Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 1993, Vol. 2, No. 1
  • Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture
  • Reclaiming the Humanities
  • Placing Poe
  • Placing Poe

    Teresa A. Goddu

    "The problem of Poe, fascinating as it is, lies quite outside the main current of American thought. "

    —Vernon Parrington

    In a recent episode of the "Simpsons," an odd reference to Poe occurs. Homer Simpson is caught in traffic behind a large truck towing the house of Poe. On the house is a sign that states: "birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe." I bring up this moment of television trivia not only to underscore Poe's location in popular culture, but, more importantly, to mark his lack of place. His is a home in constant transit-a haunted house on wheels if you will. Indeed, if you desire to visit the house of Poe (as I did on his birthday one year for the special candlelight tour), you can do so in many places: Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, Baltimore. Poe it would seem exists at once everywhere and nowhere. He is both, as Louis Rubin says, "a citizen of the world" and, as Joseph Krutch claims, an "outcast in any society." Born in Boston, raised in Richmond, later working in New York and Philadelphia, Poe is difficult to locate, both in terms of regional and national identity. If Poe lies outside the mainstream of American thought, he certainly does not fit comfortably within the parameters of Southern identity. However, despite his orphan status, both the American and Southern literary establishments have felt it necessary to adopt him in some fashion into their traditions. It is Poe's problematic position, both as a Southerner and as an American, that I wish briefly to explore here.

    Edgar Allan Poe has always presented a problem to critics eager to codify a canon of American literature. Five months after his death, The Southern Literary Messenger, which he once edited, captured the problem of Poe when they memorialized him as follows: "Edgar Allan Poe . . . the true head of American literature—it is the verdict of other nations and after times that we speak here—died of drink, friendless and alone, in the common wards of a Baltimore hospital" (March 1850). Poe's position in the corpus of American literature—let alone his status as its head—has, from the beginning, been problematized by the mythography of his own drunken corpse and by the diseased bodies and living dead that haunt his stories. In both his life and his work, Poe would seem to lie far outside the American mainstream. If he represents anything at all, it is not American literature's head, but its irrational bodily impulses. The "after times" have judged Poe harshly; he remains relegated to the "common wards" and alienated from the community of American literature's founding fathers: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. In The American Renaissance (1941), a book which placed these authors at the center of a newly conceived American literature, F. O. Matthiessen buries Poe in a footnote. He explains Poe's exclusion from his "group" as follows: "The reason is more fundamental than that his work fell mainly in the decade of 1835-45; for it relates at very few points to the main assumptions about literature that were held by any of my group. Poe was bitterly hostile to democracy, and in that respect could serve as a revelatory contrast" (emphasis added). As the exception to the rule—the embodiment of everything American literature was not—Poe reveals the parameters of a more "authentic" American literature. Acting as an absent presence who haunts the American literary canon, Poe becomes a necessary—and useful—evil. Harold Bloom sums up Poe's paradoxical position when he writes, "I can think of no American writer, down to this moment, at once so inevitable and so dubious."

    Poe's dubiousness is the very reason for his inevitability. For, it is through Poe that a number of "dubious" aspects of American literature get demonized and then exorcised from the mainstream American literary canon. As an easily excused aberration, Poe becomes the representative for a number of "problems" that the American literary tradition recognizes but refuses to claim. For instance, through Poe, popular literature can enter the canon with out threatening the hard won highbrow status of "our classic" American literature. As Harold Bloom argues, "Poe's survival raises perpetually the issue as to whether literary merit and canonical status necessarily go together." Through Poe, as well, a darker, more gothic vision of America comes into view. In reading Poe's gothic tales as the projections of Poe's own peculiar psychology instead of as a comment on his wider culture, critics easily contain his disturbing vision of American society. Even when Poe's diseased vision is read as a symptom of a larger cultural malaise, it remains quarantined from "mainstream" America since it comes to be identified with an other "problem"—the South. Richard Gray, for instance, historicizes Poe's horrifying hauntings specifically in terms of the South's racial problems: "[w]hen Poe tries to describe his vision of evil, the darkness at the heart of things . . . it is noticeable that he sometimes adopts the familiar Southern strategy of associating that vision with black people" (emphasis added). Through Poe, the terms "Southern" and "gothic" be come solidified. If the South, as C. Vann Woodward writes, opposes the national ideal ("The South's preoccupation was with guilt not innocence, with the reality of evil, not with the dream of perfection"), then Poe serves as its perfect spokesperson. Moreover, once Poe is securely located in the South, he can no longer infect the nation.

