"Reading Encrypted but Persistent": The Gothic of Reading and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"

By Hustis, Harriet | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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"Reading Encrypted but Persistent": The Gothic of Reading and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"


Hustis, Harriet, Studies in American Fiction


Trickery, hoaxes, hieroglyphs, and ciphers: few writers have foregrounded such mechanisms of duplicity in their fiction as did Edgar Allan Poe. This is perhaps why the status of Poe's texts within the American literary canon has been so fiercely contested and debated. As many critics have noted, it is precisely the prevalence of such motifs of ambiguity and linguistic, hermeneutic, and ontological uncertainty that have led to the resurrection and revaluation of texts such as "The Purloined Letter" and "The Raven." And yet Poe's status was never in question within the framework of the French tradition, for example; Poe was always more famous and his works better appreciated in Europe than in the United States. Debates about the place of Poe's texts within the canon are always "American" debates, since elsewhere the point is strangely moot.

Interestingly, whereas French theorists such as Lacan and Derrida readily take to Poe's texts, American critics often assume a more cautionary stance and warily reflect on the fact that Poe's writings have a tendency to take their readers in. Shoshana Felman highlights this "insidious" influence with respect to Poe's poetry:

   The case of Poe in literary history could in fact be accounted for as one
   of the most extreme and complex cases of "the anxiety of influence," of the
   anxiety unwittingly provoked by the "influence" irresistibly emanating from
   this poetry. What is unique, however, about Poe's influence, as about the
   "magic" of his verse, is the extent to which its action is unaccountably
   insidious, exceeding the control, the will, and the awareness of those who
   are subjected to it.(1)

Felman's statement echoes early criticism of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," which often focuses on the reliability of the narrator--in particular, whether he contracts Roderick Usher's hysterical phobophobia and whether he, like the critic, perceives Usher's submerged incestuous desire for Madeline. Felman's description of the "action" of Poe's text is curiously similar to the "action" that occurs within Poe's text: the influence to which the narrator and Roderick Usher are subjected is also "unaccountably insidious, exceeding [their] control, [their] will, and [their] influence."

More recent criticism has moved away from an exclusive focus on close readings of Poe's life and work in order to explore Poe's discursive position within American culture of his time. Nevertheless, analyses that explore Poe's situation with respect to emerging "lowbrow" culture (such as Jonathan Elmer's Reading at the Social Limit) and/or the "seriousness" of his literary endeavors (i.e., his desire to earn a place as a creator of "highbrow" literature despite his use of "lowbrow" literary strategies and motifs) demonstrate a similar preoccupation with whether or not the reader should be taken in by Poe's stories--the shift has merely been to questions of how, exactly. In the introduction to their collection The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman thus identify a need "to recognize that Poe's most extravagant literary maneuvers were usually based in the specific cultural and political climate of antebellum America."(2) This desire to reconnect Poe with the American literary tradition (or simply to reassert the existence of that connection, since according to Rosenheim and Rachman, it was always there but disavowed by both parties(3)) exists alongside recognition that for so long Poe's texts were read as highlighting the insufficiencies of any attempt to fix a subject's location in time or space.(4) Previously, Poe was seen as decidedly "un-American" because his stories did not seem to reflect "Americanness" a la Hawthorne or Melville; now he is regarded as decidedly American precisely because he presumably chose not to reflect the "American" literary flavor of a Melville or a Hawthorne. The very qualities that previously disqualified Poe from a place within the American literary canon now assure him of that place, and previously anxious detraction has become determined reclamation.

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