Monday, February 16, 2009

Merely on account of its retrograde operations - why did I read so much Edgar Allan Poe?

Just recently, I polished off both Library of America volumes of Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales, and Essays and Reviews, about 2,800 pages of Poe. Took me two years. Good Lord, I'd never added up the pages - what was I thinking? I'm going to spend the next two weeks on Poe, to do my part to make sure that no one makes the same mistake.

If I'm kidding, it's only to a degree. I remember reading, somewhere, Harold Bloom calling Poe the "worst major writer in the canon," meaning that even in some of his best stories, there are lines that make a sensitive reader like me wince, and there are a pile of stories that are best reserved for specialists, although not for insomniacs - even boring Poe may cause nightmares.

While reading the short fiction of Poe's exact contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, I discovered again and again that the most famous stories were not necessarily the ones I though best. There were a lot of surprises. This was much less true with Poe, barely true at all. My favorites are the same as everyone else's:

"The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "A Descent into the Maelström," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Gold-Bug," "The Black Cat," "The Purloined Letter," "The Cask of Amontillado," "Hop-Frog."

Same with the poems: "The Raven," "Dream-Land," "The City in the Sea," "Annabel Lee." No surprises here. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe contains all of these and more, and looks like a great one-volume choice for non-neurotics.

Even the best stories are packed with exasperations like this, from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue":

"The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis."

This sentence should be taken with a sense of humor, and is directly connected to the themes of the story, so it's not an excrescence. But thank goodness it's imbedded in a story with a decent plot, a murder mystery. Too much writing in this vein drains one's spirits.

One can guess, just from this sentence, why Poe really does read better in French. The fussiness of the Latinate vocabulary simply disappears, or becomes normal. Poe's actual French phrases, one of his most irritating tics, become subsumed - no italics necessary.

But I'm stuck with Poe in English. Let's see what I can do with him.


  1. I've read "The Black Cat" and "The Raven". I found that both made me confused, both disturbed me a little, and both left me relatively apathetic towards Poe as a writer. This entry thankfully confirms my suspicions. I'm sorry you had to read all that, though... I hope your next project will be friendlier. But seriously... This seems like it must have been deathly boring. 2800 pages? I can barely read that much Dumas (and I love him) without getting a rash!

  2. Boring - oh, no no! Fascinating, actually, and exasperating, and ridiculous. Also, sometimes, boring. And all very intructive. Some of Poe's failures have more imaginative value than other people's successes. With Poe, you never know what's coming around the corner.

    Poe and Dumas - that's an interesting comparison. They're opposites, really. Dumas is a superbly gifted hack with low standards. For Poe, the highest artistic value is originality. Poe only mentions Dumas once, vaguely, but I would guess that Poe would place a high value on the inventions of Dumas, while scorning his clichés.

    Poe's sense of originality leads to both grotesque failures and unique creations.

    As a side note, 2,800 pages over two years is only 117 pages a month. A trifle.

  3. Hi Amateur Reader,

    Re Poe much more readable in French: (you probably know it and just suspected everybody does) The canonical french translation of Poe is Baudelaire's. Definitly more readable than the original one... un cas d'école, comme on dit chez nous : one of the only instance of transcendantal translation.

  4. Ma femme adorable told me how to think, or, I mean, guided my thinking here. She has shown me specific passages of English Poe and Baudelaire's Poe, perhaps to inspire me to work on my French, so I no longer have to read Poe in English.