Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence

21.4.09

Quoth nnyhaven Jill Lepore

This week's New Yorker includes a bicentennial consideration of Edgar A. Poe which pulls together many strands but leaves a few loose ends. As it happens, the opening conceit, along with the confluence over at The Book Bench of decoding Poe and Shakespeare authorship pegs what I was up to last year in "To Assume a Pleasing Shape" (also here in different format):
"[The Philosophy of Composition] is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that."
I tried (but constrained by remaining factual at least in detail).

But Ms. Lepore misses a trick or two:
"If Dupin sounds uncannily familiar, that’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like every other author of detective fiction, not to mention the creators of a thousand TV crime shows, is incalculably in Poe’s debt. [...] All detective stories and police procedurals begin with the intellectually imperious C. Auguste Dupin: methodical, eccentric, calculating—and insulting. We, mere readers, are so many Watsons, Hastingses, and Goodwins. Poe is the only Holmes." Or, earlier on, You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find."
Not so, as I've indicated in my reading of "The Purloined Letter": Poe drops clues for the careful reader. Also, buried in comments hereabouts, I've noted many other strands of influence: Nabokov (perhaps even forthcoming?), Borges, Pynchon; OuLiPo, nouveau roman, and surrealism via Roussel via Verne; WBYeats (whose poems similarly exceeded technical requirements, though one of these days I'll have to dig up a parody starting "Hear the whisp'ring of the belles/Southern belles!"); even Eastern Europe & Russia (most markedly Kafka & Dusty, but Bulgakov has a similar tone -- how much Poe how much Gogol how much ETAHoffman I dunno).

Another lost opportunity, in a word, is 'detective'. MobyLives notes that "Poe himself seemed to realize he’d created a genre, too, and would write two more stories featuring Dupin — The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. One thing he can’t take credit for, though, is invention of the word 'detective.' There was no such word at the time he wrote the story. Its first appearance seems to have been around 1850 — two years after Poe’s death."
Back to Ms. Lepore:
"In February [1842], Poe wrote an unfavorable review of Dickens’s 'Barnaby Rudge,' a novel about a village idiot and his talking raven that had been published, serially, in The New-Yorker. The next month, Poe met Dickens, who was on his American tour (during which Dickens coined the phrase 'the almighty dollar')."
It happens that the OED's first cite of the noun 'detective' is in Dickens' Household Words (1850), and the first literary usage is in Bleak House (1852). And, the opening words of "The Philosophy of Composition"? 'CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of 'Barnaby Rudge,' says- "By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his 'Caleb Williams' backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.'"
(addendum 22.4 prompted by MS raising the perennial question, and working backwards: Dickens' writing desk and reupholstered pet raven Grip share the Rare Books room of the Philly Free Library with the only copy of the poem in Poe's hand and a cheesy augmented bust of Pallas. Draw your own conclusions.)

For all that, the New Yorker piece is well worth the time, and occasioned the connecting of several bits I've put together on this here blog.

PS recent reading: Attila Bartis' Tranquility and Walter Abish's In the Future Perfect, the opening story of which ("The English Garden") presages How German Is It ...

8 Comments:

Blogger Rob Velella said...

It was certainly an interesting piece. I think Lepore, like many other literary commentators, starts with the notion that Poe is a bad fellow who should not be taken seriously. Many of her arguments begin and end there. Her version of Poe is a callous, impolite genius who can't be bothered by the masses he nevertheless caters to. As a Poeist, I find it disheartening, but I see it quite often.

Still, I agree the article is worth slugging through. Her focus (and maybe she should have stuck to it) is really the developing publishing industry in the US and the constraints it put on serious writers. A fascinating idea that,m though not dismissing Poe's fault in dying penniless, at least gives an understandable excuse.

23/4/09 10:41  
Blogger mahendra singh said...

Overwhelmed with other obligatory reading materials, but finally a tardy response & a tip of the pen to you …

I agree with Rob that Lepore is a bit clichéd in her views of Poe, in fact, it's another example of the circular thinking that dominates the contemporary American literary scene.

Poe's real venom (such as it was) was not aimed at his reader, the real target was always the editors & publishers & critics and I'm curious how Lepore misses that, since she picked up on the pressures that the nascent publishing industry exerted on Poe's work.

