Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe's annual short story productivity - many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

I'd had no idea, before plowing through the Library of America Poetry and Tales, how many comic stories Poe wrote. Of 68 tales and sketches, I identify 25, more than a third, as comic. "Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling." "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences."

What? I didn't say they were funny. They're supposed to be funny. Tastes may differ - and did they ever. How can I communicate how important these histoires were as une pièce of Poe's oeuvre? First, I should stop randomly using French in a Poe-like manner. Second, I should create a graph (click to enlarge):

The time runs from Poe's first five published stories in 1832 to his last six in 1849. Poems, essays, reviews, and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837-8) are omitted. "Supposed to be funny" versus "not supposed to be funny" is my judgment. Please refer to Poetry and Tales, Library of America, pp. 1375-8, to check my data.

I put some signposts on the graph to help see what Poe was doing. There's "The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1839, which I would call Poe's first great story. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is from 1841. That's "The Gold-Bug" in 1843. There in 1845 - but not included in the totals - is "The Raven."

Like Hawthorne, Poe's fiction productivity was hugely uneven. But he was always writing, almost. In 1836, for example, he wrote eighty book reviews for the Southern Literary Messenger - this was the beginning of Poe the Hatchet Man. Then came Poe's one novel in early 1838. Poe was seriously ill in 1847, and hardly wrote anything. 1848 saw the publication of the bizarre Eureka: A Prose Poem, which I will write about later, if I can think of anything to say about it.

Back to my original point. Poe's most famous stories are almost all from the period 1839-46. Most great writers needed some time to find their own voice. Once they find it, they cultivate it, or test it out, or become formulaic. Poe found his voice, or what we think of as the Poe voice, with the writing of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1837; the first classic Poe short story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," came two years later. After that, he wrote one or two classics a year. But he also continued to write all sorts of other things, including comic tales, the green bars in the graph, and magazines continued to publish them. He never specialized.

Poe could be very funny - his reviews prove that. And there are funny moments in these stories. But his comic tales seem to me to be too much of his time. The references are obscure, or the satire has gone flat, or the sorts of jokes people like have changed. I don't know. But where his weird tales retain their creepy effect, in the face of thousands of imitators, the comic tales are genuine period pieces, instructive about their time, but without much to say to ours.

I will say, though, that at least two of the "funny" ones end with beheadings. Comic Poe is still Poe.


  1. A rasher fo years back my sister bought me a gaudy leatherbound "collected" works of E.A. Poe which runs to some 1300 pages. I admit that I have only read The Gold Bug from such and that was concurrent a reading of Richrad Powers magnum opus. That established, your commentary has been rather electric and I may hoist the noted tome down our stairs in the a.m.

  2. More graphs! More graphs!

    I should also say I'm completely convinced that my 600-page volume of collected Poe will be more than sufficient. So you have saved at least one reader up to 2,200 pages of...comment dit-on...purplishness.

    I would like to read some of the nonfiction, though, I think. Not that I have seen any yet. Love the reviews from your older post.

  3. I love the graph. I didn't know he wrote comedy. Topical comedy is something that does not often pass the test of time. But that one on diddling sounds fun.

  4. As undergrads, a group of us "real scientists" (or rather wanna-be scientists), used to make fun of social scientists because of the idea that, "if you can graph it, it's real" (or at least if you can make a Venn diagram of it) that was so pervasive in our "poli sci" and econ texts. Despite (because of?) this earlier mockery, I find myself constantly drawn to graphs (I recently graphed changes in name popularity [Lisa vs. Anna vs. Abigail] over the last century) and consequently love yours.

  5. I love the graph! You have proven what true Poeists have known for years: though Poe is today known as a horror writer, his horror stories make up only a small part of his writing. By the way, he was not a "hatchet" man but "The Tomahawk Man," as they said.

    If you're looking for true 19th century comedy, one of my favorite is Poe's "X-ing a Paragrab," which never fails to get a chuckle out of me at the end. "The Business-Man" is also great and I don't think much of the humor has washed away after 150 years.

    Great post!

  6. The problem with writing about Poe's comedies, I now realize, is that although I do find some of them pretty funny, I have spent a lot of time in Poe-world, and thus feel that I have to restrain myself a bit.

    That's why I'm happy that "Poe Calendar" Rob stopped by to advocate these stories. Of course, Rob is more immersed in Poe-stuff than I am.

    See, for example, "How to Write a Blackwood Article," in which the narrator is beheaded by the minute hand of a giant clock. That's a funny enough idea, but it's also embedded in a lot of parody of an English magazine. Accessible, or not? I have no idea.

    As for the graphs - the data has to be adequate to the task. That's a nice feature of the completist Library of America editions. Gives me something to count. If you can count it, you can graph it.

    SpSq - you've probably seen the Freakonomics chapter on trends in American baby names? If not, it's worth looking at, if you're interested. People are getting tenure for graphing baby names.

  7. "A Predicament" -is- funny, even if you aren't familiar with the "Blackwood's" stories. It ends with the absolute funniest line Poe ever wrote - one which political correctness prevents me from writing here (which means everyone out there should rush out and take a look!).

  8. I am not a fan of Poe, but I've only read his "horror." I have a hard time imagining a funny story that ends with a beheading. Hmm. But then again, I think I dislike Poe because his stories are just plain ridiculous. So I guess that's a kind of "funny".

  9. Ah, Rebecca, a great reader must embrace her sense of the ridiculous. Cultivate it. Fertilize it with Edward Lear and Gilbert and Sullivan. The boundary between the ridiculous and the sublime is often negligible.