Panel #1: Poe in Place
"'We Write This with No Books before Us': Poe and Street Paving"
When Poe moved
to New York in 1844, he served as a correspondent to a newspaper in Columbia,
PA, called The Columbia Spy. The texts of his seven "Letters"
are republished in Doings of Gotham, collected and edited by Jacob Spannuth
and T. O. Mabbott in 1929 (republished by Folcroft Library Editions in
1974). Among Poe's observations on local topics ranging from architecture
(the style of "a Brooklyn 'villa'"), foot races, Tiffany's ("an
immense knicknackatory of virtu), etc., is a criticism of the condition
of streets in the city (pages 60-63) in which Poe complains about the
noise and recommends the substitution of wood block paving for cobblestones
and offers specific advice on how the blocks should be cut, cured, and
installed. Poe raised the issue of street paving again a year later in
The Broadway Journal, where he went into even greater detail, including
a history of street paving back to Roman times.
From 1838 to 1844 Poe lived and worked in Philadelphia. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was written in Philadelphia at a time when the public was all abuzz about the issue of insanity as a defense against a charge of murder. Prior to 1835, insanity pleas had been entered only in the defense of idiots or raving maniacs. The situation changed beginning in 1835 with the publication of a book by James Cowles Prichard that popularized the notion of "moral insanity," a condition in which a person, while retaining his intellectual faculties, is nevertheless considered incapable of conducting himself with decency or propriety. The concept quickly became the focus of extensive political, social and theological debate, which filled thousands of pages of publications both serious and otherwise.
Nowhere was the controversy hotter than in the legal arena, where defenses on the grounds of "moral insanity" began leading to acquittals of violent criminals who seemed in perfect possession of their senses. Public suspicion of deception in such insanity pleas became widespread, and by 1840 trials featuring such defenses were major events, their proceedings splashed in detail across the front pages of the nation's daily newspapers. In the highly publicized trial of Singleton Mercer in Philadelphia in March, 1843, two months after Poe's story, "The Tell Tale Heart," appeared, the defense attorney himself acknowledged in his opening statement that the insanity defense had become "an object of ridicule," for having been used where no insanity existed. Poe's own knowledge and interest in the topic is beyond question: he actually reported on the case of James Wood (found not guilty of the murder of his daughter by reason of insanity) in Alexander's Weekly Messenger in April, 1840.
Philadelphia, then, and the happenings in the legal arena surely affected Poe's writing of "The Tell-Tale Heart." The story begins with a question: "Why will you say that I am mad?" Yet this question and the denial it implies have given modern readers little pause. Critical opinion is unanimous, and usually unhesitating, in pronouncing the narrator of the tale mad. On the contrary, there is much room for doubt, and I will argue that the narrator merely feigned madness to escape punishment. Such a reading finds strong support in the text, and the historical context corroborates such a reading.
My presentation introduces a heretofore unexamined fictional portrayal of Edgar Allan Poe written by one of his contemporaries in Baltimore in the early 1830s. I assert that an author for the Baltimore Saturday Visiter named "Uncle Ben" regularly included in his column a character based on Poe. The most important Uncle Ben column in this regard was one placed in the October 23, 1833 issue next to Poe's "The Coliseum," the poem that won second place in the poetry portion of the famous Saturday Visiter contest. Appearing the week after Poe's prize-winning "MS. Found in a Bottle," this Uncle Ben column contains an embedded story titled "Genius and Application." The tale's two protagonists, "Allen Wilson" and "Henry Morrison" (as in Poe's brother William Henry Leonard Poe), are ambitious young men who use different tactics to win fame and fortune. I claim that the editor of the Saturday Visiter, John Hewitt, deliberately placed this Uncle Ben column next to Poe's poem as a commentary on Poe's character and the nature of his talent and potential. Further, I believe that "Uncle Ben" was the famous temperance author, T.S. Arthur, a known acquaintance of Poe in the early 1830s. My argument is that the Uncle Ben columns provide a more-detailed fictional portrait of Poe during his obscure Baltimore years than the well-known depictions in the North American weekly and the verse fragment "The Musiad or Ninead."
Critics have long suggested American Gothic literature draws its architectural settings from European models. Most recently, Benjamin F. Fisher writes in "Poe and the Gothic Tradition" (Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, 2002): "American authors, understandably, had no castles, abbeys, or cloisters in the near proximity that European authors had. . . . American Gothic works tend to transform European architecture into American landscape" (75-77). While pre-1830s authors "had no castles," the Gothic Revival in American architecture corresponds directly with Poe's career; in fact, important early examples of the movement were built in cities where Poe lived. Readers were fascinated with Gothic architecture, and these American sources for Poe's aesthetic deserve more exploration.