    If Poe is easily adopted into the American literary canon as the aberrant Southern writer, his case poses a more difficult problem for those eager to define a tradition of Southern literature. While Poe is canonized as a Southerner in virtually all of the major Southern analogies, his lack of specifiable regional identification is constantly remarked upon. In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash calls Poe "only half a Southerner;" Barrett Wendall claims that he is Southern only by courtesy;" and Allen Tate states that while he is "a gentleman and a Southerner, he [is] not quite, perhaps, a Southern, gentleman." In a literary tradition that claims distinctiveness based on its unique social conditions, Poe, spent much of his life outside of the South and who set few of his stories in a Southern locale, never quite fits the bill of the Southern writer. As Montrose Moses's chapter heading in The Literature of the South (1910) points out—"A Southern Mystery: An Author With and Without a Country—Poe"—Poe's Southerness remains a mystery.

    However, despite his suspicious Southern roots, Poe becomes the necessary cornerstone of a Southern literary tradition due to his national status. Poe's status as "one of the chief glories of the literature of our nation and our race" makes him the "greatest ornament of Southern literature" (Library of Southern Literature. Louis Rubin explains Poe's paradoxical position as follows: "We confront the obvious fact that of all the antebellum Southern authors it is Poe whose writings are least grounded in the particularities, settings and issues of the place he grew up in, and equally most lastingly a part of world literature" (emphasis added). Needing Poe's national and international cachet, the Southern literary establishment discovered that if they could not Southernize him through history (Rubin, for instance, insists "Poe wrote almost nothing about the South, or about living there, or about Southern history and Southern society, or for that matter about any kind of history whatever") they could through form. As Ellen Glasgow argues in A Certain Measure, Poe's literary techniques are identifiably Southern: "Poe is, to a large extent, a distillation of the Southerner," she writes. "The formalism of his tone, the classical element in his poetry and in many of his stories, the drift toward rhetoric, the aloof and elusive intensity,—all these qualities are Southern." Poe could also be saved through his criticism, much of which was published in an identifiable locale, the Southern Literary Messenger. Edwin Mims and Bruce Payne, for instance, state in their Southern Prose and Poetry for Schools that "[i]t is in his critical writing that Poe's Southern bent of mind was most notably evinced." Moreover, Poe's gothic form could make him a forerunner to the Southern Renaissance (Faulkner, O'Connor, etc.), and, hence, make him the ancestor of Southern literature's "true" flowering. It is the ahistorial, symbolist Poe, then, who is adopted into the Southern literary tradition. However, even as such, Poe is adopted only as a cousin, never a favorite son. Poe then poses a problem for both the South and the nation. From the national perspective, the problem of Poe can be solved by defining him in oppositional terms and identifying him with the South; from the Southern perspective, Poe's peculiar place can be addressed by claiming his art for Southern literature while disowning him from Southern history. Instead of trying to solve the problem of Poe or to locate him any single place, I would argue that it is precisely in Poe's (dis)location that he becomes significant. As the spectre who haunts the highways of America's literary landscape, Poe is never exorcised, but constantly on the move.

    Teresa A. Goddu, Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, was a participant in the 1992/93 Humanities Center Fellows Program, which examined the topic "The South as an American Problem. " Her work on Poe will be published in a collection of essays written by members of the 1992/93 Fellows Program.

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