe’s works even more attractive for French Symbolists. Especially Baudelaire was enchanted by Poe’s writings. As Symons states, the French writer regarded Edgar A. Poe as “[…] a genius stifled by the American atmosphere in which his life had been passed.“ [Symons 1978:166]

It was Baudelaire’s fascination with Poe that made him well known in France. The author’s of “Ligeia” fame spread throughout Europe, so, in all probability, he is now better known there than any other American writer. Baudelaire spent much time making translations of Poe’s stories and wrote a memorable essay on him. The effect of the author’s of “ Les Fleurs du Mal” writings was immediate and permanent.

Another French writer, Mallarmé, said that he had learnt English better to read Poe. What is more, in Mallarmé’s opinion, the author of “The Black Cat” “[…] had one of the most marvelous mind the world had ever known.” [Symons 1978:167]

As Symons writes: “In France he [Poe] was regarded as a writer and thinker upon the very highest level within a few years of his death.” [Ibid] At times, French Symbolists viewed the author of “Morella” with virtually no criticism. Near the end of the nineteenth century Valéry wrote to Gide: “Poe is the only impeccable writer. He was never mistaken.” [Ibid] Comparably, Baudelaire was so enthusiastic about Poe that he considered the American author’s vices and addictions as remarkably useful ones. The French writer contended that Poe’s drinking was a kind of work method adapted to his violent disposition. The writers of the twentieth century - T.S. Eliot, W.C. Williams and E. Wilson thought highly of Poe’s works as well.

It is traditionally believed that while the French Symbolists deified the author of “The Raven”, Poe’s contemporary American writers did not show great enthusiasm for him. J.R. Lowell defined Poe as ”Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.” [Fletcher 1973:20] Mark Twain and Henry James condemned him entirely. Henry James wrote: “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.“ [James in Buranelli 1961:128] Walt Whitman appreciated Poe’s poetic genius but his poetry did not make any impression on him.

However, in the opinion of Lyra, the notion that Poe was not widely read in America in his day is false. Lyra describes impressions H. James had after reading Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories in his childhood. Moreover, F. Lyra quotes A. Tate who stated that Poe’s books were of as vital importance to his generation as Shakespeare’s works. As Tate wrote: “He [Poe] was present in our lives and one cannot pretend it was not so.” [Lyra 1973:268 - translation mine]

In all likelihood, the problem of Poe is due to the fact that although he lived in Romanticism, he was not a typical representative of his epoch. Edgar A. Poe did not follow trends, slogans and programmes of his day. As stated by H. Davidson:

“Poe does not conform to any general or basic American design or character.[…] Poe represents the hypertrophy of an imagination which had only its imported culture to feed upon. This charge does not mean that, like Whittier or Garrison, he should have been inflamed to champion causes of his day but that he should have missed so many of the vivid explorations which, perhaps all unaware, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne were following: the question of man in the new mass world of democratic society, of the new “American Adam” whether in the wilderness or in the driving urgency of success, of the lonely self struggling to understand himself, his world, his God - these and many others Poe merely touched and passed by or even ignored.” [Davidson 1957:256]

Not only Poe’s works but also his personality aroused a lively controversy among the author’s contemporaries. In the opinion of V. Buranelli, E.A. Poe wanted so badly to shine and to be admired that he frequently created the conditions in which he was bound to be pitied, rebuffed, disparaged and humiliated. Buranelli called Poe ” […] a man divided against himself.” [Buranelli 1961:32] Poe’s internal dualism was the main source of the author’s conflicts with his environment. He relished falsifying facts concerning his life and presenting himself to others in a way that had nothing in common with the truth. Notwithstanding the fact that his education was incomplete, Poe attempted to impress others with his knowledge, submitting quotations in foreign languages he did not explore sufficiently. Furthermore, the author’s of “Eureka” character was rather hard. As claimed by Philip Van Doren Stern: “He [Poe] once said that he could not conceive of any being superior to himself; despite his poverty and rejection, he was fiercely proud and difficult to deal with.” [Van Doren Stern 1973:XXXVI]

In van Doren Stern’s opinion, despite the fact that Poe frequently felt lonely and rejected, he did not take pains to change this situation. When feeling depressed, he sought comfort in the companionship of his numerous she-friends. Another way of relieving his sufferings was alcohol. Besides, some biographers maintain that E.A. Poe abused narcotics. They suggest that the author was under the influence of opium when producing such works as “Ligeia”, “Berenice” or “Morella”. Yet, the assertion that Poe was a drug addict is exaggerated. There are no objective data that would allow the biographers to treat the author this way.

However, it cannot be denied that Poe was a serious drinker. One of the sources indicating this fact is Edgar A. Poe’s correspondence. In a letter written on January 4, 1848 to G.W. Eveleth, a medical student and the author’s of “Ligeia” acquaintance, Poe reported on a hard time he had had during his wife’s illness and in the period preceding her death:

“[…] I became insane, with long periods of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much.” [Poe in Phillips 1979:110]

Yet, it is worth mentioning that even one glass of wine was sufficient amount of alcohol to make Poe unconscious.

E.A. Poe’s drink problem, his mental disorders, as well as his unpleasant disposition were the plausible reason for Poe’s contemporary writers’ disdain for him. What is equally important, the author’s conflicts with his coeval writers were due to Poe’s rigorous theory of art which was consistently put into practice by the author. As stated by A. Kopcewicz and M. Sienicka, E.A. Poe criticized established authorities which caused him trouble.

