"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
Save to active project

"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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?