One might venture to guess that after 150 years, mainstream American author/critics intuitively feel themselves to be part & parcel of the publishing industry in a way that Poe would have abhorred, ie., the literary tastes of publishers & readers are seamlessly joined at the hip and an attack on one is automatically assumed to be an attack on the other.

I really do think her take on AG Pym needs some strenuous correction, the novel is terribly underrated and under-read & deserves its proper due in American lit!

Many more thoughts but it's time to feed the family!

28/4/09 17:04  
Blogger Rob Velella said...

I can't help but agree on Arthur Gordon Pym; I had a similar discussion about it recently. I think we should read the novel and revel in its oddity, its silliness, its reality. And, of course, what makes it even better is that it's by Poe - both the novel and it's author are just so difficult to classify, but it's fun to try.

28/4/09 17:21  
Blogger nnyhav said...

The Borges link above connects Pym to Tlön, so I'm with you there, but Lepore's assessment (of its failure) is 1st commercially and 2nd as hoax, involving pastiche, which are generally derided as nonliterary (which Pym refutes).

Poe's personal life in some sense remains as enigmatic as Shakespeare's, and modern critics tend to invert Poe's critical point in "The Characters of Shakespeare" in narrativizing Poe's character. After the author, I tend to emphasize Poe the critic, but he was also a journalist, as Lepore reminds us (well, me anyways).

(A sidenote: Melville's first published work, "Fragments from a Writing Desk", parodied Poe. [I hold on to the hope that someone will discover the lost manuscript of his poem "Fragments from a Raven".] Another casualty of the publishing industry of the time ...)

28/4/09 22:55  
Blogger Tom Paine said...

I'm one of those who think Poe a poor writer ... de gustibus ....

Lepore's article brought no new information or analysis to the table. I thought it among her lesser contributions to the NY-er.

By the way, "almighty dollar" is not of Poe's coinage. It was first employed by Washington Irving, I believe in a piece called (if memory serves) "The Creole Village."

2/5/09 10:59  
Blogger nnyhav said...

That is, "almighty dollar" isn't of Dickens' coinage (though he uses it in American Notes for General Circulation), but I find it amusing that it precedes "In God We Trust" on coins by 20 years and notes by another 100.

2/5/09 23:33  
Blogger Tom Paine said...

Here is its first occurrence in the Creole Village sketch, first published in 1836. When reprinted, Irving supplied a footnote claiming that he was the first to use it. He goes on to "explain" that he meant no irreverence to the almighty dollar, which was attracting more worshipers every day.

"The inhabitants, moreover, have none of that eagerness for gain and rage for improvement which keep our people continually on the move, and our country towns incessantly in a state of transition. There the magic
phrases, "town lots," "water privileges," "railroads," and other
comprehensive and soul-stirring words from the speculator's vocabulary, are never heard. The residents dwell in the houses built by their forefathers,
without thinking of enlarging or modernizing them, or pulling them down and turning them into granite stores. The trees, under which they have been born and have played in infancy, flourish undisturbed; though, by cutting
them down, they might open new streets, and put money in their pockets. In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages; and unless some of its missionaries penetrate there, and erect banking houses and other pious shrines, there is no knowing how long the inhabitants may remain in their present state of contented poverty."

3/5/09 00:44  
Blogger J said...

EAPoe's detective stories rule, of course, but I don't believe they are the raison d'etre for reading EAP. However trite the Cask of Amon., Usher, Masque of RD (especially), Hopfrog, goldbug, and psychological goth stuff may seem, that's Poe's authentic self, I think: as is the poesy, however minstrelly to some (Annabel Lee still rocks, like some Zeppelin stomp of 1840 or so).

His thoughts on Hawthorne also entertaining (or his parody of Ben Franklin): and, as I believe S-B alluded to at one point, his interesting take on The Turk chess-bot hoax should be noted (even if hoax, still quite an amazing stunt---grandmaster in a rather tight box, playing top level ajedrez).


EAP influence on Yeats, or Pynchon I don't note. Maybe the surrealists, but Poe's too much the rationalist for the freudlacan gang, really.

13/5/09 20:11  

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