The author of “The Black Cat” was unquestionably ahead of his times. His poetic philosophy was applied in the times of “L’art pour l’art”. Similarly, American Modernists put Poe’s theories into practice. As mentioned above, there is virtually no correspondence between E.A. Poe’s and another representatives’ of Romanticism output. The dissimilarities between Poe and other American writers are emphasized in the conclusion of “The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe” by R.M. Fletcher who writes:

“Poe deserves to live on in American literature because, although using a limited body of materials and disinterested in the American scene or American politics or American morality, he still created a fictive world in its way as interesting and viable as that of Faulkner or Hemingway. His ‘world’ may be a myth, just as in their ways is theirs.” [Fletcher 1973:184]

One of the vital aspects of E.A. Poe’s compositions is his burning interest in human mind. E. Phillips justifies the author’s of “Ligeia” fascination in the following way:

“It is likely that radical space, the solitudes, and the restlessness of people born on the American continent encouraged the exploration of the interior world.” [Phillips 1979:141] As a primary objective of this study is to analyse the elements of human psyche in Poe’s works, the chapters 1-3 are meant to acquaint the reader with this engaging theme.

2 Chapter 1

2. 1 Autobiographical Elements in Poe’s Works

The aim of this chapter is to present the correspondence between Edgar Allan Poe’s life and output as well as the author’s obsession with human mind. As for the traces of Poe’s life experiences in his writings, the authors’ opinion is divided. F. Lyra points out that John H. Ingram, Edmund C. Stedman, William C. Brownell and Camille Mauclair found parallels between the American writer’s life and works. The present-day authors’ view remains in strong contrast to this, however they are aware of the fact that the existence of the autobiographical elements in Poe’s compositions cannot be denied.

Lyra makes the interesting remark that contrary to what is believed, Poe did not dramatize his life and that is why he is beyond the romantic tradition. F. Lyra quotes V. Buranelli who stated that:

“Taking into account [Poe’s] personal tragedies […] and hostile attitude of the environment [towards the author], his [Poe’s] objectivity should be regarded as the one of the most characteristic phenomena in the history of American Literature […] Poe is the most clear-headed and the most reasonable writer of ours. Poe is not Roderick Usher. He is the creator of Roderick Usher.” [Buranelli in Lyra 1973:15 - translation mine]

H. Braddy goes even further, claiming that although Poe is not suspected of committing the crimes he depicts in his short stories, the reader frequently attributes the drug problem or alcoholism to him for the simple reason that Poe mentions these addictions in his stories.

As E. Phillips writes, Baudelaire, in the draft of a preface for “Les Fleurs du mal” complained: ”Every sin, every crime I have related has been imputed to me.” [Baudelaire in Phillips 1979:99] Comparably, similar thought could have been expressed by Poe. The fact that the author of “Eureka” frequently uses a narrator who reveals an appalling personal history is the reason of the readers’ interest in the relationship between Poe’s life and works. Yet, as stated by V. Buranelli , “ […] to consider him [Poe] obsessed because the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ is obsessed is like assuming that Cooper was an Indian or Irving a Dutch colonial.” [ Buranelli 1961:18] Moreover, there is an old and common notion that

“He [Poe] is declared to have only one endlessly repeated male character - himself. He is pictured as appearing and reappearing, under the guises of his melancholic, neurasthenic, hallucinated, mad and half-mad protagonists: Roderick Usher, Egaeus, William Wilson, Cornelius Wyatt, Montresor, Hop-Frog, Metzengerstein.” [Ibid]

However, one needs to remember that E.A. Poe cannot be classified neatly neither biographically nor artistically. That is why, it is advisable to view the above-mentioned idea rather carefully.

Edgar Allan Poe was the object of the psycho-analytical critical studies. Kopcewicz and Sienicka state that his output was interpreted as the sublimation of the subconscious fixations caused by the traumatic experiences the author suffered in his childhood. As far as the psycho-analytical approach is concerned, Marie Bonaparte’s work, “Edgar Poe: Etude psychoanalytique” is worth mentioning. Princess M. Bonaparte, Freud’s student, claimed that “ He [Poe] became absorbed by death, and in particular by the death of beautiful women, because he was re-creating again and again a moment in which he would be reunited in death with his mother.” [Symons 1978: 227]

Furthermore, Bonaparte stated that all Poe’s work exhibited the fact that the author had been a potential sado-necrophilist. The Freudian analyst suggested that necrophilia did not invariably represent a desire to experience sexual intercourse with the dead: ”There is a necrophilia of fidelity also, which involves no more than the desire to lie beside a loved one after death, something that is expressed again and again in Poe’s stories.“ [Symons 1978:228] What is equally important, in the opinion of M. Bonaparte, Poe did his utmost to repress his sado-necrophilic tendencies. To this end, the author of “Ligeia” evaded sexual relations, not being aware of the causes of such conduct. Symons pointed out that “[...] Poe’s whole behavior toward women shows a refusal to contemplate them as sexually desirable.” [Symons 1978:227] Comparably, it is worth mentioning that Poe’s conviction of love’s dichotomy and passion is manifested in the majority of his essays, in particular in “The poetic principle”, in which the author considers the passion to be “a drunkenness of the heart.” [Poe in Lyra 1973:132 - translation mine]



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Title: Edgar Allan Poe's obsession with human mind