While Poe was in Baltimore, Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-92), the most prolific American architect of the mid-1800s, ignited a new movement in American design with Glen Ellen (1832-33), built for Robert Gilmor III in Towson, Maryland. Although such structures had existed in Europe for centuries, Glen Ellen was the first American Gothic Revival residence. In 1838, Davis designed another important Gothic villa adjacent to Washington Irving's Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York. Its original owners were former New York City mayor William Paulding and his son Philip. Interestingly, William's brother-writer James Kirke Paulding-was one of Poe's earliest supporters. Completed in 1842 but eventually redesigned and renamed Lyndhurst, this is considered one of Davis's masterpieces. Railroad magnate Jay Gould purchased the estate as a summer home in 1880, and it is now a National Trust Historic site.
Davis also designed many important public buildings in New York City, and his NYU office was just a few blocks south of Poe's New York home. During frequent walks around the neighborhood and throughout the city, Poe would have seen Davis's works in various stages of completion. Prominent features of Gothic Revival architecture-vaulted ceilings, narrow arched windows, restricted natural light, and oddly shaped rooms-inform many Poe settings, notably "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839). Plus, in "The Philosophy of Furniture" (1840), Poe advocated the imaginative potential of "Arabesque" interior decoration. He also praised one of Davis's collaborators: prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing.
Illustrated with Davis's original designs, this presentation will explore connections between American Gothic Revival architecture and Poe's works.
Panel #2: Eureka Once Again
"Poe 'over there': Mallarmé's Eureka"
Taking into account the complexity of Mallarmé and Poe's poetics, this paper defines Eureka's influence on the French poet's own art. Mallarmé perpetuated and transcended the vision of Eureka in which the American poet sought to resolve the secret of the universe. In this context, he gave a modern significance to Poe's principle of analogy. The parallels between chance and necessity in "Un Coup de dés" and the conscious representation of the self in "Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe" introduced a transformed representation of the conflict between the real and the ideal, the profane and the sacred. The aptitude of the American poet to express necessary dualities, his conviction that the poet reinvented, in the isolation of the self-consciousness from the world, found new meaning in Mallarmé.
In light of this influence, I explore the extent to which the American poet's dream to compose the poem of the Universe guided Mallarmé's ascetic experience. The essential role played by Poe in the formation of the French's attitude toward language implied a universal self separated of all belief: "Je révère l'opinion de Poe, nul vestige d'une philosophie, l'éthique ou la métaphysique ne transparaîtran." Thus, beyond the years of crisis, Mallarmé contemplated the universe with the optics of Eureka, submitting his poems to the law of a divine transposition for the accomplishment of which humanity existed. After having found Nothingness, he pursued Poe's vision of beauty as the only legitimate domain of poetry and his concept of the Book embodied the notion of universal analogy through which the American poet had endeavored to resolve the secret of the universe. The French poet shared the same dream of a complete work whose ultimate aim would be "l'explication orphique de la Terre."
Baron Alexander Von Humboldt's stamp on Poe's Eureka is widely acknowledged but remains vastly unexplored. Poe dedicates his work to Humboldt for a number of striking personal and theoretical reasons, but most important for Poe is Humboldt's claim in Cosmos that "the rational experimentalist does not proceed at hazard, but acts under the guidance of hypotheses, founded on a half indistinct and more or less just intuition of the connection existing among natural objects or forces." Using this method, Humboldt produced exotic, carefully-worded images to "represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces." Humboldt also used such imagery to wonder about a pasigraphy.
For Humboldt, this bold experiment takes form not only in his rich verbal descriptions of "cosmic" landscapes (which motivated Frederic Edwin Church to translate them to canvas) but also in his more scientific illustrations that map both visual and textual elements onto the same image. Similarly, in Eureka, Poe produces his own cosmic landscape in text, in some cases following Humboldt image-for-image in an attempt to present a similar, intuitive correspondence via metaphor. Using Cosmos as his guide, Poe attempts to bring all oppositions together - fact and feeling, science and poetic intuition - under the assumption that there is a discernible design to the universe that is both true and beautiful.
A cosmology is a philosophical statement finding harmonic order in the seemingly chaotic complex of worldly particulars. Eureka's content obviously places it in the rarefied genre of philosophical cosmologies and, in particular, alongside other nineteenth-century cosmologies-especially Emerson's Nature.
Nevertheless, Poe himself called his work an "Art-Product" and expressed, in the strongest terms, his desire that Eureka be critically assessed as literary art: "it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead." While the temptation to read Eureka as a prose cosmology and not foremost as a prose poem is strong, the poetics of Eureka, for those readers who take Poe at his word, must be considered in any serious critical evaluation of the piece.
If philosophy is a kind of writing, as American pragmatism and the subsequent French deconstruction have argued, then reading Eureka: A Prose Poem as a poem requires one to identify the difference between Poe's language and paradigmatic philosophical cosmologies. While the basic unit of much philosophical prose is the aphorism (as is the case in Nature), one must look elsewhere to determine the fundamental element of Poe's poem. I submit, therefore, that the basic unit of Eureka is not the aphorism of philosophical rhetoric, but the basic unit of poetry-repetition. This paper accordingly examines the use and implications of various forms of repetition for the sound and for the sense of Poe's longest and, perhaps, most difficult poem.